Dakar

Ñibbi

ñibbi‘ means “to return home”

One warm Senegalese evening a few weeks prior to my return to the States, I went to my friend Joe’s house. Joe is a bit of an anomaly in my experience in Senegal: a single middle-aged man who owns property. With his heavy dreads tied up behind his head, he experiments with traditional arts and accumulates a wide group of friends within the rasta community. They gather nightly in his small home to smoke weed and drink beer; the things they must hide from their families. Surrounded by these peace-loving pescatarians, a familiar question finds my ears: ‘How is Senegal? Are you enjoying it here?‘ I say yes. They ask me where I’m from. ‘Ah! New York! Well, New York is nicer than here, no?‘ I tell them Dakar and New York are simply different. Joe leans over and expresses how hard it is to hear a foreigner, a toubab, tell him that she is enjoying his country when his own people cannot enjoy it because they are so poor. My friend Momo, a musician who had met my parents, protests, saying ‘Althea is no toubab! Her father is black.‘ Joe looks me square in the eye and pronounces that I am a toubab.

Looking back at Joe I first feel sympathy. I do, after all, enjoy many of the luxuries he imagines toubabs are afforded. For example, upon my return to the States, I fell quite ill, which, in some ways, was a relief because falling ill in the States does not present the same perils that are evident in Senegal. Hot water is summoned mechanically. Rest is easily found in our quiet, spacious homes and temperpedic beds. I don’t personally have a temperpedic bed, but every mattress in America feels like a temperpedic bed after experiencing what’s available in West Africa. In my family, I am surrounded by organic food, hundreds of vitamins and supplements, essential oils, aromatherapy, and just about any medical specialist is a dial tone away with my insurance card in hand. I can no longer afford the luxury of taking these things for granted.

On the other hand, ironically, I had come to Joe’s home seeking a distraction, seeking relief, because I had just found out that my cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t very close to him, but the experience, the sudden death of a family member in an all too stereotypical manner within the African American community, joins a host of others that continue to haunt me.

After my return to the States, once I had recuperated, it wasn’t long before I could see more clearly the gloom that hangs over the country. Moreover, not long after my return, my uncle, the father of my cousin who had been killed, also passed away in an incident that certainly seems related to my cousin’s death.

Recently, on the train home from the city late one evening, not long after my uncle had passed, a young white couple was confronted by two train conductors for not having tickets. I looked up from my book, dipping out of my bubble. The young blonde man was wearing a black hoodie and baggie jeans. A disintegrating backpack was slowly sliding off his shoulders. He was also wearing an expression of smug apathy I recognized from classmates who didn’t do their homework in public school. One of the conductors loudly pronounced that this is the fourth time, as if to make an example of the man. They ordered him to get off at the next stop, as usual, and disappeared as I mentally begged them not to leave.

I took another quick glance at the man, making every effort to be discrete. He bore the same absent wide blue eyes, paired with an irreverent grimace, that gave him an undeniable likeness to Dylann Roof and James Eagan Holmes and Adam Lanza. I patted him down with my eyes, looking for any bulges in his baggy clothing. I thought of what could be in that backpack. Then I wondered if 600-pages would stop a bullet to the head or if my kora’s gourd, resting in the seat next to me, would protect my vitals.

That’s when I realized I was already being held hostage by my own fear, my own sense of having put myself in inescapable danger. It besieges me every now and again, particularly here in New York, and especially on public transportation. Sometimes I can only freeze in the hopes that no movement breeds no movement. Other times, I’ll switch subway cars every stop just to beat the odds.

I know that it’s unreasonable; that the odds keep me safe, even if there have been 249 mass shootings, on average one a day, so far this year in the United States. But I do think I carry a certain paranoia as an African American, one that’s been heightened yet again since my cousin and uncle’s passing. Perhaps it’s because, ever since I was a little girl, my father told me that I must emit an air of “don’t fuck with me” in public. Perhaps it’s simply sharing genes with escaped slaves running north and guerrilla Indian warriors hiding in trees with their arrows. Perhaps it is just my own experience with danger coming out of nowhere. Whatever the reason, I am sporadically paralyzed by a certain expectation that even the most mundane evening could inexplicably turn into a nightmare, as it has for too many members of my family on my father’s side.

When a black couple replaces the poor white one at that next station, I am suddenly unshackled, because chances are this tall brown man may have already been patted down today. Chances are he isn’t stupid enough to carry a weapon on him. Chances are he’s well aware that black men are rarely vindicated by claims of mental illness.

Long after the white man has gotten off the train, the conductors returned to my car, still discussing the white couple. “…to avoid another awkward situation! ..” I heard one say as they pass by me. His disgruntled tone was verging on hate, and, as I look around this car, I wonder if not everyone here is being held hostage by their satin neckties and pearl necklaces; if somehow it isn’t exactly this upper class suburban population that has inherited such a fear. “Evil sown by a man will grow on his children’s heads,” as the Yoruba proverb goes.

When that black couple came onto the train, I realized that I bear a racism as informed by fear as anyone else in the United States. They say that fear breeds hate. But I would say there is something missing in this equation; greed breeds fear, which breeds hate. The American obsession with individualism and acquiring wealth produces a deep fear of the poor. That fear is remedied by hating the poor that don’t look like ‘us’, and we can see that hate is reinforced everyday by our culture: Donald Trump calling Mexicans rapists to the cheers of a crowd; police vindicated after shooting our young unarmed black men; Obama referred to as a monkey by state officials; our bold disregard for the asian slave labor necessary to produce most of what we own; the glorification of white beauty standards weaved into Beyonce’s scalp in the form of $145,000 worth of Norwegian hair.

