ending FGM in Mauritania

Recently, I wrote about my trip to Mauritania, which was part of a four-country shoot for videos about local change-makers who are helping to turn the tide against female genital mutilation, or FGM.

I shot the footage for the series in all four countries – Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and The Gambia – but the only video I edited was the one about Mauritania… so that’s the one I’m going to show you. 🙂

Here it is, in English:

(And here’s the French version.)

FGM is a subject I’ve cared about for many years, and I’m so happy I finally had a chance to work on a video about it. I’m even happier that the video’s message is a positive one rather than a downer.

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Cape Verde part one: Cidade Velho, Praia and Mindelo

Many years ago, I read a travel writer’s claim that Cape Verde is the most festive country in Africa, and I put it on my list of places to go. I no longer prioritize partying, but Dakar is just a two-hour flight from the capital of Praia, and after seeing pictures of the mountains of Santa Antão, I swore I’d visit before leaving Senegal. So at the end of January, I island-hopped between Santiago (where Praia is located), São Vicente, and Santa Antão, and I was blown away nearly every step of the way. I mean this both literally and figuratively; Cape Verde is a windy country. Continue reading

French and FOMO

I realized recently, after a conversation with a Frenchman that left me floating on air simply because it was an honest-to-goodness French conversation: my impetus for learning languages may be nothing but misguided FOMO.

I remember my frustration during visits to Israel, when 15 or 20 extended family members and friends of my cousins would pack themselves around my aunt and uncle’s long table and everyone, young and old – except for my brother and sister and me – would enjoy hours of boisterous conversation in rapid-fire Hebrew. I would tug desperately at my mother’s sleeve whenever anyone laughed or yelled, asking her again and again, “What did s/he say???” My mother would answer me maybe twenty percent of the time, and I can’t blame her, because I was like a broken record, demanding line by line interpretation services.

I think maybe that sense of missing all the fun has haunted me up to the present, because why else would I consecrate so much time to understanding strangers?

In related news, it occurred to me that I ascribe way more coolness to the French than they actually deserve, simply because I don’t fully understand them. (Also because they dress really well.) The other day this song came on the radio, and I noted that it perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I’m hanging out with a bunch of French people.

I hardly ever feel that way with the Senegalese, for several reasons: I’m used to their accents. They tend to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly than the French. And they are usually more patient with me, probably because for most of them, French is their second language as well.

My goal during my month in Paris, more than finding a job or making it a home, is to relieve myself of the sense that the French are all having a party that I’m not invited to. I thought I had aged out of that less-than, outsider feeling – the one I used to have in college in New York and in my early 20’s in Los Angeles – but apparently I am not immune to the language barrier-induced variety. It’s ridiculous and I know it, so I’m hopeful that the mystique will fall away pretty quickly. My only fear is that the moment it does, my motivation to become fluent in French will disappear with it.

[Photo: WSIFrancis]

To each his own ignorance

Night has fallen on the banks of the Gambia River. After a 6am start, a 4-hour road trip, and a 10-hour shoot, I am finally getting ready for bed on the second floor of a compact motel-like guesthouse along the riverside. It’s surrounded by the darkness of a huge dirt lot, which is in turn enclosed by a concrete wall. A few minutes’ walk beyond that is the small town where we have been filming all day.

I hear a knock at the door and a male voice asks, “Hello, how are you?” Thinking it might be the manager, I answer, “I’m fine. Can I help you?” The response is, to an almost comical degree, exactly what a woman alone in the middle of nowhere never wants to hear: “I’m a stranger. I want to talk to you. Are you busy?” He then jiggles the door handle. Thankfully, I’ve remembered to lock it. Continue reading

Have a good weekend!

Just got back from enjoying live Congolese music at a place in my neighborhood that has only just been introduced to me, two weeks before my departure. Ah well, such is life.

It’s now one in the morning. I should go to bed…. But I’ve been accumulating interesting links for a month or so, and if I don’t share them now they will become hopelessly stale. So here they are:

Non-English words for emotions the English language doesn’t have exact words for.

Sounds that babies hear in the womb affect their language learning.

In China, there was a 19th century script that only women could write.

