Senegal’s Sahel Climate

For those of us in the northern half of Senegal, we are in a geographic area called the “Sahel.”

The Sahel is a zone “of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Sudanian Savannas in the south, having a semi-arid climate. It stretches across the north of the African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل) literally means “shore, coast” as describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel as a coastline which delimits the sand of the Sahara. ‘ (Thank you Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahel)

The Sahel region: a belt up to 1,000 km (620 miles) wide that spans Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Sahel region: a belt up to 1,000 km (620 miles) wide that spans Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I hadn’t really given much thought to what the weather or terrain would be like here in Senegal before arriving, I just knew it was going to be HOT. Upon arrival last June, the hot season was well underway. It was characterized by, you guessed it, being really hot all the time. So hot, it was hard to sleep at night and only cold showers provided momentary relief. Also, I was immediately struck by the amount of sand; I had never been to a country made of sand. At first, I wore flip-flops all the time, but I quickly converted to shoes that cover your foot because the sand here is treacherous – scraps of trash, animal droppings,  bits of plastic and shards of glass are all apart of the mix. (I would hate to step on something, cut my foot and then have to deal with a gross infection which would inevitably take weeks to heal and cause months of limping.) I am always amazed to see men jogging and playing soccer in vacant sandy lots – plodding through the sand is tough work, I couldn’t imagine playing soccer in a sandbox! Granted, people generally only know life surrounded by sand, but for me, this tricky terrain serves as another example of how  lucky we are to have lush green fields and hard ground.

Ladies sitting in my backyard - a sand pit

Ladies sitting in my backyard – a sand pit

The view looking out from the front of my house. Sand. Sand. Sand!

The view looking out from the front of my house. Sand. Sand. Sand!

Generally, this is the calendar of seasons in Senegal (for someone in the Thies Region – people down south have much hotter temps and much more rain that I do):

April – September: Hot season – really hot and no rain

September – October: Rainy season – infrequent but glorious thunderstorms deluge the ground and bring temporary relief from the heat

November – February: Cold Season – no rain, but temperatures drop dramatically once the sun goes down. It still gets pretty warm at the height of the day, but there is much relief in the mornings and evenings.

March – This year March was a bit of a toss up. Generally, I think March is considered the transition between the cold season and the hot season, but this year we are still enjoying cool evenings and mornings and it is practically mid-April. I think this is the exception and not the norm, but I’m relishing every cool evening we continue to experience.

So, on that note, I will close by saying I have been loving the cool evenings lately – I am not looking forward to returning to the days where in order to sleep you have your electric fan on right in front of your face under your mosquito net with you. I have also enjoyed the dramatically cooler the temperatures are for those living in a coastal town or city (from my experiences in Dakar, St. Louis and in the Petite Cote region). The breeze from the Atlantic Ocean does an incredible job of  mitigating the heat.

Sorry for no post yesterday – had technically difficulties – and a photo of Marem bu ndaw will come soon!

Happy Friday and have a great weekend!

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Marem bu ndaw (“little Marem”)

You may remember that I blogged last October about my baby host-sister, her ngente and the traditions surrounding the name reveal. I was going to blog about her because she is 6 months today, but my host-mom went to a village for a religious meeting (and took baby Marem) with her before I could get a photo (and they aren’t home yet) – so I promise to make good on a photo tomorrow. It is great to see little Marem bu ndaw thriving and hitting milestones – she is starting to crawl and has two cute little front lower teeth. She is starting to recognize her name and even me! Whenever I enter the scene, she seems to recognize me and makes a big grin. It melts my heart!

Happy 6 months birthday Marem!! 🙂

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Privacy

Another cultural difference I’ve encountered is the attitude towards privacy and having personal time. At home, when one spends time in their room, they might be working on the computer, reading books, talking to friends, getting organized or just having some quiet time. Here, when I spend time in my room, people think I am sleeping!

