Category Archives: Holidays

Eid Mubarak!

Deweneti, baal leen ma aaxx, baal naa leen. Yal na ňu Yaala boole baalal, ňu fekee dewen kooraat ko ci jaamm. Bu dewen naree ňaaw, yal na mel ni ren.

This statement literally translates: “Until next year, forgive me, I forgive you. May Allah forgive us, may we live until next year and fast again in peace. If next year is not going to be pretty (good), may it be like this year.” This is the prayer (or the many variations of it) that Muslims exchange in Senegal on Korité or Eid al Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan. Koor in Wolof means the period of fasting, hence Korité, the end of the fasting period. In Senegal, Korité is actually perceived as the smaller holiday compared to Tabaski or Eid El adha, which is the holiday commemorating Allah’s call to his prophet Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son Ishmael. Although most people buy new clothes for Korité, many don’t, and people do not go overboard with the preparations as opposed to Tabaski during which they spend a lot of money on clothes, shoes, and hair.

In Senegal, the routine celebration of Korité begins with communal prayer in the morning. After the prayer, it is customary to eat laax (thick millet porridge eaten with yogurt) for breakfast, and later have a copious lunch made of chicken or some other meat. In the afternoon, children dress up and go from house to house asking for ndewenal (gifts of money). In the evening, adults also dress up and visit family members and neighbors to ask for forgiveness, usually uttering the above statement at some point in the conversations. This visit or ziar is an opportunity to strengthen relationships and mend broken ones.

In my family, we gave muuru koor, (the annually required charity or Zakat al fitr) to neighbors we felt needed help. My parents would measure the number of years of each member of our family and give the equivalent in rice or millet. We took these bags of grain at night for discretion, because we did not want the eligible families to feel that the whole neighborhood knew that they were receiving charity.

It is also a practice to give parents, in-laws, and other older relatives and neighbors, suukaru koor (“fasting sugar”). During Ramadan, people consume a lot of sugar due to the preparation of juices and dishes that require sugar, probably because it is said that the Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W.) liked to eat sweets when he broke his fast. However, suukaru koor is not an Islamic requirement. It is a Senegalese cultural etiquette that shows people that you value and respect them. So those who did not fulfill this “optional” requirement during Ramadan still have until Korité, or the days immediately following the holiday, to complete it.

This side of the Atlantic, Eid al Fitr is the better known Muslim holiday because most Americans have heard about Ramadan. For this reason and because I feel the need to belong to a religious community, Korité has become a big holiday for me as well. In Senegal, like many women my age, I never went to the mosque for the Eid prayer. It is often men, children, and older women who attend the communal prayer. However, in recent years, I have attended the prayers at our local mosque, mainly to create a feel of a holiday for myself and my children. The children love going because they get to have treats after the prayer.

I still prepare laax for breakfast and cook a big meal. The children also stay home if Eid is during the school year. I have considered giving them presents on Korité instead of Christmas, but that would make them feel left out come Christmas. I have settled with giving them ndewenal on both Korité and Tabaski. Too bad they cannot go from house to house asking for ndewenal because as a child, that was the one thing I looked forward to the most on Korité.

 

Eid Mubarak!

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The Changing Face of Senegal

First, I would like to apologize for the long inactivity on the blog. I have been too absorbed with work. My recent trip to Senegal reignited my need to write about life in the geo-cultural space between Senegal and America.

I was in Senegal for three weeks and I was overwhelmed by how much the country has its eyes and ears toward America. It was somewhat frustrating because in a way, I left the frenzy of American life hoping to go home to something totally different. Although the social life and warmth that I love and longed for still exist in Senegal, America seems to hover over everything people do and talk about. There is something very unsettling in the ways in which the Senegalese understand the American lifestyle. The preconceived notion that money is happiness is a huge problem. For example, I refrained from saying that I came from America because as soon as I uttered the words “Etats Unis,” the dynamics of the interactions often changed, turning me into someone who must have a higher buying power. In fact, the assumed higher buying power of immigrants seems to dictate prices and money transactions. This is confirmed by the multitude of money transfer systems that are now operating in Senegal. On top of classics like Western Union and Moneygram, there is Ria, Money Express, Joni Joni, Yooni ma Cash, and of course Wari, the most popular of money transfer systems targeting transactions within Senegal.

This rampant obsession with quick money is the reason for the increase in drug trafficking in Senegal. According to the chief of police, Senegal has become a serious transit country for hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and ephedrine pills. During my stay, there were several drug busts, including one where a woman had swallowed several pounds of cocaine. In another case, the amphetamines were concealed in pails of Shea butter. However, the most troubling arrest was that of an officer from OCRTIS, the very section of the Senegalese police in charge of fighting drug trafficking. The officer was arrested for possession of a large quantity of cocaine, and later his girlfriend and the latter’s mother were also apprehended. According to authorities, the band was also involved in money laundering through the purchase of real estate property, a practice many say is the reason for the numerous buildings that have mushroomed in Dakar’s skyline, in the last decade.

