I’ve been thinking about polygamy a lot lately. This is not because it’s something I’m considering as a life style choice. Rather, because it has become a frequent topic of conversation of late. In Senegal, men are legally allowed up to marry up to four women at any given time. To be honest, my relationship with polygamy is limited. It rarely crosses my mind unless I happen upon an opportunity to make politically incorrect jokes about Utah. I also recall experiencing a vague, but fairly disinterested, wave of nausea/disgust upon learning about the debacle that goes by the name of “Sister Wives.” Then again, I think that could just as easily be attributed to a general feeling of abhorrence directed toward the simultaneous glamorization and exploitation of the obscure, which seems to have found a permanent and ever-expanding home in reality television.
For the first time, I am forced to consider polygamy in a new context. Here, having more than one wife is not an anomalous situation that will garner tabloid fame and airtime on TLC-it is an acceptable reality. The newfound seriousness with which I began to ponder polygamy has also given rise to a host of questions about the nature of monogamy, feminism, fidelity, marriage and other related concepts-all of which I am fairly uncomfortable with. The exploration of the aforementioned topics and their different manifestations here and in parts of Europe and the US has led me into some murky waters…
It all began a few days ago, during the Tabaski festival (one of the most important religious celebrations for the Baye Fall). As the day was drawing to a close, Serigne Babacar came and sat down with us and the conversation, as usual, took a turn towards the philosophical. At some point, someone started asking about the “tools” necessary to achieve spiritual fulfillment. One thing that stood out for me in Serigne’s response was what he said about marriage, which he considers a necessary part of the process. Going even further, he mentioned that within a marriage, men and women are equal partners, and until men have a full appreciation and understanding of the female perspective, enlightenment is impossible…
This discussion struck a chord with me for a few reasons. First, because that was not the response I had anticipated. Secondly, because I cannot understand how equality can exist in a marriage that would also allow the husband to incorporate up to three additional wives. And thirdly, because I noted that there were no men present to hear this insight…
The discussion continued into the next day…One of the women, an Italian, began joking with the men about what we had been talking about the night before. She mentioned that having more than one wife seemed to be incongruous with Serigne’s interpretation of marriage. A light-hearted banter ensued. The men jokingly maintained that since a man cannot take a second wife without the consent of the first, and must treat each wife equally, polygamy was acceptable. Although we were laughing about it, one cannot ignore the fact that according to a census conducted in 2005, nearly 47% of marriages in Senegal are polygamous. And even if a woman would prefer to be in a monogamous marriage, it is not necessarily something they are willing to fight for- at least not yet. In a place where access to education and poverty are daily battles, changing a centuries old tradition, deeply imbedded in the religious culture, is not a priority.
“In reality,” one of the European women argued, “it’s no different than all the European men with mistresses that they take care of for years and years. It might even be better, because at least in this case, the first wife knows about it.” Although she wasn’t entirely serious, she had a point-albeit a tragic one. Have we reached a point where infidelity is so expected that the optimal situation is one where the wife is cognizant of it? Even worse, when a recent study in the US showed that women have “caught up” to men in the realm of infidelity, a female reporter for the Wall Street Journal crowed, “Women can now use their power in ways to which men have long been accustomed.”
Is this what equality looks like today?
The celebratory tone was a fairly common one in the world of feminist blogs. Jezebel’s take on it was that, “Ladies is Pimps Too.” Despite the fact that I read and enjoy many of these sites, this jaded take on relationships is chilling. Still, it is not surprising. When I think about the past year and the dramas that played out within my group of friends (my own included) in New York, the expectation of dishonesty was always alarmingly present.
All of this has left me wondering who really has it better? Is it the woman who is afforded the courtesy of approving her husband’s choice in a second wife or the woman who responds to infidelity in kind? For me, being someone with trust issues and walls that can seem indestructible, this whole discussion leaves me with a feeling of emptiness…
At the end of the day there aren’t any winners here.
“Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all…”
Two days ago, I cried for the first time since leaving the States. It was because of something ridiculous. And although the honest assessment of my emotional state that the tears provoked wasn’t ridiculous, the triggering incident certainly was. Let me back up first, and recap the series of events that culminated with me sitting on the side of a deserted road, unable to control the rush of saline solution, tear lipocalin and lysozomes spilling from my eyes.
It started early in the morning. I trekked to the NGO “office,” where the only wi-fi/internet access in ‘Ndem lives. I was feeling slight pangs of homesickness, nothing that a quick Skype chat or email exchange couldn’t remedy. As luck would have it, all means of Internet access were down. “Oh this happens all the time,” the office coordinator informed me. “This is Africa, you have to be patient, it will come back eventually.” Two frustrating hours later, I was still unable to contact anyone over seas. I’ve never felt so far from home.
I left the office, and stepped out into the glaring sun. As I made my way back to my room, I had the distinct misfortune of running into at least five different people. I say misfortune only in the context of being in a fairly bad mood. You see, the Senegalese (particularly here in Ndem) are infinitely polite and friendly, and when one runs into an acquaintance the typical exchange goes as follows:
“Assalamu alaikum!” (Peace be with you).
“Waleikum-salam.” (Also with you).
“Ca va?” (Is everything going well)?
“Oui, ca va bien.” (Yes).
“Alhamdulillah!” (Thanks/praise be to God).
And so on and so forth-it is expected, to not comply would be considered odd, and certainly disrespectful. For the most part, I enjoy this interaction; it is typically warm and welcoming. Not then. I fought the urge to scream, “Ca ne vas pas du tout! It’s so hot that the whole village feels like No Exit . There is no shade. I didn’t sleep because it is HOT, and I thought a bat flew into my room again. I spent half the night imagining it fluttering back and forth, and eventually tearing through my mosquito netting to attack me. I think there is a hornets’ nest in my bathroom. I miss my friends. I miss my nieces. I miss my sisters. I miss my parents. I hate millet cous cous (the dietary staple). I just finished the last book that I brought with me. AND THE INTERNET DOESN’T WORK. AGAIN” With each successive greeting, the list of annoyances and my aggravation continued to grow. Obviously (and thankfully), I did not share any of this, and by the time I reached my house, I was practically swimming in an ocean of self-pity.
What happened next, I will refer to as the “prelude” to the impending breakdown. It happened after lunch, (all the meals here are communal). I was lingering with some of the other women, talking and finally moving on from the morning’s frustrations…or so I thought. Then, as I was getting up to leave, Berta, one of the girls that I am closer to, pulled me aside to “casually mention” that I can not wear shorts to go running anymore, or at least not the kind specifically intended for that very purpose. At that moment I was sure I was going to lose it. I could feel my face getting hot with embarrassment, indignation and anger. My first thought was, “You have got to be kidding! They are not even short. I am running on the road, not through the Daara, why do they even care?! I am not going to run in pants in this heat. I’m twenty-five years old, I will wear whatever I choose.” All of these thoughts, and others similar, raced through my head. Typing them now, I realize that they sound like the protests of a spoiled child. At the time, all I could think about was that I didn’t need to be here, and if anything threatened my daily run- I would bail. In my defense, I was tired, angry and not thinking clearly. I struggled to suppress any sign that I was upset, and told Berta that I’d figure something else out as far as running clothes were concerned.
I was afraid that she noticed my eyes begin to water, so I quickly mumbled that I was tired, and was going to read a bit. I have this unfortunate habit of tearing up whenever something even slightly disturbs my emotional equilibrium. I have always been this way. It is rarely sadness that provokes said tears (it’s usually anger or fear). It is an involuntary reaction, but one that I desperately try to control. For now, the best I can do is explain that I am not actually sad or crying-and if I were it would look and sound entirely different. In other words, “real” crying, which is something that I practically never do, it is a drawn out experience, and it is much less pretty. That wasn’t what happened. I went back to my room, took a deep breath and reminded my self that I was the guest/visitor here. It was my responsibility to figure out what was acceptable and act accordingly, I did not have the right to make waves, simply because I felt “justified” in doing so. Then, I cut a pair of nursing scrubs into longer running shorts.
