Sénégal, tu me manques déjà et je ne t’ai même pas quitté.

I’ve been finding myself crying at the drop of a hat in this, my last week in Dakar. A few of the things that have brought me to tears:

sabar dancers and drummers rehearsing in the cultural center.

– a taxi driver scolding Mamie, and Mamie scolding him back, after we got into his car. (Taxi drivers will often agree to come down to the fare you offer them but then pester you for being so cheap. It reminds me of Israel, where everyone is up in everyone else’s face and it doesn’t seem lighthearted, but it is.)

– being stuck in traffic at twilight while Senegal Rekk was playing on the radio and the taxi driver was chit chatting with the drivers on either side of him.

– taking a car rapide in which we were squeezed in like sardines. Car rapides are, in my view, the most iconic and beautiful image of Dakar, though they are really not roadworthy.

– getting lost on the streets of Ouakam, as previously noted.

It’s funny how annoying things somehow become heart-breakingly beautiful when you are about to leave them behind.

I mean, I think I will even miss power cuts.

One sultry autumn night soon after I got back from Benin there was a power outage right before the sun set, and we lit candles, turned on our phones’ flashlights, and sat quietly around the table drinking the Beninoise tea I had had every night in Cotonou and had attempted to recreate at home. It’s made with fresh ginger, a limey type of lemon, honey, and mint, and it lulls you to sleep better than Nyquil.

I usually don’t mess with the gas cylinder on the first floor that everyone in my household uses, and on the rare occasions when I cook, I instead opt for the more familiar oven and range on the second floor. For some reason, I attempted to give the cylinder a shot that night, under the most challenging circumstances possible. Trying to turn the little knob down low enough so that the boiling water didn’t overflow all over the place, but not so low that the flame was extinguished and had to be relit, in the pitch dark, while holding a flashlight in one hand, was rather difficult. But I was in a good mood, and it felt like a fun adventure.

As did the entirety of my year here, really. How am I supposed to say goodbye when I don’t want it to end?

Senegal, kay lekk! (If you don’t know what that means, read today’s earlier post.)

One summer when I was home from college, I trained to be a Philadelphia trolley tour guide. (I was too lazy to study for the exam so I never actually became one.) I don’t remember much of what I learned about my quasi-hometown’s history, but I do remember a piece of advice that a seasoned guide gave us during an instructional tour. He said that if we ever forgot the name of a landmark, we could take an educated guess that it was Franklin [Hospital / Square / Bridge / Museum / Parkway / Institute / Etc.], because, “9 times out of 10 it’s Ben.

In Senegal, a bastardization of this rule can be perfectly applied to food. If you’re not sure what you’re going to be eating on any given day, well:

“9 times out of 10 it’s thieboudienne.” Continue reading

The best of words, the worst of words (Wolof edition! With French bonus word!): lekk / kay and Badara (+ époustouflant)

Salaam alekum! Nanga def? Lou bess?*

I haven’t done a “best of words, worst of words” since being in Senegal, so, five days before my departure (!!!!!), i present to you the first and probably last Wolof version of the series, at least for the time being.

Tantie aka Armande chose two favorite Wolof words. Usually I force people to commit to just one above all others, but since she had so much trouble coming up with her most detested word, I cut her some slack. Her first favorite:

Lekk means “to eat. She chose this word because she likes to eat, pure and simple.

Her next choice was not so simple, at least not for non-Wolof-speaking me.

Kay means “come,” but unlike other verbs, kay has no conjugation. It’s always just kay, and whatever modifier you add to it indicates your specific meaning. Tantie likes this word because it can have so many different senses – demanding, friendly, romantic – depending on how you say it and which word(s) you follow it with.

As for her most hated word, Tantie sort of cheated. She couldn’t come up with an actual word so she chose a Wolof man’s name.

Tantie has no idea why she dislikes this name so much. One day she was watching TV with her brother when a man came onscreen with the name Badara, and she found herself saying vehemently, “I hate that name.” She assured me that it had nothing to do with any actual person.

For good measure, I asked Tantie what her favorite and least favorite French words are. She could only come up with a favorite. (Tantie may be too nice for her own good.)

The reason for époustouflant: It’s a funny word that’s fun to say.

It is indeed. And it means breathtaking, mind-boggling, staggering, or amazing.

I hope you enjoyed your brief Wolof (and even briefer French) lesson. Jerejef – thank you – for reading.