Like major American cities, traffic in Dakar is a nightmare, especially on Friday afternoons. It seems like everyone owns a car. This lifestyle obviously contradicts the low buying power of the average Senegalese person, but with the many banks that recently opened in Dakar, it is easy to guess that people are relying more on credit. There is also a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The traffic lights show the encounter between these two worlds when next to the expensive cars, beggars, especially women and children, stretch their hands, hoping for a window to roll and a clean hand to drop few coins, if not a bank note.

Hunger is a serious problem in Senegal and many people still live on limited resources. Food prices are high and American junk food products such as oily chips, imitation crab meat, chicken nuggets, frozen fries, and pizza are now staples of the Senegalese food culture. People eat more processed foods due to the many European-style supermarkets that have opened in major neighborhoods. Although the traditional markets are still thriving, the products are changing and because of the expensive cost of food, many Senegalese do not care much about quality as long as they are able to buy larger quantities with little money.

Senegalese television is another place where the influences of America are strong. With several television channels competing for viewers, most shows lack originality and are modeled after American ones. Morning shows such as Yewuleen, Kinkeliba, and Petit Dej… emulate Good Morning America, the Today Show, or the CBS Morning Show. There are several hosts on a cramped set where on top of news and weather updates, guests are featured on cooking, fashion, arts, and fitness. The most interesting part of these shows is that the gossip is often about American celebrities and their extravagant lifestyles, with news about Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and Rihanna topping the charts.

There are also reality shows such as Lamb Academie where twenty five young aspiring professional wrestlers live in a mansion and compete for a final prize. This show could have been great if it were conscious of the cultural context lamb comes from. It would have been useful to introduce the cast to the folklore that traditionally accompanied wrestling, such as bakk, the art of self-praise that many wrestlers like Mame Gorgui Ndiaye excelled in. Bakk was the main entertainment during wrestling matches and contributed to the oral art of the Senegalese, particularly the Wolof ethnic group. Instead, Lamb Academie is modeled after CBS’s Big Brother and the wrestlers backstab each other to avoid elimination. The producers should have also emphasized the importance of education and leadership skills. The world of Senegalese wrestling glorifies lack of formal education and many of the champions are either dropouts or never attended school. This tendency is one of the root causes of the violence that plagues Senegalese traditional wrestling.

The Senegalese educational system continues to be a huge crisis. During my visit, the University Cheikh Anta of Dakar (UCAD) witnessed violent student strikes that left many injured and several arrested. The university which was originally designed for a maximum of 17,000 students, today counts over 80,000. Despite the attempt to relocate students to the new UCAD 2 campus, overcrowding remains a major issue and the government cannot continue to pay a scholarship to every student, which seemed to be the main reason for the recent strikes. Although the crisis of the Senegalese educational system is complex and not an easy fix, greater decentralization must be done with the creation of vocational schools in every region of the country. The government must also focus on creating jobs in order to recruit graduates.

Despite all these seemingly negative shifts, there are great things happening in Senegal. I have the feeling that the country is turning into an Anglophone one ―which in my opinion is not necessarily a bad thing because it opens up global avenues for economic and socio-cultural development. Many advertising signs are in English. It is usual to see “Total Wash,” “Nokia, Connecting People,” “le Must Have Phone,” etc. During regular conversations, I have heard people who do not necessarily understand English say “really?” or “exactly.” This to me means that Senegal is weaning itself from France and opening up to the rest of the world, especially America which has become a major destination for Senegalese migrants. I also believe the Chinese presence is a factor to this linguistic shift.

I was impressed by the resilience and creativity of the many Senegalese people who seize these global opportunities and start successful small businesses, such as the ladies who created makeshift eateries by the beach, selling fresh grilled fish, or the vendors of madd who have found a way to better commercialize this exotic fruit by seasoning it appropriately with salt, pepper, and a dab of sugar, and packaging it in attractive jars sold at traffic lights for the consumer on-the- go. I just wish the same was done with the succulent and seasonably abundant mangoes, for export.

Senegalese fashion is also thriving and the Dakar Fashion Week is a respected international gathering. Stylists like Selly Raby Kane who recently organized a fashion show at the abandoned railroad station, and my very own sister-in-law Maguette Faye Dieng at Tima Creations who is the talent behind singing diva Coumba Gawlo Seck’s exquisite dresses, do impressive work blending traditional Senegalese looks with global trends. And of course, Senegalese women remain the queens of fashion. Even though skin bleaching is still a chronic practice, that hairstyles emulate Caucasian looks with long weaves and wigs, and fake Michael Kors handbags are the latest fashion crave, Senegalese sartorial culture has immensely incorporated African prints and traditional looks.

In the community, Give1Project, founded by Thione Niang who was the President of the Young Democrats in the US and campaigned for President Obama when he was running for office, is doing an excellent job creating global leaders. Since its launch in 2009, Give1Project has now branches in many countries, including Morocco, the US and France. Its programs are cutting edge and utilize local resources. For example their monthly Give1Talks feature celebrities and entrepreneurs like Youssou Ndour who recently shared his life story on the rooftop of the Give1Project’s headquarters packed with young participants. Give1Project also has an arts program that allows young artists like Dieuwrine a Senegalese slam poet, to popularize their art and make a living off it.

