Ramadan Over At Last: 2004-11-14
I've just spent an entire month with the Muslim community of Senegal for the period of Ramadan. I knew nothing of Ramadan before my visit here. On a basic face value there is fasting everyday until 7pm, lots of praying, singing in the streets or at home and no parties clubs or other forms of courting.
It all ended 2 days ago, everyone wearing new clothes, quite a sight in Africa I can tell you. Bright flashing colours billowing in the wind as the kaftans and jelabas flowed by. I was invited to Thies, not far from Dakar where I met my new surrogate family. I now have 15 new brothers all offering me hospitality second to none, their manners impeccable. I am a rude heathen in comparison. In turn, when a pause or moment allows, each of them will gently approach me and all asking me the same questions about who I am, what I do, where I live and will I marry in Senegal.
Leaving home base in Thies I was whisked around the town to meet the rest of the extended family, as is tradition during the Kouriti fete concluding Ramadan. House after house we met more and more cousins all beautifully dressed and pressed. It was during these visits that I discovered the marrying questions were no joke either. The 3 heads of 3 related families here are the eldest sons; Cire, Papis and Abdouli. Once seated together the three began to discuss marriage and why each of them had a duty to the other to be married first. Each would turn to me while pointing to the others and say "Tim, you know he isn't married yet, why don't you ask him why he isn't married yet, he should be married.". I had to agree "It's a surprise that none of you pushing 30 have not married one of the beautiful women here, there are so many to choose from." I wanted to show my appreciation for the beauty of their own family and made a glancing remark about the beauty of one of the girls who had been sitting with us earlier. Cire, my main host here, pounced on my words. "Tim, which one was it that you liked?" I described her, "She was sitting over on that chair before," but realising there was something of an importance in my remark, I added "she is very young I think" with a concerned look in my expression. Cire raised his eyebrows and his face lit up with glee, "Ah yes that is the youngest one, Fatimata. She is 16, I will arrange everything for you." As my jaw dropped in disbelief, Cire had already turned to his cousin as we sat under the hanging vines of the garden and in a most candid manner they babbled fervently in Wolof, grinned and turned back to me. "He has agreed that you can see his sister." The cool evening air had arrived at last but it was not enough to blow my red flush away. This wasn't heatstroke it was shear embarrassment and a little fear too. "But Cire, she's so young!", "Tim in Africa a man of 70 often marries one of 20, it is not a problem, and you know, women here know their role very well." The bricks of commitment building up around me in a perfect walled tower before I'd had a moment to open my mouth. "Cire I can't marry like that," I stumbled for more reasons to knock a few layers down, "I don't know her and anyway I would prefer a woman who is my equal, not a subservient, I am a westerner remember." Cire wasn't phased; he leapt into a thorough lecture on the power of the woman in African culture. "We have a saying 'The woman is the Queen of the room and the man is the King of the House', it sounds like the man is the dominant, but no, all the important decisions are made in the room (bedroom) and the woman is dominant there and she can have anything she wants from a man because of this." So it was a big roundabout way of justifying that a woman could work 12 hard hours a day in the field and house whilst men could relax in the shade, but that she was still the commanding figure of the family. "So will you marry her?" he sat back with a huge eager grin on his face. "Whaat?" I cried in disbelief. I could see his intently excited look behind those Lennon glasses, below his bald shaven Ghandi like head, and the others all laughing heartily with him. It was all very relaxed I suppose and we were all having a great time laughing at each other's potential marital status, but I was now the focus and I was getting hotter even though the moon began to rise and the sun set to shade everything in a pink haze. In as commanding voice as possible I retorted "She's too young", but immediately came back "No problem, she will be 18 in 2 years and you'll be eligible to marry, you have 2 years to get to know her. So you could marry her then, couldn't you?" I was stumped, I didn't know what to say not to offend and just did the terribly Englishman abroad Huge Grant type of thing and went along with the show, "Well, errr, I suppose so…but", "Good then it's settled, as long as Fatimata agrees of course, for your next visit we will arrange for you to both go out to dinner together and then to dance in a nightclub." Bang! The show was all sewn up. Perhaps Fatimata would have a choice, but I failed to see how she could say no if I couldn't, these Senegalese are very persuasive when it comes to issues of a marital nature. "We will have you married before you leave Senegal, you'll see."
We visited more houses and more young 'eligible' women were ushered past my greedy eyes. I could feel my every glance being weighed and balanced. At the end of each visit, Cire's impossible and inextinguishable Cheshire cat grin would be upon me, "So, were any of our cousins here to your liking?" "Not this time Cire", thinking the more I said 'no' might help allay some interest, but he knew very well that I was desperate to meet a woman, "Ahh so it's Fatimata all the way then!" I had certainly hoped to meet a woman when Ramadan was over, but I didn't imagine anything quite like this.