Looking back at Joe now, surrounded by his friends, smoking weed after a big shared plate of food, I know that he has no fear about getting shot in his community. No fear of being unable to pursue certain work because of his dreads. The cops are not going to storm his house, shoot someone or give someone else a heart attack looking for drugs. He does not realize that not having these fears is a luxury most black people don’t experience in the rest of the world. Whatever wealth he pictures us Americans having is real, but no amount of wealth can buy the security he feels in his community. No ivy league education, world travelling, or luxury accommodations can buy you out of the African American experience, I can tell you first-hand. No matter how many people perceive me as black, or not, Joe’s questioning of my blackness is a luxury that I am not afforded, because I will always be deeply tied and informed by my experience as an African American person. That’s what being an African American person is.

One of the most puzzling parts of my experience in Senegal, more puzzling than Africans telling me I wasn’t black, was watching African Americans encounter the country, the continent, and feel that they were surrounded by their own people. Every single African American I met there, especially the new comers, would be so taken aback by being surrounded by other black people, by what they considered their own kind. At first, I found this unsettling and even scary. How could someone who didn’t practice the same religion, speak any of the many languages, or understand the culture feel that they were amongst their own an ocean away from their home? Senegalese people don’t even feel that way about one another; the Wolof, for example, do not trust the separatist Lebu, even though their language is nearly identical, and certainly their appearance by American standards. But we, as African Americans, don’t see or understand such diversity, because we are homogeneously defined by the West, and every time I would hear an African American express a kinship with Senegalese people, especially if they didn’t even understand the languages being spoken, it would show me how deep the imprint of the West’s definitions of race, largely forged by white people, has been made upon us. On the other hand, maybe they are just expressing a longing to exist in a culture where they are not subjected to hate powered by fear.

***

A few days later, I returned to Joe’s home with my kora. It is an honor to have a korist visit your home, demanding no fee, no less. The electricity is out, and I have the stunning revelation of how well I can play in the dark. When I finish, a small crowd of Senegalese men has formed, clapping. One man notes how incredible it is to see a foreign woman playing the kora in a big group of Senegalese men who do not know how to play, if not a little shaming. Joe laughs and yells out ‘okay, Althea, you are a black person!

Xaritu Benn Bakkan

“Xaritu Benn Bakkan,” literally translates to “Friend of One Nose.” The nose is a symbol for ones’ life in wolof, so “xaritu benn bakkan” really means “friend of one life (soul or spirit),” or, truly, “best friend.”

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“So, are you improvising this? Or do you both know this song?” Alec’s mom asks, sitting between us. Alec and I peer around our respective koras, furrow our brows and tilt our heads, trying to settle on an answer, because the answer to both of these questions is yes; we both know the song and we are both improvising. All korists know Kelafa Ba and all korists improvise it; no two korists will truly play it the same. “Well who’s leading and who’s following?” she asks. Again, we turn to one another. “Well I suppose Althea is leading,” Alec says, “since she knows the song better.” I do know the song better, and improvising is also Alec’s forte. But it wouldn’t really matter anyway. The instrument is modal – set in a diatonic scale – Fa (F major) or Sol (G major) most of the time – and so as long as your koras are in the same tonality and you know the instrument, then passing through the known and unknown with another korist becomes seamless.

All of this seems so obvious to Alec and me, who have been playing kora for relatively the same amount of time, and together for about a year now. But, bracing these questions, we realize just how enigmatic it must seem to see us non-Africans playing so naturally together. Coming from such different backgrounds, it is remarkable just how closely our paths have converged.

Alec and I arrived in Dakar with two weeks difference at the end of 2013, with the same mission: to play the kora. We had no awareness of one another. I had saved up for a year to land in this place, only vaguely familiar, by plane, while he had hitch-hiked down all the way from Belgium to be in this place nearly completely foreign to him, save his family, who had settled here about a year prior.

Our paths crossed soon after our arrival, via Sahad. You may have recalled me referring to Alec as a ‘glorified roadie’ to Sahad’s band in blog entries from last year. For all the trouble I had with Sahad over the course of that year, some of which I’ve outlined here, but much of which I’ve kept to myself, I do have Sahad to thank for so many wonderful friendships I’ve made here, particularly with musicians, and especially with Alec. As soon as Alec and I met, the time we spent together grew exponentially until it was nearly all our time. We would get lost in our intertwining learning, both through the kora and conversation. When the kora became tiresome, we’d sing and play guitar, and in this time I found a kindred spirit.

After about 5 months of growing ever closer together, it was time for Alec to leave. My intention was always to whole-heartedly master this instrument, while his curiosity has led him more and more towards journalism. And so we were finally ripped apart one day in April by differing ambitions, for which there is deep mutual respect. But there remained an undeniable feeling of loss, at least on my end.

However, when he returned in March this year, it was as if he had never left. This was made quickly evident when we played together. We had both made strides in our kora playing: mine more tangible in an expanding repertoire, while his were more tentative and tended to the development of a personal style. Of course, I had cultivated more knowledge of the instrument, but that doesn’t mean he was ever lost.

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Alec and his kora

***

You see, although I’ve been playing the kora for more than four years now, I’ve only ever learned 8 or 9 songs. Yes, I’ve performed solo and in duos and in bands. I’ve played jazz, reggae, blues, afrobeat, hip-hop, soundscapes, and soundtracks. But, within the repertoire made for the kora, I’ve only learned 8 or 9 songs. Now, this limited repertoire is no reflection of my motivation and enthusiasm, or lack thereof. On the contrary, I think my most enduring teacher, Edou, would argue that I might be too enthused for my own good. Nearly every time I see him he tells me that I am far too pressed.