At that point, I should have just called it a day, and caught up on sleep. Instead, I went for a run. About half way through, I came upon three or four shepherds-they could not have been more than ten years old-but they were responsible for herding a massive pack of sheep, goats and cattle across the road. As I approached, they made a path, and I continued through. Everything seemed fine.
The way back was a different story. I reached the herd, which was still occupying the entire street, and made my way through with much greater difficulty. This time, I was panicked. I was sure that I would be impaled by one of the cattle, or maybe bitten by a goat, or some other animal-related catastrophe. In retrospect, physical pain would have been a legitimate cause for tears. That’s not what transpired. Instead, the shepherd boys started following me down the road, shouting in rapid fire Wolof. I have no idea what they were saying, but I was sure it wasn’t good. The whole scene was entirely ridiculous; a massive flock of animals, four little boys yelling and waving sticks, and me, running. It was also completely overwhelming, and the last straw.
By the time I was out of sight of the shepherds, the tears were already pouring out. There was nothing left to do except let them go. And so I did. I cried, but not because a few little kids bothered me while I was running... I cried because I miss home. I cried because I’ve seen things in the past two weeks that break my heart. I cried because I feel alone here. A lot. I cried because this is going to be a lot harder than I thought, and I’m only a few weeks in. I cried because I was exhausted. I cried because I needed to…
And then I got up. And I kept going.
“We walked slowly so as not to disturb the peace of the wild sanctuary with which we were now communing.” First Impressions of ‘Ndem…
Ndem does not seem real. I sometimes feel as if I could close my eyes, reopen them and see only desert. It exists though-an oasis in the heart of rural Senegal. I first arrived about a week ago, and did not quite know what to make of it. I felt as though time had ceased to exist, and everyone was caught in a sort of dream-like state. There seemed to be a certain faraway look in their eyes, as if they were here only in body-everything else on a different spiritual plane. It almost made me long for the dirt, the smells and the noise of Dakar-simply for the very “realness” of it.
On the other hand, the natural beauty of ‘Ndem is stunning. The trees and plant life is lush and colorful-benefitting greatly from this year’s generous rainy season. Still, I was somewhat shocked at the number of Europeans who come here and never leave. The first day here, I met three women who had come to ‘Ndem by chance-and are now here indefinitely. And apparently there would be more arriving later in the week.
“The thing is,” Fatou (an American ex-pat, now permanent ‘Ndem resident) explained, “No one really ends up in ‘Ndem by chance. We are all here as part of journey towards something greater.” My first inclination was to protest. I am just here to teach, write and maybe learn a thing or two. I wanted everyone to know, right off the bat, that I am not on a spiritual quest of any kind, and that I already had a return ticket to the States. But, I didn’t bother… I just smiled, nodded and attempted my best “faraway” look.
See, ‘Ndem is a “Daara.” It is run by the Baye Fall Muslims, a sub-group of the Mouride brotherhood. Mouridism is an Islamic Sufi order, practiced predominantly in Senegal and The Gambia. The Baye Fall sub-group follows the teachings of a former Bamba, Ibra Fall. Fall believed that hard work and dedication to their Maribout (regional spiritual leaders) could replace prayer and fasting. This created a culture of work within Mouridism, and consequently led to the formation of Daaras. A Daara is basically a collective based on agriculture and education-usually with a strong allegiance to a particular Maribout.
The Baye Falls also have a very distinct way of dressing. Their hair is usually dreaded. They wear colorful, often ragged, baggy clothes. And they accessorize with jewelry and scarves. The Europeans, who now call ‘Ndem home, dress in a similar fashion. I, for one, am holding out.
