Grace: Toubacouta

October 15, 2011

Just to start off, I would like to say how much I love the country of Senegal.  The people here are so amazing, the countryside and beaches are gorgeous, the clothes are so cool, the food is delicious.  I could go on and on.  I realized last week that I was half way done with my time in Senegal and I freaked out.  I don’t ever want to leave! Of course I miss you, burritos family and friends, but I just wish you could come to Senegal instead of me having to come back there!

Anyways, this weekend our program took a trip to the south of Senegal, to a village/town called Toubacouta (it has enough people to make it more than a village, but I would definitely not call it a town).  It’s about an hour away from the village where I’ll be for my internship.  I can honestly say that this weekend was one of the better weekends of my life.  It was not only super fun, but I learned a ton.  It was both a vacation and field trip at the same time, and it was awesome.  We also did a lot of stuff, so just to warn you, this post is a biggun. 

On Thursday we left Dakar bright and early. The earliness sucked, but we got pain au chocolat and juice on the air-conditioned bus, so the situation improved quickly. It was about a 7 hour ride on the bumpy roads to Sokone, a village/town just north of Toubacouta.  Getting out of the bus was rough, I had kinda forgotten what heat was, but I was quickly reminded with the blast of hot air that bombarded my face and body upon arrival.  After I pretended to get used to the heat again (it’s actually impossible to ever get used to it), we sat down for lunch at the mayor’s house.  They made us like 6 HUGE platters of ceeb u jen (fish with rice, it’s delicious) and we maybe finished half. And then I felt super full, like post-Thanksgiving full, and all I wanted to do was nap.  

Thankfully that was in the schedule, so we hopped on the bus (with a renewed appreciation for air-conditioning) and headed off to the hotel for rest time.  The hotel was super cool, it was a bunch of little huts instead of rooms and it had a pool.  I passed out, and enjoyed sleeping in air-conditioning for the first time in more than 2 months (Ok, I’m going to stop talking about air-conditioning now, I promise).

Me walking into our hut at the hotel, enjoying the blast of cold air greeting me at the door (for real last time.)
After nap time we went to a soccer game, which was a lot of fun.  The Senegalese are definitely not lacking in spirit, and it was fun watching people rush the field and go crazy after goals.  It ended up coming down to Penalty kicks which always makes for an exciting game.  2 things noteworthy about the game: there were people in the trees around the field, which I thought was an excellent idea.  They had a fantastic view. Also, after every goal scored and at the end of the game, the players would go to the corner of the field and face what I assumed to be the direction of Mecca and bow and pray.
Soccer game (yellow dots in tree=people)
After the game we ate dinner, played a Wolof trivia game directed by Waly and Kourka, and had a dance contest.  Needless to say I did not win the dance contest.

The next day we got up bright and early and headed to the Poste de Sante (health clinic) in Toubacouta. We met the head nurse who showed us around the small building.  The paint was peeling off the walls and there was a distinct smell of mold in most of the rooms, but I could tell they were working hard to keep it as clean as they could within their means.  The on-site pharmacy was very meagerly stocked, and the pharmacist explained to us that the health infrastructure in Senegal is set up top-to-bottom so the rural clinics are the last to get medications, and never have enough.  They had a price list on the wall, and a the fee for child was equivalent to $3, adult $4, and this includes both the consultation and the necessary medication (this is a new system, they used not to be together).  The patients are guaranteed the medication they need if it’s on site, but they said that often the medications aren’t available. And they said that most people can’t afford the consultation/medication fees, and complain about the new system.  We also saw the clinic’s ambulance which is currently not working (they said it breaks down a lot).  This means that when patients require further medical attention at a bigger clinic (beyond the Poste de Sante’s means), it’s very hard to transport them.  It was really tough seeing how hard the staff was working (the head nurse lives at the clinic and accepts patients 24/7) but how desperately they needed help/supplies.  I could go on talking about this (public health really interests me), but I still have a lot to cover, so I’m gonna move on.  Oh and by the way, the Poste de Sante that I will be working in during November will probably be pretty similar.

Next we went to the Community Radio station, and they talked about the educational programs they do.  They talked a lot about how important the radio is in an area where literacy rates are low and people learn well through culturally-specific programs in Wolof (shout out to you, Dad!).  They said their most popular program is the one on agriculture.

Me dropping some beats on the Toubacouta radio, nbd  (just kidding, this was staged)

Then we went back to the mayor’s house and he talked to us about decentralization in Senegal.  Not gonna lie, I kinda zoned out during this.  It was hot, I was hungry, and there were lots of flies.  Difficult to keep my attention on a man speaking French and talking about government.  When he finished, we ate, and I once again over-ate.  I named my food babies (they’re twins) Ceeb (wolof for rice) and Yassa (name of yummy onion sauce).