Let me explain.

The first song I ever learned was Kelafa Ba, as I mentioned above. My teacher, Edou Manga, is a jola (ethnic group) dakarois originally from the southwestern forested region of Senegal called Casamance, with whom I’ve been studying since my start in 2011 and still study today. I’ll never forget when he came into our classroom and told me that we would start a song. My heart began racing. I had spent the first few weeks vertiginously trying to follow my cris-crossing fingers as they’d fumble along the two elegant rows of strings, 21 in total, not unlike the parallel cords that run up and down a cable-stay bridge. Maintaining an even rhythm with the major scale was dizzying enough, how was I ever to mount a pattern?

Little did I know that the song was built upon centuries of yearning, dizzy students like myself, its structure meant to be democratically accessible. It is the first song that most kora students learn, and in it is said to be an ocean from which anyone can drink. I learned it skeletally over a period of time, and then moved on to the next. Over time in those early days of my kora development, my weekly lessons with Edou became daily lessons. He would sit with me each day, sometimes 6 hours a day, while I played the same, short little tune over and over again, and, by my first departure from Senegal, after my first 4 months of playing, I had already learned 7 of the 9 or so songs I know today; Kelafa Ba, Bamba Bodian, Massani Cisse, Maki Tara, Ceddo, Jarabi, and an obscure one whose name I don’t even remember.

You might be wondering what those names mean. I’ve often wondered that myself. Unfortunately, learning the kora has become such a big undertaking that many teachers have thrown out the storytelling part of the tradition in the hopes of keeping students who are so easily lost to youtube guitar tutorials. I’ve certainly never had these names explained to me, except once, by my teacher’s teacher. Edou brought me to him when I started asking questions he couldn’t answer. Edou’s teacher sat me down and clearly recounted epic story after epic story into my little microcasette recorder while I struggled to stay awake. He only spoke in wolof, which gave me no hope of understanding at the time. Nonetheless, in my own research, I have found that the music accompanies epic stories, with certain musical themes following characters and plot-lines. The names of the tunes are mostly the names of men; men of epic stories, which, like most epic stories, glorify the courage of warriors who turn into kings (with a few exceptions). Besides that, there isn’t much more I know. Like so many korists today, I’ve abandoned the epic stories, once inextricably married to the music, to rot in the hearts of a dying generation and on dusty archive shelves. That isn’t to say, however, that this music isn’t still rich with stories to tell.

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My kora teacher, Edou (left), with his teacher

On the contrary, every piece, every time a korist plays, is abundant with narrative. Every time I sit down with a korist, I am anxious to know what they know, but they infallibly ask me what I know. So I start playing Jarabi or Allalake, the two traditional tunes I play best. No matter how I well I play, though, each korist always has something new, a new chapter if you will, of that piece to give me. If the musician begins to lose me on something complicated, they return to a skeletal version of the piece; their foundation of the piece, which is always different from the one I’ve learned before. These versions are the perfected amalgamation of what that korist was taught, and his teachers were taught, and so on. It is the foundation of tradition and family and musical kinship. It is an agreed upon creed of their practice. The less skeletal – the more intricate and complex – that the patterns become, the more that korist’s individual interpretation and personality is being imprinted upon the piece’s foundation and the more character development and plot it contains. It becomes the difference between reading D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Homer’s Odyssey, except the heros are sitting directly in front of you.

As it becomes more personalized, the more difficult it becomes to communicate to me, and thereby for my playing to survive it, not unlike Darwin’s natural selection. But as I spend more and more time with a teacher, we create an unequivocal bond in which we share a struggle and a story in that learning and the richness of my playing mirrors the richness of our relationship and musical communication. As I imprint my own, new versions onto each foundation that’s been laid for me, each korist from whom I’ve learned that tune is interweaved into the new fabric my fingers weave as they cycle through the strings.

And so, when I play, I am recanting the call and response of Jola church-goers at mass, tucked away in the forest, that Edou taught me; I am playing the lost desert blues of the Mandingue empire that dispersed into nomads, from my Malian teacher in New York, Yacou; I am playing the shouts and wails of the muslim Bombara people who have grown the enormous families that characterize West African communities today, from Noumoucounda; and I am playing humbly and slowly and basically, like a girl from New York in West Africa who sometimes misses her mother tongue.

You are precious to me,” Edou says. “I want you to train to be able to push your spirit through those fingers. You must do the exercises so that your fingers have some hope of catching up with your spirit.”

***

Since Alec’s departure to the U.K. last year, we kept in touch via skype and e-mail, though I’d hardly call that being close to someone, really. Still, when he returned and we played together, it was as if we were never apart.

Playing with him made me feel at home, but his return also wreaked some havoc. Being a musician, most of my friends are men, and the man I was dating at the time (let’s call him F) had come to accept that. But the closeness I share with Alec was just too threatening, and it put undue pressure on my relationship with F. F, overwhelmed with jealousy, was unable to control his sense of possessiveness and anger, and while Alec made me feel safe and free, F began to make me feel threatened and caged. So, in a surge of emotions, that relationship was quickly blown to pieces.

Fast forward to Easter morning, where I am waking up in Alec’s room. Without any other relationship to sever our closeness, I am trying to soak up all the time Alec would allow me to have with him, which ends up being just about all his time. The morning light pries my eyelids open, followed by a gurgling in my stomach and then a sharp pain. Alec proposes we go for a walk. Despite my queeziness, I agree, though struggle through it. When we return home, I situate myself on the couch where I stay and rest.

