February 28, 2005


I was away for a week to work on a Strategic Plan workshop. It was generally interesting, mostly long and always tiring. Now, with the help of colleague, I have to pour through the dozens of graphs, tables and hand-written notes and put together some form of cohesive summary of the workshop.

The people who attended the workshop came from different organizations, ethnicities, religious convictions and centers of interests. The workshop started and ended with an Abbé saying/signing a catholic prayer in French, and the participants crossing themselves to seal off the deal. The prayer was followed by a Doyen saying a Muslim prayer in Arabic, followed by hands cupped to receive the blessing and then rubbed of the face and the scalp.

The lunch breaks were punctuated with description of secret ceremonies in the wood to "become a man", different beliefs in the South versus the middle of the country, the traditional foods that each region savors and frequent, good-natured self-deprecation of one's culture.

It's a pleasure to be different here. It's also refreshing to be able to ask questions (purely out of curiosity) without offending anyone.

February 25, 2005

Allowing myself a little luxury

Another one of my friends --thank you again-- got me a professional massage for my birthday. I would go into all sorts of details into what that entailed but all I can say is "Raaaaaaaaaaaaah" (equivalent to purring for humans).

February 17, 2005

Cool Birthdays Wishes

"I wish you a happy birthday! May the gods of chocolate blow in your favor on this day. "

"I hope you're doing something wild for the occasion"

"Twenty-seven seems like a good age – you are still young, and yet you are already doing lots of amazing things. "

"Since you're so old now, it's like a big sis-little sis friendship"

"Pleins de bisous sucrés, salés, fleuris, pimentés et surtout parfumés des parfums des grands baobabs sénégalais. "

"It's an honor to be your friend, and a privilege to know you. Come what may, I trust you'll have a wonderful and rich life ! So here it comes, HAPPY BIRTHDAY you old hag !!!"

"I didn't know you were born in Paris. Well I guess no one's perfect."

Awww shucks, thanks guys!

I'd been eyeing this for a while now but my friends snatched it up and gave it to me for my birthday! It's created from dyed material made just outside of Fatick. The whole village is involved in creating bright-colored pillowcases, bedspreads, clothes using African prints but with an appeal to Toubabs . The company is a co-operative, sharing its profit equally amongst all villagers. Posted by Hello

Another year older

Today is my Birthday! Yeah!

I'm actually not depressed about it for once. I have not yet seen a new wrinkle in the mirror. I did not spot a new white hair on my head. I did catch myself thinking about 403(B) retirement funds though.

The people I have met here 6 months ago have organized a dinner in my honor. How cool is that?

It's nice to know that, wherever you may be on this lonely planet, you'll always find good people.

February 16, 2005

Powdered Milk?

My colleague just called me to let me know that she was ill yesterday and would not be coming in to work this morning. Could it be the powdered milk?

Unsolved mystery...

Powdered Milk

There are around 6 or 7 different brands of powered milk here. Which of course, is ridiculous. How much powdered milk do people really need?

One has a blue cow on its cover, another has a dancing milk glass and yet another has a smiling mother holding her blond child (brilliant audience marketing here people). Some come with chocolate, strawberry or coffee flavors. Some have added vitamin A or extra minerals.

I always turned my nose at powdered milk, preferring instead to buy the long conservation milk that France exports here (I have yet to find fresh milk). One day, at work, desperate to make myself a proper cup of tea, I ventured in the fridge and brought out the container of powdered milk. As I poured the flakes in my tea, I crinkled my nose and emitted a "I'm pretty disgusted but desperate" grunt.

The first experiment was an utter failure as I was gulping down equal amounts of tea and clumped up flakes. I've tried many a times since then and am now a convert of powdered milk. That soft, powdery, slighty off-white colored fluff is reminiscent of feathery clouds. And, I can confidently say that I have acquired the skill of dissolving the milk so that very little clumps are left (it's a combination of quick stirring and making sure that the water's very hot).

Powdered milk. It does a body good.

Question for those dieticians out there: does powdered milk still have the necessary calcium levels?

February 14, 2005

The Sacred Baobab Tree

Griot are keepers of the oral tradition. They are singers who chant praises to Senegalese families in times of celebration. The trade is one passed on from father to father, from generation to generation since as long as people can remember.

A family generally has its very own griot, which they support financial, in exchange for a recounting of their great grandparents, grandparents and parents' family stories. The stories of course, are generally always positive, or if exposing a certain ancestor's failings, quite humorous and harmless. Though the trade is considered lowly, their role is essential because they are Senegal living historians. They are found in every ethnic group in Senegal except for the Diolas.

Griots have never worked the soil and, as a result, cannot be buried in the ground. It is said that if a griot should be ever buried in the land, a terrible drought will develop.

