Heather in Senegal

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Today I saw my sister cutting small circles out of a scrap of gourd, poking holes in the circles, and stringing them onto a seashell necklace for her baby. She explained:

When a woman has more than one son, as many of these sons as possible are circumcised at the same time. In this business eldest sons are to be pitied, for their circumcisions are decidedly more painful and memorable those of their younger brothers.

After boys have recovered from their circumcisions and are able to walk and dance again without pain, their families through parties. When two or more boys from the same mother are circumcised, a gourd bowl the size of two human heads is brought to the party. During the festivities those brothers will grab corners of the bowl and pull until the bowl breaks. Women in attendance instantly dive to the ground to try to grab pieces to wear for good luck.


After discussing male circumcision, we got onto female circumcisions. It is now illegal to perform circumcisions on girls in Senegal. A very old woman who lives across the road was imprisoned a few months ago. She was the neighborhood circumciser for many many years, and despite the law there remain many parents, including some women whom she had circumcised when they were young, who want to have their daughters circumcised. Someone informed the police that she was still cutting little girls, and the old woman was arrested. Many members of the community went to the jail and begged for her release. She was freed, and she died not long afterwards. My sister, who was circumcised by this woman, blames her death on her time in jail and the theft of her role and status in our society. There is now no one in our neighborhood qualified to perform female circumcision, but my family knows a woman in the next quartier.

There are a variety of cuts that can be called circumcisions. My sister told me that when she was about eight years old she was cut and the blood dripped down to cause her vagina to mostly close. I'm not clear on preciscely where she was cut, but another volunteer told me that circumcision around here often involves sewing the vagina shut, leaving just enough space for menstral blood to exit. Shortly before her marriage my sister went back to the old woman who had circumcised her, and this woman cut her open. She told me that the first few times she had sex it was very painful, but sex has since become "a little" pleasurable.

She told me they perform circumcisions for a variety of reasons. It dates back in local tradition to long before Islam was introduced. She said people here debate about whether Islam says circumcision is necessary. Circumcisions, especially of her kind, ensure purity until marriage, and she said that sometimes families will flaunt a bloody sheet after a wedding night. She told me that non-circumcised vaginas can smell bad. Although city girls are likely to be allowed to choose a spouse, village girls are often given arranged marriages. It is easier for the parents to make a good match if the girl is circumcised. Also, I suspect there is the argument some American men have for circumcising their sons, of simply wanting their offspring to look like them.

There used to be classes on womanhood and a celebration to go along with being circumcised, so that it was a formal and joyful introduction to the community, but since it has become illegal, girls are being circumcised in secret as babies. Despite the pain of the procedure, the premarital cutting, sex, and childbirth, my sister is considering having her daughter circumcised. She only hinted at this. I think she was a bit concerned that I will report her to the police.

People like to tell me what they think of my Pulaar. Sometimes they are blunt about it not being great, other times they are very encouraging about the progress I've made. My most emphatic support for my Pulaar comes not when I use new vocabulary or have an in depth conversation, but when I make people laugh.

I was walking in the market a few months ago and heard a man hissing at me. Men often hiss to get attention. (I heard about a Peace Corps volunteer being thrown out of a restaurant in Europe for absorbing this habit and thoughtlessly using it to get a waitress's attention.) I did not turn my head to look at the man. The woman walking beside, whom I'd never met, told me that the man wanted my attention. I told her that were he a friend of mine he would call my name, and that his hissing showed he was just a flirt. She said, "You speak the truth," and we parted ways. A woman who had overheard this said to me with delight, "You can really speak Pulaar!"

When a roofer came to my house to talk about prices we had a long while to sit and chat before negotiations began. We talked about a variety of things, and he seemed impressed but not stunned by my Pulaar. As it always does, the conversation arrived at whether I will take him to America, and if I will not take him, what kind of gift I will give him. He told me I should give him a car. I said fine, but that he must give me a gift too. He asked what I wanted, and I said, "An airplane." He burst out laughing and told me I really speak Pulaar. He repeated this exchange to my host mom, and I have heard her repeating it twice.

When I interact random people on the street or talk to vendors, if one of the people is a man I will receive a marriage proposal. If I decline the invitation, saying the man is ugly, stupid, smelly, too wimpy to satisfy me in bed, or something else insulting, I win big laughs and will usually hear someone say approvingly, "she can really speak Pulaar!"