After lunch we went to a village about 30 minutes from Sokone to meet with a women’s group.  There were about 50 (give or take like 25…I’m horrible at estimating crowds) women under a tree and we sat with them and talked with them with Waly’s translation help.  These women come from extreme poverty and are so poor that they can’t even afford the microfinance loans because of their high interest rates (these loans are supposed to help the poorest of the poor…flawed system apparently) so they came together and established a joint savings account to help each other have enough money to plant fields and establish a sort of insurance in case one of their family members gets sick or their crops fail or something.  
These women are amazing.  They all work long and strenuous hours every day in their fields to supplement their husbands’ incomes and take care of their children.  Even with all that work though, they said that there are problems with the saltiness of the soil, so their plants don’t grow well, they often can’t afford the expensive fees at the Poste de Sante (yes, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the fact that $3 can be expensive, but poverty is a hard thing), and getting their produce to the market in the next village is very difficult.  There is no way that someone could say that these women don’t work hard, or aren’t innovative and smart, yet no matter what they do, they cannot escape poverty.  It’s stories like these that really reveal the vicious unjustness of poverty and make me hate when people try to blame the poor for their situation.

After the women spoke to us about their group, their lives, and their struggles, they grabbed some buckets and gas cans and started playing music on them and dancing.  The woman sitting next to me, Mariama, grabbed my hand and dragged me into the circle where I awkwardly tried to keep up with their awesome dance moves.  There was one old woman who I swear never touched the ground as she danced, it was crazy.  And it was so amazing that even with all the hardships that they had just told us about, their response was to get up and dance.

After about 30 minutes of dancing, we reluctantly climbed back on the bus and headed back to Toubacouta.  I really wanted to stay in that village with those women for longer, but I reminded myself that in just a few weeks I would get to stay in a village for relatively long-term and actually really get to know the women there, not just meet with them for a few hours.  It made me really pumped for my village stay.

The inside of the bus

The next few hours were pooltime, dinnertime, blah blah blah, skipping all that.  That night we went to “downtown” Toubacouta (where the market is in the mornings) because there was going to be a performance.  I didn’t really know what that meant, but when we got there there were a few hundred people (again, this is an estimation…probably really off) gathered around in chairs, on the ground, and standing in a circle around 10 or so guys with drums.  All these little kids started running toward us when we got there and grabbed out hands and insisted on sitting in our laps for the show, which was seriously just so adorable.  I had a little boy named Abdou on my lap the whole time, and he was so cute.

Okay so first of all, the music was amazing.  I never knew using only percussion could make such great sounding music.  Second, the performance involved more than just the band playing, which I discovered when this giant terrifying white furry monster burst out and started chasing the kids in the audience.  The monster then acted out a scene (narrated by the drum music, which was super cool) of a folklore story.

Scary monster playing drum

At the end of the story, five girls and five guys started dancing.  And OH MY GOSH. I seriously did not realize the human body had the potential to move in the way that those dancers moved.  Those girls whipped their hair back and forth like their lives depended on it and it was soooo fast (Willow Smith would have been proud).  I don’t really know how to describe all the dancing, but it was so awesome.  Then this guy on stilts came out and started dancing.  Did not know dancing on stilts was possible, but apparently it is.  He and some of the other dancers made this like crazy upside-down human tunnel thing which another guy break-danced through.  So awesome.  THEN came the freaking FIRE EATER, which completely blew my mind. AND THEN this guy with really cool dreadlocks proceeded to walk on, smoosh his face in, and roll around in broken GLASS. Needless to say, it was an excellent performance.  One of the students in our program (also named Grace) will be doing her internship in Toubacouta with this troupe and we are all SO JEALOUS. (Okay, sorry for all the capitalized words, everything was just too exciting for lame lowercase letters.)

The next day we got up and put on our shorts (first time I wore shorts in Senegal, I felt so scandalous) and took a bus ride through the bush (we were off-roading it in a vehicle not at all made for off-roading which was interesting) to get to the national park about an hour away.  We were planning on taking pirogues (small boats) through the amazon-like mangrove canals, but when we got there it turned out there was no gas for the pirogues, so we moved on to Plan B.  Plan B was a safari at a nearby national reserve.  I felt kinda tourist-y and dumb climbing into the leopard print open-top vehicles to drive through a park full of animals, some of which are not even native to Senegal, but I embraced the tourism, and enjoyed driving up close to rhinos, giraffes, pumbas (also known as warthogs), zebras, monkeys, hyenas, and water buffalos.  We made lots of Lion King references and it was lots of fun.

