Monday, February 12, 2007

Pink lakes and turtles, “the gathering of white people,” parlez-vous français? Lan ngay wax Wolof?, L’école primaire de Point E

So, I realized that I haven’t written on the blog in a long time and much has happened. First, some more interesting cultural elements of Senegal. Walking down the street in Dakar, you will surely be approached by a small boy, often in ratty clothing, carrying an empty can or bucket and reaching to you with an out-stretched hand. At first glance, you think it is just your run-of the mill beggar, ignore, and walk on. However, you would immediately notice that the boy doesn’t pursue you, which is not normal of regular beggar behavior. That is because this boy is not an ordinary beggar. Called Talibes, these boys are innumerable on the streets of Dakar. They beg because their Islamic teacher, a marabout, forces them to. This system used to be one that was meant to encourage humility while these boys learned the Qur’an. They would beg, understand life as a beggar, take the money back to the Marabout, who was entrusted to feed, clothe and take care of these children by their parents. But today’s world is a different story. Parents give Marabouts their sons because they can’t afford to take care of them. The Marabout in turn uses the boys to make some spare change for himself, often leaving the children without regular meals or clothing. He often will beat the child if they don’t make a certain amount per day. So what do you do? Do you give them the money, that only goes to the Marabout and continues this horrible trend, or do you give the child some food, hoping that he can make the 1,000 CFA ($2) so that he doesn’t get beaten when he goes to the Marabout? I often give them food, which they are very grateful for, but this is a serious problem that the government of Senegal should be attempting to eradicate.
Eventually I will post an entire blog on Islam in this country, which I think if very interesting. In the meantime, you can enjoy reading about various travel experiences I have had. Last weekend, I traveled with three other CIEE students to le village de tortues, turtle village. It is a park that is for turtles (and tortoises) who are injured or endangered in the wild. Only an hour from Dakar, you can definitely get a feel for the drier, savannah like landscape of Senegal. There are tons of Baobab trees (giant trees who, as one CIEE student put it, look like they are turned upside down: huge roots, thick grey trunks, and a fruit whose juice tastes like coconut) and lots of tall grasses. We then headed to Lac Rose, via a pick-up truck on a dirt road. Lac Rose is this huge, extremely salty lake. It also is the final destination of the Paris-Dakar rally. It is pink because of the interaction between bacteria and oxygen. You could reach into the water and grab a handful of salt. We watched some of the locals extract the salt from the lake and make huge piles on the sides for drying.
Superbowl Sunday I went to a wedding party, which reminded me of the typical American wedding party (bride in white, bridesmaids in matching dresses, too many pictures being taken, small snacks). After the party, I went to the Marines’ house to watch the Superbowl, good times. This past weekend we took a group excursion to Toubab Dialow, an artist’s village on the petit cote, about 1 hour south. The village’s name means “the gathering of white people” because the Portuguese used to come there often to trade. It was therefore ironic that there were 35 of us “toubabs” showing up. I took a batik class (painting with wax on fabric to make cool designs and wall hangings) and lazed around on the beach. We then ate a three course meal, followed by a performance by the drumming and dance groups. The subject of the interpretative dance was immigration – the story of a Senegalese man trying to get to Spain via a small fishing boat. This is particularly pertinent, especially if you have been following the news (1000s of Senegalese have attempted to get to the Canary Islands in order to work in Spain, often in tiny canoes and if they make it to shore, they often get turned back). We then sat around and had deep, intellectual conversation on the problems with international trade, capitalism in Africa, top down versus bottom up development policies, education policy in the US, and the lyrics to “smack that.” (note: Akon is a rapper quite popular in the US; his songs include: I am so lonely, locked up, and Smack that. He was born in Senegal and his father was a popular Senegalese singer, which everyone here is quite proud of.)
Things on the political front are getting pretty heated. My sister has a yellow shirt and hat with a picture of the current president and she often attends his rallies. On the other hand, everyone else in my house doesn’t like President Wade, but they can’t tell me who is a better candidate for president (they say often “all they do is talk, talk, talk. Politicians say a lot, but do nothing.”). The former Prime Minister, Idrissa Seck, (who Wade ousted and put in prison without trial for embezzlement) is running under a new party, and he is supposed to be pretty popular. There are a ton of candidates (26), all bashing the past seven years under Wade, but not offering any solutions to Senegal’s biggest problems such as unemployment. Last night I had a lengthy conversation with my brother about politics in the U.S., auto insurance, and issues in the African-American community (he said that he heard there was a lot of black on black violence in the US). I was pretty proud of myself as the entire conversation was conducted in French, haha. I am finding it easier and easier to express myself, even if I don’t know the words (for example, I didn’t know the word for greedy, so I said “when a person has a lot of money but they want it only for themselves.” He totally got what I was saying). The Wolof is coming…I’ve got basic greetings down, and working on my vocabulary and verbs. People keep trying to have full blown conversations with me, but I only know simple stuff. My mom would love for me to speak it fluently so we can have a decent conversation (her French is not as good.)
I am volunteering/doing research at a local elementary school for my Education and Culture class. It is a public school, and working there makes me see how many things we take for granted in our education systems in the US. For example, the teacher hand writes all the exercises in students’ (30) notebooks because they don’t have printed sheets. Chalk and chalkboards are used by all of the students. They share writing utensils, desks, and seats. Students in the first grade are anything between 5 and 7, but sometimes even the occasional 13 year old. Their levels vary from some able to understand the numbers of syllables in a word to others who can barely write, or speak, in French. They are taught only in French, not their first languages, and are smacked or slapped for messy handwriting (my class, first years, were supposed to have mastered cursive). The teacher is allowed, I think, to smack students with chalkboards, slap the desks with yardsticks, and spank children for misbehaving. The students are all very respectful (they stand and say “Bonjour, Madame!” when I walk in the class, “Au Revoir, Madame” when I leave). They go to class from 8am to 1pm with a thirty minute break. They learn songs to practice their French and conjugations. The classroom is bare except for the chalkboard, the desks and a few posters on the walls. No book shelves nor a fan nor lights, students keep their bags on their back for the entire period, a bucket of water and a sponge serves as their erasers. But to think, this is one of the better schools, as most classes only have 30 students (versus the possibility of 80+ in other public institutions), and the teachers and headmaster seem to be genuinely committed to their students (the headmaster was able to obtain a few computers for the “library” that students can use). Hopefully, my volunteering will benefit some of the students, maybe the ones that have fallen behind.


annad said...

Cool. I checked out the pics on Facebook -- Nice!

Also, I know what Parlez-vous francais and found out what L'ecole primaire de Point E means but what does Lan ngay wax Wolof mean?

Rex Venom said...

Fun times!
Rock on!