Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I finally danced with the Baye Falls! They are a religious sect, and they are hated because publically they do nothing but hastle people for money, wail songs, bang drums, and smoke pot. In Kolda the visible members are all males in their early twenties. People here claim to hate them, and when I first hung out with the Baye Falls months ago my family heard about it before I got home, and everyone took turns yelling at me, promising the guys would slit my throat, rob me, rape me, kill me, and sell me into slavery.
The Baye Falls come to Kolda from Dakar. When they are in Kolda they camp at a house just across the path from my compound. It used to drive me crazy. I would hear them drumming and singing late into the night, and I would imagine how much fun it would be to join them. Up until recently I was too afraid of public opinion to cross into their yard. Finally last week, summoned out by the firey drumming, I walked close enough to see through the huts to the Baye Falls. Instead of finding men engaged in colorful debauchery as promised by my family, I saw little girls dancng. While I was craning to see the girls, a friend of mine walked past. Seeing me, she told me she was heading to the Baye Falls. I ran back to lock my hut, and we walked to the music together. I was shocked to realize I knew most of the people there. I am discovering how anti-social my family is.
The older women and young girls were all dressed up in brightly colored fancy fabrics and loose scarves that flowed around them. The younger ones were dancing. Simple motions - spinning slowly, snapping fingers in the air. The older women were lounging on a plastic mat where they were playing with one another's hair and drinking coffee brought to them by the Baye Falls. They looked so pretty and leisurely that they made me think of genies lazing about in their lamps or fairies relaxing in their garden.
Girls who recognized me instantly pulled me into the dancing and showed me how to move my arms in their snapping dance. I squated to dance with Halimatou, a four year old girl who I think has Downs Syndrome. We twirled together and chased each other, taking turns pretending to be a monster, and the women on the mat rolled with laughter. The Baye Fall men stood nearby in a circle beside the two drummers. The men were bursting with energy. They swayed and hopped in place while chanting, singing, and even screaming their song about Allah.
When the girls saw that I kept looking at the men they pushed me towards them. I was afraid of how a female, let alone a white one, would be received, so I pulled Mama, one of the little girls, along with me. The men reacted to our entry only by making a bit of space for us in their circle. I didn't recognize the words of the song, so I belted out words of gibberish instead. Sometimes we sang all together, sometimes in call and response. We all sang or hollered with our heads thrown back and our eyes on the sky. At one point Halimatou's mother found Halimatou wandering between the Baye Fall's legs, and she brought her to me and told her to stay by me. I was honored to be chosen as a trusted person from all these people who Halimatou's mother has known much of her life.
Kumba, a six year old girl who has screamed and cried at the sight of me ever since I came here, finally overcame her fears. She began by dancing near me, and soon was holding my hand. When I left the men to sit with the women she sat on me and got her kicks running her fingers over my arms and legs, fascinated by my whiteness. The women on the mat teased me about becoming a Baye Fall, but it was with a kindness and affection. Dancing and singing out was invigorating, and sitting with the women, chatting in Pulaar, feeling embraced by their smiles and quite literally by many of their children, was heart warming.
The second time I danced with the Baye Falls many more people were there. Instead of ten men, there were about twenty, and the singing and dancing was even more energetic than the first time. One Baye Fall was in a wheel chair, and he bounced and rocked the chair so vigourously as he sang that I thought he'd knock it over. Like the first time, I danced with the women and then brought a few girls over to dance and sing with the men. This time we marched in a small circle around the drummers. A moment after I started marching, one of the men said something to the young girl nearest me, and she ran off, returning a moment later with a sheer silky scarf. She tied it over my head; all the females in attendance had thier heads similarly covered.
A few of the men were drunk. One tried to embrace me, and for an instant I did not recognize the smell and just thought he was sick. I love the fact that Senegal is a Muslim country, and the instances of roudy drunk men are few and far between.
Shortly after the drunk man grabbed me, another man grabbed my wrist. I jerked back, but he smiled soborly at me, and Mama pushed me to go with him. I clamped my hand onto her wrist, and she led me after him into a dark room. Here I discovered why this night was so much more festive than the first: the Baye Fall's religious leader was visiting. He was sitting in the small, dark, cement room with an electric fan pointed right at him and a man in the corner behind him beating himself with a club. We were not aloud to simply walk into the room, but had to get down on all fours like cats. The leader grasped my hand and spoke to my guide in French, and he translated to Pulaar. The leader told me how happy he was to see me here, and how much he would like to educate me about the Baye Falls. While he was speaking two more men entered the room. They were crawling with their bodies almost flat to the floor. The leader asked my name and, still holding my hand, stared at me silently with grave intent. When he spoke again it was to ask if I had a husband and whether he could get my number. It sounded so much like a punch line that I had to stiffle a laugh. He let me go after I appologetically told him that I am married and have no phone.
