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.

SOMETHING LIKE HALLOWEEN BUT NOT QUITE

My daughter is very curious about how I did things when I was a child. Recently, she wanted to know what I dressed like for Halloween and was almost sad for me when I told her that we did not have Halloween in Senegal. She was shocked when I revealed to her that we do have something similar but people do not trick-or-treat for candy! How can one trick-or-treat for anything other than candy? I know those of you who are from Senegal know which holiday I am referring to, but for the sake of my readers who are not, I would like to explain Taajaboon.

Taajaboon is a celebation held on the night of Achoura or Tamxarit (Wolof) which often falls between the 9th and 10th day of the Muslim New Year. In the Muslim tradition, Achoura commemorates the day Moses freed the Jews from Pharaoh. It is meant to be a day of fasting, prayer and accomplishment of good deeds such as touching the head of an orphan or giving alms. For Sunni Muslims, the day is one of happiness and rejoicing while for Shiites, it is a day of mourning because it is also the anniversary of the decapitation of Imam Hussein at the battle of Kerbala in the year 680.

In Senegal, a majority Sunni Muslim, Tamxarit highlights the country’s religious hybridity becauseTaajaboon is not practiced in other Muslim communities and the whole celebration combines elements of indigenous religions with Islam. Tamxarit is celebrated with a copious dinner made of millet couscous and a fancy lamb or chicken stew. Adults would spend the day saying verses of the Koran on their rosaries. However after dinner, families would take turns saying three consecutive wishes on the back of a bowl (usually the one they ate dinner from) and turning it over to the ground at the end of each wish. Later that night, children, and adults who feel like it, would cross-dress, paint their faces with ashes or white talcum powder, and go from house to house trick-or-treating. This is the Taajaboon part of the celebration.

The local Muslim lore suggests that it is on the night of Tamxarit that the Angel of Death chooses those who are to die during the course of the upcoming year. So children are jokingly told to eat well at dinner so that they are too heavy for the Angel of Death to carry. The cross-dressing and the painting of faces translate this notion of hiding from the Angel of Death who would not recognize men from women since the gender lines are blurred through costumes and the unrecognizable faces. The costumes and scary faces also add humorous and spooky elements to the celebration.

Children are told to leave a shirt with pockets in the living room for the angel to bring them gifts (I believe this part is borrowed from the Christian tradition of Santa Claus bringing gifts on Christmas night.). The day after is the culmination of the holiday when families gather in the morning to recite specific verses of the Koran and pray for the year ahead to be better than the previous one. It is also believed that at a certain time of the day, those who put black kohl around their eyes and look up the sky, would see the soapy waters discarded by Fatoumata Bintou (daughter of the Prophet Mohamed (SAS)) after she finished washing her clothes.

An important aspect of Taajaboon is the singing and dancing that goes along. There is pretty much one song delivered in different versions throughout the night. The song emulates a conversation between the Angel of Death and the person it has come to take. The lyrics state that the Angel of Death has two sides. It will come from above and land on the ground. It will ask the person if they have prayed and fasted. If the person answers no, they would go to Hell. If they answer yes, they would go to Heaven. Groups are often divided by age. When they arrive at a house, they would sing the song and show off their costumes. When they receive a treat, they would dance and say prayers before heading to the next house.

The best part of Taajaboon for me as a child was the anticipation of the event and the creativity involved in making a drum from large tin cans, as well as borrowing clothes from my dad’s closet in order to have the most “manly” costume. It was an occasion to bond with friends because like Halloween, the essence of the festival is to have fun. The treats range from a cup of rice, millet, corn or sugar, to money. Often, groups would meet and strategize about their action plan and how to get the most treats. Our group would get together later in the week in order to have a party where the proceeds of our trick-or-treating would be prepared into a meal. Depending on how much of each item we got during Taajaboon, we would resell a portion to our moms in order to buy other ingredients we would need for our party.

Taajaboon has many similarities with Halloween such as the port of costumes, the trick-or-treating, and the bonding with friends. A major difference though is that Taajaboon does not have the consumerism culture that surrounds Halloween with the ridiculous amounts of candy and costume sales. But despite the fact that I worry about my kids’ teeth on Halloween, I really enjoy the holiday! I wrote this post wearing my purple witch hat.