Alec wakes me up. “Come to the festival with me.” I sigh. He’s talking about the Sahel Festival, in the middle of the desert. I had already decided for some time that I wasn’t going to go. It was too expensive and too far to go see artists I had already seen live before. “You know I want to, but my stomach…” “I’m leaving in 5 minutes, come.” Alec insists. I sighed again. “What if I throw up in the car?” “I have bags for that.” I grin. He’s leaving in two days and I don’t want to miss out on those short 48 hours. So I go. And I throw up in the car.

After a turbulent dune buggie ride through the desert, we finally arrive at the stage situated in a sand canyon. “Ey – kii kan la?” (“Hey, who is that?”) No sooner do I turn and see my best Senegalese friend, a sound engineer named Mo Fia, smiling and waving from the stage, that I throw up, this time with such force that diarrhea uncontrollably comes out the other direction.

Next thing I know I’m up on the dunes, moonlight above me, bare butt in the sand below me. I’ve just whipped off the pants I had cleaned only a few hours before. “You know what? I’m fine. You go have fun. I’m just going to sit through this.” I say, smiling up at Alec. He stays anyway, commending my positive spirit. “Well, if you’re going to have diarrhea anywhere, why not under the moonlight in front of live music? The sand is soaking it all up quite well.” I say. “I’m determined to have a good time.” This attitude is new to me, but replacing what remains of the stubbornly angsty adolescent in me rapidly. It is a result of the biggest lesson I’ve learned in Senegal over the past few months; there is nothing that cannot be overcome. Even if the will isn’t there, time will persevere in its passing. Misfortune is inevitable in life, whether you chose to hold on to your suffering or not, so you might as well let it go.

I manage to get some white rice in my stomach and medication from the medical tent. Alec goes off to enjoy the concert from the audience, while I’m situated comfortably back stage. As I’ve mentioned many times before, there are advantages and disadvantages to being seemingly both the only female and toubab kora player in Senegal. This festival was an example of the advantages: free transport, free admission, free drinks, free food, free medication, free lodging, free everything at a music festival in the desert for the toubab korist, who naturally manages to have a great time.

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Alec and I on the road back to Dakar

We finally make it back to Alec’s house the next day, where I can wash my clothes and take a rest in his family’s tranquil home. I think my illness has passed, but it’s only the beginning. I wake up at 5 am the next morning and oscillate between the bed and the bathroom until 8 am, when I realize I won’t make it to work. I’m disappointed, but in retrospect, I needed that day. It was my last day with Alec, and my illness could not have been more ill-timed. Moreover, if I had not stayed, I might not have realized, thanks to Alec’s mother (who is a doctor), that the medication that was given to me at the festival was medication for epilepsy. It is probably to blame for the continuation of the illness for the rest of that week.

It’s now 7 pm and we are on our way to the airport. I’m flattered that, with all his family at home, he chose to have me accompany him away. We ride off through dusk on my precarious motorbike. I hold him close while trying to keep his kora straight and steady behind me. He does the same with his trekking backpack in front of him. The wind is cool and we squeeze on the tiny two wheels, weaving through heavy traffic. Every few minutes he takes his hand off the brakes to hold my cold hands wrapped around his waist.

We arrive at the airport and it is at that highly anticipated moment, not unlike the first time, that we must part. Our whole relationship has been defined by these flights, to come and go. Yet I never quite feel prepared to accept it. I start sobbing as he embraces me. “Thanks for being in my life – no matter what happens, you’ll always be dear to me.” “You mean so much to me, Althea.” And other things that could have gone unsaid. We pull apart and get one last look at each other.

If there’s anything I haven’t said, you know it to be true.”

The paradox of my relationship with Alec is an emotionally challenging one: without the determination to see through our ambitions, creating distance between us now, I would have never met him, my most cherished friend, in the first place. It makes my heart ache just as much when we are together as when we are apart knowing that I can’t hold on to him and that I may never see him again. But holding on to someone is an illusion in the first place; no one truly possesses anyone, for anyone can be taken from this life in an instant. What’s important is that you make the most of the time you have with someone when you have it, and then try to let it go when you don’t. And, if you can’t let go, at least you can recognize that that pain and that loss is the result of having had something so beautiful in your life that it was worth that pain, right?

***

After the airport, I return to Alec’s home, where there is a party being held in anticipation of his mother’s departure the following day. I sit down and try to get down some food, still struggling with my digestion. “Isn’t Alec just magnificent?” I hear a family friend say. “He could have a career in rugby if he wanted, a career in journalism, a career in music.. there’s just so many possibilities for him. I think he’s just magnificent.”

In this fancy home, mostly surrounded by Europeans, I suddenly start to see myself through their eyes. These family friends who have seen Alec grow up, and then me consistently by his side twice in Senegal over the course of a year, must think of me as some pitiful riffraff he leaves behind each time. Maybe they think he has girls all over his well-traveled world just awaiting his return. Maybe they’re right.

I leave feeling unduly scorned and self-conscious, but not half as much as when I encounter these people again a few days later. Sitting in front of my kora, fumbling with a mic, they start to flood the art gallery where I am performing solo for maybe the third time in Senegal. It’s about 8 pm. I’ve been working since 8 am: middle-school classes from 8:15-3:30, tutoring from 4:30-5:30, then straight to this art gallery to do a sound check. A tumultuous break-up still in the back of my mind, in addition to Alec’s leaving; a long day of work on the fifth day of my illness still ongoing, and I am worn. And I look it. And I know it. I don’t emanate half of the chic of any person in this gallery, and it is filling up more and more with people who adore Alec. I am suddenly filled with an unyielding sense of vulnerability and panic, the type you get when you meet your boyfriend’s parents for the first time, except it’s not just his parents, it’s maybe 20 important adults who have had a part in raising him. I could never have had a career in athletics or journalism. The kora is all I’ve got and now half my audience is waiting for me to prove myself, knowing me only by my relationship to their magnificent Alec.