And of course, the Saint Louis Jazz Festival is getting bigger every year. Sadly for me, it opened the day of my departure.

Finally, I salute a hardworking friend who grows a garden for her own homemade holistic remedies, hair and skin care products. She also rallied her neighborhood and turned a public space that was used as a dump in the past, into a beautiful community garden. It is actions like these that give me hope that after all, Senegal will be ok!

 

I look forward to your comments friends!

Senamericanly yours.

 

Christmas Then and Now

Dear readers, I apologize for not posting for a while.

I have been reflecting on how I celebrated Christmas when I lived in Senegal and what the holiday means to me now.

Growing up, the month of December was full of anticipation and Christmas Eve was one of the most exciting days of the year. In fact, as a child I believed that Christmas was on December 24th. As a teenager, my friends and I spent months preparing for our annual Christmas Eve bash—one of the many parties held in neighborhoods by different age groups. We wrote letters of support and spent weeks walking from house to house reminding the adults that it was time for their financial contribution―as if they owed it to us. We meticulously created invitations and selected those cool peers who would receive one and those not worthy of our precious handmade cards. On the day of the party we roamed the neighbordood borrowing tables and chairs, a stereo, and audio cassettes (Yes, I am conscious that I am giving away my age!). We also prepared a precise menu, making sure the most delicious and most consistent food was the one served toward the end of the party ( almost at dawn), to entice guests to stay longer because many peers were invited to more than one party (I am winking at my fellow Senegalese readers who might recognize themselves in these memories.). I made sure I was the perfect child because my mother would use the threat of not letting me attend the bash to remind me that she was the one in control. Finally, but most importantly, we spent weeks ruminating about what to wear on that glorious night. The central market in our town buzzed with young adults, mostly women, who waited anxiously in the shops where tailors spent countless sleepless nights sewing. I witnessed women crying because the tailor did not execute their design properly, or that he simply did not have the time to make the outfit because he had taken far too many orders than he could honor. And of course, there was the hair. My sisters and I spent days and nights putting in tiny braids, sewing weaves, or subjecting our hair to several stages of straightening with harsh chemicals.

This frenzy and anticipation of Christmas in a country that is predominantly Muslim would not make sense to many outside of Senegal. On Christmas day, both Christians and Muslims said “Joyeux Noel” to each other and kissed on the cheeks. In my direct family we did not have a Christmas tree but my father often gave us a collective gift such as a new television set.  Also at one of our neighbors’ house, there was always a plastic Christmas tree in the living-room and his children received individual gifts.  One of my uncles also held a Christmas Eve get-together.  Almost everyone on my mom’s side of the family convened at his house. After partying all night, we had a family reunion on Christmas Day during which stories of the past were revived and broken relationships were mended. In the years after my sisters and I left for college, we would come home during the holidays and spend Christmas Eve in a Réveillon en Famille, eating delicious meals and watching movies that chronicled the birth of Jesus Christ, on national television. We would also spend a good part of the night reminiscing on those past Christmas Eves and telling jokes about failed outfits and hairdos.

In the United States, I often feel like I do not have the right to claim Christmas because doing so has many implications both religiously and culturally. American culture is too focused on difference and there is a huge emphasis on division whether on the basis of religion, class, race, gender, etc. I refrain from saying that I love Christmas because that might allow people to judge my religious convictions. But not doing so also emphasizes my difference and makes me vulnerable to exclusion. Before I got married and had children, I spent Christmas Day at my host parents’ home. When I moved away and going “home” to my host family became less possible, Christmas has become one of the loneliest holidays for our family. We have been living in our current community for almost seven years, but we have been invited to someone’s home for Christmas only once, and by friends who are actually an interfaith couple. Our next door neighbors are both pastors and after several failed attempts to have us join their church, I doubt they would ever consider inviting us for anything else. It is also possible that people do not invite us for Christmas because they fear they would offend our Muslim beliefs. In previous years, we had a Christmas tree with gifts under it. But as our children are growing and becoming conscious of their identity, we worry about religious confusion and try to keep Christmas low key, especially since Muslim holidays are not paid much attention in America. We still give our children gifts because we feel it is unfair to them to not participate in the cultural aspect of the holiday. It is just too hard to explain to young children why the generous chubby white man carried by flying reindeer, skipped their house during his gift-giving voyage around the world.

Almost every year, we attend a Christmas carol sing-along organized by a colleague who loves to bring people together. But every time I sit there singing about Santa Claus and his reindeer, I realize that Christmas does not mean the same to me anymore. I sometimes feel odd and needing to explain my presence. Nevertheless, I still love Christmas for the wonderful memories of home it brings every year.

Joyeux Noël and Happy New Year everyone!

The pictures above are of downtown Dakar during the holiday season.