In Liberia last year, I came to appreciate how much of my way of life is made possible by electricity, and what it’s like to go without. Here’s an interesting article on the country’s struggle to get back on the grid.

The Mystery and Occasional Poetry of, Uh, Filled Pauses.

Donald Trump’s is using the language of victimhood to position himself as America’s savior.

5 tips for conquering the “intermediate plateau” of language learning.

Calling Yourself ‘Humbled’ Doesn’t Sound as Humble as It Used To.

With thanks to Randy for passing along this animated interview with Chimamanda Adichie: What Americans get wrong about Africa.

The US is no longer a full democracy, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Perhaps this has something to do with why.

¿What’s the story with ¿ and ¡ ?

This mosque looks crazy beautiful.

I Traveled to a Magical Island — Alone.

Have a good night and enjoy your weekends!

P.S. The photo above is from the Ile de Ngor this past summer. It’s fairly chilly, relatively speaking, in Dakar in February… and NYC might have actually been warmer today!

My plans, or lack thereof

So… I’m leaving Dakar. Which I know sounds ridiculous coming just days after I posted a love letter to the city. I meant every word of it, and I’m sure I would fall even harder the longer I stayed. But sometimes you can’t be with the one you love. Continue reading

Cultural relativism in action

Do you know what these fully grown and otherwise normal adults are doing?

The Electric Slide.

Yes, the dance of my bat mitzvah memories is also apparently a mainstay at Electrafrique nights here in Dakar. I’ve seen the dance floor taken over by the Electric Slide twice now. Both times it started spontaneously with one or two people. Both times I watched in horror and then fascination as more and more people joined in, oblivious to the fact that the Electric Slide IS IN NO WAY COOL.

I think of this particular line dance as a vestige of my pre-pubescence, and the precursor to the Macarena. I blithely danced it nearly every weekend the year I was 13, wearing socks, a pouffy dress, and a training bra. I would not be caught dead doing it ever again, even in jest. And yet… a bunch of really hip Africans and Europeans seem to think it is the COOLEST THING EVER.

That, my friends, is a harmless but potent example of cultural relativism.

Have you experienced something like this recently? I’d love to hear about it…

Miluju Čechy (which may or may not accurately mean, “I love Czechs”)

I wrote to the Czech Consulate in New York to ask for advice re: getting my passport reissued to Ruth Fertig instead of Ruth Fertigová. They suggested visiting the consulate here in Dakar. The website that they linked me to provides that office’s information, including “telefon,” “fax,” “e-mail,” and something called, “provozní hodiny úřadu,” which is followed by, “po – pá 8.30 – 17.00.”

My excellent powers of deduction led me to believe that these were the hours of operation, and that “po – pá” must be the shortened versions of two weekdays. The entirety of my Czech vocabulary consists of the words for pancakes, potatoes, dumplings, Czech, I love you, thank you, how are you, mom, dad, and hello, so I started plugging weekdays into Google Translate. “Monday” is “pondělí,” so that accounts for the first day. I typed in “Tuesday;” that day starts with a u. “Wednesday” starts with an s. Thursday… well, I stopped short at Thursday. What the hell is this??

My awe for my father grew tenfold at the thought that he is capable of pronouncing such a thing.

And my adoration for Czechs in general also grew tenfold when I typed in “Friday” and Google auto-suggested “Friday I’m in love.”

I can’t tell whether this is a result of Eastern Europeans’ abiding love for the Cure or their tendency to embrace Western European and American pop culture 10-20 years after the original issue date, as though the Iron Curtain still existed. The latter sounds patronizing, I know, but it’s been my observation each of the 3 or 4 times I’ve been in the Czech Republic and the one time I was in Romania. Either way, I love the Czechs.

P.S. Today is International Mother Language Day, which promotes the preservation and protection of all languages through multilingualism and multiculturalism. It’s therefore highly appropriate that I write about my father’s mother tongue today – though also highly inappropriate that I’m taking absolutely no initiative to learn it.

checking back in with the fears

Just over a year ago, on the cusp of leaving for Senegal, I jotted down a list of my fears about picking up and moving abroad with no job and very little idea of what to expect. I would now like to revisit that list, because it’s a good signpost of how far I’ve traveled both mentally and physically: Continue reading