* Hello, how are you? What’s new? [Salaam alekum is Arabic; the rest if Wolof. You may see the Wolof words spelled differently in different places because Wolof’s original written script has been replaced with transliterations based on French or other (Arabic? not sure) phonetic systems.]

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?

assorted musings on an anxious return

As I prepare to return to the United States for my first visit in more than a year, I am worried not about reverse culture shock, but about the possibility of its absence. I’ve been wondering how much of that nervousness is due to pride and how much is due to something else worth paying attention to.

Here’s the part that ego plays: I find myself fearing that if I fall seamlessly back into American life, it means that I wasn’t gone long enough or immersed deeply enough for it to have been, you know, real. When I moved to Los Angeles after college I held a similar (and similarly misguided) belief: that the longer I stayed away from home, the more adult and independent I must be. I flew out there in November of 2001 and didn’t return to the East Coast to see my family or friends until I had a wedding to go to, two summers later. I wasn’t as aware then as I am now that I was trying to prove something to myself, but how much is self-awareness worth if it doesn’t stop you from pulling the same stupid stunts? (To be fair, this time I stayed away for so long for the purpose of taxes rather than self-validation. 🙂 But I must admit that my sense of accomplishment deepens with every additional month I spend abroad.)

But on the other hand…

I’d like to think that I’ve grown and changed for the better this past year because I’ve internalized the lessons and lifestyle that I’ve learned here, not because circumstances forced me to behave differently. If the latter, I’ll go right back to my old self the moment I get back to my old home, even though that old self was not nearly as happy as my current self. I’m thinking specifically about my patterns of consumption. The everything-anywhere-all the time ways of American society numb my soul and literally sicken me (and I mean literally quite literally, e.g. gluten intolerance, acid reflux, anxiety), and yet I find it all so alluring and impossible to resist. Case in point: I have actually fantasized in great detail about being reunited with the closet full of clothes I left behind. I am afraid I will react to seeing them much like Annette Bening at the end of “American Beauty.”

Thus, Ruth vs capitalism is an unresolvable conflict, and it seems the only solution is to remove myself from the situation. Senegal worked well for me; it’s like capitalism lite here. It was such a pleasure to not be marketed to every second of every day, and I ended up living in a way that was much more aligned with my values, and ultimately much more meaningful and satisfying.

So, going back to full-fat capitalism is legitimately scary for me. I am psyching myself up to resist the temptation to spend and acquire and gorge (and guilt myself and regret and feel empty). But that stuff has a powerful pull, and I would welcome reverse culture shock insofar as it would help to push me in the opposite direction.

Another quasi-legitimate fear is that I will leave Senegal only to find that it has left no mark – that I had a chameleon-like ability to adjust to it without really becoming a part of it or it becoming a part of me. And that would make me sad. (Much as I felt sad when, after finally starting to organically call people “y’all” in my fourth and last year in Austin, the word disappeared from my speech the moment I returned to the East Coast. And though I missed its presence – and the feeling that I had become a tiny bit Texan – I could not bring myself to force its usage.) It’s silly in some ways, but still psychically important. So I really do hope that upon arriving home, some formerly normal everyday practice or cultural facet will seem totally bizarre to me, and I will prefer to continue doing it Senegalese style. (What that thing will be, I have no clue. Certainly not washing clothes by hand.)

[P.S. The photo above is the flight map from when I flew to Dakar from my stopover in Brussels. For my return trip, I spent the extra 10,000 airline miles to fly directly to New York, because I know the anticipation will kill me if I have to do the trip in two parts.]

my tapis

I was visiting a friend at her AirBnB and noticed really beautiful tapestries on the wall. The owner of the apartment told me that they were done with a traditional Senegalese design, which surprised me. I didn’t even know that weaving is a Senegalese handicraft, let alone that there is a specific style. I’ve not once seen tapestries in the artisan shops around town.

Anyway, I was so taken by the tapestries that I went to the guy who wove them to order my own. I chose a design from among the images on his iPad, but I asked him to change the color scheme and make it mostly greens and pinkish reds.

Partway through the weaving process, I came to watch him work. (There is a weaving class in Brooklyn that I wanted to take for years but never got around to. I have a theory that my anxious self is meant not to be a filmmaker but rather a weaver. You still get to use your hands to create art, but instead of it being a stressful process, it’s meditative.)

