Senegal: the Casamance

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In March, I traveled to the Casamance region of Senegal for work. I didn’t realize until I was making the plans that I had actually been to the Casamance before, as Kolda is technically in the Haute Casamance. But the area of Senegal that is reputed to be the most verdant and beautiful is the Basse Casamance, the western section on and close to the ocean. And this is where I would be heading for work. I was pleased, to say the least. Some pictures…

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dolls, dreams, and death

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I got back to Senegal from Sierra Leone on Sunday, and no sooner had I unpacked my bags then I started repacking them for my return trip to New York on Thursday. The second time leaving this country is just as emotionally difficult as the first, and maybe that contributed to the dream I had last night.

In it, my parents were moving out of my childhood home, where they have lived for more than 35 years. I looked into the living room and noticed for the first time, now that it was empty, surprisingly lovely molding (that does not actually exist in real life). Then I saw two big trash bags of my sister’s and my dolls – one was filled with dolls to throw away and one was filled with dolls to keep.

I saw my Baby Brite lying near the top of the throwaway bag and panicked. My sister was there, and apparently it was she who had done the sorting. I protested that we could not just toss out our dolls – we thought of them as our babies once, and they were still alive in my heart.

My sister stoically responded with something to the effect of, “How many years must they live before they live out their years?” I started crying at how easily my sister dispensed of her youth, and it quickly turned into uncontrollable sobbing. The thought that as adults we were so distant and disconnected from our childhood selves broke my heart.

I was so upset in my dream that I woke myself up, only to feel real tears running down my cheeks. And not just a few – I was actively crying. Never in my life has that happened to me before.

I do often wake up with a lingering sense of whatever I was feeling in my dream world, and this morning I woke up feeling bereft. It called to mind the utterly gutting scene in “Inside Out” in which the imaginary friend, Bing Bong, sacrifices himself – and most tragically, also the memory of his existence – to save his beloved adolescent owner’s identity. Thinking of that made me even sadder.

It was like five o’clock in the morning so I quickly drifted back to sleep and woke up again a few hours later only vaguely holding on to the memory of the dream and its associated despair. But I’ve been pondering its meaning all day.

I heard about three deaths yesterday, and each one was somebody very close to somebody I myself am close to in one way or another. One was an older brother, one was a beloved Senegalese musician, and one was somebody “Papa” Lo knew. So I’m sure that that, in addition to my imminent departure, influenced my dreams last night.

I now want to go back to New Jersey ASAP to take a full inventory of all my dolls, hug them tightly, and assure them that I will never throw them or the memory of them away, as long as we both shall live.

Adventures in Wolof

Wolof book.JPGWhen I lived in Senegal two years ago, my biggest goal was to become conversational in French. Though I wanted to be able to speak Wolof, the first language of most Dakarois, I knew I couldn’t handle learning two languages at once.

By the time I came back here for work, I had pretty much doubled my French speaking capacity, thanks to nine months in Paris, and I felt it was high time to learn basic Wolof. Continue reading

Dakar’s stunning railroad station

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On Saturday when I took a walk downtown, I got a closer look at the renovated railroad station, which I had peeped from the car a few weekends ago. Here are some better pictures than the ones I posted then.

The station was inaugurated in 1914 and went out of service about 100 years later after both the Dakar-Bamako and Dakar-St.Louis passenger trains stopped running. (I believe the suburban commuter line moved to a station a little further north but I’m not entirely sure.)

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For a few years, there were plans to demolish the station and build a park there instead, but thankfully that would-be travesty never came to pass. Instead, the government decided to renovate the station and make it the southern terminus of the new express commuter line that runs through the suburbs and ends at the just-finished airport an hour outside of town.

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I’ve also heard about plans to rehabilitate and relaunch the Dakar-Bamako line, which would delight me should it ever actually happen. I have seen footage of the 40+ hour journey and it looks like the stuff of dreams (punctuated by extreme boredom, fatigue, and discomfort). For now, I’m overjoyed to see my favorite building in town being resuscitated and returned to its former splendor.