Last night my host sister said she thinks I don' t like wearing Senegalese outfits. She's right. The tops are too baggy and hot, and the wrap around skirts require too much thought. There are specific rules on how to tie them, including that they must always open to the left, and I am no good at tying them securely in such a way that neither limits my stride nor flashes views of my upper thigh. My sister said she could not understand why I don't like the outfits, arguing that she has seen other white people choosing to wear Senegalese garments. I have heard this before in terms of having my hair braided, piercing my ears, having multiple boyfriends, eating meat, drinking local water, and everything else I do not like to do that someone has at some point seen another volunteer or American do. I asked Khadja, the girl sitting next to my sister whether she likes cucumbers. She does. My sister does not, so I proceeded to tell my sister that it made no sense for her to not like cucumbers in light of the fact that other Senegalese people enjoy them. She laughed told me that because I can speak Pulaar so well now I am welcome to wear whatever I like.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A good friend of mine in the US has breast cancer. She found the lump herself, and because of early detection the cancer will be much more easily and affectively treated than if it had been found later. Do self breast exams!

I wanted to do something to help, so I went to Jimmy Hendrix, my bamboo furniture maker. He once shut his shop and took me into the bush to find cow patties for my garden, and he has been a wealth of information on where to find things within town. I asked Jimmy if he knew where I might have lekki made. Lekki, also known as gris-gris, means medicine, but in this case is more like a good luck charm. All babies wear lekki around their waists, and many adults wear it tied tight on their upper arms. It is usually either a black rope or a rope of coiled leather with a triangle of leather hanging off, inside of which is a page with a blessing written on it.

Jimmy shut his shop and took me walking a few blocks to Bodgy's house. Bodgy is a wrinkled, hunched old man with a rough voice. He received us in his bedroom which is strewn with candles, plates of puddles of wax from old candles, piles of paper with Arabic writings, scraps of leather, and a few bunches of mint leaves. Jimmy told Bodgy what I wanted. Bodgy looked at me, confused, and said, "But they have really good medicine in the US." I was afraid he would be offended when I told him I wanted it to be more of a souvenir, or perhaps as a suppliment to her other medicines. But he seemed pleased that I wanted to send to the US a piece of what I'm seeing in Senegal.

Bodgy asked a lot about my friend's symptoms, and then, after a moment's consideration, told me that tomorrow, Thursday, would be a good day to write the lekki. As Jimmy and I were getting up to leave, Bodgy told us that because Jimmy (known to locals as Usmaan) said that I am a very good friend of his, he would not demand the "toubob price," but would instead let me name my price. I will always be a toubob, but in little ways I am treated like a local, non-tourist, toubob.

I returned the next day by myself and had to wait outside for about twenty minutes while Bodgy finished lekki for a young man. When it was my turn Bodgy and I sat on his floor and a child brought us tea. After we finished drinking and the child had returned for the cups, Bodgy took out a fresh sheet of paper and very slowly wrote about five lines of Arabic. Below this he made a grid with nine squares in it, and he filled this with Arabic writing and some marks that looked like musical notation. Before filling in the middle square he asked for my friend's name. Once the writing was completed, Bodgy carefully rubbed the page over and under a few other sheets that were covered in Arabic. Next, he folded the page into a series of triangles until it was a small, tight triangle that could not be bent any further. He blew on it or whispered to it and then, very tenderly, passed it to me.

After lekki is written, it must be wrapped in leather. (I never expected to be seeking out a leatherworker, just as I never pictured myself harvesting cow bones.) I have seen leather workers in town. They have very casual set-ups, often nothing more than a bench surrounded by bits of leatherr. I was walking into town to find one of these men when I caught up with Mya, a woman from my neighborhood. She was also going to have lekki wrapped, so she brought me to her guy. He works out of the front of a half built brick house. I guess the owners ran out of money before completing it. I sat with his other clients on an old wooden board that is balanced across a few large rocks, hidden from the street and the sun by a patchwork curtain nailed into the bricks. The setup looks so rough that in passing I had assumed a homeless person's sleeping place.

I watched the leatherworker finish a waist band with lekki on it, and then I gave him my triangle, which he handled as if it was a precious ruby. He stretched and wound leather around the paper, attached it to a black rope, and created a clasp. His motions were slow and careful, and he unwound and rewrapped long sections of leather before he was satisfied. I wore the lekki out of his shop and for the rest of the day, and a lot of people on the street gave me nods or even shouts of approval for my distinctly African armband.