Senegalese people generally always congregate and hang out together. Women complete household chores together, men sit and talk while making tea; people always seem to be doing thing with a friend or in groups.  It is also completely normal for several people to share a bed; for example, one bed could have 5 people from 3 different generations all sleeping together. The only exception to this constant group scenario is when people are sick or sad, then they retreat and are by themselves until they feel well enough to rejoin the group.

When at site, I find I spend a lot of time in my room, but there are reasons for this. I spend time in my room to get a break from the constant Wolof chatter, flies, heat, and to actually get some work done. Even though I continue to try to spend time reading or writing outside, I always end up getting approached by a group of inquisitive children, teenagers or random adults and usually I get frustrated because there comes a point when I don’t understand the questions they are asking me and I don’t have the language skill to appropriately explain myself. So, often I retreat to my room because I am left alone when I am in there and I can actually be productive or chill out without incident.

I think my host family found it really weird at first how much time I spend by myself, but now they are used to it. If I’m not spending the day at my supervisor’s office or in the basket-making village, I usually spend time with my host-family around lunch time and for a few hours in the evening before retreating for the night at 9 pm. It is intense living with a large, dynamic family who I am still getting to know and there is still a communication gap. Even though I’ve been living with the family for sometime, I still receive a lot of attention, and it can be mentally and physically exhausting always being “on”.

Being a PCV is a 24 hour job – you always keep in mind that you are representing western culture when in your host-community and it is important to perpetuate a positive image. But knowing your limits is important, you don’t want to snap at someone because of your lack of patience, so I will continue to demonstrate the American’s need for space and privacy!

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Waxale’ing vs. Prix Fixe

Waxale (“wah – hah – lay”) is the Wolof word for bargaining or negotiating. In Senegal, there is a combination of bargaining and fixed prices in the market depending on what you are purchasing or the type of environment you are in. Coming from the land of mega-stores and supermarkets, I was a feeble negotiator at the beginning of my sojourn in Senegal. However, with months of practice and memorizing the correct price for certain items, I am slowly mastering the art of bargaining. Here are a few of the things I have learned in the last several months:

If you are in an open-air marketplace or find yourself in a conglomeration of stands along the side of the road, you are in ‘waxale’ territory. It will serve you well to exercise your best bargaining skills and to have a general idea of the market price (or the amount you are willing to spend) to help you reach a good deal with the seller. However, if you are unprepared and take the first price asked for, you will be taken advantage of. Often, the rule of thumb is to only pay half of the starting price. Lastly, don’t be afraid to walk away. Usually, if you put down the item and start to walk away, you will hear, “Ki, jend” or “Indi xaalis bi” (“Come, buy” or “Bring the money”) – the seller has accepted your offer.

Bargaining is not limited to market places. The other time I bargain the most is when taking public transportation: buses, taxis, sept-plases or alhams. Generally, there is a set price, but when I approach the vehicle, the apprenti (the young man who is in charge of managing passengers and collecting the fare) only sees one thing, my white skin, and often doubles the price. Once I respond to him in Wolof and demonstrate I know the real price, or just stand there with my arms crossed and refuse to get on the bus, he’ll accept that I know the true fare and tell me to “yeagal” or “get on”.

The one time when you don’t bargain is in “western” stores or corner boutiques where there are long-established prices for various cooking ingredients, household products, or clothes-making accoutrements.

While my mom was here in March, she fell in love with the beautiful necklaces she saw at the various markets we visited. However, such a purchase calls for cut-throat negotiating skills. At the beginning of the week, I would take a step back flabbergasted when the seller would announce a starting price – I knew it was easily three or four times the real price. I bargained pretty hard for my mom, but was so impressed with her because by the end of the week she was becoming a better bargainer than me after just one week of practice!

To close on a cultural note, waxhale’ing can be considered fun and part of a joking/challenging exchange between two people. While I find it rather stressful and annoying (there are some things that I will always prefer as a “toubab”), some people here enjoy it and take great satisfaction from negotiating a good deal. When you make your next visit to the market, don’t forget to bring your powers of persuasion and even if the discussion is a bit heated, once money has exchanged hands, a good laugh and thank you will close out the economic exchange on a pleasant note – it is all apart of the fun!