Happy Halloween!

To my Senegalese readers, happy Taajaboon on November 12!

Immigrant Children and Language

 

Language is an important aspect of our cultural identity. As immigrants, being able to keep our native languages alive by passing them on to our children is a source of great pride. It is also a way for some of us to demonstrate that despite our physical displacement, we remain culturally grounded in our communities of origin. However, sometimes our children are not ready or willing to speak our languages. In this case, there is no greater source of frustration for the immigrant parent. Because I work in the educational field, I often have these conversations with students whose parents are immigrants from different parts of the world, and many acknowledge that they refrain from speaking their parents’ native languages in public because they do not want to come across as different to their peers. This is the reason why some children may be comfortable speaking their parents’ native language at home, but in public, would respond to their parents in English only. I have seen this in the Senegalese immigrant communities I have interacted with. I have also observed that some parents, because they are eager to claim the American experience, or fear that their children will speak English with a foreign accent, choose to not teach their mother tongue to their children. I belong in the first group.

I enjoy speaking Wolof to my children, especially in public because I want them to have a sense of pride in their cultural identity.  I also think that it is very important to know more than one language. Before I had children, I imagined them to be trilingual like their parents, speaking Wolof, French and English. But it turns out that on a daily basis, we use only English and Wolof in our household. In an earlier post, I have shared how I don’t care much for the French language. Since relocating to the US, my usage of French is mostly limited to reading and the occasional conversation. Of course, there are some words I only say in French because they have been adopted into the Wolof language. For example we still use “ça va?” to greet each other.  But teaching French to my children was not an imminent goal. I however was determined that my children would be fluent in Wolof.  I spent a considerable amount of time researching multiple strategies that would make it possible for us to raise bilingual children. While there are several studies on how to teach children multiple languages, they all agree that the best way is that each parent would exclusively speak one language to the child. For example if parents wanted to teach their children Wolof, French, and English. One parent would speak only Wolof to the child while the other would speak only French. Then when parents are speaking between themselves, they would use English. I have seen this work out great for a family that I know.

In my case, I set out to speak only Wolof to my children but I did not realize how hard it would be to stick to it. I switched languages throughout my life going to school in French and English and then speaking Wolof at home. Doing the same with my children turned out to be a challenge. I spoke mostly Wolof to my first child and it worked out ok. She understands pretty much everything and with few trips to Senegal, manages to express herself in the language, most times. She also is curious about expressions she does not know and often takes the initiative to speak Wolof.  I was not as lucky with my second child. Although he often undertands what I mean, he doesn’t attempt to speak, unless he wants to make fun of me by repeating everything I say to him. This frustrates me because I know it is my fault that he is not as fluent as his sister.  I must have changed my approach and spoke predominantly English to him. It could also be that he went to daycare earlier than his sister and was therefore exposed to an English-only environment at a critical moment in language acquisition. In any case, something different happened in the ways languages were introduced to the two of them. Knowing this, I decided to speak only Wolof to my third child. Although I could tell that he understood most of what I said, I could not see any signs of him speaking the language, mainly because he is still very young to have an elaborate speech. But since he’s been going to daycare, I noticed that he was trying to utter English words in his babbling. I was getting alarmed that my linguistic efforts were vain.  So one can imagine how thrilled I was  few days ago, when he started telling people: “Kaay, kaay!” [Come here, come here!], gesturing with his fingers in the manner one would summon a person!

Some linguists argue that when children are taught multiple languages simultaneously, they tend to take longer speaking because they are trying to process and separate them before beginning to talk in either language. Maybe this is what is happening with my third child. Other experts suggest that there are three windows when the child’s mind is more open to learning a second, third, or even fourth language. The optimal window is at the time when the child is learning their first language, which is from birth to three years of age. The second window is between ages two and seven, and the last window is between ten and thirteen. This gives me hope that all is not lost for my second child, provided I break my habit of speaking English to him.

Please share your experiences and tips.

 

Senamericanly yours,

Becoming ang Being Black in America

This is part two of my series on raising children in America.