I look up at my instrument, pushing my eyelids just half way up, and then close my eyes. The feeling of defeat is the sun setting over my person and my brain is getting cloudy in the coming shadows. I take a deep breath, and to my surprise, that deep breath carries me through an hour and half of solo material. My fingers sail across the strings like a catamaran slicing through the turquoise waves that enter the Caribbean islands. They sing of the forests of Casamance, the deserts of the Sahel, the concrete of New York, and, with everything taken out of me, feeling as though I have nothing to give, I also have nothing to lose. A wind is blown through my spirit as though it were a feather plucked before its first flight now becoming animated once more. I become possessed by melodies and improvisations that had never come to me before. “Althea you are an African American woman. You are a Native American woman. You are a French American woman.” A voice seemed to say to me. “You come from displaced people who dug their hands in the earth and their spirits in the sky; who traversed the highest mountains and the deepest rivers to taste a freedom that they’ve passed onto you; a freedom that you have put to use with a boundless curiosity that has led you, on your very own volition, to places once forgotten. And in this place where you study an ancient language and an ancient instrument you are rooted to a nobility that few will ever see, but in which you can rest assured that you have nothing to prove to anyone ever.” 

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My thumbs post-concert

Much Love,

Althea

p.s. want to see more pictures? Check me out on instagram.

 

 

 

 

 

Benn At

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It has been a year since I moved to Dakar, and what a rapidly-changing year it has been. I thought I would take time to revisit and respond to the first post I made in this Dakar series, in the airport on the way to Senegal on November 29th, 2013.

“My destination is a neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal called Sacre Coeur, where I will be sharing an apartment with a Senegalese professor and friend. I intend to call this corner of the world my home for at least 7 months, though I don’t know quite yet how long my stay will be.” 

I actually never ended up living in Sacre Coeur. And now it’s been a year. I lived with a good friend in a large, comfortable apartment (even had a washing machine!). He very kindly picked me up at the airport and gave me a place to stay for only a week or two that turned into 5 months. I then moved, and still live, just a few miles south of my first location above two of my bandmates, and, now, with my two lovely British roommates. I still don’t know quite yet how long my stay will be.

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at home with friends

“West African music has always struck a powerful chord with me. “

Still true.

“The Senegalese people returned my (primarily linguistic and musical) investment ten fold. Many members of the musical community in Dakar showed me an affection and generosity like that of an older brother to a younger sister. Where, here in the states, my experiences with music had been largely informed by a rigid system dependent on a written score, a desperate industry, and a competitive spirit…”

Still true. Though, ironically, the research I have recently started is largely composed of transcribing audio recordings of traditional Serer music to western staffs (written scores) for the director of the Musee de Thies, about an hour outside of Dakar. It’s fascinating work, particularly because I get to work with a violinist in the National Orchestra who is also a music teacher at the biggest conservatory in Dakar. I think what I love most about it is trying to reflect the deeply flexible and improvisatory feeling of the music that, to me, is antithetical to the written score. Can’t necessarily say I’ve been successful.

“…Senegal was a place where creative ideas flowed freely and generously. All one needed was determination and openness to cohort with some of the countries top musicians and earn the trust, encouragement, gratitude and support of a community.”

Ah yes, that’s where things get a bit blurry. I can’t say that this statement is entirely untrue, but it is certainly far from the whole truth. One of the most surprising things I have encountered this year are musicians discouraging me from playing my compositions, even improvisations, in front of other people. “Asi, you must be careful,” they would say. “You don’t want just anyone to hear that. They will record your sound and steal from you!”

At first, even when they recounted songs that were stolen from them, I thought that this type of comment was very silly. Then, one day, I sat down with the older brother of one of the more well-known artists I work with. We were in that artist’s studio, where many other artists also work. The brother began talking to me about how it was somewhat dangerous that they always have the doors of the studio open to whatever artists walk in. I asked him why and he went through an archival history; playing me recordings of songs that the patron group had never released, and then recordings of other artists’ songs that sounded nearly identical, all Senegalese. I was taken aback. When I asked the artist if he was angry about this and if he had taken any action against the others, he told me absolutely not. “[My musical partner] and I have a wealth of creativity. It is a bottomless well. Those others are limited, and are thereby no competition to us. Why make matters worse for them?”

“It became clear to me very early on in my studies that simply having the agency to study music is hard to come by for most Senegalese citizens. In most cases, it stipulates that one be a man, that his family be open to the idea and be able to afford to give them the education without much expectation of a return, among other things.”

Still true, but I’d like to add that there is remarkable talent in Dakar that has overcome these conditions. Nonetheless, I have committed myself to teaching any girl anything I can about music for free for the reasons above. I now have 5 guitar students because of this commitment.

“My days will be spent recording, archiving, preserving, listening, playing, participating, speaking, learning and absorbing Senegalese language and music culture. My hope is that this work will help the growth of artistic grounding and opportunity for Senegalese musicians; to aide them in establishing a more defined identity in the world music sphere. Moreover, I hope that by recording the lessons of gewels (traditional musicians and storytellers bound by centuries-old rites), in particular, and making them publicly accessible, more Senegalese people will be able to afford to engage with their own music in the ways that I have.”

