Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Scent of Sand

I learn so many things by living in Africa. For example, did you know that sand has a distinct smell? I would never know this smell unless I lived in Mauritania where everything is covered in sand. Every morning the smell invades my senses and reminds me where I am. 

I think about scents a lot. I decided to make a list of the scents that make me the most happy:
  • lavender
  • bergamot
  • grapefruit
  • almond
  • ginger
What are your favorites?

In Benin the smell of mold began to make me nauseous. My clothes were covered in mold. Every surface in my house was mold. Even in the food I ate; I could smell it in the rice, the beans, the corn. This smell took over my life.

When I arrived back in the States, I forgot the smell of mold completely. Unless I made a trip down my to the basement, this smell was absent from my life. My sterile, antibacterial environment protected me from it and so many other scents. Since leaving Benin, this smell only returned when I traveled to the DRC, Haiti, Rwanda, and Belize and brought with it so many memories. It is the scent and flavor of living in a tropical country!

I am grateful for these smells because they remind me that I am living in a place where there is so much to learn... and smell!!!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Iles de la Madeleine

There are many islands off the coast of Senegal. One of them is called Iles de la Madeleine and it is a national park located just four kilometers from Dakar. 

I was lucky enough to go there and see this beautiful place for myself. Getting there requires hiring a boat and hitting the high seas.

There are rare birds and boabab trees on the island. There is also a guardian spirit who makes wishes come true. Of course I made a wish!

See the beauty for yourself!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Girls Rule

Today I visited my friend's classroom at an all-girls school in Nouakchott. The students are in their second year of high school and are between 14 and 16 years old. Mauritania's first two languages are Arabic and French, so English is often the fourth or fifth language that students speak. They learn it only in secondary school for two hours a week. The class was conducted entirely in English and I was amazed that the students could communicate in English so well after such a limited amount of studies.

As I observed the class, I was instantly impressed by the girls' strong work ethic. They were respectful, hard working, and polite. I introduced myself and asked the class if they had any questions for me about life in the U.S. 

Most of the students raised their hands. I called on the students, one by one. Here are the questions they asked, in this order:
  1. You are beautiful.
  2. Are you married?
  3. How old are you?
  4. I love your hair.
  5. Why aren't you married?
  6. Where do you live?
  7. Do you live with your family?
It was a very funny interview! The girls had their thoughts on one thing: Marriage! The girls will have a new assignment: Finding me a husband! I would not be surprised if I start receiving applications! 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Heart in Haiti

I am deeply saddened by the tragedy unfolding in Haiti. I have been trying to follow the news but with each story I become more and more upset. The magnitude of suffering is devastating.

When I first went to Haiti in 2006, I was immediately struck by the severe poverty. In Port au Prince, I stayed in Petionville and visited humanitarian projects in the poor neighborhoods of Cite Okay and St. Martin. I also visited Saut d'Eau where I visited more projects, swam in a sacred waterfall and went to the concert of one of Haiti's most celebrated groups, Tropicana. I danced to the konpa beats under the stars all night long.

I became friends with my colleagues and learned more about Haitian culture. I was constantly amazed by the similarities with the culture of Benin, where I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Benin is the birthplace of Voudoun religion, which has firmly taken root in Haiti and provides a concrete link between the two countries.

Haitians believe that they are the “children of Guinea” and Benin is located in the Gulf of Guinea. Haitian Voudoun still incorporates many words from the Yoruba language that was spoken where I lived in Benin.

In Benin, I was lucky to live in the compound of a Voudoun Chief. He taught me that it is essential to show respect to the ancestors, who are always with us. Before taking a sip of anything in Benin or Haiti, I poured some into the ground for the ancestors to drink to show them my respect.

In 2008, I returned to Haiti and I was so grateful to see progress. I saw the construction of much-needed infrastructure- roads, bridges, wells, hospitals and schools. These improvements meant that more people had access to their basic human rights. There was still so much work that needed to be done. I returned to the U.S. determined to educate as many people as possible about the injustices I witnessed and the courageous people fighting for change in Haiti. 

I have never forgotten one particular meeting with teachers and school Directors in St. Martin. When I asked them about their work as community leaders, one Director explained the challenges they were all facing. He said that he was trying to build a wall to protect the children but that every time be added a brick, some one came and destroyed it. Violence and extreme poverty were literally ripping the community apart brick by brick. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he affirmed that he is committed to keep working but he didn't know how long he could continue.