In the aftermath of Miley Cyrus’s debacle at the VMA, a Facebook friend wondered why everything in America has to be seen in Black and White, referring to this article, which argues that Cyrus’s attempt at twerking and her entire performance were racist. The reality is that it is hard to not see things as Black and White, especially when the parties involved are black and white. However, I do understand why my friend was so annoyed. As first generation Senegalese immigrants, we “became black” when we came to America because race is not an issue in Senegal.  Although we are the victims of several types of negative stereotypes associated with Africa, sometimes we are not able to recognize some of the nuances of racism. Also, as adults, we are better equipped to fight, avoid, or even downplay situations where we might be exposed to racial discrimination. This is done through playing it safe by sticking with our kind, or not associating with African Americans because we do not want to be put in the same “negative basket” where our black American cousins have been for centuries.

On the other hand, our children are “Blacks in America,” and will be treated as such. There is a difference between how our generation and theirs experience and process racism or racial prejudice. At a very early age, they are exposed to racial difference, and unlike us, they cannot avoid playing or interacting with their peers of different races.

Last week, I took my daughter to a local commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. There, we met a Caucasian colleague/friend with her daughter who is the same age as mine. Our daughters have known each other since they were toddlers and went to the same school for a couple of years. But since my daughter moved to another school, the two of them see each other occasionally. The girls hugged and sat together chatting, giggling, and being cute. A photographer saw them and asked to take a picture, remarking to me that “this is what Marin Luther King’s dream was about.” Minutes later, the duo was joined by another little white girl they both know. I know this girl’s mother through her business and other child-related events in town. The three girls sat together and chatted. When it started raining, people brought out umbrellas and like I always do, I had left mine in the car. My colleague/friend gave an umbrella to her daughter, under which the three girls huddled, projecting a true image of an inclusive and post-racial America. I too could not help but snap a picture of “Martin Luther King’s dream.” As the rain intensified, the second girl’s mother invited me to share her umbrella which was as big as a tent. She also offered to go to her car for an extra one. I declined the offer. She then decided to go get it for her daughter. When she came back, the rain had slowed down. Now, the two white girls had each an umbrella and my daughter was staying next to them watching them play with their umbrellas. When I asked her why she was not playing, she replied: “They say I do not have an umbrella.” When the second girl’s mother heard that, she was shocked and decided to give my daughter the umbrella we were sharing. But when the two girls saw my daughter with the bigger umbrella, they took it away, gave her one of the small ones, and proceeded to play under the big one, still excluding my daughter. By then, I was starting to get annoyed and asked my daughter to come play next to me. She refused and continued to play with the small umbrella, alone. I tried to lure her with a promise to stop by one of her favorite restaurants if she agreed to leave early. She vehemently refused and continued to twirl the umbrella. Few minutes later, she gave up the umbrella and took my phone. She approached the girls while dancing to a Michael Jackson song. I painfully watched as she tried everything to gain their attention. I could see that she was sad that she was being ignored. I had to pull her aside and explain to her that she should never insist on playing with someone who did not want to play with her.

Now, I am sure that the girls’ attitude toward my daughter had nothing to do with the color of her skin. Knowing these girls and their parents, assured me that they were not excluding my daughter because she was “the black girl.”  Also before publishing this post, I shared a draft of it with my colleague/friend because I wanted her to know that I was writing about her child. She revealed to me that the two girls are more than best friends, they are sisters. They have known each other since they were toddlers and carpool every day to and from school. She also said that this kind of scenario has happened more than she could count with other children. Her daughter would be playing with someone but the minute her best friend/sister shows up, the two of them would pick up playing, leaving out the third party.

Despite the fact that I knew in my heart that this was innocent child play, I could not help but think in Black and White. I thought about how this would have played out if I did not know the girls and their parents. Later that night, when my daughter and I talked about it, she wondered why my colleague/friend’s daughter did not want to play with her. I explained to her that there would be times when friends would choose to not play with her, and that it would have nothing to do with her. I reassured her that she was fun to play with, to which she answered: “I know, I always come up with really fun games.” As I walked downstairs, my heart was heavy and I resisted tears. Although I was convinced these girls did not exclude my daughter because of the color of her skin, I knew there will be times when she will be ignored because of her race. She is a Black Girl in America. 

