Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Attention: Toubab gets a great deal


Lovely travel companions to Goree Island.


A view from the ile de Madelaine, a nature reserve off the coast of Dakar.

In Dakar en route to Mali after a root canal, I visited the market with two other Mali PCVs, Amy and Liza. Here’s a story from our visit.

And so we plunge into the frenzy that is the market in Dakar. Tight dark denim jeans stretched on mannequin legs, cheap baubles and jewelry tacked onto cardboard displays propped up on rickety card tables. There are vendors setting up shop and dusting off their random assortment of goods with a rag or feather duster, as if one more cleaning could keep off the constant kicking up of dust and sand from the cars whizzing past. Minibuses deftly navigate the narrow alleys, brushing dangerously close to women selling little plastic bags filled with peanuts and the garibous with their old tomato paste cans used for collecting food or money slung over their shoulder. Calls of “good price here” rain down on us from the shops and we get swept into the fabric corner where bags and fabric samples hang from every open space. A man who introduces himself as Aboudou Faye says he’d be happy to give us a tour of the factory where bags and outfits are being churned out on foot pedal sewing machines. We weave through the rows of sewing machines and see all the wholesale shop has to offer. I pick up a bag and Aboudou swoops in on my admiring gaze, “I give you good price when tour is done.” We follow him upstairs where his Malian “brother” is sitting among shelves of mud cloth bags and batik wall hangings. The bags and outfits are being feverishly sewn as though an army of toubabs (foreigners) are going to rush into Dakar demanding boubous and over-the-shoulder bags with red, yellow and green motifs and rasta men beating drums in a dizzying pattern. This seems unlikely so I’m curious for whom all these bags are being so quickly sewn, it is the off-season after all.

So jumping photos are way more fun than you'd think...
Aboudou says there is one more shop we must see, it’s just across the street. We head over, carefully dodging mid-day traffic and the other shoppers milling in and out of the endless boutiques. The shops in the area across the street have more jewelry and mud cloth bags than rasta fabric and elephant bags. I find a bag I like and pick it up. We’re at the end of our tour so I sit down with Aboudou to discuss a price. When I ask how much he says “23,000 CFA” (roughly $46). I hear myself cough in surprise – you can get a personalized mud cloth wall hanging for 7,500 CFA in San; this bag shouldn’t be more than 3,000 CFA, or so I’m convinced. I tell him I’m reconsidering his sanity giving me a price like that and I get up, ready to go. He laughs and says “Ah, my sister, that’s how it is in Senegal. Bargaining is a game. I give you a high price, you offer yours and we meet in the middle.” Bargaining is nothing new but it’s also a time consuming process not made for the weak of resolve (my bargaining skills pale in comparison to some of my friends here). Today I’ve decided to stick to my guns – I’m a casual shopper and while I do love the bag, I’m also willing to walk away and that’s what gives me an edge in Aboudou’s game. After going back and forth a few times I repeat to Aboudou my price is 3,000 CFA; I’m not budging. I thank him sincerely for his time and walk to meet my friends Amy and Liza (proud owner of a new print shoulder bag) who are waiting outside. I get as far as the women selling wood statues and bead necklaces and Aboudou follows me from the store and says, “ok my sister, 4,000 CFA.” When I say 3,000 is my offer, he says, “My sister, I came down from 23,000 CFA to 4,000, at least you can meet me at 3,500?” What incredible marketing! Aboudou is right, it is pretty incredible to see the price of something change from $46 to $8 in a matter of 15 minutes. I agree he has come a long way and since I really do like the bag, I hand over my money and we slap hands and he flashes a big smile. I turn around to find Liza and Amy and when I look back, Aboudou has reabsorbed into the frenzy of the market. I hear him call out “My sister, follow me, I give you nice price.” Another toubab is about to get a great deal.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Midnight Wedding Crasher



Biking to the village next door this past Tuesday I greeted the people in a compound that had more folks gathered under various shady spaces than usual. They called out for me to stop and greet so I got off my bike and walked around the compound greeting the separate groups of people. The old women on stools finishing up their porridge under the mango tree, giggling teenager girls by the huts cleaning breakfast dishes and preparing for lunch and the old men relaxing on a mat next to a grainery after what I'm sure was a taxing morning of eating breakfast. Nana, one of the old women, took me by the arm to greet the men and she explained that I pass through each Tuesday to go to the health center when they asked what I was up to. I asked them why there were so many people in their compound and the men said they were celebrating a wedding tonight and that I should come back later to join in the festivities. When I agreed that I would, one of the women piped in that they'd be sending someone to find me if I didn't so to make sure I came back.

