Allez les Lions! (Also, Vamos, vamos Argentina!)

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Less than a year and a half ago, I boarded a plane in Dakar bound for New York. As I stepped off the collapsible staircase and through the door of the plane, I realized that I had effectively left Senegalese soil and I had to hold back tears. A few drops squeezed out despite my best efforts and as they slowly rolled down my cheeks, I imagined that I must look like a spoof of a French new wave film.

Before I realized that the cabin crew was 100% American, I apologetically explained to the flight attendant whose eye I had accidentally caught, “Je pars…,” and then I trailed off sheepishly. She smiled at me with the truly soft and sympathetic look of someone who has borne witness to this scene a million times, and she said simply, “I know.” I am not sure she did actually know what I had said, but she knew what my tears meant. I am leaving. I don’t know when I’ll be back. And it feels like I’m leaving a bit of my heart behind.

I thought of that moment on Tuesday evening as I crossed over the East River from Manhattan into Brooklyn. The sun was setting, and New York was at its most beautiful. Earlier that morning I had been briefly and emotionally reunited with the country I hadn’t been ready to leave, and it was wonderful.

That’s all a very melodramatic way to say that I watched the Senegal v. Poland game from a Senegalese cafe in Crown Heights, and I ate Senegalese food for the first time since being in-country, and I heard Wolof and West African-accented French all around me, and when Senegal won I may as well have been in Dakar for all the joy in me and surrounding me.

I am so thankful that New York is a city where you can experience a little bit of the magic of every other country on earth. And it is especially magical at World Cup time.

I’m going back to the cafe on Sunday for the Senegal v. Japan game and what I hope is a repeat of the euphoria of victory. (I won’t even get into the sadness of the Argentina v. Croatia game. I’m hoping for a miraculous turnaround that allows Argentina to advance and Messi to stop looking so forlorn.)

As we go into the weekend, I leave you with a few moments of Team Senegal adorableness.

This is why I ride with Senegal, indeed.

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My Dakar places

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On Valentine’s Day two years ago, I flew to Dakar. So much has happened since then that it feels more like a decade.

It also feels like I left Dakar ages ago, but it’s actually only been eleven months, which is so unbelievable to me that I redid the math twice. Still, eleven months is long enough to lose touch with a place, and the list I’m about to post may be a little outdated. But I’ve been promising it to myself and others for too long to let it evaporate. And things change far more slowly in Dakar than in New York, so even though there are surely new places to discover, almost all of these old places could still be going strong. (I’ll edit the post accordingly if I learn differently.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my favorite places in Dakar… Continue reading

my Senegal playlist

Before I left Senegal I gathered all the West and Central African songs that I had either heard for the first time and loved, or learned to love better, while in Dakar and I put them onto an itunes playlist. I just transferred them into a Spotify playlist so that I can share them with you:

If you are eagle-eyed / eagle-eared you will notice that one of these things is not like the others… I heard “Prayer in C” for the first (and second, and third, and fourth) time during a twelve-hour stint in the Casablanca airport and it grew on me so much that I googled the lyrics to identify it. When I got back to Dakar I downloaded it on itunes and continued to play it repeatedly, so that it is now inextricably linked with my time in Senegal even though the song is French.

Following my foray into French new wave, my next digging project is to find the best of Nigerian and Ghanian highlife music. Any ideas about what’s good, let me know!

my favorite pictures from Dakar

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Because I’m in NYC feeling reverse homesickness, if you will, here are the pix that I love the most from my time in Dakar.

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The architecture I love combined with the car rapides that I love = a feast for the eyes.IMG_7236 copy

On Tamkharit (or Tamxarit), a week after the Islamic new year, Muslim friends and relatives of the family I lived with brought around huge bowls of a spiced millet couscous and a sweet stew called thiere. The picture above represents perhaps half of the generosity shown to the Lo family by their Dakarois neighbors. On every holiday, I was touched by how many people stopped by to visit and drop off food. IMG_7436 copy

And on my own holiday – Thanksgiving – I made an American feast for the family. It was a really fun night.