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Sunday Lunch

In Senegal, meals are another interesting aspect of the culture and one of the first cultural traditions that visitors encounter. In this post, I will talk about the most important meal of the day: lunch. People also eat breakfast and dinner, but they are generally smaller meals (breakfast = cafe touba (local coffee) and buttered french bread; dinner = reheated leftovers or an easily prepared dish) and do not take as much effort to cook. Lunch is considered to be the most important meal of the day because it is the time where families come together to eat (though people generally do not talk while eating).

Preparing the meal starts in early in the morning, between 7 and 8 am, when the cook that day (be it mother, daughter, aunt, wife #1/#2/#3 or a maid – but have no fear male readers, as a man you would never be expected to cook or to help) makes her way to the food market with an empty bucket to buy the ingredients. To make “ceeb u jen” (which literally translates to “rice of fish”), the national plate of Senegal, you need roughly 1500 mille CFA or 3 USD. If you splash out on the meatier fish (fish with fewer bones), you could spend the equivalent of another dollar or two. Ceebu Jen usually consists of a base of rice, then some local vegetables (carrot, cabbage, eggplant, bitter tomato, etc) and a couple of fish in the middle. The deep-fried crunchy rice (the brown rice in the picture below) is called “hon”. Some people love the crunchy rice, but I can’t get passed the fact that it is super fried carbs. After working all morning on cleaning, chopping, preparing, and making sauces over a wood-burning pot, you get something that generally looks likes this:

Ceeb u Jen ak ceeb u weex (Rice and Fish, with white rice)

Ceeb u Jen ak ceeb u weex                                            (Rice and Fish, with white rice)

Traditionally, Senegalese people eat sitting on the ground or on little stools around a large round bowl or shallow dish. Smaller children may find a spot crouching between the legs of sitting on the lap of an adult. In my current homestay, we have generally 10 people sitting around the bowl, but in my homestay last summer, there were as many as 15 people (adults and children) at the bowl – it was definitely overwhelming! (Side note: One time a Senegalese person asked me if I knew why Senegalese eat around a bowl. I replied that I had no idea. He said it is because God teaches us that we all equal, so no one is at the “head” of the table here. I take this anecdote with a pinch of salt, but I thought it was an interesting explanation.)

A random picture I found on the internet, but it gives you an idea of what the set-up is.

This is a random picture I found on the internet, but it gives you an idea of what a typical seating arrangements looks like (with 11 adults around this  bowl).

With regard to “bowl etiquette”, you can either eat with your hand or a spoon. It is not acceptable to take food from anywhere in the bowl except for what is directly in front of you or in the center. If you are entertaining a guest, it is your job to toss them portions of the fish or vegetables to their spot at the bowl. I love when my host-mom gives me the carrot (because no one else likes it) or a nice meaty piece of fish. When you are full, you get up and walk away from the bowl. Drinking water is a separate activity, which takes place once you’ve finished eating. Sometimes, meal bowls are segregated by gender, but this depends on the family or social/professional setting. Pecking order is also reflected in the disbursement of spoons – nicer spoons go to guests or men, then old spoons go to normal people at the bowl and little kids are expected to use their hands. In my community, people know it is important to wash your hands before and after eating, but it is hard to get them to wash their hands with soap before; my family usually usually plain water to rinse their hand before eating and only uses soap after eating.

If you ever get the chance to visit Senegal, I highly suggest you ask a local contact or hotel concierge to recommend a Senegalese restaurant. My favorite dish (and generally everyone’s favorite dish hands-down) is Yassa Poulet. Yassa is the name for a delicious onion sauce and “poulet” is the french word for chicken (or “ginaard” in Wolof). Yassa poulet is usually presented on a bed of white rice, with heaps of onion sauce and if you are lucky, a hearty portion of chicken in the middle and a couple wedges of lime or lemon.