At first, everything about ‘Ndem was overwhelming-from the manner of dress, the devotion to the Maribout, (Serigne Babacar M’bow), the seeming lack of order or schedule, to the lack of access to the outside world. Everything. And when, after two days in ‘Ndem, I had the opportunity to go back to Dakar for a few days, I jumped at it.
I am back now though, and ready to accept that this is going to be my life for a while. I’ve realized that, in order for this whole thing to work, I need to let go of everything that I am used to, and start fresh. It is almost as if I have to take all of the acceptable “social norms” that I’ve learned in the US and turn them upside down…And that’s just a small step. First and foremost, I need to acknowledge that acclimating here will be a process, and it will take patience (not my strong suit) and time…In the meantime, I am going to embrace the natural beauty and peacefulness of my surroundings.
I think one of the hardest things I’ve had to accept about living in Senegal is that, just when you think you’ve seen the worst of all possible living conditions, you are confronted with an even harsher reality. Yesterday I went on another “causerie” in Dakar. This time we went to a different slum area-this one we call, “le savon.” Here, in the middle of Dakar, is a full-blown soap making operation. Giant cauldrons of lye boil at astronomical temperatures throughout “le savon.” This coupled with an unforgiving sun makes “le savon” a good fifteen degrees hotter than the rest of Dakar. My eyes and skin burned. The smoke coming from the smoldering coal was suffocating. Breathing was a battle. The causerie hadn’t even begun, and I could not wait to get out…
And people live there. Men, women and children all contribute to the soap making operation. Between the boiling vats of lye and other chemicals-rusty tin panels are assembled into “shelters” for the families that inhabit “le savon.” For them, there is little to no relief from the brutal air that circulates through their “community.”
The causeries always leave me feeling angry, wracked with guilt and defeated. My anger is directed at the young people I know (in the States and Europe)-who were lucky enough to have infinite opportunities, but choose to waste them. My anger is directed at those who take their physical and mental health for granted. And most of all, my anger is self-directed; because I know that I am guilty as well.
The feeling of defeat comes when you look around, and there are so many young faces, smiling and joking, in spite of their situation-then you look in their eyes and there is the same sense of sadness and exhaustion that their parents have. And then you realize that maybe they don’t see a way out. And they know their reality better; they live in it.
One can only hope that at least the children, born into this environment, will enroll in school, and at least have some chance to make it out. This was the purpose of our causerie-to talk about the importance of education. On the bright side, there was a better turn out for this causerie than “le mecanicien.” There were at least fifteen to twenty girls who came to listen-and even a couple boys.
It was actually the two boys who left a lasting impression on me. They both stayed until the end of the discussion and continued to ask questions…
Their stories are similar, and all too familiar, here in Dakar. They were both forced to find work before completing elementary school. Now, in their late teens or early twenties, how do they go back? Even if they desperately want to-it seems to be a logistical impossibility. They have to work during the day, and a twenty year old can hardly re-enter the fourth grade…
I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know that we can’t give up.
I run. I have been running everyday since I joined my middle school track team in the seventh grade. For me, running is not just something I do as a “work out,” it is part of my identity. It is transcendental. This is not to say that there are not days, weeks even, that running can be torturous-but the sense of calm and exhilaration I have during, and after a good run, sustains me.
In New York, my daily run through Central Park, along 5th Ave, past the Met and the Guggenheim, to the outskirts of Harlem, was one of the few things that kept me grounded and sane (for the most part). It was during one of those runs that it became obvious to me that I should really do this. I remember coming home, racing up the stairs of my fourth floor walk up, and breathlessly sending an email confirming my decision, all without skipping a beat. I hadn’t even bothered to turn off the Kanye blasting from my ipod. Fittingly, “Who gon’ stop me?” happened to be playing. Ironically most of the time, I don’t really know what it is that I think about when I run, but I do know that it helps me focus, organize and process.
