époustouflant!

Something astonishing has happened.

The astonishing news was delivered in a fittingly astonishing way. A couple of months ago, I was checking in with Mamie on WhatsApp, as I had been doing every few weeks. Someone in the Lo family was recovering from a serious case of COVID, so our conversations always started with that and then turned to, “quoi de neuf?” i.e. “what’s new?”. Over the past year and a half, life has slowed down on both sides of the Atlantic, so apart from pandemic-related news, neither Mamie nor I usually had much to report. Here and there, we would note a job development or give an update on a niece or nephew’s antics. But on April 3rd, Mamie said:

I am ok thanks! Lots of things to do lately with the organization of the club’s open house.

Oh I forgot to tell you that Tanti is popular now.

She then posted the following two photos.

And she concluded, “She is playing the role of lawyer.”

If you’re confused what this all means, that’s okay. So was I. I responded, “What what????? Is that a BILLBOARD??? Is she on TELEVISION?????? Whaaaaaaaaaat?!?!?!?!”

Here’s what I knew about Tantie to date. She was in her last year of college when we met, and she was studying something prosaic like economics or management. She did dabble in the entertainment industry, but on a very small scale. Very early on in my time in Senegal, I filmed her audition tape for a VJ’ing contest a local station was sponsoring. She did a one-minute intro to an imaginary program, and I remember thinking that she was actually quite good — a natural in front of the camera. She didn’t win the contest, but about a year later, she auditioned for a short fiction video that an environmental non-profit was producing, and she got the part. The whole family and I went to the premiere and I was again impressed that Tantie seemed to have this very intuitive ability to ignore the camera and act.

But that was the end of it. I left Senegal shortly afterwards, and Mamie updated me that Tantie had become an entrepreneur and started an agro-business. When I returned to Senegal I saw that Tantie had somehow — without knowing anything about agriculture — launched an organic juice brand as well as an organic farm-to-market enterprise. I realized that Tantie really knows how to work a hustle, whatever that hustle may be. She put everything she had into the business, and for the past two years, that was her focus.

So it came as quite a shock to see her face on a billboard, and to infer — because Mamie never actually said so — that Tantie was on a television show. (It was also both maddening and hilarious that Mamie “forgot” to tell me this earth-shaking news.) In response to my astonished questions, Mamie confirmed that yes, Tantie is on TV. She added, “And guess what, we are in downtown at this moment in a shawarma place and even the waiter recognized her. Cause the series is popular like Wiri Wiri.”

Wiri Wiri is the hugely successful Senegalese soap opera whose theme song transports me right back to the Lo family’s house in SICAP Baobab. The fact that Tantie is in a show that could be mentioned in the same breath as Wiri Wiri is downright époustouflant.

So I told Mamie I needed to watch it immediately, and she told me it’s on YouTube. Below is the trailer. (You can turn French subtitles on to follow the Wolof, but there are no English subtitles, unfortunately.) Tantie is the one with braids who plays novice lawyer, Aminata. She is also the woman in the trailer’s poster image below. WHHAAAAAATT!!!

I had been waiting to post about this until I finished watching the series, but they are still releasing new episodes and I have no idea how many there are. I’m up to episode 22 now, in which they introduced a few new plot twists, so there’s no sign that they are anywhere near the conclusion. I can honestly say that Tantie is one of the best actors in the show, and that it’s quite entertaining television (if also full of the most convoluted plot points and ridiculous product placements / advertorials — although those are also entertaining in their own way).

Here’s what truly blows me away. Episode 22 was released yesterday and it already has more than 600,000 views. The first episode has 2 million. I’ve always seen Tantie through Mamie’s eyes, as the little sister with big schemes and dreams. But now I need to open my eyes and see her as the Senegalese TV star she is.

I can’t wait to go back to Dakar and be part of her entourage. 😎

Have a good weekend!

It’s my last weekend in Senegal! I am feeling sort of bereft. Last night we were searching out a place that Google Maps had pinpointed exactly but that neither GPS nor the actual layout of the streets would allow us to find in real life. Par for the course. My friends called out to me from down the sandy, silent road – they thought they had figured out the way, while I was busy scoping out another direction – and as I was running to catch up to them, something caught in my throat and my inner voice shouted out at me, “STAY! YOU ARE LEAVING TOO SOON!” But alas, it will always feel too soon, and I’ve got compelling reasons to go exactly when I’m going.