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I went with Mamie and Tantie Lo to a fabric market to pick out material for a dress Mamie needed made before a wedding. She waded deep into the piles upon piles of fabric and I love the expression on her face as she listened to Tantie advising her from the street.IMG_7119 copy

And I love this one of Tantie and Mamie and me. We were getting “sundowners,” as they call sunset drinks in Dakar (I could never figure out if this was a British or French expression), at a hotel bar overlooking the ocean.

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One morning I came downstairs to catch everyone in the household in the same exact pose. I found it fairly adorable.

I loved living with the Lo’s. They were endlessly warm and welcoming, and through them I learned what daily life is really like in Dakar. (I also got incredible French practice.)

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Seeing Youssou N’Dour from front row seats on the eve of Senegalese Independence Day was hands down my best night in Dakar.

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One day many months into my stay in Dakar, I happened upon this baguette truck in my neighborhood. From then on I saw it everywhere, and I swooned every time. IMG_20170211_233743081 copy 2One of my last nights out was for a women’s association event hosted by the matriarch of the Lo family. A Tuareg man from Timbuktu, Mali was at the table next to mine, and until the “Parade of Nations” at like 2 in the morning, I didn’t realize that he was carrying a sword as part of his traditional dress for that parade. I thought he must trot it out for every special occasion, and I was in awe. Just goes to show: never draw conclusions based on observations of cultures that are unfamiliar to you.IMG_20170214_161939270 copy 2

My last month in Dakar, I raced my way through every spot left on my “to see” list. Yoff beach was one of those places, and once I saw it I regretted not having come earlier so that I could revisit. It is miles of beachfront, at one end of which is where many of Dakar’s fishers dock their boats. The line-up of brightly painted pirogues, the wandering sheep, the horse-drawn carts, and the fishermen and fish market saleswomen running to and fro creates a very picturesque tableau.

And now, I turn tearfully back to the reality of New York in the supposed Spring…

12 months, 12 countries

I came to Senegal hoping I’d be lucky enough to see a bit of this country and a few others nearby. Things worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and I ended up visiting 12 new countries in 12 months, a personal record. Half the trips were for work, half for vacation, but all of them were a pleasure to see. (Though they were definitely not pleasurable at every moment, to say the least.)

I’ll share my favorite pictures from Dakar later, but first, here in one place are my travelogues from all the countries I visited from last February to this January.

Senegal: the western and northern parts, and a central / southern part

Portugal

Morocco: Marrakech and Casablanca

Liberia

Ethiopia

Tanzania: safari on the mainland and Zanzibar

South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg

Benin

Mauritania

Burkina Faso

The Gambia

Cape Verde: Cidade Velho, Praia, and Mindelo, and the island of Santo Antão

And with that, I’m off to the airport, America-bound…

handmade in Senegal

Just in case my baggage gets lost en route to New York, here are the clothes I had made from the fabric I bought in Senegal, Benin and Ethiopia.

The only thing I didn’t end up liking is the blue, orange, and yellow shirt (top row, center). It was supposed to be a fairly androgynous camp shirt just like this zebra one.

But it turned out looking more like a woman’s leisure suit jacket from the 70s. I gave it to Mamie and somehow it looks awesome on her.

The zebra shirt, by the way, is the only thing I ordered from a different tailor than Adama Paris. I walked by a children’s clothing shop, Bapribap, in my neighborhood one day and saw the cutest zebra shirt for little boys, along with an adorable wax-print romper for little girls. I went in and asked if they could make them in adult sizes, and indeed they could. So I ordered one zebra shirt for me and one for my 2 year-old nephew. 🙂 A few weeks ago I went back to the shop and bought something like nine other outfits for my nieces and my friends’ babies. They are all going to look so cute, just the thought of it makes me giddy. Plus I was really happy to support the business of someone I became friends with over the course of my year here. Annica is awesome, and she happens to be married to the reporter I worked with a few months ago (who I met separately, because like I said, it’s a small ex-patriot world).

