Archive for September, 2009

Toubabs in Touba!

“Toubab” is Wolof for ‘white person.’ Every day children yell ‘toubab’ whenever I am walking around the city or outside my house. This is something every white person in Senegal experiences, and something all of us at Projects Abroad have experienced, hence the title.

On Sunday, September 27th, six other Projects Abroad volunteers and I went to visit the town of Touba, Senegal. It’s about three hours driving from Saint-Louis, located further inland. We had a guide, Moustafah, who knew all about Touba and its founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), a Muslim sufi religious leader and founder of the Mauridism order of Islam (in Touba, 1883). He is famous for his numerous acts of faith, and miracles, as well as his pacifist resistance of French colonialism.

Touba is important as a Mouride holy city that is home to a Great Mosque—one of the biggest in Africa, and the biggest in West Africa. Cheikh Amadou Bamba is buried in Touba, as are all of his sons. It’s construction finished in 1963, though it is continuously being enlarged . The mosque itself has been built completely by the work and money earned by the Maurides, or followers of Cheikh Amadou Bamba. The children and families of Amadou Bamba (which are numerous) all have their roles for taking care of the mosque, the cemetery and the mausoleums surrounding the mosque.

Moustafah explained to us that though there are other ‘holy cities’ in Senegal, there is no other true holy city aside from Touba. He explained that Touba was a city that existed prior to Senegal’s independence, and that like other holy cities (he gave Mecca and the Vatican as examples) there are no other churches or faiths who have establishments in the city. The only religious centers in this city are strictly Muslim, as in there are no churches or cathedrals. He clarified that there are other cities in Senegal, such as Tivuaouane, that are holy cities because of the large mosques located in the city, but because the city itself has cathedrals and churches in it, it is not a holy city. Also in Touba, the city sort of operates on it’s own outside of the laws of the rest of the country. He told us that there was a Senegalese woman who came from Dakar and decided to go into a mosque not dressed appropriately (that is all women are supposed to wear long skirts/dresses, and have their heads and shoulders covered…basically be completely covered, head to toe). This woman was wearing tight jeans and a shirt while she was visiting, the last straw being when she tried to enter the mosque like this. She was fined and her head was shaved. This is a non-conventional punishment for the rest of the country, but what I understood was that because Touba has existed and functioned even before Senegal gained its sovereignty as a country, Touba is above common law. He also explained that because she was Senegalese, and she definitely knew what she was doing, it wasn’t something that was simply a misunderstanding or something she hadn’t heard before, which would be more understandable if she had been a foreigner. Here is a wikipedia (I know..shame on me for citing wikipeida…) description of some of what he explained to us:

“For Mourides, Touba is a sacred place. Forbidden in the holy city are all illicit and frivolous pursuits, such as the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, the playing of games, music and dancing. The Mouride order maintains absolute control over its “capital” to the exclusion of usual state-run civil and administrative services. The city constitutes an administratively autonomous zone with special legal status within Senegal. Every aspect of its city’s life and growth is managed by the order independently of the state, including education, health, supply of drinking water, public works, administration of markets, land tenure, and real estate development.” (Wikipedia: Touba, Senegal)

The mosque was absolutely incredible! Very beautiful and soo big. There were some rooms that we weren’t allowed in as non-muslims, for example the room that houses Amadou Bamba’s body. The architecture and decorations are very intricate. From far away it might look as if the mosque is painted, but up close it’s actually all mosaic. Our guide was very helpful and informative. He would point out lots of details and gave a lot of information. I think he liked to see us take pictures, and of course we were all taking pictures like the tourists we were. There was one point (after we had been taking pictures for about half an hour) when he was explaining something, and we just kind of listened (I think the heat was getting to us at that point), and no one had taken a picture, so he prompted us to take some pictures, assuring us that pictures were allowed.

