nop: ear, ears

Sometimes, since many children will have their hair cut short, regardless of gender, it can be hard to tell who is a boy or a girl. Until you realize the trick: all baby girls, whether in the village or in the city, have their ears pierced—two piercings in each lobe, usually shown off with two tiny gold rings. They must be pierced as soon as they are born, because even the tiniest baby girl has earrings!


ngentey: the traditional Islamic-Senegalese baptism

There are three big events in Senegalese life: baptisms, weddings, and funerals. On April 4th, the day of Senegal’s national holiday, I am lucky enough to go to a baptism—my first—with my yaay, Nene, Rama, and Ndèye Awa. It is for the newborn son of my yaay’s niece.

It is really more of a naming ceremony than a baptism, because it is the day that the baby will be given his name. The baptism must take place exactly a week after the baby is born, and up until the baptism he is just called “Baby.” Let me point out just how crazy this is—that only seven days after you give birth, you are basically obligated to throw a huge party at your own house for all your family and friends, a hundred people at least, slaughter a sheep, and feed everyone from morning until night.

Not only that, but baptisms are a big deal, an important chance to show yourself off in all your finery. My sisters inform me that it is necessary to have two outfits, one for the day and one for the night. And no, not casual outfits—fully decked out, glittery traditional dresses, heavy makeup, and tons of jewelry. To underscore the magnitude of this event, Nene has a new dress made by the tailor and gets her hair redone.

We arrive at the house earlier than the guests because we are bringing sixty bowls—that’s right, sixty—for the family to use for the party. In a side room, I meet the mother. She is wearing a long loose dress that doesn’t hide her still very pregnant belly. She looks exhausted, and she is nursing a scrawny ugly baby. She has only just finished her first week of being a mother, and she looks like she has barely slept. I am astounded that she is going to go through with this whole baptism ordeal.

Because it is an ordeal. A sheep must be killed at the house, the halal way (the Islam version of kosher butchering). It is killed early in the morning, and I don’t see it happen, but the rest of the morning is spent butchering the sheep, because it will soon be cooked to feed everyone, the hundreds, who passes through. All the men are busy tearing this sheep apart with sharp knives. Meanwhile, all the women of the family have been slaving over the cooking since the early morning and probably the day before, huge pots big enough for me to crawl inside.

In the mid-morning, everyone is fed laar, the porridge. That is why we brought the bowls. There are dozens of people already here, dressed in their finery. When lunch rolls around, we finally get to taste the sheep—meat and rice and vegetables. Dozens and dozens of people, huge platters, every room and every seat filled.

At some point the mother shows up. I don’t know what has happened to the baby because I never see him again. But the mother is back and wearing a richly embroidered and bedazzled gown, rainbow eyeshadow and the thickest layer of makeup, her hair curled and perfect and sparkling with jewelry. She looks nothing like the painfully exhausted woman from the morning, and she will change outfits and makeup all over again before the night is over. I am totally blown away!

By late afternoon, hundreds of people are filing into the house, filling up every crack and every corner with their big dresses and purses and hair. It is overwhelming, to say the least. Musicians play the kora, a traditional Senegalese instrument, and sing. People sing and dance and yell. The house feels as if it will tip over from overcrowding.

And finally, late in the evening, the dinner. More of the lamb but with potatoes and sauce. And hundreds of people eating, plates handed out in a chaotic manner, people pulling up chairs anywhere and everywhere to dig in. All the leftovers—huge pots—will be taken home with guests and members of the family.

And there you have it, the baptism, a chaotic and crazy party, to say the least. I don’t think I want to go to another one, but it was quite an experience.


bundow: small

In about a week I will be leaving Senegal. While I have had an amazing time here, I am excited to go home. And I am excited to go back to the West, because as wonderful as it has been adjusting to life here, there are a lot of small things that I miss.

I miss water that runs out of the tap and showerheads that rain down, bathrooms with toilet paper, and toilet seats. I miss being cold, or at least a little chilly. I miss rain so much, the sound of it on the roofs, the way it makes the air so cool and damp and smell like sweet earth. I miss not being covered in a fine layer of dust, and I miss feeling clean. I miss drinking water out of the tap. I miss breakfast foods, like eggs and pancakes and fruits and oatmeal and cereal with milk. I miss good yogurt and milk that isn’t powdered. I miss being able to walk into the kitchen, peering into the refrigerator and seeing what’s there, and cooking for myself. I miss shoes and slippers that aren’t black with dust and dirt, and being able to wear shorts on a hot day. I miss WiFi connection at my house! I miss sitting in air-conditioned cars, or just sitting in cars to get places. I really miss Asian food! I miss the feeling of being in my own house and being totally comfortable, reading the newspaper and watching TV or reading a book on the sofa.