One of those reasons – a small but not insignificant one for someone in my line of work – is that I am in the midst of a full-blown movie drought. Considering that I am in the land of Ousmane Sembène, the most famous African filmmaker, it is really strange that there are no honest-to-goodness movie theaters in Dakar. Apparently the last one closed in the 90’s or early 2000’s. Instead, there are small screening rooms, like the one I went to at the French Institute (pictured above) to see a documentary about the way that rumba on either side of the Atlantic has cross-pollinated with the other side. (Perfect subject, mediocre film.) There is also a full-sized movie screen in a supposedly temporary inflatable structure near the shopping center on the waterfront.

I tried going to the movies there the few times they looked good enough to bother. The first couple of times were fails of my own doing. The third time, there were “technical difficulties” and they told me to come back the next week. The fourth time was the charm, and I saw “Fences” there the night before the Oscars. But it was hard to hear the dialogue because the structure kept making weird sucking noises and expanding and contracting like it was breathing. A pretty subpar theatre; I hadn’t been missing much by staying away.

Meanwhile, the films they play on TV are either terrible and/or overdubbed in French, which I find impossible to watch. (My theory is that since I rely a lot upon lip-reading to understand French, my brain gets hopelessly confused when watching people whose mouths don’t match the words coming out of them.) And I can’t stream movies on my laptop in my room because of my horrible Internet situation (which, by the way, I’ve realized is a product not only of the slow wi-fi in my neighborhood, but also of the very thick walls in my building. I may just have the worst Internet connection in town.) Thus I’ve seen a grand total of exactly four full movies in Senegal. By contrast, I probably saw 100 the previous year.

So, I am leaving Senegal too soon, but I also can’t get back to movies soon enough. I am so excited to catch up on all that I’ve missed and to watch some new releases in one of my favorite New York cinemas.

Now… switching abruptly to your weekend reads, and flailing for a transition. How about, you are excused from reading these if you go to the movies instead?

Enjoy your weekends!

There is an earphone coming out that will translate foreign language speech into your own language.

Apparently in France I may be heading towards exactly what I was running away from in New York: the creeping big-boxification of urban spaces.

“Everybody, let’s tighten the anus,” is apparently a Korean folksong, and you can watch a video of its performance, with delightful subtitles. (There is also a link to a research paper about its social and cultural meaning!)

Have you ever heard of Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth official language? (I had not.)

Too old to learn a language? Don’t believe it.

US citizens traveling to Europe may soon need a visa.

Beautiful photos of Portugese fishing in the 1950s.

Well, this is a relief for someone like me, who takes forever to spit out her thoughts: fast talkers and slow talkers end up conveying the same amount of information in the same amount of time.

What gets easier when you study more languages?

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.

my one year Sene-versary

ile de ngor.jpg
One year ago today I arrived in Senegal. Just yesterday, I posted a love letter to my home for the past year, Dakar, so I won’t do that again today. Instead, I will post a most fitting love letter to myself.

I, after all, got me here.

Dear Ruth:

Now, I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt like this before. Yes, I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

I’ve been waiting for so long, now I’ve finally found someone to stand by me. We saw the writing on the wall as we felt this magical fantasy. Now with passion in our eyes, there’s no way we could disguise it secretly. So we take each other’s hand, ‘cause we seem to understand the urgency.

Just remember: you’re the one thing I can’t get enough of. So I’ll tell you something – this could be love, because I’ve had the time of my life. No, I never felt this way before. Yes I swear, it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you.

‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life, and I’ve searched though every open door, ’til I found the truth, and I owe it all to you.

XOXOXO,

me / you

P.S. We can build this dream together, standing strong forever, nothing’s gonna stop us now. And if this world runs out of lovers, we’ll still have each other. Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.

my week in the news

Last week, I emerged from my funk just in time for, and perhaps in part because of, a 5 day-long job subbing in as cameraperson for a major news network’s live broadcasts about the political crisis in The Gambia.

I was both incredibly psyched and absolutely terrified to do it. For an anxious person who does not work well under intense pressure and who is not very confident about my camerawork, running live broadcasts is just about the scariest job there is. But for someone who is in thrall to the glamour of chasing stories across the globe and fascinated by the culture of journalism – a culture that I as a documentary producer am close to but not part of – it was too good an offer to pass up. Continue reading

what I was up to in Benin and central(ish) Senegal

I just noticed that the videos I made in Benin have been published, and I realized I never shared the ones I made in Senegal, so here they are.