They are buried within Baobab trees. Baobab trees are considered useless trees, owing to the fact that their bark cannot be used to make furniture. The fruit it bears, the Pin de Singe, is used to make Bouie, a concoction that when mixed with hot water, is good for diarrhea. A baobab tree can also harbor honey in its highest branches. The tree is very common in Senegal and part of the reason is that it is not cut down for resources.

Feeling that they deserved a proper burial, griots have fought to be buried alongside their brothers in the soil. President Senghor passed a law allowing this, thereby outlawing any burials within Baobab trees. The same year the law was passed, there was a severe drought.

--As told by our guide in the Bandjia Nature Reserve, city of Toubab Dialaw

Check out our hotel

A Baobab tree in the Christian and Muslim Cemetary of Joal-Fadiout Posted by Hello

February 11, 2005


It's been quite a lot cooler lately. I have started to wear a thick scarf and a sweater to work.

It's 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celscius).


Talibes are young children who are sent by their parents to a marabout, to learn about the Koran and Islam. Part of the religious experience is understanding humility. A child is to go in the streets for a few hours to beg for money (between the hours of teaching), and come home in time for dinner to eat with all the other students.

While some religious schools are very reputable, a large majority of the children are "taught" by marabouts that have no interest in their education. Instead, the children become sources of revenue. They spend all day outside, begging for money, in dirty T-shirts and beat-up flip flops, chanting religious songs. They are not taught anything about Islam and severely reprimanded if they do not bring enough money home. They are left to fend for themselves and find their own food. Lately, people have smartened up to this and have been giving them bread and cookies instead of money.

Why do we accept this? Why are these children starving, dirty and uneducated?

Scamming 101

Scam 1

A young man comes to our office to tell us about his organisation (they help people who can't pay their medical bills, teach women how to read etc.). My supervisor politely bring him over to my office, on my second day here. I ask him more information and he promises to stay in touch.

Two weeks later, the young lad comes to my office again, very energized and enthusiastic. He tells me of all the progress that his organisation has made so far, he hands me a pamphlet. I express my interest in coming to see where they are located and how they work. He mentions that they are working on moving out of their little studio and trying to find a new place, but assures me that I can come check them out as soon as they are done moving. He promises to stay in touch.

Two months later, the receptionist rings me to let me know that the guy is waiting at the front. Annoyed that he (again) hasn't called to set a meeting and decided to just show up, I grunt, go to the reception, politely say hi and invite him to my office. This time, he is very well dressed, has a briefcase in his hand and tells me about all the meetings he's had in Saint Louis. He says "we'd like for you to be on our board". I skirm uncomfortably on my chair, saying that I barely know anything about him organisation. He pulls out a sign up sheet and tells me that he also is raising funds to help mothers pay for their children's antimalarial medication. Would I be willing to contribute? Again, I feel uncomfortable and squirm on my chair. I push the paper back and tell him I'd rather sign NEXT time, when he calls me and makes an appointment with the receptionist. "Ah, that's the trouble" he answers, "the petition is ending today". I sign, give him CFA F5,000 and never see him again.


Scam 2

Three of us went to eat in a very pleasant restaurant that we know well. The bill comes up to CFA F 6,000 and we pay quickly. The waiter comes to collect our bill with a huge smile, thanks us and goes to the cash register. He comes back a little flustered and says "you're missing a 1,000". Embarrassingly, I try to figure out who's paid for what and reach for my wallet to add another bill.

Friend 1 firmly says "no, I'm sure that we paid the full amount. There was a 5,000 bill and a 1,000. Sir, you must be mistaken". He gets annoyed and insists that there was not enough money in the basket. Friend 1 "Please get Marie, your supervisor". The waiter is a little taken aback but nevertheless calls the supervisor. The supervisor talks with Friend 1 and acknowledges the fact that we come here often and are honest customers, "surely, I don't know what happened but the bill may have fallen somewhere along the way" she adds. "Yes, that's probably what happened" answers Friend 1. The distance from our table to the cash register is about 3 meters. Needless to say, we didn't leave a tip.


February 10, 2005

Watching TV, Senegalese Style

I live really close to an appliance store with large bay windows. Occasionally, I would walk up to my building and see a group of people congregated around the bay window of the store.

I finally figured something was amiss when I saw two young men, on plastic chairs, checking out the TV in the store. They had a cheaply manufactured remote control from the market and had managed to turn on the store TV from the outside. The sound was very little low (owing to the thickness of the window) but they generally seemed to have a grand old time.

Yesterday was an important soccer game in Senegal. I don't follow sports but I assume that was the case: at least 50 people were gathered around the window, crowding to get closer, with small battery operated radio close to their ear, trying to follow the game on TV and on the radio. Cafe sellers momentarily set their rolling carts to the side and even the coconut sellers left their coconut wheel barrows unattended. I managed to see a player just miss the goal by standing on my tippy-toes.