Being a creature of habit, I was somewhat concerned about the logistics of running while in Senegal. One of my favorite parts of traveling, in general, is discovering a new city by running through it. Senegal, I knew, was going to be different. Would it be too hot? Was it safe to go alone? Could I/should I bring an ipod? Would I just say, “screw it,” and run anyway? Definitely.
Still, when I found a fellow runner on my first day, I was pretty relieved. At the same time, I was hesitant. Running has always been a solitary experience for me, and it is a part of the day that I consider invaluable. I don’t have to talk to or interact with anyone, save the occasional smile at another runner, who undoubtedly “understands” the mentality of another like him self. It is like Murakami explains (more eloquently than I could), “I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.” (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). I can relate completely.
Abou is Aminata’s little brother. He also happens to run through and around Dakar everyday. He became my running companion and guide while I was in Dakar. He is also the first person I have ever gone running with regularly. And surprisingly, I found that not only did I need someone to guide me through the crowded, dirty and potentially dangerous streets of Dakar, but I also kind of liked having the company. Maybe it was because I going through a major lifestyle adjustment, and needed to set up some sort of routine. Maybe I needed to establish a sense of normalcy in an environment that was entirely unfamiliar. Maybe it was a bit of both…the reason is not really of primary importance…
Running with Abou, as it turns out, was one of my favorite experiences from the beginning of the trip. First of all, he runs at about twice my normal pace, and given the fact that his legs are much longer than mine, I found my self basically sprinting for the duration of our run. The sheer physical exertion was enough to, at least for an hour, completely block out any thought. There was no room for thoughts of homesickness, I didn’t wonder what my friends in New York were doing, I didn’t worry about whether I was cut out for this kind of commitment. My only thought was this: “keep up.”
“The Untouchable Solitude of a Foreigner” …home visits in Dakar’s poorest communities and my first “causerie.”
It’s a strange thing to be an “outsider.” I have been traveling abroad ever since I can remember. I’ve even lived abroad for extended periods of time, so the role of “stranger” is one that I am very familiar with. Regardless, it is never a comfortable feeling, and for me, it has always been one of the most difficult aspects of traveling. I have never worried about finding my way around a new place, I’m not afraid of public transportation or overcoming language barriers…my philosophy is to, “figure it all out when I get there.” And while this might not be the wisest idea, (I don’t recommend anyone else do this) it has worked out pretty well thus far. Instead, I spend a considerable amount of time wondering if I will be able to overcome that feeling of being an unwelcome outsider…
This was definitely something I knew I would have to face when I came to Senegal. Whether real or imagined, I was sure at some point, that insidious feeling of being an intruder would creep up; particularly because I am relying heavily on photography and film to document my year here. Still, since arriving I have been shown incredible warmth and hospitality, especially by Aminata and her extended family. And it wasn’t until we started doing home visits in some of Dakar’s poorest neighborhoods that I became distinctly aware that I was definitely viewed as an “outsider.” And rightly so, as I was a stranger, with a camera-I think the hardest part of that role, is being fully cognizant of the fact that I would not be able to establish a sense of trust with the families we were visiting-at least for now (I am hoping this will change with time, and a better grasp on the language).
Needless to say, the home visits and causerie were some of the heaviest, and most troubling experiences of my first week here in Dakar. The first visit I went along on was to a makeshift slum village called “le mecanicien.” The “homes” are basically makeshift shacks, just random pieces of tin, tied to sticks, the roofs are held down by tires that function as weights. Children in various states of undress run amidst piles of trash, scrap metal and puddles of stagnant water. We were in “le mecanicien” to let one of the women, Fatoumata, know that we would be back later to hold a “causerie” on malaria prevention, and to ask her to encourage the other men and women in “le mecanicien” to join.
“Causerie” comes from the French word “babble.” And the intention is to hold informal, but informative discussions to encourage women’s health and education in impoverished communities-the idea is to work from the ground up…even if it means helping one girl at a time.