My fav - Yassa Ginaard

My fav – Yassa Ginaard

I’m not sure I’ll miss Ceebu Jen that much when my service is over, but I’ll definitely miss a good Yassa Poulet and maybe even attempt to recreate it post-Peace Corps. Today, we had Yassa Jen – onion sauce with fish on a bed of yellow rice. Delicious (though, really heavy on the oil).

In case I whetted your appetite to try delicious Yassa Poulet, here is a link to a good recipe: http://toubabrecipes.wordpress.com/2007/06/22/poulet-yassa-the-tutorial/

Happy Sunday and enjoy your Sunday Lunch!

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Sub-Saharan Toilet Etiquette

Yes, that’s right. We’re going to discuss potty training, for grown ups. We all had to go over it Day 1 of Pre-Service Training and I would hate for you to feel left out!

Back in 2006, I had my first encounter with a Turkish toilet when feverishly searching for relief after a long flight from Dubai to Nairobi. I walked into the first stall in the women’s bathroom in the Nairobi airport and encountered something like this:

Photo credit to Alexx G - this was her potty at her site in Palmerin, Fatick, Senegal.

Photo credit to Alexx G – this was her potty at her site in Palmerin, Fatick, Senegal

Clearly unprepared, I moved to the next stall and luckily there in was a western toilet I was accustomed to, but I digress. Did you ask yourself, where is the toilet paper and how do you use this? I did too on that first day nearly ten months ago. In the above photo, the green bucket is filled with water. You use the smaller white container to scoop up some water which you hold with your right hand. With your left hand, you wash yourself. Lastly, you “flush” by pouring several liters of water down the opening in order to ensure that the bathroom is pleasant for the next person who uses it and to mitigate lingering odors.  Although very environmentally friendly and financially economical, this new routine does take a bit of getting used to.

Cultural point #1: In Senegal, you ALWAYS use your right hand to shake hands, to eat, to hand over money, to hand someone something, or to take something from someone. The left hand is considered dirty and inappropriate to use when interacting with others. And now you know why!

Now, please take note of the young man squatting in the photo below. This is the appropriate position to adopt when doing your business. While it make take some practice to find your balance in this position, the Senegalese have mastered this art. It is incredible to see them sit like this (outside the bathroom, obviously – they might crouch like this when sitting in the shade or around the communal meal bowl). The entire hamstrings touches the calf muscle when squatting and they can hold this position for long periods of time while Westerners may find it a bit more uncomfortable.

Day 1 lesson in how to use a Turkish Toilet (also known as a "long-drop")

PST Day 1 lesson in how to use a Turkish Toilet           (also known as a “long-drop”)

Last, but not least, PCVs generally develop incredible bucket bath techniques while living in countries where water shortages and outages are regular and unpredictable. For more on bucket bathing, please check out this useful WikiHow page: http://www.wikihow.com/Take-a-Bucket-Bath.

the bucket bath!

the bucket bath!

Cultural Note #2: People typically bath three times a day here – in the morning, after lunch and in the evening before dinner or once the sun has set. People here are very aware of being clean and love to smell good. Perfumes and colognes are used in abundance and as deodorants!

Cultural Note #3: People do not excuse themselves or draw attention to the fact when they are going to the toilet. Usually, they just walk away and say they’ll be right back. If you are new to a building or house, it is fine to ask where the toilet is, but it is not typical to speak any more about those matters.

So remember, always keep that spare bucket next in the toilet/shower filled with water because it will definitely come in handy and always go for the “right” hand!

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5 –> The Number of Calls to Prayer a Day

Imagine. You are sleeping soundly (dreaming about iced coffee in a giant 32 oz. glass relaxing poolside – for those of us in Senegal) in a cozy bed under a light sheet and the protection of a mosquito net. It is dark outside, but slowly the first signs of daylight are beginning to creep from the shadows. Next thing you know, you are suddenly rocked from your gentle slumber by this: http://www.islamcan.com/audio/adhan/azan1.mp3

And the speaker is literally right outside your window.