After visiting the mosque and the mausoleums, we headed back to Saint-Louis, but we ended up stopping along the way to have lunch with our guide’s family. Moustafah, who is also the teacher of one of the volunteers (Nicholas, who also happens to be a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar from South Carolina), and the host father of Youen, was very happy for us to meet his family and share a meal. We had Yassa Poulet, which is a rice dish with chicken and an onion sauce usually. Our yassa poulet had both chicken and pigeon (my first time eating pigeon), the rice had a kind of curry sauce and vegetables. It was sooo good! Especially after a long day of sight-seeing. I think I forgot to mention that we left around 7am, ate a small breakfast, arrived around 11, left around 2pm, and then had lunch around 2:30pm. And then we got home around 8-something. I felt like I had been up all day! But it was such a good trip.

Toubabs in Touba

Toubabs in Touba

Side story:

So today I woke up around 8:45, got ready as normal to go to my class at 10:00am. (I have to wake up early because my family fixes my breakfast for me, so sometimes the time that takes varies depending on what is going on it the morning, and also I walk to school, which is about a 20 minute walk away). So I make it to Charles de Gaulle (the name of my school) and I try the gate that I’m used to going through…but there is soo much water, and one of the gates is closed over the only dry part, so I go around to the other side to find a LAKE of water preventing me from getting inside! It had rained on Saturday, and a lot of the roads are still filled with water (Saint-Louis doesn’t really have a drainage system for clearing water from streets, so they just fill up and then the water goes away as it evaporates in the sun). It was a really hard rain, because I’ve never seen my school so completely underwater. I managed to go back to the first gate, and by that time someone had opened the second gate. So I jumped across and walked around to my building….but again a LAKE! There was no way to get to the steps or the building. My teacher came and we decided to have class at her house since there was no way to get into the school. I thought this was a good example of how things go here in Senegal. If something happens to throw you off your normal routine…you just simply adapt! So I had my class successfully thanks to my teacher who opened her home to me…again another characteristic of Senegal (whose nickname is also Land of the Teranage…Teranga meaning hospitality).


Read Full Post »

Ok…so I wrote this entry on Sunday, September 20…so you’ll have to adjust the dates of the Korité info:

La Fête-

Today (Sunday, September 20), is La Korité, also known as, La Fête, here in Senegal. It is the day that marks the end of Ramadan. All day my family has been preparing this celebration which starts at sundown (although fasting ends the night before). Everyone has been speculating this week about whether the Korité would fall on Sunday or Monday.

Because Ramadan follows the lunar cycle (the Islamic calendar follows a lunar cycle), its ending is determined by the sighting of the new moon. Here the end of Ramadan is decided by the local Marabout, religious figureheads and scholars of the church who are responsible for looking out for the new moon. Because the end of Ramadan is something that is done by local Marabout around the world, the month itself will vary from region to region and also vary on what the Marabout see. For instance, here in Senegal, if the moon hadn’t been sighted last night (Saturday), then there would have been fasting for one more day (on Sunday), the Marabout would have declared the end of Ramadan that Sunday night (regardless of seeing the moon at this point) and then the Korité would have been on Monday. Regardless of whether Ramadan ended on Saturday or Sunday, Monday would always be a holiday. But if the end of Ramadan fell on a Sunday, then we would also have Tuesday as a holiday. Although, I’m sure some local businesses will probably still not be open on Tuesday because a lot of people travel far to be with their families on this day. Also, Ramadan will fall at different times each year because of the moon.

So as it stands, the Marabout saw the new moon last night (Saturday) ending Ramadan here in Saint-Louis. So today my family has been preparing all day for the big party known as Korité and La Fête which takes place this evening (Sunday) and so there is also a holiday where everything is closed tomorrow (Monday).

My Day

This morning when I came downstairs, my family had been preparing the “Thiagri” a dish made of cous-cous, milk, coconut and some other mixed fruits. I tried it for the first time, and it was very…interesting. The milk sauce itself was really good, but the bits of cous-cous are going to take me some time to get used to. It’s kind of a weird sensation. My host mom, Madame Ndour had prepared a huge tub of it and then filled up smaller bowls which are going to be distributed to family and friends today.

Next they brought out a freshly skinned lamb and had someone here to cut it up into smaller pieces which they cooked on a small portable fire (check out the pics). It was hard to watch the guy chop up the meat since it still had the distinctive shape of being an animal, but I tried not to think about it.