When we (Aminata-who is also a nurse, and Sarah) returned to le mecanicien later that afternoon for the causerie, we learned that there was a young boy-probably around nine or ten, who had fallen ill that morning with a high fever. The women were afraid it was malaria. When I looked at him, lying on a crowded mat, weak, feverish, surrounded by flies and screaming children, I knew that I would never experience human suffering anywhere close to what I was witnessing. And in that moment I realized I should be channeling the energy I waste worrying and feeling insecure about being an “outsider” into positive actions.
Goodbyes, Hellos, A Baptism and a Death (of a goat)…my first few days in Senegal and the Circle of Life.
The sky above New York City on October 2, 2012 was gray and heavy, the traffic on the way to JFK international airport was oppressive and as I made my way to the airport I was acutely aware that my external surrounding were a manifestation what I was experiencing internally. I felt exactly how I expected to feel upon leaving New York: heavy, sad and anxiety-ridden. I snapped one-word responses to my dad’s feeble attempts at conversation, trying to focus on the license plates on the Toyota in front of me instead. I was afraid that even the slightest bit of pressure would open the floodgates, and all the tears and emotion I was trying desperately to repress would come pouring out-so talking and thinking were both out of the question. The thing is, at some point during the past year, I had grown to love New York, despite the fact that more often than not, that love felt unrequited.
Moving to New York after five years of college and then grad school was hardly an easy transition. The reality of life outside the confines of academia-was just that: reality. Like many recent grads, (particularly those aspiring to work in the film industry), I spent most of the year juggling production internships, restaurant jobs and an active social life. The pace at which my life seemed to be careening ahead often felt out of my control. And despite the excitement of living in a city of endless opportunity, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was stuck on a ferris wheel in a nightmare-ish carnival. Constantly spinning up and down. Never moving forward. Never stopping.
When I was offered the opportunity to work in Senegal for a year it was as though someone had pulled the emergency brake, and I knew it was time to get off. I decided to say, “yes” immediately. Maybe I was afraid that I wouldn’t end up going if I spent too much time weighing the pros and cons of trading the upper west side for rural Senegal…Who knows... Regardless, I was going. And while I was sure it was the right decision, leaving my friends, sisters, newborn nieces and the lifestyle I had gown accustomed to, became more and more difficult as my departure date approached…
Still, I knew that my pre-departure anxieties would dissipate once replaced with the new experiences and challenges that lay ahead…
I arrived in Dakar, Senegal early Wednesday morning. The Senegalese coordinator for Women for Girls, Aminata, met me at the airport, and immediately made me feel right at home. I will be staying with Aminata and her family for the next week before I leave for N’dem (where I will be teaching). Now, Aminata’s family is huge, and rapidly expanding (which I will get to later). In the beginning, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the number of people, as well as the mixture of French (which I am comfortable with) and Wolof (which I am not at all) that swirled around me. Little did I know that within a few days I would begin to consider Aminata’s home a peaceful refuge amidst the chaos of Dakar.
Still, I was fighting jet lag (and a major climate change), so I spent most of the first day reading and not doing much else.
The second day would prove to be far more eventful. It was the baptism of Aminata’s nephew. A Senegalese baptism party is a sight to behold. The festivities began early. The Imam arrived around 10, and he and all the men in the family sat together in prayer as the maternal grandmother presented the baby. It is then that the child is given a name, (chosen by the father). In this case the baby was given the name, “Amadou.” Once the name was announced some of the other small children in the family began handing out candies and cookies to all of the guests. While this was going on I was more concerned with a man, off to the side, sharpening a knife against a stone step. My mind raced as I considered what he was possibly going to do with it. Almost simultaneously I caught sight of a goat, tied to the side of the house, needless to say my questions were answered. Being someone who spent the previous few months living with a vegan (and also considered the lifestyle), I was initially horrified, then I began to wonder if we (Americans) would all be better off if we did not have such a sterilized/disconnected image of where our food comes from, and what we change if we had a daily reminder of our factory farms…but obviously that’s a whole different blog post…For now, one thing was clear, I wasn’t on the Upper West Side anymore…