That’s a long list, ain’t it? Not sure how I expected to accomplish all of it in 7 months, let alone 1 day. I would say my days are largely spent playing/listening/learning about music, teaching (music and English), and sleeping. I have certainly recorded a lot, though I would like to do much more. I hope that all of my recordings will become available, both physically and digitally, at the National Archives, but I have yet to make great strides there; so I would say my efforts to archive and preserve music here have been quite weak. Listening; certainly. Playing; so much. Participating; absolutely. Speaking, learning and absorbing; yep yep yep.

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performing with Royal Messenger

Hoping that this work would aid Senegalese musicians in establishing a more defined identity in the world music sphere is full of hubris and arrogance. I have yet to do many important things on that list, and having an actual impact with these endeavors is a mixture of luck, incredible work ethic, focus, and knowledge. I could certainly stand to work on all those things. I would say I’ve made the most progress on knowledge, primarily by accepting that I often know nothing. I’ve learned that if I want to be in far off places, I need to acknowledge and work against the ignorant role I play in those places. Establishing change should not be the goal because the motivation for trying to establish change, however earnest that may be, comes from a narcissistic place that believes that my knowledge (of which I’ve established that I have very little) should somehow  be an authority.  Instead, I’ve learned that I should just try to do what I believe to be productive, learn from that pursuit, and then edit it.

That is of course not to say that there has not been change. Predictably, the most dramatic change has been in myself, thanks to Senegalese people; I feel I’ve become a more realistic, understanding, and smart person since my arrival. I couldn’t possibly recount every lesson I’ve learned, but I know there are two important ones that have stuck with me: One; talk is much easier than action; there are some very talented talkers out here and interpreting the sincerity in their voice as sincerity in their actions is very dangerous; and, Two; patience is just as valuable as it is replenish-able. Patience is an asset.

“It is with great sadness, however, that I must leave my family and friends, some of the best family and friends in the world, for this period. However, I intend to make every effort possible to stay connected.”

I really do have some of the best family and friends in the world, friends and family here and back home that remind me just how lucky and supported I am every day. I apologize for my absence lately. I so value all the people that take out the time to read this and even sometimes respond. The primary reason I haven’t written is that, as time goes on and I immerse myself deeper into this place, the harder it becomes to articulate what I’ve observed, felt and learned. I continue to persevere, reflect, and write, however, and I really believe that some of my most interesting writing has yet to come.

It gets lonely and I do long for my friends and family back home often, while also being in awe of all the new friends and family I’ve acquired in Senegal. This is the price of being lucky enough to connect these two worlds. I had a wonderful time in that role when my  brave, worldly and open friend Zoe visited me in May. It was very neex (delicious, enjoyable) indeed.

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with zoe

“I will continue working on my own music projects and releasing new episodes of my podcast (The Earfull) here at altheasullycole.com and on the iTunes music store.”

The progress on music projects has been so satisfying. I recently updated my music page and many more updates should be coming there soon.

The Earfull, my coveted creation, still lives on, though I do not know when the next episode will be released, sadly. I overlooked how difficult it would be to translate interviews I do here in Senegal. However, I promise I’m still continuing to make them and will release them in the future.

I intend to return to the States in June until September (2015). It is likely I will return to Senegal for what I forsee another year here before potentially moving on. But, who knows?

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Much love,

Althea

Keepin’ It Cool On Hot July Days With The Local Motorcycle Gang

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Kun Yu Dul Ay Ay Lo Ay Dal Nala

Aasi – will you take this letter and give it to my first wife? She lives in the Bronx. That’s not far from you, no?

It’s 2011. My last night in Senegal. I furrow my brow. My homestay father has a first wife?! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’ve been living here for almost 5 months and this is the first time I’m hearing about her?! I don’t speak much of my homestay family in 2011, but they are fascinating people and I visit them often. Well, at least once a month. I don’t want to use their names, so I will just call them Baay (dad), Yaay (mom), and Mag (short for mag bu jigeen, which means older sister). My Mag is actually the bon, or the live-in maid/cook, but she felt much more like an older sister. She’s from a village, at least 6ft tall, and has a daring sense of wit. Yaay is a pharmacist at the hospital and Baay is a retired economics teacher.

Religion is central to my parents’ life. Baay spends much of his day at the mosque, while Yaay spends much of her time at home praying. There aren’t very many pictures of marabouts around the house, but there are a few of Mecca. Despite having numerous homestay children from all over the world, the only voyage Yaay has ever made was to Mecca.

Mbalax and a social life back in the village dominate Mag‘s life. Mag now speaks a lot of french, though it was limited when I lived with the family in 2011. She of course speaks very rapid wolof and also excellent arabic. Yaay has been trying for many years to learn arabic, particularly to be able to read the Qur’an, and it is one of many sources of tension between the two.

Upon my arrival in 2013, I quickly met Malick, or Matthew, the American that was staying with my Senegalese family until recently. For the past 6 months, I feel as though we’ve become detectives trying to uncover the many mysteries of this family. Malick has done most of the detective work, of course. However, the more I discover about my family, the more mysterious they seem to become. Malick found out recently, for example, that Yaay wasn’t married until 38 years of age, which is pretty late in Senegal where the legal marrying age for women is 16 (18 for men). Before the resurgence of Islamic conservatism in early 90’s, apparently, she was very much into salsa dancing and wanted to write a novel. This is big news for me, having felt the palpable tension when I would return home from concerts at the same hour that she would wake for early morning prayers in 2011.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all, however, is the fact that this couple has no children. This is a very rare thing in Senegal. I remember asking Yaay why she liked hosting students, hoping she would shed some light on this issue, but her response was simply a recollection of the many Peace Corps volunteers her parents had in the home when she was growing up. It was normal to her. When Baay told me that he had another wife – a wife that he needed my help contacting in New York – I began to believe that perhaps Baay was “shooting blanks” and in denial that his first wife had left him, quite possibly for this reason. Malick and I debated this often. I was often more Yaay sympathetic, while he was a bit more Baay sympathetic. But, in the end, we often concluded that we knew little to nothing. In recent conversation with Malick, Baay said ‘I’m 64 years old. Your 23. If my son were still alive, he would be 30-years-old.’ That both laid many theories to rest, while opening up the possibility for many others to fester.

