For our final day at school, we had a fête (a party) to celebrate! We got all dressed up in our new Senegalese threads and I took photos with most of the ACI staff.
jerrejef: thank you
Today is my last and final day in Senegal. Tonight I say goodbye to my family and get on a plane and say goodbye to Senegal, maybe forever. I have lived through three months and eight days in Senegal, or 97 days, to be exact. I feel somewhat sad to be leaving but I also feel like it is time, like I am very ready to go. I am ready to go back to my family and my friends and comforts and food, but at the same time I am also ready to go forward to new places and new things. As of right now, I don’t see myself ever coming back to Senegal, but you never know.
Yet I still feel extremely grateful for those 97 days and all that happened in them. There are so many reasons to say jerrejef:
Jerrejef to my family, for their openness and teranga, their willingness to let me into their home and into their lives for just a short time. Jerrejef to Dakar, for its chaos (the hectic scramble at the markets, the wild driving, the cows meandering across the six-lane highway) and for its calm (walking home in the evening listening to the call to prayer and watching birds surround the mosque, the emptiness of Sunday mornings). Jerrejef to all my friends in the city, who made me smile whenever I walked past, from the security guards near my house to Baye Fall who owned the boutik on my street. Jerrejef to all the strange and beautiful once-in-a-lifetime moments, like waking up at dawn on a ship steaming through the jungle or spending a few nights in a remote dusty village. Jerrejef to the hard moments, such as nearly passing out from dehydration or the worst baptism in history. Jerrejef to the delicious food of which I may never taste the exact same flavor again. Jerrejef to each one of those 97 days, 97 days where I learned half a dozen new things between waking up and going to sleep.
Jerrejef, suma waa ker! Jerrejef, sumay xariti! Jerrejef, Dakar! Jerrejef, Senegal! Jerrejef, jerrejef, jerrejef!
weccit: money (as in cash, i.e. bills and coins)
Paying for anything in Senegal can be a stressful and harrowing process, the need to bargain notwithstanding. It is enough to leave a newcomer boggled and frustrated and absolutely unable to buy the things they want or stuck buying a bunch of things they don’t.
First of all, there seems to be absolutely no standardization of the currency whatsoever. Senegal uses the currency abbreviated CFA, pronounced “seefa,” or also referred to as “francs,” and it is a currency shared by several West African Francophone countries. One essential characteristic about this currency is the fact that it seems like whoever works at the mint decided to go ahead and make money in whatever denomination they wanted.
First of all, there is the fact that the largest bill is for 10 000 CFA, which is a relatively small amount. It would be as if the biggest bill in the United States was the 20 USD, which is an absolutely frustrating concept. Then there is the fact of the coinage, which is totally insane. Most commonly seen is the 100 CFA and the 200 CFA coin, which are both practical and make a lot of sense. There is also a 50 CFA coin, which is also useful. However, after that I get utterly confused.
For starters, there is both a 500 CFA paper bill and a 500 CFA coin. There is also a coin for 10 CFA, which comes to about 8¢ and is totally useless and has the weight of a plastic arcade token. And then, even though you thought you had all the bases covered, there is a 250 CFA coin, which makes no sense considering there are lots of 200 CFA and 50 CFA coins floating around. Honestly, if I came across a coin for 37 CFA or some random number like that, I wouldn’t even blink an eye.
However, the most frustrating aspect of Senegalese life is the fact that you never have any change when you need it. Despite the cash economy, coins are extremely hard to come by and people hoard them like rations on the eve of World War Two. This is made even more maddening because the ATM, the most crucial tool for foreigners, only dispenses bills in 5000 CFA and even then you are lucky to get that and not a wad of 10 000 CFA, which is very unfortunate when you consider how many things on the street cost 1000 to 100 CFA. Most of the time, when you have a 10 000 CFA bill no one will even take it or be willing to exchange it.
Plus, people are extremely reluctant to change your money, and most of the time they will refuse, since they know full well that they will need the small change themselves. Even when you buy something, they will ask you first if you have any change and if you don’t, it becomes a big deal, with shopkeepers going down the street to ask the other shopkeeper for a 1000 CFA bill, etc. The supermarket closest to my house never has any change, and too often I am stuck buying some cardboard-like cookies that I don’t want since they won’t give me my change for 100 CFA or whatever. Before you go anywhere you have to consider if you have the small bills or coins that the day’s journey will require. The only reliable people who will change your bills for you are the guys who sell prepaid phone cards, and only because I’m friends with them, really.
And don’t even get me started on the madness of trying to split a check. It makes you really miss the ease of a credit card.
añ: lunch, to eat lunch
Out of all the things that I am going to miss in Senegal, ceebu jenn—the traditional dish of rice and fish—is near the top of the list. It is without hesitation the best fish and rice I have ever had. The first time I ate it, I thought, I have never tasted these flavors in my whole life, and then all thought disappeared, submitted to the blank trance-like state that occurs when you are eating something amazing. Through the three and a half months I have been here I have not gotten tired of ceebujeen once.
Of course, there are some problems with ceebujeen. It is made with possibly the lowest-quality white rice I have ever seen in my whole life, the fish is like a graveyard of bones, the vegetables have been stewed to within an inch of their life and you can practically feel the sodium that is the result of a half-dozen seasoning packets. So despite these problems, why is ceebujenn so good? I have theory.