I am thinking of him and all of the other heroes I met in Haiti. Their country needs them now and I hope they are all there to pick up the pieces and start all over again.

Today I wish I had some clairin or sodabi to give to the ancestors. Too many people have lost their lives and I don't know if anything can make right these wrongs. We need all the help we can get.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


For the past few weeks I keep hearing kitties crying late at night. I listen closer and I can clearly hear their piercing cries for help. I can't access any of the yard around my house so I can't go out in search of them. I just hear them. I have imagined all kinds of trouble they are in. Have kitties fallen into a deep hole? Have kitties been abandoned by their mother? Are kitties hungry? Do kitties want to find a new home? Sometimes I think I imagine it. Maybe there are no kitties!

Then I went to Dakar and I was on the beach when I heard a kitty crying. It was the exact same noise. I stopped in my tracks and said, "Kitty!" I looked around and in a pile of grass, right next to a busy highway, I saw her. A little marmalade kitten!!! Her eyes looked infected and her fur was all matted. She looked hungry and she was screaming for help. 

We picked her up and carried her away from the road, somewhere near the water and hoped that someone would find her, fall in love, and take her home. There was no way that I could have saved Kitty and brought her to Nouakchott. I was very sad to leave her. 

Last night I heard the kitties crying again. At least I know I am not imagining it. Maybe I should try to find them and rescue one. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I live in a small building with four apartments. I share a rusty front door with one other family. The other two apartments have their own entrances. I have been invited into both of their houses but never the house of my closest neighbors. My neighbors are always polite but they speak no English or French. I speak no Hassaniya and although I do try to greet them, we have not really become friends. It always seems that they are very busy. In fact, they are so busy that sometimes they do strange things, like turn off my water from outside and hammer into walls at 1:00 am.

Our apartments both have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living room and decent kitchen. It is spacious for one. On their side of the building they have five children, four women, in addition to two domestic servants. They have a full house. I rarely see them except for the times the kids play in the hallway or when they arrive home at the same time. This is part of the reason why I was surprised yesterday to hear one woman singing from inside their house. I was even more shocked when I realized that she was singing "We are the World" in English!

For the past three nights, one of my neighbors has been sleeping in the hallway that connects our apartments. In the mornings I had to step over the blankets and pillows on my way to work. Yet somehow I am comforted by their presence outside. My neighbors are serving as 24-hour security guards and I don't have to pay a penny for their services.

Although I wouldn't describe our relationship as "close" maybe my neighbors are offering an olive branch. They are providing me with protection and songs of solidarity. Maybe it is time that I start thinking about what I can do for them. A batch of world famous cookies is in order!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Crossing Borders

I'm back in Mauritania after a lovely holiday in Senegal. Yesterday I took a sixteen hour taxi ride from Kaolack to Nouakchott. I was lucky to always arrive at the stations when the taxis were full- but that also means I was always crammed in the tiny third row of seats in the back of the "seven place" station wagons. This is not a good seat for someone tall! I put on my headphones and watched the countryside go by. 

I arrived at the border at 1:00 pm. Unfortunately the Mauritanian side of the border is closed from 12:30-3:00 so I was forced to wait to get my passport stamped. The one person responsible for this task arrived at 3:45 pm and then I was on my way. During those three hours I tried my hand at Arabic calligraphy with an avid R. Kelly fan working on a sign for one of the money exchange shops at the border. He loved the song "Worlds Greatest," which also happens to be one of my favorites. 

After leaving the company of these new friends I went to the taxi station where I found three of my students from the University. They already had a taxi ready to go and then we were on our way. The driver crammed four of us in the middle row of the taxi, turning it into an "eight place." Then he announced we had to stop along the way to pick up a "baby." This is the translation I was given because was speaking Hassaniya.  So he squeezed two people in the front seat to make room for the "baby" in our row. 

After ten minutes of driving, he veered of the paved road onto a sandy path. He drove like a maniac across the sand until we arrived at a little village with a mosque and few scattered houses. He talked to his family for a few minutes and then brought "baby's" bags. My fellow passengers explained to me that "baby" was a newly wed bride who has to sneak away from the village and couldn't be seen leaving. We drove a few meters and then "baby" emerged out of another house, giggling and laughing. Baby was a large woman swathed in yellow and wearing huge sunglasses. Baby was going to be the fourth person in the back seat with us. This was no baby! Our taxi was now a "nine place"!  