The 3-minute English version of the Benin video:

And the 5-minute French version, which makes me want to jump up and down shouting, “I did it all by myself!” (Even though I didn’t. I got help revising the subtitles, which I butchered on the first attempt.)

And below are the Senegal videos, Forou Serer first and Latmingué second. Mamie is the narrator of both! (She thinks I have made her a star because the videos played in New York. 🙂 )

 

Six distinctive things about Ethiopia

A few things that stood out to me:

– Their scaffolding is seriously death-defying (or not). Ethiopia was the first time I saw anything like this and I thought it was a unique quirk of the country, but then I saw it in Benin and said a silent prayer for their construction workers, too.

– Juice bars are ubiquitous, and mixed juice smoothies served parfait-style is very popular (and delicious, especially when avocado is one of the layers).

I would think that having juice bars on every corner would be the bi-product of a country in which alcohol is prohibited, but that’s not the case. Maybe they just know that they lucked out in the local fruit lottery (papaya, mango, avocado, pineapple…) and are taking advantage of it?

– As I mentioned before, Ethiopia is the only African country not to have been colonized by the West.

– Ethiopian cuisine is entirely unique.

The ancient grain, teff, is grown throughout Ethiopia and hardly anywhere else in the world. Since teff is what injera is made out of, and since injera is served with almost everything, it means that Ethiopian food tastes different than any other food on earth (except for maybe Eritrean?…).

Here’s a recent New York Times article about how Ethiopia is negotiating the tricky balance of bringing teff to the world market without rendering it out of reach of Ethiopians. (As was the case with quinoa in South America.)

– I have never seen anything like Ethiopian shoulder dancing, aka eskista:

I can’t say it (literally) moves me, but it does fascinate me.

– They use their own quirky clock (and their own calendar), and it definitely doesn’t match their official time zone. This article explains.

what I was up to in Liberia

Before I post pictures from Liberia, I want to share the video that I made there, which was the reason for my trip:

If you lack the attention span for a 14-minute video on reproductive health, here’s a 4-minute version. And here’s an even shorter cut that AJ+ did using my footage. Documentaries / non-fiction videos are often trees falling in forests, but AJ+ has a really big audience and their piece has gotten over 300,000 views so far, which makes me very, very happy.

It was such a privilege to see Liberia in the way that I did through this project. While I love dropping into a place as a tourist and observing on a surface level, it’s a different and deeper kind of enrichment to spend time in a country where your primary purpose is to document some facet of humanity. Criss-crossing the country from Monrovia to the most remote villages, I got up close and personal with people – mostly women – whose lives and experiences have been about as different from my own as you can get. Strangers afforded me access to their private lives, thoughts, and feelings, and they entrusted me to portray them sensitively to the public. It always amazes me when that happens, considering how guarded I personally am in front of a camera.

I would never claim to “know” Liberia or Liberians after only two weeks… but I will say that what I experienced there has made a huge impact on how I “know” and see and feel about myself and the world. I think that is the greatest gift that travel – and this line of work – can give you.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

One of my favorite love stories:

From StoryCorps: “In January 2007, Rachel P. Salazar and Ruben P. Salazar were living 9,000 miles apart and completely unaware of each other’s existence. But when an email meant for Rachel accidentally went to Ruben, it wasn’t long before an ordinary mistake began to look like an extraordinary stroke of luck.”

And in the same vein… a beautiful clarion call about love in the age of Tinder (which includes a tale of learning a foreign language and moving abroad for love, so it’s totally relevant here).

Paris Je T’aime

Paris Je T'aime Alexander Payne

The only vignette I enjoyed in “Paris Je T’aime” is also one of my favorite pieces of film. “14e Arrondissement,”Alexander Payne’s contribution, so perfectly and beautifully captures the unexpected jolts of emotion when traveling alone – the moments of feeling simultaneously connected and cut off, joyous and contemplative, full of wonder and full of solitude. It’s a fairly addictive experience.

The movie is old but I was reminded of it upon my return from Paris, where I didn’t get much alone time but nevertheless found myself in the headspace of a solo traveler, in all the best ways.