This is the first of the five daily calls to prayer Muslims answer and another aspect of life in Senegal which all visitors and ex-pats must grow accustomed to. The times of the prayers usually fall in this order (and you can always check your daily newspaper, L’Observateur, in case you are ever unsure):

Suba 06h25

Tisbar 14h15

Takkusaan 17h00

Timis 19h26

Guewe 20h26

Fortunately, I do not live too close to the speaker on the tower of a mosque so I have had to learn to sleep with earplugs for other reasons, but some of my fellow PCVs aren’t quite as lucky.

When a man or woman prepares to pray, first they wash their face, hands, feet, neck and rinse their mouth with water to “purify” themselves. Then, a woman will cover her head with a scarf. Next, the person will find a prayer mat and face a certain direction (I forget if it is Mecca or something else unique to the Muslims in Senegal) and then begin a series of standing, bending over, and bowing positions (think Child’s pose) touching the forehead to the ground with quiet murmuring under their breath for about 5 or 10 minutes. After this 10/15 minute episode, conversations and activities start up right where they left off.

During our pre-service training, we learned that you NEVER speak or try to approach someone when they are praying. It is also inappropriate to make loud noises by or walk in front of someone praying. However, usually the person praying will put something in front of them, like a chair, bucket, kettle (or pray in front of a wall) to act as a barrier so as to not impose on someone’s walking path. Often, on road trips you stop for a “prayer break” instead of a bathroom break or petrol top up. Furthermore, meeting times are commonly planned around a certain prayer time and if a meeting happens to happen during a prayer time, a break will certainly occur around that time to accommodate those who wish to pray.

So, there is your daily dose of Senegal! Happy Friday and Bon Weekend a tous!

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Happy birthday, Senegal!!

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Credit: Google.sn

Today, April 4th, is Senegal’s independence day! Senegal achieved independence in 1960 from France. I want to recognize this achievement because Senegal has been hands-down the most solid democracy in Western Africa in recent history. In light of the civil unrest in neighboring countries, I believe Senegal deserves huge kudos for their commitment to democracy, peace, and working towards the creation of a united and prosperous Africa. Here is a link to Secretary of State Kerry’s remarks in honor of the occasion: http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/04/207045.htm.

To reveal some more characteristics of the birthday girl?!boy?!, I will share with you some fast facts about the exotique nation I am living in right now.

To begin with, here is the Senegalese Flag. Image

“Three equal vertical bands of green (hoist side), yellow, and red with a small green five-pointed star centered in the yellow band; green represents Islam, progress, and hope; yellow signifies natural wealth and progress; red symbolizes sacrifice and determination; the star denotes unity and hope. Note: uses the popular Pan-African colors of Ethiopia; the colors from left to right are the same as those of neighboring Mali and the reverse of those on the flag of neighboring Guinea” (Thank you CIA Factbook page on Senegal).

The two symbols of Senegal are the breathtaking Baobab tree and the lion (the national Soccer team is known as The Lions).