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman who profiled and killed Trayvon Martin, a young black man, gave me tremendous anxiety about raising black boys in America. It made me wonder whether my children would not be safer in Senegal where the color of their skin would not make them into inherent suspects. Some might think that I am being melodramatic but this is a real dilemma for me. It is already hard that my children are a racial minority in their schools and often come home with questions that are very difficult to answer. My daughter is confused about the color black because as she rightfully emphasizes often, “We are not black! We are brown!” She also gets upset that she cannot put her hair in a ponytail like the other girls in her class. These kinds of issues freak the hell out of me and I wonder whether it wouldn’t be easier to pack up and return to Senegal.

I look forward to your comments.

The Difficulty of Raising Children in Two Cultures

I recently read an article  where some interviewees stated that raising kids between the cultures of Senegal and America while residing in the US is literally impossible. While I think that it is in fact possible, it is not easy to accomplish.  Parents must constantly negotiate cultural clashes while being sensitive to how confusions can negatively affect children. Most of our SenAmerican homes tend to naturally favor the Senegalese culture. Our attempts to “not lose” our “Senegaleseness” often lead to our children being taught one thing at home, and another at school, making it difficult for them to reconcile both.

Recently, my daughter wrote a list of chores and said that her teacher had told her that she could earn money at home by doing chores. I was shocked that the teacher had the audacity to introduce her to the notion that she could be paid for doing something I believe any responsible member of a family should do and not expect a reward. But I knew that we live in a culture where this is widely practiced, and even applauded. I had to be smart about how I spoke to my daughter about it. After I recovered from my shock, I asked her to come up with a list of all things that mommy does in the home. When we went over five minutes of enumerating “mommy’s chores,” I asked her to pay me a dollar for each item, each time I did it. Her eyes doubled in size as she realized that she could not possibly pay me. I then explained to her that I do what I do because it is my responsibility as a mother and a member of the family, and that each member of the family has a responsibility to the whole. We do it because we love each other and must contribute to the running of the household, not because we want to be paid. I talked to her about having an allowance and that she would get $.50 for every year of her age. I was careful to explain to her that an allowance is not something we owe her, and that it is our way of helping her have money for herself because she is not old enough to have a job! I also think that the idea of allowance helps children learn financial responsibility while giving them some freedom in acquiring things they want.

This strategy worked out quite well but I must confess that I am not always as lucky with parenting young children in America. For example, I am still struggling to teach my kids that mommy and daddy’s room is not a playground, and that when adults are talking a child does not get involved. One of the strengths of the Senegalese model of parenting is that it is often done within an extended family where other adults and sometimes neighbors, contribute to raising children. Children are socialized to know their place. There is a division of space within the home where children understand playing does not happen in bedrooms. While it is possible to teach these rules in America, it is not always easy because of the nuclear family. Many of our homes do not have other adults other than mommy and daddy. We tend to do everything with our kids. Although I love spending as much time as possible with my children, I think that our nuclear families make it difficult to teach them independence within the home.

Another area where I am struggling is extra-curricular activities for kids. Growing up, I played team handball and never expected my parernts to come see me play. In fact, I do not think my mother ever saw me play. She would hear from strangers about what a wonderful player I was but never found it necessary or important to come to one of my games. I have a vague memory of my father coming to one game but I might have dreamed about that. Although I wished that my parents would see me play, it was not the end of the world. I don’t think it did anything to my self-esteem nor did I feel unloved by my parents. In America on the contrary, parents who do not show up at their child’s soccer practice or play recital are seen as bad parents.  It also seems that American parents want their kids to do it all. Kids are engaged in several extra-curricular activities that they often do not like and parents, especially mothers, spend their week chauffeuring them from one place to another. I refuse to buy into this culture and tell my kids to identify one activity and stick to it as long as they like it enough to invest the time in it. My kids are fairly young and their commitment to a sport or instrument is very short. I am sure there will be a time when they would want to do something consistently. Even then, I would insist that they stick to a maximum of two.