P.S. Chemins de fer (literal translation: path of iron) is such a beautiful way to say railroad, don’t you think?

Good things happen in threes

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I just realized that yesterday was the three year anniversary of the day I first landed in Dakar, bleary- and wide-eyed in equal measure. I’m so, so grateful to be back, especially in February when the weather is (mostly) lovely. During this time of year, the Harmattan winds do have a tendency to sweep in and turn the sky yellowish and cover everything with dust for days at a time. That’s no fun, but knowing it’s sand from the Sahara desert being deposited on us is pretty neat. I also find it neat that even though I’ve only spent about 15 months in Dakar total, this is my third February here.

I’m spending this weekend prepping for my first shoot of this trip (happening on Monday), as well as fleshing out my ideas for a documentary that is getting me very excited even though I haven’t even asked the intended subjects of the film for permission to make it yet. Getting ahead of myself is my M.O. in life, and while it has its downsides it also gives me lots of fodder for fantastic daydreams, which I enjoy.

On that note, I will now turn from words on (digital) paper to images on digital video.

But first, just to complete the theme, three beautiful buildings I passed in the downtown neighborhood of Plateau this morning (the one at the top of this post was not so much beautiful as incredibly bizarre – note the ceramic swans!). Have a lovely weekend, and see you next week!

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A new museum – side by side with an old, beautiful station

IMG_6838When I flew into Dakar three years ago, the city held so much mystique. I had spent almost 25 years imagining what the sights and sounds and feeling of Dakar might be without having any clue how close my ideas were to reality.

Then I spent a year living here and exploring the city’s ins and outs. One of the things I love most about Dakar is its scale – in just over thirteen months I was able to visit practically every neighborhood and knock off almost every item on my list of interesting places to see and things to do.

When I flew back into the city at the beginning of this year, aside from the fact that there was a whole new airport (!), everything felt very familiar. All of my old favorite places were still there, standing the test of time. Another thing I love about Dakar is its creeping pace of change in comparison to New York. There is sprawl and gentrification and crazy over-construction for sure, and it brings upheaval, displacement, and inequality with it. But – again, only as compared to New York, where every time you blink another community institution disappears – it feels much slower and more manageable.

And… some of the development is very welcome.

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Case in point: the new Museum of Black Civilizations, which opened in January. I visited last week and it has some stunning art and artifacts inside.

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Smithsonian Magazine writes:

A little over half a century ago, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of post-independence Senegal, announced his plans to build a major museum of African culture in the country’s capital of Dakar. Senghor, who died in 2001, did not live to see his dream fulfilled. Now, at long last, his vision is coming to fruition… Senegal has opened a sprawling museum that celebrates black civilizations from across the globe—and experts are hailing the institution as an important step forward in the effort to reclaim African artifacts plundered during the colonial period.

It both saddens and infuriates me to know that I have had better access in New York (and London, and Paris) to West African artwork and cultural objects than most West Africans do in their home countries. So, it was heartening to visit the new museum last week and to see the beautiful exhibits of ancient and contemporary work – as well as all of the as-of-yet unoccupied space that can be used for, among other things, items returned from abroad. (Restitution efforts were kicked up a notch in November with publication of a French-commissioned report recommending full repatriation of looted cultural heritage to any African nation that requests it.)

It was also the most amazing surprise to pass my favorite place in town – the old colonial railroad station just next door to the museum – and see that rather than being torn down and reconstructed over the past two years, it has instead been given new life in the form of a cleaning, a paint job, and some new glass.IMG_6808

It is now even more stunning than it used to be. I took these photos from the car as we drove past, and I’ll try to get down there to check out the space on foot soon.

IMG_6809The station serves as the terminus of the just-finished rail line between the new airport and Dakar. I haven’t really kept up on those developments so I have no idea if the line is considered a good thing, a bad thing, or a little of both. But the rehabilitation of a gorgeous decaying train station seems 100% wonderful.