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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

and that's what it's all about.

GAMBIA | Saturday, 9 October 2004 | Views [276]

when i am traveling, there are some things that come back to me very easily- being able to work around not having street signs and only one bad map- and things that I forget how difficult and how long it takes to get over- the culture shock of being surrounded by what seems to be a never ending supply of people who want my time, and my money. This second time around in dakar has showed me how cautious i was in that first week of culture shock, how timid to take up space. I think it is because I am used to adapting to a culture and becoming as much of one of the people as i can by following the example of actions. here, you cannot do that. you must take up space because no one is going to give it to you. and they respect those who are not afraid. they respect those who are vocal and participatory, i am much more comfortable in the role of observer. but life is not always beheld in the eyes of the observer. sometimes you've just got to jump in head first.

when i was in tanji, i was writing in my hotel at night, when i decided to go see if anyone else was still awake. all of the servers were, and they were heading out to a baby naming ceremony. they invited me along too. i was hesitant at first. i was in my pajamas, and i pictured everyone else in their finest dress, all looking at my pajama pants in horror. but i went. and the first thing they did was throw me into the center of the dancers. the girls all giggled at me. i am the odd one. i am not supposed to be able to dance-i am white, white people can't and don't dance. then one of the guys asked if i wanted my picture taken. this turned into a frenzy of everyone wanting their picture taken. especially because my fancy digital camera showed them right away what it looked like. many of them had never seen themselves before-anyone under the age of 16 at least. no mirrors, no baby pictures. i was taken to the mother, handed the baby, and taken through the whole family from top to bottom. then given this really thick yogurt drink of banana and coconut.
my first experience of what was a cultural ceremony reminded me of the gigantic barbeques that always look like such fun in washington park, or on the green fields along the lake. a loud DJ, lots of food and dancing until the wee hours of the night.
there aren't many times when i am traveling by myself that i get to let my guard down completely. for example, i am really starting to convince myself that i have a husband who work on ships in france and when he is out at sea, i come to africa to visit friends. in just a day, i get to go to france to visit him and together, we go to south africa where his next job is. i was even getting a bit excited to see him! and a bit sad at the reality that there is no one familiar awaiting at my next leg of the journey....there is a certain amount of self-defense mechanisms and street smarts that prevents me from going along with just anyone. but i am struck here by how many times when i have needed someone to help me, someone was there, going out of their way, walking me all the way across town. it makes me contemplate the way we treat tourists in chicago. i know i may have stopped to recommend a restaurant, or point the direction of a street, but have i ever really gone out of my way for someone like the people here have for me?
in koalack, i was haggling in the market for some jewelery and a girl approached me and asked if i was alone. i was a bit wary, but when she said she would spend the day guiding me, i went with her. she explained to me that her sister was getting married today. (which only makes me more wary because it is a traveler's dream and a common scam) but she took me to a beauty parlor nearby where indeed, there were about seven girls getting full make-up and hair done. i was flashed back to the mornings of my sister's wedding where we all sat chatting in salon chairs. i said i had nothing to wear and was instantly swept into a back room where her other sister changed into wedding clothes and gave me her normal clothes to wear. all dolled up in my senegalese adornment, they stuck me in a make up chair and proceeded to torture my face in an african style. it was completely a kid playing with mom's make-up, completely cakey dark on my face, but they all kept saying, "jolie, jolie, ma belle jolie" so i thought i would not rub it off in the first three minutes after it was put on. we waited a bit for her sister to get done, during which time she told me that her name was sukee faye. faye being my mother's name, the superstitious side of me that can recognize a sign the size of a billboard told me to relax and enjoy this experience, mom is looking out for me. they twisted and pulled and pinned my head scarf into a peacock's tail of style and then we were off in a car to the tiny village about half hour away.
the driver honked the horn for a full five minutes before we arrived, heralding our car to the family. we were met by a receiving line of grandmothers, aunts, great aunts, cousins- a complete assortment of the women of the bride's family with nary a male in sight. we had to do little bows and curtsies while going down the line. then i was taken to a hut off to the side where the males of the bride's family were kept apart. after a quick curtsy, we were out and sitting in a huge circle of women with three ladies in the center who were griots, the town keepers of oral history through song. they were shouting the morality and accomplishments of the bride and her family to the rhythm of drums pulsing life into the song. soon it seemed there was a line of people indicated by the mother of the bride who were to stand up, dance for a few minutes in front of the bride, then pay the griots and/or the drummers for their dance. this spread down a line of hierarchy until my guide sukee came and got me up to dance. again, i was met will a little giggle at first, than hoots of what amounts to the wolof version of "ooooo, a white girl who can DANCE!!!" it was a day of laughing and singing and dancing. at one point, i was alone in the circle and the griot came out and threw an onion at my feet. confused, they seemed to indicate i should shake my ass. i did obligingly, they laughed then some girls showed me what the dance was REALLY about, the onion dance was a ceremony in which the girls get on all fours and show the bride a ceremony of what the wedding night will hold!! it made all the dancing of music videos look tame and prudish.
oh yeah, and it was a day of eating. all those days of bread and water turned into a day of eating left and right. in fact i am a little guilty because i think i ate an entire goat that day, and i have taken so many cute goat pictures that are useless but i can't delete because little baby goats are so cute....and i ate it!!!! then the picture taking started just like the baby ceremony. man do the people here love having their picture taken. at one point, i was not involved, i guess the highest females of the brides family, mother, grandmother, etc. took her to her hut and lectured her. then the makes arrived, the husband was accomplishing his "duty" and the rest of us and i think the husbands family too, ate again. i had not planned wisely for the day, and i ran out of water which meant that i had only soda to drink in the oppressive dancing heat. they put ice in it, and i was so desperate for een that bit of water that i drank it, and of course spent the next day dully getting over my mild stomach bug, from either the ice or the entire goat after a time of fasting. that night we stopped by another ceremony on the way home. this one with mali keyboards (like xylophones) and big circular drums. the griots and the dancing were similar, but if you earned your dance, you had scarves thrown on you by the spectators.
thus i got my day of dance and experience of west african music.
now i find that i am not so offended every time someone calls me toubab, a wolof word that means white skinned but is used for african americans too, so i guess it really amounts to stranger. and i am not so inflamed by the injustice of being charged twice as much just because my skin is white. i am tempted to start a revolution of white civil liberties movement here, but i guess none of us ARE native, so perhaps i should lay off for a bit. i do like to lecture the touts who try to guilt trip me for not wanting to talk to them by saying "we are all friends here, white, black, red, yellow" i tell them that this place has more racism than i can begin to explain because of the word toubab alone. and then i launch into a moment of how they do not even begin to come across the diversity of cultures that i experience everyday back home. that usually throws their sales pitch for long enough that i can get away. but i can make friends in the smallest places. sitting with a cigarette seller in the street who has watched me walk by all day and wants to say hello so that when i keep walking by, we can smile our cheerful smiles and be advocates, friends, in this city of faces streaming past in frantic business. i am going to miss this place tomorrow. i know that already. and with that i will see you all in sunny south africa. au revior, emily

Tags: emily predny, gambia, koalack, predny, senegal, tanji

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