Even watching the process was mesmerizing. I sat there and stared at Lamin the weaver’s hands moving the thread and his feet moving the pedal until I was in something of a trance. I half-jokingly asked him if he would make me his apprentice, and he promised that if I came back before the tapestry was finished, he would set aside a little bit of loom for me and show me how to weave, and we could work side by side until he was done with my order. I tried so hard to make it back to his atelier on time, but I had a (stressful) edit deadline that I wouldn’t have been able to meet if I spent even the smallest amount of time on new hobbies.

Now it’s too late, since Lamin is done my tapestry and he’s using all the available loom space for a large-scale portrait.

Here’s the finished piece. I love how it turned out. (Please disregard my blue and green sheets peeking out underneath. The tapestry is completely rectangular but I photographed it badly.)

If you are ever in Dakar and want a tapestry and/or to learn how to weave, hit up Lamin! He is in Point E in an atelier at the back of the Centre Socio Culturel, which is very close to the round-point with the Total gas station. (That’s the Dakarois way of giving directions. The non-human-friendly, Google Maps way to say it is Rue G between Allees and Rue 110.)

It’s a small world after all

Before I leave Senegal I would like to point out that West Africa is a very small ex-patriot world. (For the purpose of this discussion, I am considering the Casablanca airport to be an extension of West Africa, because you fly through there or Abidjan to get almost anywhere else in the region. I’ve spent at least 24 hours in that airport over the course of 6 or 7 stops there this past year.)

Here are some of my most notable small world moments:

– Liberia is one of those places that, depending on which day of the week you travel from Dakar, requires a flight north to Casablanca before heading back south to Monrovia. I did that route last June, and on the first plane, I ran into a woman I had met a few weeks before. She was on her way to Niger. We shared a snack in the airport before going our separate ways.

– That wasn’t a huge coincidence. But, while deciding where to eat said snack, I saw another woman I was sure I recognized, and after she noticed me staring at her, we figured out that she had shown me around an apartment for rent in her house a few months before. She was on her way back to Dakar after a vacation in France.

– While in Liberia, I met up for drinks with one of only three friends I had made so far in Dakar. He was passing through Monrovia after being on assignment in the north part of the country and in Guinea; I was finishing up a project in the south and east part of the country. We had perhaps five hours in common in Monrovia, not the most conducive to seeing each other. But I insisted we make it work because it was such a fluke.

– On a different day in Monrovia, I was standing outside a government building when two Americans walked up, and – in a gesture of friendliness from one foreigner to another – introduced themselves to me before heading inside. I recognized one of them from a blog that I had discovered not a week before when I was Googling a tiny town in Liberia to get a better sense of what to expect. The man seemed quite embarrassed when I exclaimed, “I’ve seen your face before – on your wife’s blog!”

– Back to Dakar: In the restaurant where I regularly eat lunch and sometimes stay to work, I ran into the supervisor of several of my projects this year. He was eating dinner with his cousin, who was in town for a business trip. After exchanging a few words about what her job entails, we realized that she works very closely – as in side by side with – my former roommate in Los Angeles.

– I got off to a slow start, but little by little I met the journalists and filmmakers of Dakar. Eventually I noticed that every single one of the former New Yorkers was from the same neighborhood as me, Prospect Heights, or just over the neighborhood’s dividing line in Park Slope. One woman used to bartend at a place where I stopped in quite a bit, so it’s likely she’s served me drinks. Another guy used to live a mere three blocks from me. I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have passed on the street at least once. Perhaps some psychic wormhole connects a five-block radius in Brooklyn to Dakar.

– A few months ago, an English friend who is researching her PhD in Senegal introduced me to her new friend, another PhD candidate from UCLA. Los Angeles is a city of 4 million people defined by its sprawl. There are hundreds of neighborhoods, almost all of them with clearly defined borders and unique character. Because as an East Coaster I didn’t know how to tell good sprawl from bad sprawl when I first moved to LA, the neighborhood I chose to live in was the exception to this rule. It lacked any and all vibes and was mostly the place where two big freeways intersected. When I told people that I lived in West L.A., they didn’t even realize it was the name of a neighborhood and not just the way to say you live in the western half of the city. All this to preface the crazy coincidence that, as it turns out, the PhD candidate and I lived on the same street, albeit 15 years apart from each other. (I told her she really needs to move.)

As I’m writing this I am becoming aware of a distinct possibility: Perhaps it is not that the ex-patriot world is so small; perhaps it is instead that I am the Kevin Bacon of ex-patriots. (I already knew that I am the Kevin Bacon of celebrity interactions. I challenge you to try me.)

[Photo: Ludovic Mauduit]

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.