You may be asking yourself why I never simply asked my Senegalese family what happened; why didn’t they have any children and what happened with the first wife? The child? If only things could be so easy. You see, polygamy is a very sensitive subject in Senegal, the reason being tension between traditional society and Islam in particular. Secondarily, there is a felt tension, particularly for younger people, between the culture of polygamy and mainstream thinking on polygamy in the rest of the world. This is why one must tip-toe around the subject. This is why, for the rest of this entry, I will largely be using false names or no name at all for the people I’ve heard from on the subject.

In wolof, there is an expression, kun yu dul ay ay lo ay dal nala: “If you don’t change households, misfortune will fall upon you.” Although the topic is mildly taboo, this traditional way of viewing polygamy is still alive and well – Senegal has the highest polygamy rate—the percentage of polygamous marriages among all married couples—in West Africa. However, it is difficult to talk about how marriage existed traditionally. In fact, it is hard to talk about traditional society at all definitively in Senegal. Firstly, there isn’t one traditional society, but many – as many as there are ethnic groups (and there are a lot). Senegal also passed through many African empires both before and after trade roots from the middle east made it to the region in the 11th century, laying a heavy arabic influence on culture. All this, of course, came before the Atlantic Slave Trade and the colonial era, which wiped away many traditional parts of Senegalese culture. Nonetheless, there is evidence that polygamy existed in Senegal long before the arrival of Islam and across many ethnic groups. “The primary activity of our ancestors was agriculture. In order to cultivate the land, you need a lot of hands. So the more numerous your family is, the easier it is to exploit the fields, to produce a lot… and to feed and support your family,” my wolof teacher in 2011 stated recently in an interview on the subject of polygamy. “In Africa, in Muslim countries, polygamy is a reality. I think it is more specifically African than Islam,” explains Penda Mbow, a professor of religious studies at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, also in a recent article on the subject.

Still, some Senegalese men continue to say that Islam demands polygamy. According to one Imam (the head of a Mosque here in Dakar), however: “Polygamy is first of all an option. It is not an obligation. It is an option that god gave to men. Each individual is free to choose whether he wants to be polygamous or to stay monogamous. If [one says he wishes] to be polygamous, religion permits [him] to marry multiple wives. If [he says he wants] to be monogamous, religion says that that is a choice.” In fact, Islam, though sanctioning the practice, actually makes polygamy quite hard to achieve. Mbow says “polygamy, in my opinion, should be the exception in Islamic society and not something you find all the time.”

Islam, nonetheless, plays a tremendous role in the maintenance of the practice of polygamy here in Senegal. From what I understand, in Islam, there is only one absolute love: that for the creator, God, and the prophet in which one believes. For everything else, however, love is relative, or non-exclusive. Exclusive love becomes a desire of possession. God has rather given each person an immense love, an ocean of love, in which multiple people can swim. In this ocean, everyone can get the love that he or she wants.

In my Senegalese experience, however, this idea of an immense love may actually deprive many from receiving the love that they may want or need. For example, one of my married friends – let’s call her T – said that “Men will say ‘if I want a second wife, you must support me in that because you love me.’… Women are dieing of stress here in Senegal. People are always saying ‘oh yea, she died of cancer of this or that.’ It’s stress. It’s the stress of having to take care of everything for a man who does who knows what with his time. A man who is allowed by society to go out and do whatever he wants, to treat his wife like she doesn’t even have a heart.”

When I asked why polygamy is practiced in Islam, one friend told me that, at the beginning of Islam, women were being treated as possessions or slaves that could be thrown away or even killed. It is thus that the prophet took multiple wives for political alliances or to protect women who were struggling to stay safe. The prophet was never lustful. He did not take multiple wives for pleasure or material luxuries, as evidenced by his celibacy until twenty-five years of age and marriage with a woman fifteen years his senior, to whom he was completely devoted until her death. My wolof professor explained that if Muhammad had asked men to stop practicing polygamy altogether it would have been much harder to gain a following. Instead, he regulated the practice and it decreased the rate of extramarital sexual relations. It is often explained that this was advantageous to women as well; women, more numerous than men, would not have all been able to get married if strictly monogamous marriage was practiced. Forbidden to have sexual relations outside of marriage, unmarried women would not have been able to fulfill their natural needs. Barbara Freyer Stowasser, author of Women in the Qur’an, Tradtions and Interpretation, justifies the contemporary practice from a woman’s perspective saying that

[It] protects the older, sick, or barren wife from divorce while ensuring progeny for the man who may take a second young and healthy spouse. Secondly, polygamy is the most equitable solution to demographic problems in times of war, when soldiers are killed and there are not enough men to ensure marriage and motherhood opportunities for all females.