I swear, next time, I'm going to rush back home, get my dining room chair and join in the fun.

I miss television.

February 07, 2005

Tea Making 101

"Anyone who has visited Western African will associate Gunpowder Tea with mid-day breaks and after-dinner visits. Gunpowder Tea is Chinese green tea named for the way the tea leaves are rolled into small pellets, which look like old-fashioned gunpowder. [...] In and around Senegal, tea is prepared and presented in an elaborate process known by the Wolof word, attaya or ataaya."

"Do you know why we always drink three cups of tea?" Peter asked.
"And do you know why the first cup is always the sweetest?"
I slurped my tea. "No, why?"
"The first cup is the love of your mother. The second is the love of your friends. The third is the love of your love."
I laughed.
"It's true," he said. "Ask anybody."
(The Misfortune in Men's Eyes)

from http://www.congocookbook.com/c0057.html

Attaya is the way tea is served in Senegal. It’s typically served in three rounds: each being of a different flavors and strength. The art of making this tea is quite elaborate and requires an old fashioned stove with coal in the bottom and tiny vodka-shot like glasses.

Round one: Strong and bitter tea
1. Fill your little tea kettle with 2/3 of the content of a chinese tea bag.
2. Add a little bit of sugar.
3. Heat on stove until boiling.
4. Pour in small glass cups. Pour the liquid back and forth until a thick foam settles on the surface of the glass.
5. Drink the bitter, bitter mixture without making a sour kissy face.

Round two: Sweeter with mint
1. Leaving the previous contents inside, add a little bit more tea from the bag.
2. Add sugar and mint.
3. Heat on stove until boiling.
4. Pour in small glass cups. Pour the liquid back and forth until a thick foam settles on the surface of the glass.
5. Enjoy and hope that you don't develop a caffeine addiction.

Round Three: Sweetest and Mintiest
1. Leaving the previous contents inside, finish the tea bag.
2. Add generous amounts of sugar and mint.
3. Heat on stove until boiling.
4. Pour in small glass cups. Pour the liquid back and forth until a thick foam settles on the surface of the glass.
5. Relax as this last tea will go down pretty well, but will undoubtedly cause deep cavities and prevent you from sleeping for two days.

I was taught this tea making technique when I was in the Sine Saloum. Now I don't know a lot of Wolof, but during lunch, one of our guides passed the hot sauce to his friend and said "Fi, Piment Toubab, way", which means "hey man, here's white person hot sauce". I'm pretty sure they were commenting on the strength of the sauce: Hell hot, mild and white-person weak.


February 04, 2005

Hey guys, it's on me

Yesterday we went to our usual restaurant. I invited a friend of mine to experience "Senegalese cuisine" in a "Senegalese setting". There were 5 of us and we ordered 5 meals, one bottle of water and 5 teas.

When it came time to pay, I exclamed (with a false modesty) "Don't worry guys, it's on me" (for the savy readers out there, this was not an act of selflessness but rather that I needed change for my rather heavy bill). Everyone fussed and grumbled (making the obligatory no-you-really-shouldn't comment).

I paid a grand total of...brace yourselves here....US $11.

Ah, if only your morning Starbucks Mocciatto Late with skim/soy synthetic milk and equal sugar could be that cheap. Hummmm, Mocciattos.

February 03, 2005

All Things French

Seems like our French President, Jacques Chirac, is doing an extensive tour of Africa. He was in Madagascar a few weeks ago and now is touring Senegal.

When I came out of the office, people were running in the streets, kids were shrieking, little girls were carrying posters of the French president (he does not look any better on a big poster than on television) and sprinting to keep up with the long cortege of cars.

In my 6 months here, I have never seen a french flag. Now I saw dozens. It's funny because, while people talk of the injustices that they have suffered at the hands of the french (and let's not forget that I get called "Colon!" and "Racist!" when I don't buy what's being offered to me on every street), there is still this lingering nostalgia of all things french. I have often heard the old men start their conversations with "In the good old days of colonization..." with genuine fondness.


February 02, 2005

Today is Good Day

"Today is a Good Day".

My sister and brother will probably remember the phrase. It comes from one of those Sci-Fi anthologies that we use to read when we were kids (Ahem *clears throat* and when we were adults, let's admit to that too). It's about a little boy who had powers and can kill people if things don't go his way. So the poor villagers tip-toe around him, pretending everything is always fine and always say "today is Good day".

OK OK so it's freaky, but today really IS a Good day. I'm in a good mood and for some reason everything is delightful.

I went out to eat at the usual restaurant and our waitress had nice weaves in her hair and put on eyeliner and lipstick. She actually smiled at us and was quite fast with giving us change, for once.

On the way back I saw three little Senegalese girls with white frilly dresses running down the street. So incredibly cute.

It's already 3:30PM and I didn't even see the time fly.

Today is a Good day.