Back at the family house the next morning I sat with the cornerstone of the household as she sat on a mat preparing breakfast in the hallway perpendicular to the entrance of the house. The morning light landed before her feet as if she commanded it to. Her place is squarely set like that of a stone in a Myan temple, immovable. She is the mother of more children than I can count on my hands and has 2 men of more than 70 to look after. She is almost as wide as she is tall, her hands are thick and solid just as is the rest of her squat sturdy tree like posture. From behind her shallow wall of pots, cups and ingredients she will need for something at one time or another, blurt out a name to which a youngster will answer and do the small errand she requests. Each errand is like a leaf to her branches that she picks, cultivating in smooth rhythm to provide something for the entire house to consume. This task she must perform everyday and almost all day for each meal to be as rewarding as the last. Her eyes are all-knowing, there is no point to attempt to hide anything from her or question her authority, if you did you would only wallow in shame as she brought down the staff of family justice upon you. In this house there is no room for pride or intolerance as the extra strain could not be sustained and she would certainly not suffer on any account. Through it all she appears hearty, alive and content with her lot. She is the Queen of all, she is the strongest, the loudest and perhaps the wisest of all here in the comings and goings of life. She is not unlike the other Senegalese mother I know who lives next door to me in Dakar. They both have that air of having seen all and knowing all they need to know. Their work although mountainous and strenuous, has made them the pillars of strength in their community and given them a vitality we would all wish for in our later years. They appear so irreplaceable, so central to the existence of their entourage one imagines they will be sorely missed when their blood furnaces are finally extinguished. Many men here have books of religion and millennia of knowledge to pass on in their old age, but like the classical image of a bookworm, the men seem so pale and weak in comparison; they come and go, fading from existence almost as if they never really existed in the first place.
So it would seem that if was ever to marry one of these women it would be jolly hard work to match her efforts and to retain a respectable station in life.
New Leaders Ahoy!
I wake up quite early each morning in Guille Tappe district, to the sound of Islamic prayers that waft across the low rise urban neighbourhood from the mosques to my little abode. Djiby and Papis, my hosts, are black Mauritanian's and have been very gracious to let me stay here. Djiby the sociology student sleeps till very late, but Papis wakes very early to give his IT class at the university. They both sleep in the living room as I sleep on Papis's bed in the bedroom which we all use to store our bags, clothes and is also the pathway to the toilet/shower. This tiny abode opens onto a courtyard where I find a girl hand washing a mountain of clothes. It is quiet at this time of day as I step out into the street. I love this street, it is full of life during the day and night. Young boys play football here or computer games in the shack style arcade built onto the pavement. Across the road are huge trees under which a Koranic school is taken on a Sunday, where children sit, play and learn from their elder who presides with them under the tree's wide branching leafy shade. In the morning though it is quiet and almost lifeless as I look up to hear the flocks of pigeon beat their wings against the deep blue sky.
From here I walk along the leafy green streets, which are amuck with all kinds of activity. Hairdressers prop their mirrors, table and tools against a tree, goats wander freely or sit tied together on the pavements. Women are always washing clothes in huge groups with their big tubs and washing lines hung at every which angle between house and tree. Taxi's beep as they pass me and the other potential customers, but I'm far too in love with my walk to work to notice them. The cool breeze blows through my toes as my sandals hit the sand and debris of the previous day and women bend over busily sweeping it into the road with their grass brushes. Then my quiet leafy street opens onto a main intersection where taxis, buses, horses and people all dart across each other's path in a kind ordered chaos. The drivers sit against their cabs at the taxi rank chatting and pause a moment to gain my attention, but I ignore and continue past the bus stop. The bus stop is a riot of clambering drivers and conductors who literally grab people off the street and throw them onto the buses. I've seen young women who most certainly didn't intend to take a bus find themselves pitch-forked into one through its back door entrance. The buses are very old 50's vehicles with open windows and beautifully hand painted in bright blue, yellow, red, white and green colours sporting decorative emblems of flowers and Islamic messages in western European type such as "BISMILLAH, MASHALLA and ALLAMDOULILLAHAHI" They really look like oversized children's toys as they puff and smoke along the hot bustling streets.
As I cross the main road I see ahead of me the usual suspects. A poor and bedraggled group of youngsters anywhere between 6 and 16. These children all carry an often empty, large tin can. In the can they may collect and sell small golf ball sized packets of sugar, dried milk, coffee, tea, and spices. It is difficult to tell one apart from another as they are all covered in motor oil, tears and dirt all over their clothes. They hold out their hands demanding coins from drivers who stop at the traffic lights or pedestrians passing by. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don't, it generally depends on whether I have a coin or not, so it can be very sad to leave them behind with nothing. I am told that many of these children are collecting funds not just for themselves but also for some kind of older guardian of Islamic guidance, a "marabou". There is a belief that children should learn the hardships of life early on so that they are prepared for the worst, or something like that. I think it's a terribly backward idea, but then I think most of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is retarded anyway. I hate the way these religions steamroller original culture and belief systems like the imperialist colonists who left here not so long ago. That's something to think about on my walk to work too. To most people I am a wandering rich white man who should leak money all over the place if only asked the right question, but I must also be a reminder of that slave driver or other devilish white man. However, this is not the way I am treated. On the most part all the people here greet me with warmth unthinkable in the West. I've only been here 1 month and I already have a rapour with several people on my route, but in all my years of walking through London to work I don't remember any such kindness. It's a long stretch down a main road, still under the shade of trees and a turn left until I reach Synapse Centre.