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

  • Capital: Dakar (population roughly 2.77 million)
  • Overall Population: 13,300,410 (July 2013 est.)
  • Ethnicities: Wolof 43.3%, Pular 23.8%, Serer 14.7%, Jola 3.7%, Mandinka 3%, Soninke 1.1%, European and Lebanese 1%, other 9.4%
  • Languages: French (official), Wolof, Pulaar, Jola, Mandinka
  • Religions: Muslim 94%, Christian 5% (mostly Roman Catholic), indigenous beliefs 1%
  • Size: 196,722 sq km or slightly smaller than the state of South Dakota
  • Life Expectancy at birth Senegal: 60 years
  • Life Expectancy at birth USA: 78.5 years
  • Infant Mortality rate Senegal: 55.16 deaths/1,000 live births
  • Infant Mortality rate USA: 6 deaths/1,000 live births
  • Maternal Mortality rate Senegal: 370 deaths/100,000 live births (2010)
  • Maternal Mortality rate USA: 21 deaths/100,000 live births (2010)
  • Fertility rate Senegal: 4.61 children born/woman (2013 est.)
  • Fertility Rate USA: 2.06 children born/woman (2013 est.)
  • Prevalence of AIDS/HIV in Adults in Senegal: 0.9% (2009 est.)
  • PRevalence of AIDS/HIv in Adults in USA: 0.6% (2009 est.)
  • Literacy (definition: age 15 and over can read and write) Senegal: 39.3% (male: 51.1%; female: 29.2% (2002 est.))
  • Literacy (definition: age 15 and over can read and write) USA: 99% (male: 99%; female: 99% (2003 est.))
  • School Expectancy Senegal:
    8 years (
    male: 8 years;
    female: 7 years (2008))
  • School Expectancy USA: 16 years (male: 15 years; female: 17 years (2008))
  • Adult Unemployment rate Senegal: 48% (2007 est.)
  • Adult Unemployment rate USA: 8.2% (2012 est.)
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Examples of pretty fabrics you can find in the market place. Many women have clothes made from these materials.
(c) Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

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Statue representing Emancipation on Ile de Goree (they’re standing on a “Tam Tam” or traditional Senegalese drum)
    Photo Credit: Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

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Traditional Warrior (c) Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

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Art Gallery on Ile de Goree
(c) Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

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Chillin’
 (c) Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

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Salt Flats, Palmerin/Fatick Region
(c) Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

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Countryside
(c) Rebecca Merwin (March 2013)

In future posts, I will talk more about food, pastimes, music and other cultural traditions that make Senegal a unique and interesting country.

Thank you to the CIA World Factbook, Google.sn and Wikipedia websites as well as my mom, Rebecca Merwin, for the information and photos.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SENEGAL!! Here’s to many, many more to come.

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Dress Code

While in St. Louis last week, I noticed a couple of teenage girls, clearly visitors from Europe or the US, who were walking around wearing very short denim shorts. Usually, this wouldn’t cause me to bat an eyelash, but this scene made me cringe. In Senegal, women do not show their legs. If seeing these girls revealing quite a bit (even the beginning of a posterior!?) seemed gauche to me, I could only imagine that the Senegalese bystanders were blinded!

I have learned that the conservative dress code adopted by women here is another example of the extension of religious beliefs into daily life and practiced out of respect for their husbands (you’re hubby doesn’t want you to show off the goods!). Women here wear long skirts, opaque leggings or other pants to keep covered up. And this practice begins at an early age; I have seen little girls, from toddlers to teenagers, dressed in full-length garb. I myself have chosen to oblige this cultural practice and generally wear full length pants or maxi dresses. Under the unyielding sun in the hot season, wearing long coverings seems horrible (and it is), but it is just the way things are done here.

Counterintuitive to western thought, you would assume breast exposure is also discouraged, but in fact, boobs are out and about all over the place! The chest of a young woman who is unmarried and without children is considered sexual, but once that first baby arrives, the sexuality evaporates and the breast becomes no more than the vessel which transports free food to your baby.

So, the next time you find yourself in Senegal, please do remember to pack those cute maxi dresses or sexy skinny jeans, but if the lady next to you in your taxi whips out her (or if her toddlers even gets it out himself!) boob, don’t feel awkward, it is just a mammary gland! 🙂

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I have 3. 3 kids? No, 3 wives!

Before arriving in country, I knew there would be many cultural differences to adapt to, but I hadn’t really thought much about the varying degrees of how religious beliefs impact one’s lifestyle. In the case of Senegal, I’ve observed how Islam permeates almost all facets of life. Upon reflection, I think that coming from a country where there is a lot of religious diversity and tolerance, as well as a government which separates church and state, I thought religion wouldn’t be something thrust in my face every day. Oh, how wrong I was!