Sidenote: There are sheep and goats that roam around the streets here—and I’ve come to appreciate these little guys. I think they’re hilarious because they just go wherever they want, eat whatever they want and then at night they all know where their homes are and they go home. For some reason I think that’s such a funny idea! Also, on my way to school the other day, I saw a baby goat being born!

But back to la Fête—after the meal got underway, with everyone (well all of the females) helping out the afternoon went by pretty quickly. We eventually took a little nap, or rested for a bit, but there were always people coming and going, saying hello, and bringing food (and my family sending food with friends as well).

La Fête


After it started to get dark, Coumba, my host sister, and I changed into our boubous (traditional Senegalese dress…although boubous are typically the men’s outfit, they can also refer to the women’s dress. They are worn throughout much of West Africa, and they are historically tied to the spread of Islam in the region). For this holiday, it’s very common for men and women to have new clothing made especially for the day, or at least to wear their best. Coumba had taken me to the market the week before to buy some fabric for my dress so I would have something to wear for La Fête. Having clothing made here is incredibly cheap! All in all my boubou cost me…5,000CFA to make (that includes buying the fabric and paying the tailor) which amounts to around $10.00!

All day Coumba had been telling me about taking pictures, so I figured she meant we would take some pictures with my camera…which we did, but then we also went to a photographer in our borough who took our picture. I’m sure if my French were better, I would have understood completely! The furniture and backdrops in the photo parlor were very familiar, and I soon realized where I had seen them before. When I had first arrived, Coumba showed me her photo album that had pictures of her from when she was very little to very recently. And in each picture it is her by herself in beautiful dresses, or just really dressed up. Apparently she and her family have been going to this photographer for years, during every celebration or major event (which usually means a new dress). So now Coumba has a picture of us together to add to her album, and I thought it was cool that the tradition had continued, me included.

After getting ready, she and I stayed for a bit to receive some of her friends and other family friends (we served Coke, Sprite and Thiagri to our guests). Afterward, we went around to her friends to say hello. By this time it is about 10:00pm and when we arrive home, Coumba helps to set the meal and we eat our meal which was bread, mouton and yams in an onion sauce. After the meal, we are all pretty tired considering how much has gone into making it a success, and after watching a little bit of RTS (A Senegalese tv station) we say goodnight.

More than anything I think everyone is happy to be done with le jeûne (fasting), although there are some people who will continue to fast if for some reason they were unable to fast during the month, ie: if someone was ill and didn’t fast for a couple days until they were well, they may choose to make up the days in the next week. Also, all federal buildings are closed until Tuesday because of the holiday (even though there is no official religion in Senegal).

The past two weeks have been really interesting as I’ve learned a lot more about Islam and how many Senegalese practice the religion. I think what’s even more interesting is how much religion and culture are so inextricably tied that it’s hard to see where one ends and one begins, and then of course, at times, they are the same. And how all of these things will vary from person to person, but then some things have very little variance.

I think next week my entry will probably be about my experience at the holy city, Touba. We (some volunteers from Projects Abroad) are going there with a guide next weekend. So hopefully I can take some nice pictures and have more to share : )

Read Full Post »

Bonjour! Ça va? Hello? How’s it going? Well, I have just finished my first full week of living in Senegal! It’s been quite an interesting week, but before I go into that let me direct you to My “About” page as well as “Senegal Country Info”, for anyone who’s curious.


I started out at Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, MO (how cool is that?) with a two hour flight to Washington Dulles in Washington D.C. with about an hour and a half layover there, and then on to Dakar via a 7 and a half hour flight. Senegal is five hours ahead of Illinois, so I left at 12:20pm on Saturday, September 5th and Arrived on Sunday, September 6th at 6:00am.