Cire, the man who invited me to stay with him and his people, is the head of an organisation that helps support and nurture young Senegalese to find new business opportunities and lead their country to a better future. Synapse Centre is a very young organisation, only 8 months old and I have the luxury of using their offices everyday with its fast Internet connection. It's strange landing here, I have a home, and beautiful walk to work and back again, its as if I had always been here. Synapse is full of youthful potential and everyone greets everybody. The greeting of the day takes up a lot of time, but you would be considered quite rude if you didn't spend at least 5 minutes asking each other how they were, even if it only to say "cava? cava bien" 20 or more times. I actually quite enjoy finding out about each of these young hopefuls and they seem to love learning about me and all my endeavours. Then I get down to work and work like crazy trying to edit all this material I have accumulated. However, recently Cire came bounding into my room and asked if I could make a short video of the "New Leaders" here for their inauguration at an event he was preparing. "Tim, it would be really wonderful if we could have an interview of each New Leader, do you think you could do it, I no its short notice." His beaming smile is hard to refuse, not that I wanted to object, but with a smile like his I think it is difficult to disappoint him, his enthusiasm is second to none. "Yes, that's an excellent idea, we can have 20 seconds of each person saying who they are and something about their prospective business, but we only have 10 days." Somehow through all the disorganisation and my hassles with douane I managed to film 14 of the 16 New Leaders and edit them into a film in just 3 days. When I showed the group the rough cut, they went crazy. Whoops and screams of delight, laughter and cheers launched me to stardom in the confines of Synapse Centre. They were so impressed with the film that they ditched their personal presentations for the event. So I now had all 14 shaking my hand as often as they could throughout the day and the next day. The event itself was a disaster to begin with as the guest arrived the lights were still going up and the technicians continued to fiddle throughout the entire evening, but somehow Cire managed to keep it all rolling until the momentum became comfortable and less edgy. It got to the point where it no longer mattered that the waiters walked in front of the speakers and performing artists, the evening and somehow gelled together. My short film was played and an uproar of applause followed. It's really not so amazing, but it's so uncommon for Senegalese to have any hint of professional veneer or design to accompany their professional endeavours such that the film really made an impact. The New Leaders were overjoyed as we danced with Titi the female singing star and grouped for photos together. I think Cire's efforts, however unorganised, have made a really good impression and positive start for this group. I was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to help them too and had a lot of fun making the film in the process.
Incidentally I'm a great believer in the search for new leaders (good people) and how we should all support them, as I think we can only change the world by supporting their good ideas in strength together. Who knows perhaps I will become one too, just like Che! I wish J
That was an unusual day, but normally I finish work with the others at 6pm and take the same route home. I like to see how each location has changed, how different activities pop up in place of others. The markets come to a waning end, as the sellers pack away the streets fill with shuffling feet in a rush to return home. Its much more noisy and hurried than the morning, numerous roadside food vendors appear and prayers are performed left right and centre, so much so I find myself weaving around the back of prayer mats in respect of their religion but almost tripping in the dark at the same time. I think it must be true that the people here must have a better eyesight in the dark as they seem to have no trouble distinguishing one another without the means of city lights. Its either that or I'm going blind or something. The lack of light is especially frustrating at this time for me as I can see many brightly coloured slim fitted girls walking every which way, but I can't see the expressions on their faces. I can't tell if I am pleasing to them or not, unless I get to a place where a streetlight is actually working. Back in Guille Tappe I feel I am really coming home, I look forward to the same faces and the new ones, the children are all running around and playing as if there was nothing to be worried about or cars to fear of. The latest Senegalese music is bouncing from a radio here and there and prayers leap from loud speakers. There is a little more light in these streets and I have a chance to see all those beautiful eyes looking back at me, I still can't tell if they like me or not or if its just the shock of seeing a white man living in Guille Tappe.
I arrive back at the flat to the sound of a well-known video game humming from the wood shack arcade and step into the courtyard to be greeted by the Great mother N'Diaye. "Nangadef, cava, zaine hut, inshalla" and we smile at each other for having tried to communicate. I call her a Great mother because she is one of those wonderful hubs of a community that I have seen so many of here. In place of the girl washing clothes is another at a sewing machine, which whirrs on relentlessly until midnight.
At night my street is a buzz with activity. People come and go, talk, play, sing, and even fight a little. Its all good natured and feels like we are all in a little village together inside this big city. Djiby and I sit infront of the house on a chaise long to watch people passing and attempt at a conversation in French from time to time. Djiby speaks Wolof, Poular, Hassania and French. I speak English. We eat together from the same huge tin plate each night the three of us. Wonderful food, its always excellent, either prepared at home or brought in from one of the wonderful cheap local restaurants. I think Tchebugen must be my favourite African food already with its wonderful tasting long cooked fish, vegetables and spicy sauces in a bed of cracked rice. I get back to work on my computer and somehow manage to ignore all the singing, prayers and babbling outside that seem to go on forever. However, right now as I type there is a wedding taking place in the street, so I really can't stay at the machine any longer, I have to get out there and see what's going on and maybe meet a nice girl at last.