After my visit with the leader, everyone in the compound looked at me with admiration and envy. I returned to the circle and we danced and wailed our songs to the sky late into the night.

Six months ago I met Musan Diouf and then promptly forgot her name. The next time I saw her she gave me grief for not knowing her name, so I made up a short tune and was singing both her name and her son's as I walked away. I didn't see her again until this week. I would not have recognized her face, but when she sang, "Musan Diouf, Badu Dialo," at me, I peddled back to greet her. She said she's called out my name a few times in the past but gotten only a vague wave. So many people call my name as I bike through town that if I do not know the person well I just wave and bike on.
Musan was coming from a wedding party. Still very much in a festive mood, she danced in the path as we spoke. I joined in and she laughed at my pitiful attempts at the local moves. She tried to reassure me, promising I have potential. She told me that if I came back to her house the next day she would teach me the Sabar, the dance performed at weddings and baptisms. I have seen this dance many times. It is done while a man or men drum, and it looks like arms and legs being thrown out to all sides at once in a complex rhythm.
When I showed up the next day Musan had a few friends over, and all were eager to see me dance but shy about dancing themselves. Finally a man, Mose, came by, and they all swore he was the best dancer. I thought they were joking with him, but he agreed to teach me. Musan's compound has a cement platform that is raised two steps off the ground, and this stage-like structure was where Mose decided to have the lesson. Before we even started, an audience of ten little kids had gathered.
He began by having some of the girls sing and clap a simple tune. He danced beside or in front of me, and I tried to copy his moves. I kept getting tripped up. I have a tough time watching his feet and communicating the motions to my own, and I also got confused trying to guess which head and arm moves were specific and deliberate, and which were just arbitrary swings. Mose does not speak Pulaar, so the lesson was given via charades and rudimentary sounds of approval and dismay. Mose finally found a series of moves that I could copy, and he wove them into a routine. I got roaring cheers when I finally did the routine start to finish. I was able to see myself on Issatou's video-cell phone, flailing like a muppet with a huge smile on my face.
At first, folks in the compound watched and alternatively laughed and cheered, but eventually the lesson faded into a background event. When the audience went away, Musan and her friends felt more at ease, and the lesson changed into a bit of a dance competition for them, and a phenominal dance show for me.
I've been back a few more times for lesson. I like how informal it is. I show up, Mose and I go to the cement platform, a few girls make music, and he teaches me moves until the evening soap opera comes on tv.

Monday, June 04, 2007

I was in a cyber cafe in Kolda near the center of town when April 14's riot began. Loud jarring sounds kept coming from the area near the police station, and eventually the woman running the cafe said she was closing; she wanted to go home. She lives in my neighborhood, so we left together. We went out to the street and stood beside the road. From there we could see a fire raging at the nearest intersection. Fist sized rocks coming from a crowd of teenaged boys were arching over the fire. We needed to cross the river to get home, and rocks were landing very close to the only bridge, so the woman and I just stayed with the crowd that was watching the spectacle.
After a few minutes of rock throwing, the boys suddenly turned as one and ran west. A moment later we saw a car full of policemen coming from the east. After the boys returned to their rock throwing and yelling, two truckloads of soldiers appeared. They poured off the trucks and into the streets, and the boys made themselves scarce. The woman from the cafe and I took side streets as much as possible on our way home. When we walked on the street where the rocks were thrown I got my first big jolt of fear. The rocks looked enormous up close, and there were so many.
Piecing together rumors: On April 13th a teenaged boy was arrested in Kolda. He was accused of stealing from the house of a city official. He was kept in jail over night, and when his mother went to see him in the morning he was brought out on a stretcher, dead. Word quickly spread around town that the police, who have a history of brutality, had beat him to death.
Police and soldiers got the rioting under control, but not until many fires had been set in the roads down town, street signs had been torn out of the ground, and the house the boy was accused of robbing was burned down.
A couple days later, I left Kolda to go to Thies to help train the new volunteers. Aside from the 18h trip there, it was a wonderful week, much like a vacation. I helped teach courses on composting, micro-gardening, and traditional Pulaar weddings. While the new volunteers were in language classes I got to lounge and catch up with other friends who were in town for training. It was odd to see people exactly where I was one year ago, and to remember how strangely relaxed and happy the older volunteers struck me a year back, and how it then seemed inconceivable then that I would ever actually reach this point.