The border patrolmen stopped the car every 30 minutes throughout the journey. Every time they collected my passport, they made me get out of the car. I was briefly interviewed, asked to show my baggage, given a lecture about how Americans are welcome in Mauritania, and sent on my way. No one else in the car was ever interviewed, except for sometimes "baby" because she had no id with her. Baby was never asked to get out of the car. One time the car was stopped and everyone piled out of the car to pray. When the prayer was finished and we were all getting back into the taxi I noticed that Baby was missing. The driver went off in search of Baby. She came back wearing a new mulafa, this time bright pink. Baby had to look good for her new husband!!!

I loved traveling by land across the border but I think the next time I will take the flight instead!

Kicking it in Kaolack

I traveled to Senegal to see some of my old friends from NYC who are now living in Kaolack. My friends have a spacious house with a six bedrooms. There are two wives and seven children living there, with a husband far away in the U.S. During my visit my friend took the week off from her job selling dishes in the market. 

There were nine people in the house determined that I would have a comfortable visit. If I moved my feet, someone brought me my flip flops. If I yawned, someone came running with a pillow. If I touched my throat I was brought an assortment of juices and sodas to choose from. My friends cooked special meals for me every day and watched closely as I took the first bite to see if it was to my satisfaction. In the mornings I was treated to "Delia" chocolate spread on fresh french bread with "Cafe Touba," their name for coffee that is not instant. This was the royal treatment! 

The rest of my days were spent playing with the adorable rascals all day and learning new games. We watched Senegalese music videos and had dance parties. 

A group of neighborhood women came over every afternoon to drink tea together and work on embroidery projects. 
My friends showed me hospitality like I have never seen before! If any of my friends ever come to visit me here, I will have to take a page out of their book!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Years Senegal Style

I love learning about how different people in different places celebrate the New Year. A few days before January 1st, it was a different new year in Senegal for the Islamic calendar. This is a time when children dress in clothes of the opposite gender and walk the streets collecting money from everyone they meet. It is like Halloween in the U.S. I love this New Years tradition and I wish I could bring it to America!

I celebrated the new year in Kaolack, Senegal. Early in the morning on New Years Eve my friends got to work making “new years cake.” To make this cake they brought out of the biggest bowl I have ever seen and filled it with the fixins. The cake was flavored with nutmeg, orange rind, raisins, and coconut. The bread maker was not home so the cake became donuts instead. The neighbors all came over to help fry so many donuts and then tied them in little bags and distributed them to all the friends and family. Of course, I was given my own bag!

While we were making cake, another friend of the family brought over a fifteen-year-old from Los Angeles who currently lives in Kaolack with his family. He took two years off from school to study the Koran with a famous Marabout, Sheikh Mouhamadou Mahy Cisse, who has followers from all over the world. Young children who study the Koran in Senegal are called “talibes.”

This young American talibe studies the Koran 16 hours a day. In his free time he chats with his friends back home or listens to Fifty Cent on his iPod. He likes Senegal and although he has learned no French he speaks fluent Wolof, which he told me his friends back home think is “pretty cool.” He stayed at my friend’s house for lunch and dinner and then we all went to the Medina Baay mosque together.

We waited to meet the Marabout in small room overflowing with men praying and counting their prayer beads. After a few minutes we were instructed to enter a small room with two beds in it. Sheikh Mouhamadou Mahy Cisse was seated on one of the beds. We all sat on the floor with our legs crossed. My friends introduced ourselves and asked for blessings. 

The Marabout greeted me in perfect English and asked me questions about where I live in the U.S. and how I am enjoying my stay in Senegal. Then he gave his blessings for a healthy and peaceful 2010. He handed me his business card and thanked me for coming to visit him.

For dinner I ate black-eyed peas, a tradition from New Orleans I was happy to continue in Senegal. This time they were served in a peppery tomato sauce. We watched Senegalese music videos on TV and counted down to 12:00. After midnight we all ate donuts and drank tea. I am grateful to be able to spend holidays with such loving and welcoming friends, even when I am far away from home. I wish everyone a peaceful new year filled with love, adventure, happiness, and health!