When I got home that afternoon I told Annie about my chance encounter with the wedding party and got her blessing to return later that night (they don't get started until 11p.m. or midnight!). After dinner I take my knitting over to Annie's hut and we sit outside to knit and talk about the day, Christine's cuteness and when we think she'll start walking or get her first teeth. My eyes got heavy around 9:30 so I curled up on the mat next to Annie's chair and took a cat nap alongside my already fast asleep host sister Batuma and host brother Emmanuel until about 10:30 when I got up to get ready for the wedding. With a full moon and a cloudless sky I didn't need a light to navigate the dirt path between my village and the one 2 miles away where the wedding was. Usually when I bike anywhere people pop out from the fields or compounds to say "Hey Djelika, where are you going?" and then we greet one another as I bike on and they say "Greet them for me!" But tonight it was just me and the dark outlines of the shea and baobab trees and it didn't matter if my wrap skirt flapped in the breeze since no one was around to see. As I approached the village, I could hear the rapid beat of the drums inviting me to come and dance. I arrived at Nana's compound and admired the shine and glimmer of the women's wedding complets in the moonlight and went to sit on an open stool. Nana came to sit beside me after we'd greeted the half-awake wedding guests lying on mats spread out around the compound. I found myself instantly surrounded by about 20 little girls who kneeled around me and laughed shyly at one another when I would return their polite stares. Nana went around and introduced each of the girls, relying on promptings from her own girls when she couldn't remember one of their first names. I could still hear the drums beating and asked Nana if it was time to go. She said, soon, soon and continued to laugh heartily as I told her that no, I wasn't married and no, I didn't have children and that yes, having more than 3 kids in America was considered a lot as she said she had 8 herself.

Somehow Nana decided it was time to go to where the actual wedding party was (at this point, I was still unclear as to whose wedding we were attending...actually, I still am...) so we gathered up our stools and trooped over to a large clearing next to the mosque where folks had already set up mats and lounge chairs around spotlights and speakers powered by a humming generator. We set up shop next to the man with the microphones and Nana got started singing along with a few other older women she introduced as her sisters. A few men at a time would pair up and start dancing to the women's chants and the beat of the hand drums. The bride stays closed up in a hut somewhere else while the groom sat surrounded by his buddies next to the dust-bowl of a dance floor. Someone would periodically pour water from a jug onto the dancing area so the fast moving feet wouldn't kick up so much dust. One of Nana's sisters handed her microphone to another muso-koroba (old woman) and pulled me onto the dance floor. We walked in front of the groom and knelt down to touch the ground in front of him and then went to dance in front of the drummers. I felt the laughter pour out of me as I tried to imitate the women around me and was only encouraged by the belly laughs of the old women shimmying and shaking faster and with more rhythm than I could ever hope for. This went on until about 3 a.m. when I found an open lounge chair and curled up once again for another nap. My friend Hawa gently woke me up around 4 and walked me to my bike so I could go home to catch a couple more hours of sleep before the call to prayer broke the spell of the evening and a slightly pulsing headache from too little sleep reminded me I'll opt for an early reception when I get married.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Can I get a slice of humble pie?


Annie doing a urine fertilizer formation for the women's association this past week.
I went back to site unsure what to expect after being away for a month and a half. How do you all of a sudden just get started doing projects and formations in a village...? Well, have a great counterpart, that's how! Annie called a women's association meeting as soon as I got back and we did a urine fertilizer formation and talked about improved shea butter techniques. Then, the men's and women's association met to talk about future projects including buying cattle to fatten and then resell and building a community cereal bank.
Annie and another man, Bachary, are also teaching a class of 30 women and a handful of teenage girls to read and write Bambara 5 days a week, 3 hours a day (I do NOT know where the women get the extra time- they're already so busy!). The women are starting from square one with letters and then building up to words (I go and sit in the back of the classroom and play with babies, read or knit). I feel my heart clench up seeing them practice before the teacher calls them up to the board to read aloud to everyone else. They called my name up out of the blue to read and I started to get nervous because while our alphabet is essentially the same, the letters are pronounced differently. I stumbled over a couple words and at the end all the women clapped. For me. I couldn't stop beaming and all the women broke out into laughter at my giddyness.

Of course, no event is complete without a timed photo to remember it by!
Here are the women with a jug soon to be filled with urine then let to sit for 2 days, mixed with water and then applied to gardens and fields! (I swear it's legit :)

The 3rd graders from North Landing Elementary School in Virginia Beach sent school supplies and games for the kids in my village (Thank you!). I was at a loss for how to distribute them but the teachers decided to give the first box to the top students in the class. Each month (there's a whole suitcase more of things to share) they will re-evaluate the students rankings (I'm not wild about the idea of ranking students but so it is) and will give the supplies out accordingly. The kids were really excited to receive the treats and hopefully will feel encouraged to keep working hard. Education is definitely lacking in Mali - it's neither universal nor mandatory (in that it's enforced) so it feels good encouraging what we take for granted in the states.
I had a great birthday yesterday (big 2-3) and thank everyone for the great birthday wishes! I couldn't do this without the incredible support I'm receiving from back home. Thank you!
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