In Dakar, I was greeted by Papis, one of the volunteer coordinators for Projects Abroad. I ate my first meal in Senegal– two croissants and some hot chocolate –at the airport and then made the five hour drive to Saint-Louis. But this wasn’t an ordinary, run of the mill, ‘drive’ – I mean, it most definitely is for any Senegalese, but for me, it was my first experience with a ‘sept place’ (pronounced, “set plahce”). A sept place is a taxi seating 7 people (minimum); we had 8 people. Sept places depart from a sort of ‘station’ where there are signs that say names of the cities indicating the direction they are heading. So you sort of stand under the sign that has your destination city, talk to a driver and then….you wait. We waited for about an hour as the driver found enough passengers to fill the taxi. I think we would have waited longer, but it started to rain, he had 8 people, so we headed off (yes potentially there might have been another person!).

In talking with Papis, I found out how terrible my French listening and speaking skills actually are! This was furthered by meeting my family, and for the most part answering their questions with smiles and completely failed attempts at French as I racked my brain to decipher everything (I’m thinking to myself, where does one word end and one begin?). But thankfully, they haven’t held it against me at all. On the contrary, they are very supportive. My host family consists of my host mom, host dad, and two host sisters who all live with me. There are three other children who are grown (one girl, two boys) but they live outside of the house. I have my own room on the second floor of the house where there are also two other people who rent rooms from the family. The family lives on the first floor, and that is mainly where I spend most of my time when I’m home.

Thankfully my much needed French classes started on Monday, and I met my teacher Ngoné Lo. We have class from 10am – 1pm. I am the only one in the class, so it’s really nice to have a class completely tailored to my needs. She is really patient with me—I am always looking up words during our lessons! I think after a couple weeks of these intensive classes, I will be ready to give my first Rotary presentation.

Right now it’s Ramadan, a fasting month in the Muslim religion. And with Senegal being a predominantly Muslim country (94%), this religion dominates the culture, way of life and holidays. Ramadan is a month in which practicing Muslims do not eat or drink (or only drink water) from Sun up until sun down. Before dawn everyone eats a large breakfast. At dusk, they break their fast by having a loaf of bread with tea or coffee, and then a large dinner. This year Ramadan ends September 20th or 21st, depending on the moon’s cycle. There is always a huge party called, La fête (literally, ‘the party’) with Looots of eating and socializing. This is one of the biggest holidays in Senegal and also in Islam. So I think I have come at a very unique time because what I see of the Senegalese culture will probably change in a matter of a week. I was not brave enough to try fasting, though some westerners do. But its almost certain that while out on the street or in the market, everyone you meet is fasting. This is so remarkable to me!

My family prepares me breakfast and lunch, which I eat alone, and dinner, which we all share (literally…we all eat together from the same bowl!..I’m sure I’ll do an entry about this later). During the day, everyone is pretty lethargic (also, the heat here is so oppressive it pretty much zaps your energy), but at night it gets cooler and after eating (around 9:00pm) the family gets together to visit with each other, watch tv, etc.

After a week, I feel much more adjusted to the the climate, the pace of life, and expectations. It is very very hot – you have to take multiple showers a day here and drink lots of water, and this is taking me some time to get used to. Also, here the sense of time and ‘customer service’ is veerry different. With school and work being the exceptions, but even at that people are very laid back about ‘being on time.’ Customer service doesn’t really exist, ie: with taxis – if you don’t have to proper change, that’s not their problem, you will end up giving them what you have. And even in getting in a taxi, he might decide to stop at the gas station, drop of people who got in after you, before you, etc without even worrying about mentioning it. For the most part its very ‘go with the flow.’ My host family have done a lot to help me with the adjustment. They are so warm and welcoming and always want me around. And of course, I miss my family and friends a lot, and they have been so supportive, which has also helped me to adjust.

Hopefully my next entry will be a little more focused, (even now, I’m thinking of more things that I can type), but since this is my first week, I feel like there are so many things I can relate in order to give a better sense of my experience. Please feel free to leave me any feedback or questions. My internet situation is not always consistent, but I intend to write at least once a week!

Also, I’ll be uploading pictures as much as I can. But please be patient with me as the internet is a slightly difficult commodity.

ALSO: it’s very difficult to take pictures of the town as once people see you have a camera they start asking for money and such, plus it’s just not a good idea considering the theft rate here. We’ve been advised to save taking pictures for trips or for when we’re in large groups. So in case anyone is wondering where the pictures are; they’re hard to take!

Read Full Post »