The most challenging aspect of parenting in America is the issue of spanking children. In Senegal, spanking is accepted and used as punishment whereas in America, it is frowned upon and parents who practice it are viewed as abusers. I honestly have mixed feelings about this but I have opted to not spank my children. I have never been a fan of the practice but after having kids, I can see why some parents revert to the stick to keep some children in line. My apprehension is about its effectiveness. If the point of corporal punishment is to inflict pain on the child, I believe it can be accomplished with other means such as taking away beloved possessions and other privileges. I don’t however believe that every parent who chooses to spank their child is an abuser because there is spanking and there is beating up a child. The first when practiced necessarily could be fine while the second is abuse.

Parenting in America is difficult because as parents, we too are caught in between two cultures, yet, we must raise children within this space. Knowing how to negotiate these two worlds is not easy but I think it can be done if we pick what we think is positive in each culture and combine them. This requires a lot of work and trying out different strategies. There are many other parenting areas I struggle with such as religion, food, and language, to which I will dedicate entire posts.

I look forward to hearing from parents. Please share your parenting struggles and tips.

SenAmericanly yours.

When “God” Visited Senegal

I am late to write about President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal. I wanted to hear how the Senegalese lived the event since I was heading there few days after the American President’s visit. Seeing the visit unfold on news websites and social media, I was happy that Senegal was put on the world map. For the first time, I saw a picture of an American President and an African President standing next to each other, without thinking about aid or charity. I saw two black men hug each other and it gave me goose bumps. I was glad that Obama reinforced my feeling of relief by speaking about partnership between Senegal and America, and urging the media to depict a more positive image of Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar

I am certain the increased presence of China in Africa has a lot to do with this change in US rhetoric but I am glad it has come to that. I was also glad that Obama was sensible enough to meet with the leaders of civil society organizations who contributed so much to making Senegal into an admired democratic nation.

I was mostly fascinated by the general population’s euphoric embrace of President Obama and his family. People were beyond thrilled that the American President chose Senegal as his first stop during his three-nation tour in Africa. Although I arrived in Dakar almost two weeks after Obama left, his presence was in the air. The walls and bridges were still clad with large banners of him and President Sall.

   Obamabanner

 At the weekly flea market that takes place on the canal from Liberté 6 to Castors, rows of duffle bags with Obama’s name majestically dangled from stalls. Taxi drivers, who had a hint of my “Americanness” because of some “foreigner-detecting radars” that taxi drivers and street vendors magically possess, commented on the power of “Your President” and how his visit made their job so difficult because all major roads were blocked. One of them remarked that “It was as if God was visiting Senegal!” Although the Senegalese are known for their ability to make guests feel at home as the country prides itself in being the Land of Teranga (the art of welcoming guests), Obama enjoyed a special treatment.

 I was not surprised by the level of importance the Senegalese accorded Obama’s visit. Though I have my own issues with American foreign policy, I too was thrilled that he chose to go to Senegal. I however wanted to believe that Senegalese officials had learned their lesson about inconveniencing citizens in order to accommodate an American President, as many would remember how the inhabitants of Gorée Island were forcibly sequestrated in their homes during President George W. Bush’s visit in 2003. Although this did not happen during Obama’s visit, the islanders quietly sat on the sidelines when the presidential family visited the famous slave house.

Goree awaits

On the other hand, there seem to have been some unnecessary security measures in Dakar. On a children’s radio show, a participant was asked to create a sentence about Obama’s visit. He spontaneously replied: “During the American President’s visit, we who live in Yoff could not come out of our homes.” The host was annoyed that the only thing the boy remembered about the event was his inability to leave his home.  But the boy’s answer backs up rumors that in Yoff, the neighborhood adjacent to the airport, there were weird-looking giant men in dark suits whispering in walky-talkies. My brother-in-law who works at the airport did not go to work for the duration of the visit since his office was taken over by American secret service members who apparently left no stone unturned in the building. When he returned to work few days later, he found new air conditioners and concluded that the Americans must have ditched the old ones in their overzealous security protocol. This “Yankee Paranoia” as written in Le Populaire conveys how overbearing the American guests must have been.