But don’t worry, there are a lot of little things that I know I will miss when I leave Senegal!

Photo: Baptism

Went to a baptism, an ngentey, with my family, for one of my yaay’s grand-nephews. You need two outfits, one for day, and one for night––so I was lucky that my sister Ndèye let me borrow hers! The blue traditional style dress is my morning outfit, the orange my evening outfit. On the far right you can see me with my little sister Ndèye Awa.


gueuuel: a griot, the traditional Senegalese oral storyteller

On our last afternoon in the Delta Saloum, after we have left Sangako and returned to the little inn in Sokone, a tiny city, we have the opportunity to listen to a griot (French) or a gueuuel (Wolof). Griots are the traditional Senegalese storytellers, and in a land where words are rarely written, histories and tales must be passed down by word of mouth. For these reasons, griots are revered, and are the only ones permitted to be buried in the sacred baobab trees.

In the late afternoon light, we sit on woven mats in the shade of the leafy mango trees of the inn’s grassy courtyard, forming a half-circle around the griot. Mamboi, everyone calls him. Grandfather.

He truly looks to be a grandfather, old and wizened, missing some teeth, swathed in traditional clothing and wearing traditional beads and necklaces. We sit waiting to hear what he will tell us. In my French textbooks in middle school, I always read about griots, and I cannot believe that a real live one is here before us now.

When it is all quiet, the air thick with waiting, Mamboi begins. Clear and loud, he begins to recite the famous poem Femme noire, written by the first president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor. We have all heard these words many times before in our classes, but it is different when Mamboi says them, more powerful. He gestures out the meanings of the words, tracing the verses of the poem with his hands.

And then suddenly, he begins to sing a traditional song. His voice is rough, but underneath all that roughness there is something smooth. Everyone is quiet, captivated, unable to move, even the village children who have come in to sit next to us are still with wonder. The song rings through the air, haunting and clear. And when Mamboi finishes, the last notes hang in the dying light like the dust motes, caught by the golden sun that spears through the leaves of the mango tree.

As the song ends, I reflect on the fact that I have come all the way from Hawaii to Senegal, that I am here, on this late afternoon, listening to a griot, something I had only read about in textbooks years ago. What a wonderful gift.


nelaw: to sleep

On my first night in Sangako, Madeleine and I head to sleep at 9:45pm, exhausted by the day—by the extraordinary heat, by the stinging dust, by the effort of getting to know a whole new family and village. We are so filthy, our skin sticky and covered in layers of dirt. We crawl into bed, a mat on the ground of a tiny straw-covered hut, and lower the mosquito net around us, grateful for a bed and the fact that it is finally nighttime. Little bugs nibble at our sweaty skin.
Madeleine falls asleep quickly, but I cannot. The hut is suffocatingly hot, the heat still over a hundred degrees. The two doors to the hut are locked and shut, and not a single breeze blows across my skin. There is no coolness in the air, not anywhere, even though I am stripped down to my underwear. As the mat beneath me dampens with my sweat, I can’t take it anymore. I sit up in bed, knees bent, so that the most amount of air can touch my skin and cool me down. I sit that way for what seems like hours, trying to meditate, think of stories, anything to take my mind of off the oppressive, oppressive heat. And it is hours, because when I next check my phone, it is nearly midnight.

I’m not going to get a wink of sleep, I think desperately. The idea of facing the new day, the new heat, without any sleep is terrifying. Please go to sleep, I beg my brain. Or at least let it be morning so I don’t have to sit here like this anymore!

And yet, somehow, I fall asleep. And when we wake up in the morning, it is a whole new Sangako—still hot, still dusty, but the dust storm has gone away, the hot wind has died down, and the new morning has dawned.


Photo: Île de Madeleine

Had the most beautiful day at the Île de Madeleine, an island off the coast of Dakar and accessible by pirogue. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful wild places I’ve seen in Dakar. There, we saw baobab trees covered in huge wild comorants, peeked into bird nests, saw a shipwreck and swam on the beach! (Click on photos to see them bigger.)