First of all, one of the first things you learn/hear in Senegal is the greeting you say whenever you meet someone: “Asaalaam Malaykhum”, Arabic for “Peace be with you”, which is returned with “Malaykhum salaam”, Arabic for “And Peace be unto you”. This is not Wolof. It is a greeting adopted from the Koran.

The second thing I have been confronted with time and again when meeting someone for the first time is the follow up question “Do you have a husband?” One of the most annoying questions I get here on an almost daily basis. If you say, “No, not yet”, you have set yourself up for a cross examination. You will be asked “Why are you waiting?”, “I want to marry you, be my wife”, “I will give you my son”, “Do you want a Senegalese husband or a toubab husband?”  And it goes on. It is incredibly annoying. However, it again reflects the importance of family and procreation in Muslim/Senegalese culture that you must get married (to someone of the opposite sex) and if you aren’t married by the time you are 22, there is something wrong with you! And of course, once you get married, you need to start pumping out the children. SO, when I’ve introduced myself as a 27 year old woman without a husband or children, a lot of time people are taken aback and have a hard time wrapping their heads around that idea. Senegalese girls/women especially have a hard time relating to my circumstances. For instance, after meeting my English Club for the first time, I was saying goodbye and one of the teenage female students gave me her blessing “May God bring you a husband soon”……because obviously I am hoping for nothing else.

Another facet of Islam which is different to what I’m accustomed to is the practice of polygamy. Polygamy is legally practiced in this country; a man may legally have as many as four wives at one time. At first, this is hard to get used to because you constantly think, “How can a woman possibly share her husband with another woman? Or another two or three women?! Incredible.” The women always tease me that I’m jealous because I tell them I don’t want a Senegalese husband because I want my husband to only have one wife. They are totally used to it and there are even varying perks to being the first/second/third/fourth wife. Sometimes, I try to launch into the question of fairness – if a man can have many wives, why can’t a woman have many husbands? It is hard for me to argue my point because of my lack of Wolof and the idea is just so foreign to them. Polygamy is a complicated topic with lots of points to consider, but I’d like to mention my host-family. My “host-dad” has 6 wives. Yes. That’s right. 6 wives. My “host-mom” is wife number six. How is this possible you might ask? Well, the last two wives are not legally recognized. Because my “host-dad” is a marabout religious leader who has special powers to read the sand and tell you your future (I wish this as an April Fools’ joke), I guess he gets to take as many wives as he can handle. Again, I could write a novella on the topic, but this is a blog, so I’ll save more details for another time. I mention this simply to share with you what my experience and daily existence is like here. Most days, the “patriarch” is absent from the home, but when he is around, he’s treated like a king.

Before I sign off, I will mention I had a really interesting conversation with one of the medical doctors that works for the Peace Corps in our Dakar headquarters. He is a lovely man, originally from Morocco, and he speaks Arabic, English and French. He is also Muslim. One time, I sheepishly asked him, “How many wives do you have?” and his response was,”One”. I was surprised. Being a successful physician and from what I had observed in Senegal, I was certain he would have had a least a couple of wives. He went on to explain there are many ways to interpret the Koran. Where he comes from, they do not believe in polygamy. He said that the Koran says “you can have as many as four wives as long as you can love them all equally”. He takes to heart the later clause in the previous quote. He doesn’t believe you can love four wives equally. He also said there are two holy grails in Islam – no pork and no gambling. Everything else is up for discussion. I found this conversation enlightening and again I kicked myself for thinking there was only version of Islam.

Peace Corps has been an incredible cultural immersion experience and has certainly lived up to expectation. How much I have learned and have yet to learn during this Peace Corps experience!

*DISCLAIMER – there are A LOT of worldly, educated and amazing Senegalese people out there who have either adopted or greatly respect “western” views. I live in a town that has a more “villageoise” or traditional/conservative perspective and I have blogged about my interactions with this set of people.  I think the various cultural traditions and perspectives is no different to any other country (ie, the US) where there are different opinions and lifestyles practiced by people with different levels of education, from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and different life experiences.

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