But this attitude seems to not have bothered the Senegalese. It was as if these were tiny inconveniences that they were willing to suffer for Obama’s sake. When Bush’s visit left many angry, people told these “#Obamatakh (a hashtag that meant “because of Obama”)” stories with a proud smile.  They commented on Obama’s swagger and how cool he looked with his rolled-up sleeves and charming smile. It is true that many people around the world are infatuated with everything American but the warm welcome Obama experienced in Senegal has a lot to do with his background. As the son of a Kenyan father, Obama is viewed as more than the first African-American President. To many Africans, he is an African who is the President of the world’s most powerful country. In Senegal, he was the prodigal son whose power and presence should uplift the whole continent. They see in him a piece of themselves and the fact that he chose to visit Senegal instead of Kenya, or any other West African nation, was monumental in the eyes of the Senegalese.

welcome-home-senegalWelcome home

This visit was also very important to newly elected (2012) Senegalese President Macky Sall whose popularity is not that great. The presidential Facebook page was updated hourly and the rhetoric was overly giving credit to Sall for Obama’s choice of Senegal.

On First Lady Marieme Faye Sall’s Fashion

There was something refreshing in the picture of the two First Ladies standing next to each other. I was happy that Marieme Faye Sall chose to wear a traditional Senegalese boubou. I personally found the outfit elegant and sophisticated.  

Marieme Sall boubou

But some Senegalese, including talk show hosts, criticized Mrs. Sall’s fashion choices, especially after the news site Guardianlv.com published an article calling for Michelle Obama to give the Senegalese First Lady lessons in travel fashion. I was outraged by such article and was truly bothered by the Senegalese media’s lack of reply on behalf of the First Lady. It is inappropriate and wrong to compare the fashion choices of Michelle Obama and Marieme Sall, let alone decide who should teach who. The cultures as well as the body types are not the same. Most Americans would not get the style choices of Marieme Faye Sall for the simple reason many Senegalese would not understand why Michelle Obama, a woman over fifty, wears over-the-knee dresses and body-hugging pants! The Guardianlv article was simply ignorant of the fact that fashion is cultural. The Huffington Post’ piece was more sensitive to the cultural implications of fashion. I find that because many Senegalese are so in love with the West they tend to see themselves and everything through those lenses. Instead of defending the First Lady and telling the world that the Senegalese would not take fashion lessons from America or any other nation, they chose to publically disrespect Marieme Faye Sall. Inviting stylists who themselves do not have any respect for African identity as expressed in fashion and body image, to evaluate the First Lady’s wardrobe choices, was also out of line. The criticism of Marieme Sall’s clothes showed the complex of inferiority the Senegalese feel vis-à-vis Americans. They probably would have preferred a first lady with an outrageously bleached skin, who wears complex outfits (mostly European-inspired) complimented with kilograms of shiny gold jewelry.

Overall, I think the Senegalese will always remember Obama’s visit as an important part of the country’s history. I am praying it will have a stronger economic impact for Senegal. Afterall, when “God” visits your house, it must mean that your prayers were heard at least.

Senegal Needs to Stop Using French as the Primary Language of Instruction

 

I was inspired to write about this thanks to a friend’s Facebook status about how Senegalese wrestlers were interviewed in French ― “when many of them cannot communicate well in Wolof, let alone in French.” Although the wrestling match took place in Bercy, France, the journalists who interviewed the wrestlers should have addressed them in Wolof and use interpreters to translate for the French. As my friend noted, when Americans go to France, they are provided interpreters and not forced to speak the host language, even if they could manage a basic conversation in it. As a matter of fact, Juan Carlos, the wrestler from Spain who adopted the Senegalese sport and was among the participants at Bercy, was interviewed in Spanish.  Language is one of the major carriers of culture. Imagine if the wrestlers were asked to perform their bakk, these intricate panegyric chants that often highlight a wrestler’s trajectory while taunting possible opponents, in French! The meaning of such performance would have become senseless, if not comical.