All in all, not a bad haul, huh?

:(

Today is my last full day in Senegal. Not to beat this subject to death but I’m really really really really sad.

I’m spending today going around to all my regular places saying my goodbyes, and tonight I’m having a gathering of “family” and friends on my terrace. You are invited, sort of! Dakar just got Google Street View, so you can join me in spirit by virtually visiting where I lived for one incredible year.

Start on my street corner, explore my neighborhood, venture up to Almadies and down to Plateau… Then maybe you’ll get a teeny tiny idea of why I love this city so much. But I somehow doubt it. You just have to be here.

P.S. The weather report for New York is giving me an anxiety attack.

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf edition

Today’s quote comes directly from The New York Times’ International Women’s Day-themed Daily Briefing. And it couldn’t be more appropriate to where I’m at right now.

Also, the briefing noted that Senegal ranks in the top ten countries with the most female representation in Parliament. I had no idea. Go, Senegal!

anticipatory nostalgia

As I’ve mentioned before, my family moved from the suburbs of New Jersey to the London area when I was a kid. I spent a year and a half living an everyday little girl’s life while also soaking up mid-80s British pop culture in all of its splendor. I remember so much of my time in England, 32 years later. The layout of our various apartments and later our house; several traumatizing incidents from kindergarten and first grade; interactions with my brother and sister; key moments in the love story and breakup of my school-bus boyfriend; every friend’s birthday party; my toys; the walks we used to take; the food we used to eat; the dairy delivery we used to get. But the memories that hit me the hardest, on a visceral level that gives me chills, are almost entirely musical.

They are not even memories per se. When I hear a song that I first listened to in England, I usually don’t remember a particular moment associated with it. Instead, I am transported back to a general time and place, and I re-experience the feelings I had while listening to the song at the age of 5 and 6. That’s powerful emotional stuff.

These songs in particular really get me:

a-ha – Take On Me

Do They Know It’s Christmas? from Band Aid

Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World, as I’ve noted.

The Bangles – Manic Monday

The theme to “Chariots of Fire.” I never saw the film but my music teacher would play the theme song for us on the piano at the end of every class, after my schoolmates would beg him to.

And perhaps more than any of the others: the theme song to “EastEnders,” a long-running British soap that first aired soon after my family arrived in London.

My mom loved it, and it seemed to be on all the time. I heard that song and saw the opening titles with the satellite photo of the Thames zooming out to reveal East London so much that it came to represent all of England for me. To this day, any time I hear the music, my heart clenches with nostalgia.

So, that’s how I know that the Senegal song that will stop me in my tracks and bring tears to my eyes years from now is none other than the theme song to “Wiri Wiri,” Senegal’s favorite soap. Like “EastEnders,” “Wiri Wiri” always seems to be on, and I have heard the opening and closing music countless times. It is quite catchy and stirring in much the same way that the “Eastenders” theme is.

Here’s the whole song, which is by none other than Youssou N’Dour. He seems to be behind everything beloved in this country.

I can list a bunch of other songs – hit singles from Youssou and other top Senegalese artists – that I know will similarly make me emotional. But I am guessing “Wiri Wiri” will be the one to effortlessly transport my heart to a time and a place that will forever stand out from other times and places, and that I will wish I could return to just once more.

[P.S. The actors’ expressions on “Wiri Wiri” are so amazing that I enjoy watching it even without knowing what anyone is saying. I like guessing the storyline and getting Mamie or Tantie to tell me how close I’ve come. Try it – it’s quite entertaining.]

[P.P.S. Remember how yesterday I said that even annoying things are making me preemptively homesick for Senegal? Well, this morning I peed in a squat toilet that had gone un-emptied for too long. As mosquitos swarmed and bit me everywhere that I couldn’t swat fast enough, my pee – and everyone else’s – splashed back from the nearly overflowing hole in the ground onto my exposed ankles. It was a good reminder that there are some things no amount of sentimentality could make me miss.]

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?