Then it was back to the mayor’s house for another giant lunch, but this time I paced myself better and didn’t explode.

Then we headed back into nature to go plant some mangrove trees.  Even though it looks like there are tons of mangroves around the banks of the rivers, they are actually endangered because people cut their roots to get the oysters that cling to them.  So we hopped on a pirogue and drove down the river to an open spot in need of mangroves.  As we were making our way down the riverbank to get in the pirogue, we walked barefoot because there was “a lot of mud”.  We laughed at the mud squishing between our toes, and even took a picture of our “dirty feet”.  Ha ha ha, we had no idea.

After we got out of the pirogues down the river a ways and onto the shore, we had to trudge through knee-deep mud for 15 minutes, scratching our feet on shells and pinching crabs, and trying not to fall (too often).  I actually really like getting muddy so I thought it was really fun, but most of the group was understandably miserable.  But we survived and made it to the mangrove-planting area where we stuck mangrove seedlings in little rows for an hour or so.  It was actually a lot more fun than it sounds.


Oh, and the pirogue ride was a blast too.  I forgot to mention that there were 5 Senegalese students with us the whole time in Toubacouta (they had all helped organize what we were doing there), and they were awesome.  On the pirogue they taught us Wolof songs and echo-back chants and I totally felt like I was on my way to camp, except I was in Senegal, on a boat, singing in Wolof and covered in mud.

Singing on the pirogue

Ok so blah blah blah, shower, nap, dinner… (sorry this post is so long, I’ll try to speed it up), then WRESTLING MATCH.  Wrestling is the main sport in Senegal (I would say even more important than soccer), and so I was really excited to see my first live match that wasn’t just on TV.  It was craaazyy.  The guys were incredibly muscular, probably the most muscular people I have ever seen in real life.  I couldn’t help thinking how awesome it would be to have one of them to draw in an anatomy art class because you could literally see every muscle there is, but I digress.  The wrestling was kinda scary. I actually saw a guy throw another man OVER HIS HEAD.  The man-throwing guy ended up being in the final match, but lost.  The guy who won got a giant bag of rice and some money.  It was cool/strange because before each of the matches, the guys would do different ritualistic things.  Like one of them went to each corner of the arena-area and made a symbol in the sand and then knelt down in it and took a pinch of the sand and put it in his shorts.  A lot of the guys poured this brown liquid stuff on themselves before they wrestled (it is supposed to bring good luck or something I think).  And a lot of them were wearing “gris-gris” (talismans) tied around their arms or waists.

That night was my friend Danielle’s birthday so we went out dancing at the one little “nightclub” in Toubacouta, which was fun.  Except I was super tired so the only dance move I could muster up was a little side-to-side step.

Aaaaand I’m almost done.  The next day we loaded onto the bus to head back to Dakar, but first we made a quick stop at a Dara (Islamic school) to talk with the Marabout (Islamic teacher) there.  Now before this I had had a pretty bad impression of marabouts.  We hear a lot about how they exploit children in Dakar, forcing the Talibes (Islamic students) to beg in the streets and beating them if they don’t make the day’s quota.  They also sometimes have tons of wives, take bribes from politicians and tell people that they have to vote a certain way, steal people’s money to sell potions, etc.  So I wasn’t expecting too much from this marabout in Toubacouta.

However, he was awesome.  He took really good care of all the Talibes at his Dara, and said that he had a strict no-begging rule, that he trusted God to provide for them without exploiting the kids.  He taught the kids English and French in addition to Arabic because according to him, “communication is the key to understanding”, and he wanted his Talibes to be able to communicate as well as possible.  He said they also read the Bible and other religious texts because he knows that God speaks through all religions, and that he wanted his students to not be ignorant about what others believe.  He also gave all of us free Qu’rans because he says it’s important for us too to understand where people in other religions are coming from and not just make blind judgements based on what we hear.  He said that everyone is a Talibe, everyone is learning and seeking, and that God teaches everyone in unique ways.

Us with the marabou (center) and talibes (left) and new Qu’rans (in our hands)

WOW.  Not what I was expecting AT ALL.  This guy seemed so wise, so kind, so not evil, and completely redeemed my ideas of marabouts and the Dara system.

And then we drove back to Dakar. Phew. That was an incredibly long post.  Thank ya’ll for hanging with me through all that, if you are reading this, I’m very impressed you have made it this far.  I just felt like I couldn’t leave anything out! Even now there are other things I could’ve said but didn’t…oh well.

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