The second reason for this post is Bousso Dramé’s letter to the French Consulate in Dakar, which went viral on social media in the past couple of days. Ms. Dramé won the National Grand  Prix d’Orthographe, a prestigious prize that proved her command of the French language. As the winner, she was supposed to travel to France for an all-expense-paid training in film studies. But when Miss Dramé went to the French Consulate in Dakar to apply for a visa, she was repeatedly disrespected by the staff, as it is often the case for Senegalese visa seekers. To show her outrage Miss Dramé wrote a letter to the French Consulate renouncing the visa as well as the prize. As she states in her letter, “It is time for Africans to respect themselves and demand to be respected by others.” I could not agree more but I feel that respect for oneself starts from being proud of one’s culture and Senegal is too dependent on the French language. The Senegalese educational system is a copycat of the French model and French continues to be the language of instruction. This practice only devalues Senegal’s indigenous languages and shows a severe complex of inferiority. I am happy that the Senegalese have great command of French and are able to win prestigious prizes for it. I however look forward to the day when similar competitions are held for Wolof, Pulaar, Diola, Sereer, and the many other ethnic languages that comprise Senegal’s rich linguistic heritage. Respect for oneself should start with ditching French as the primary language of instruction in schools and adopting Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca― which over 70% of Senegalese speak or understand.  I am not against teaching French in Senegalese schools. I just think it should be a second language like English, German, and other European languages.

French has been imposed on the Senegalese for too long and learning it is a traumatic experience for many.I believe my attitude toward French is because I feel the language was imposed on me as well. Although I initially came to the US as a French instructor, my usage of French has been limited to reading and the occasional conversation. One might think that I ditched my “French roots” in favor of American ones, but that is not the case. I simply do not care much about French. I don’t remember loving French or feeling the need to speak it. Those of you who are old enough to remember le symbole know how traumatic learning French was in Senegal.  To those who did not go through it, le symbole was literally a “necklace of shame” made with some disgusting materials.  In my elementary school, it was a huge cow bone attached to some rags.  Any pupil in 4th grade and beyond who was heard speaking Wolof or any other indigenous language, would have to wear the necklace of shame as a symbol of their faux pas and unwillingness to speak the language of De Gaulle. I never wore that horrible necklace. Not because I was fluent in French as a 4th grader, but because I was good at cheating my peers. I was one of the best students and my classmates probably believed that since I was a good student, my French must have been good too. On occasions I was caught speaking Wolof, I would defiantly deny it and invent a French word. But despite the fact that I never wore the necklace, I was terrified of it. I knew that if word got to my parents that I was caught not speaking French, I would get in trouble. Yes, parents also participated in this “Frenchization” of their children. Ironically, many parents, especially those who did not understand French, found it disrespectful if their child spoke to them in French. So in a sense children were told to switch back and forth from their native language to French depending on the place, as if language and culture are accessories one can wear and take off whenever needed. I know it is possible to navigate languages and cultures but when the switch is forced on the person, it becomes problematic.

Fifty three years after independence, I still cannot comprehend why major effort is not being made to use Wolof. I understand that the Senegalese have appropriated French and made it their own. Actually, I believe that the French language is alive and richer because of the many former colonies that continue to use it as “official” language. This does not change the fact that French is a foreign language for most Senegalese because they do not speak it at home. I believe this is the major reason why the Senegalese educational system continues to be in crisis. Children have to spend a long time trying to master the language before engaging is learning other subjects. This approach makes it difficult for them to learn through critical thinking. Imagine how much better and faster children would learn if they were taught in the language they think in. Primary learning engages both the conscious and the unconscious, and therefore can be best accomplished if done in the language one thinks in. It is counter-productive to force children to learn and think in a language different than their native tongue, and expect them to achieve proficiency early on in order to learn math, sciences, and other subjects.

Although Senegal has come a long way in reclaiming some of its linguistic heritage thanks to the proliferation of private radios, which made it possible for the news and talk shows to be delivered in indigenous languages, the bulk of the effort should be directed at making Wolof the major language of instruction. Some would argue that Wolof is not the only indigenous language, and that adopting it as the primary language in schools might undermine other ethnic languages. I would say that if people have not objected to French being the language of instruction, they should be fine with using Wolof.

I look forward to your comments.

Life in the hyphenated space between Senegal & America