The theory is that ceebujenn is good because it is only for añ, the lunch meal. I have never had ceebujeen for any meal other than lunch, never at dinner. This works to the dish’s advantage because of a truly insane aspect of Senegalese life—that lunch takes place at two or three o’clock in the afternoon. This fact is certifiably nuts because the only thing people eat for breakfast is dry, uninspiring bread with margarine or chocolate spread, which means that by noon or even ten o’clock, you are unbearably hungry. Thus, by the time lunch rolls around, you are going bonkers and absolutely ready to shove nearly anything down your craw, and in the crazed fog of hunger all the little annoying things about ceebujeen fade away.
And yet, I suspect that ceebujeen also is good simply because, fundamentally, it is good—a work of culinary genius. Under the watchful eye of the Senegalese woman, the horrible broken-grain rice that must be sifted for pebbles is transformed into the most flavorful rice I have ever tasted, exploding with the rich flavors of the broth of fish and vegetables in which it was cooked, so that you don’t even notice the low quality of the grain. The vegetables provide a calmer taste and softer texture as a complement to the flavorful rice. And the fish, through being fried and then put in the sauce with veggies, is transformed from a mediocre, cheap, previously-frozen trash fish into a perfectly cooked poisson.
Maybe that is the beauty of ceebujenn, its real genius—the ability to take a bunch of subpar ingredients and to turn it into a culinary feast, a communal gathering, a delicious moment.
My little sister Mafanta in her school outfit!
A beautiful detail from our hotel in Toubab Dialaw, Sobo Badé.
lutte: (French) a battle or a wrestling match, but in Senegal specifically refers to the traditional Senegalese wrestling
The first sign that today is the day of la lutte is when our bus rolls into Dakar from the south, towards the SICAP Baobab quartier (neighborhood) and passes the stadium. At least a hundred, if not two hundred people—nearly all men—are packed into chaotic and testosterone-fueled lines that barely resemble lines, inching forward into the stadium with anticipation and excitement. La lutte, says our driver definitively as he forces our way through the throng of spectators on either side of the road. When I get home, I will find my whole family crowded around the downstairs television.
The best comparison I can think of for the lutte’s position in Senegal is sumo wrestling in Japan or the luchadors in Mexico, since it is half a sport and half cultural heritage. Even though it is broadcast on the main news channel and clearly has a competitive hunger, the lutteurs do not even vaguely resemble the modern American sports complex.
Real lutteurs, like the ones on the screen today, have the body of an NFL linebacker, with huge, oxen-like thighs and huge, round bellies. They look like they would make excellent pillows if not for a clearly muscley sturdiness. Their rounded and heavy bodies are accentuated by the fact that they wear nothing but tiny cloth diaper-like shorts and gris-gris, the amulets found in West Africa and said to bestow their wearers with luck. These amulets are usually little leather cubes on strings laced around the lutteurs’ chubby biceps and hulking calves and under their big stomachs and looped over their shoulders and between their pendulous pectorals, as if to point out, in case you didn’t already know, what big guys they are.
The rules for the lutte are simple and more similar to mixed martial arts than boxing, because in fact there are nearly no rules as far as I can figure out. The only goal is to get your opponent on the ground, with either his two shoulders or his hands and knees in the dirt.
The main match tonight is between two famous lutteurs that everyone knows, Ness and Sa Thies. I know that they are famous because shortly after the match has finished my brother’s friend Ibou walks in and says, “Ah, Ness and Sa Thies!” the way an American might say “Ah, Michael Jordan!” when walking in on a basketball game.
The match itself is over in a matter of seconds. After a lot of posturing, the two huge men go at each other like linebackers, gripping each other and spinning around and throwing in what punches they can until finally Sa Thies gets one arm around Ness’s neck and the other around his waist and swings his opponent to the ground. Sa Thies looms over Ness, who has both his hands planted in the dirt and his feet holding his body above the ground, and then Sa Thies leans in and throws in one hard punch to Ness’s gut and the big lutter collapses to the ground.
Nene goes wild, screaming. Sa Thies! Sa Thies! She runs around the living room and slaps my knee and slaps Baba’s knee and slaps Adnan’s knee, clearly thrilled by the result. It was only nine seconds! What a match! She screams so loudly that my yaay comes down to watch, which is no problem since the channel goes on to show the replay nearly ten times, in slow motion, with heightened commentary in Wolof.
There is one image from the replays that I see again and again and cannot get out of my mind. After Sa Thies’s decisive win, he sprints off and away to his hype men, who shower him with praise for the news camera interviews. However, it is at this moment that the camera cuts back to Ness. He sits back up, kneeling, his huge belly yellow from the dirt. Slowly, he raises a hand coated in yellow dirt to his face and touches his lips with one finger, as if he needs to make sure that the dirt is really on it. The look on his face is one of utter bewilderment, as if he cannot believe what has happened in those few seconds and why is he on the ground all of a sudden?
Later on, I realize why Ness’s face has stuck with me all day. The look on his face is nearly exactly the one I feel like I have much of the time in Senegal.