Heather in Senegal

Thursday, July 13, 2006

July 2 Sunday
Today I officially joined the Bantingel women’s group. To celebrate the occasion, my mother lent me a Senegalese outfit. The walk from our house to the home of the woman hosting the meeting felt like two blocks of going down a runway. People came out of their houses to see me model the clothing, and they cheered for me. The kids recently taught me Wolof words that I think basically translate to, “cool!” so I asked everyone if I looked cool. Each time I said it I won big belly laughs and the assurance that I looked cool. (I just spent a while trying to post photos with this entry, to no avail. If you know any tricks for making blogger.com cooperate, please tell me.)
This is the form of the meetings: We go to the home of the woman who won the lottery the prior Sunday. She has chairs or benches set up in a circle for us. There are about 25-35 women at each meeting. Her children make tea for us. Tea here is a highly sugared delicious hot drink, served in a tiny cup with a lot of foam. You are supposed to slurp it, leaving the foam, and quickly return the cup so the next person can be served. Women put money on a tray, and each contribution is recorded in a notebook. Women talk and joke with one another, and if there is music, I am urged to dance. (I really wish I had taken belly dancing lessons before coming here.) When the money collection is finished, a slip of paper is drawn from a handful of paper. The woman whose name is chosen will host the gathering and receive the pot next week. And until every other woman has had a turn at winning, her name will be excluded from the pot. Then the hostess’ children bring out a bucket of water for hand washing and three or four bowls of rice with red oil and a green mixture that looks like guacamole. We eat. At home I use a spoon, as does most of my family. The first time I came to the women’s meeting I was offered a spoon, but seeing it would be the only spoon at the bowl, I refused. At first I was awful at eating with my hand. I could not force the food into a ball. Rice would squeeze out between my fingers. The green substance would squish down my arm. I would get food all over my face and pants. Today women at other bowls took a special interest in the fact that I was finally successfully eating with my hand. As they supportingly laughed at the sight of their toubob, I raised my oily, red, rice speckled fist in triumph, unintentionally imitating the black power fist. After we eat, two buckets of water are brought to us for a two-step hand washing. We are then served small plastic bags of bissap juice. Everyone bites a corner of their bag to suck out the juice, then drops the bag on the ground. Immediately after the juice the meeting is over and the yard suddenly empties.
In order to join the group now, eight weeks into the current lottery session, I had to give the women a large sum of money to make up for the weeks I had missed. We were warned many times during training that people would see us as cash machines. We were told to never lend money that we were not willing to lose. We were told that even close friends would try to get money from us. But I like these women and think that they will not cheat me. And further, I think that if they tried to, my host mother would not allow it.
I have given my host money to buy me two outfits. She suggested I do this, saying that she would be able to get far better prices than could I. This is absolutely true, but I told her I wanted to pick the fabrics. She laughed, told me that from my clothing and my decorations she knows what colors I like, and proceeded to tell me precisely what I like. It is a simple thing, and it arguably would have been difficult for her not to notice my three tye-dyed door curtains and bright clothing, but still I was touched that she had observed my taste. She recently showed me the fabric she chose. It is awfully nice, but it is only enough for one outfit. It is a thin material, so it needed more fabric to go underneath. I gave her more money, and ultimately the one outfit has wound up costing me more than twice what she said I would have to pay for two. I have bought a little fabric on my own. I have no doubt she paid less than I would have paid, but I am positive that I am paying dearly for the privilege of not being cheated by a fabric vendor.


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