Alexis, the new volunteer in the city of Kolda, and I came back home on Saturday the 21. When we got into town we immediately noticed that most people were covering their mouths with fabric. We asked a few kids, and they explained that they did not want to inhale the gas that the police had sprayed, and they pointed up the street where twenty huge men were milling about. All wore huge shiny helmets and had hard plastic armor covering their bodies. I could see from a distance that they carried metal ringed billy-clubs and big guns. We asked about the gas, if it made people cry or if it hurt people's lungs, and the kids told us simply that it made people fall down.
The police were so heavily armed and looked so much like toy soldiers that it was too much to resist. Alexis took out her camera and I pretended to pose while she shot pictures of the men. We began to walk home, but when we turned east we had a view of the men shining in the setting sun. Idiot that I am, I urged Alexis to snap another picture. That was when the police saw us.
Three muscular giants wearing riot gear and stunningly mean expressions ran at us. They screamed about not taking photos and made a few menacing gestures with their hands. Thankfully, they understood the concept of a digital camera, and rather than demanding film, they yelled at us to erase the pictures. We very quickly, and probably permanently, learned the French word for, "erase." Alexis erased, and one of the towering policemen grabbed her camera and scrolled through the pictures to make sure she had been thorough. A bit more with the hollering and hand waving for good measure, and finally the men let us walk away.
Shaking ever so slightly, we went scrounging among the few merchants who had not closed their shops, trying to find dinner fixings. Everyone looked tense, and we saw a fist fight break out. While we were pondering whether to get mangos we heard what sounded like gunshots. In a beat we agreed we weren not in the mood for mangos and took off to find a taxi. People who were standing around laughed at our response to the noise.
Our taxi driver explained that the funeral for the teen who had died last week was held this morning, and the funeral procession had dissolved into this day's riot.

Boye is a tall muscular twenty-five year old man. He has a baby face and speaks slowly, making him seem like a gentle and simple kid in a mismatched body.
He approached me in town back in November, and after preliminary greetings, he told me he wanted to learn English. I gave him my standard answer, that if he came by my house we could start holding lessons. Many people ask to study English, but Boye surprised me; he is the only one who ever showed up in my compound.
We held class twice a week for a month. Between lessons he would write me text messages saying he missed me and sending me big kisses. He seemed bewildered when I repeatedly asked him to treat me like a teacher and not a girlfriend.
He was a good student. He studied his vocabulary well, and we were able to have simple conversations in English, filling in with Pulaar when he was ,missing a word. During a class about names for relatives, we discussed his father's wives and the dating system here. I told him I find the common method, of a boy telling a girl he just me that he loves her and wants her to be his girlfriend, a bit abrupt. He agreed, and told me he prefers a slower style. He related for me how after our first conversation, which I don't remember, he racked his brain for how to get to spend more time with me, and thus came up with the idea of asking for English lessons. I had had no idea the lessons' inspiration. After we filled a page of his notebook with vocabulary, I told him I'd be busy for a spell, but would call him when I had time again.
After a few weeks he started dropping by my house. He had little to say, and I did not want to encourage him, so after basic greetings we spent a lot of time quiet. He came over one time while I was gardening, and he helped me with the digging. He told me his mother gardens, and the next day we met and he took me to see his mother's vegetables. She and I spent the afternoon chatting. For the next few months Boye called me often, telling me his family greeted me and wished I would visit again. I tried once, but I got lost.
His calls and visits tapered off with time, so I was surprised to see him at my house last night. We did the usual routine of greeting and then staring off until he got up to leave. As is custom, I offered to walk him down the road. As soon as we got out of my compound and out of my family's earshot, he told me the purpose of his visit.
He had been thinking, and because he has no wife, I have no husband, and we have spent so much time talking, he figured we should get married. He spoke in such a calm and cheerful manner that had I not understood his words I would have thought he was commenting fondly on the nice weather. Even understanding his words I had to ask him to repeat himself just so I could be sure. The second time around he added that he loved me and wanted me. This is a step up from the proposal I received from a religious man who spoke English, in which his two main arguments in favor or a wedding were, "I am a diamond in the road and you should pick me up before someone else does," and "I've never fucked." For less serious proposals I say things about already having some husbands or about my marriage fee being very high, but I wanted to give a reply that left no room for debate, and said simply, "I don't want you." Boye proposed a few more times before my refrain sunk in, and finally he left.
When I told my family about Boye, instead of laughing at the absurdity of a man I barely know, and with whom I can't manage more than five minutes conversation, thinking we could be a happily married pair, they responded thoughtfully, "But he might really love you." I miss people from my culture.