The limit of wives in Islam has been set to 4 – the number of wives that the prophet Mohammed possessed. Men are expected to follow Mohammed’s model and perform the four fundamental tasks of a husband in the Islamic faith; 1) find lodging for one’s wife; 2) provide one’s wife with food and other necessary items; 3) satisfy one’s wife sexually; and 4) assure one’s wife enough clothing. If a man takes on more than one wife, he is expected to have the means to support all of his wives and children, and to not favor one wife or treat his wives unequally. The women’s role, on the other hand, is to educate the children, take care of the children, take care of the husband and family, and to be in charge of the children’s education. “To me, women have so much more than men,” one of my older male friends told me. “They are the ones that make a home. They are the ones that make life happen. A man just works to make sure that she can do that. He gives her everything.”

One proposal I get quite often is “Am naa benn jabar, waaye begg naa naar. Yow laay begg.” (“I have one wife, but I want two. I want you [to be my second wife].”) I used to respond to this kind of proposal with internal shock and disgust, but now it is more like a part of daily life and I hardly have the energy to care. When a casual conversation unravels into a marriage proposal, particularly a polygamous one, I sometimes laugh or say “that’s nice, but no thanks.” Other times I simply nod. Then there are times when I tell them “okay! You will be my fourth husband.” “Your fourth?!?” they respond in shock, sometimes anger. “No, no that’s not normal.” From an American perspective, while women are expected to be treated equally in a polygamous marriage, polygamy does very little for women’s equality in the greater society—a society that already suffers from great gender disparity. Senegal ranks 102nd out of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (produced by the World Economic Forum since 2006), which measures the position of women relative to men in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Many women’s rights activists here as well say that the practice violates the principle of equality, promotes gender disparity, and compromises women’s progress in society. “Polygamy is a form of modern slavery, believe me it’s not easy as it sounds. Women involved in this form of marriage have no voice and no channels to complain,” says one Dakar woman who secretly counsels and advises wives in polygamist marriages. Fanta Niang, a social worker and gender activist in Thies, Senegal’s third-largest city, states that “[polygamy], which in the past was widespread in rural areas, has reached urban areas with alarming proportions. And abuse is on the increase, mostly in Dakar, where polygamists are becoming younger and younger.” One female 23-year-old university graduate, forced to marry a 48-year-old man here in Dakar, said in the same article that “polygamy is hell and a pack of lies… look at me, I am young and supposed to be doing things most girls my age are doing. I had dreams and aspirations to own a small company and travel the continent. I’m trapped and feel I’m going crazy because this illiterate rich man won’t let me fulfill my dreams.”

At the time of slavery, if a master were to impregnate one of his slaves, she would become his wife, even if he already had four. This is one of a few exceptions to Islamic law, though no longer applicable now that slavery has almost completely disappeared in Senegal. There are still ways, however, that Senegalese men can acquire wives that are not necessarily sanctioned by Islam. The first, and most obvious, is without the consent of their first wife. The Senegalese Family Code has made this legally possible. The 1973 Code states that the man is “the chief of the family,” and thereby the one in charge of the most important decisions with regards to marriage and family. When a couple presents themselves in front of a civil state officer for a marriage certificate, it is only the husband that may choose whether the marriage will be monogamous or polygamous. He can opt for two, three or four wives (the latter is known as integral polygamy) and his decision cannot be changed later in life. A man who opts for two wives may never seek more than two. If he does, he can be fined between 20 000 CFA to 300 000 CFA (a little over $40 to $600), imprisoned or asked for a divorce. This is why many men, even those intending to stay monogamous, often choose to leave the option open, just in case they have a change of heart later in life, particularly since polygamy, generally, is not grounds for divorce in Senegal. At the time that the marriage certificate is signed, the wife may refuse to sign if she does not approve of the decision made by her husband. The civil state officer, however, is still at liberty to override this refusal.

A 34-year-old civil engineer named Khady Ndiaye, said that she never discussed the matter with her husband ahead of their 1996 marriage. She assumed that the answer would be obvious for two educated professionals. However, when they registered their wedding at the town hall, and the husband was asked if he would opt for polygamy or monogamy, he answered polygamy. Khady fainted. “I felt betrayed and still do,” she says.

Entering a polygamous marriage without your first wife’s consent is just one of many ways men are permitted to practice polygamy in Senegal and each is colored by traditional conceptions of marriage. “[Marriage] is the union between two families, not simply two people,” my wolof teacher explained. “That is the definition of marriage [in Africa]… There is not a marriage between just a couple. Generally it is the whole family that is involved.” It is such that, in Senegalese families, uncles are often referred to as fathers and cousins as siblings, and if a woman’s husband dies, her marriage to that family is not annulled; she may immediately be married to her late husband’s brother, regardless of how many wives he may already have. “This is the way of life in Senegal,” says one man named Adama Kouyate, who inherited the wife and six children of his late brother. “This has nothing to do with Islam, but it’s our culture. And no woman has the right to oppose this because she will be harshly cursed for the rest of her life.”

I lived with a family in Mouit, a village an hour north of St. Louis, in 2011, where the third wife was acquired thusly. After her husband died, she and her daughter were immediately taken in by her late husband’s younger brother, who already had two wives. I had been warned in advance that the family I would be living with was polygamous, but it’s possible I may not have known if I hadn’t been told. When I arrived, it was very difficult for me to identify which of the women were married to the head of the house, which were children, and which were aunts or other female relatives. After a few days, however, the family structure became quite clear. Every day, the head of the household would be on a mat or cushion in the center of the entrance way/salon while other members of the family would toil about the house. The peanut shells that would collect around him resembled the skin a snake might shed. His first wife would sit upright on her own cushion off to the far right. The aged, dark-skinned woman, making tea or shelling peanuts, was rarely ever visible. Her gaze was hard and she hardly ever spoke to me, or anyone in the house for that matter. To the husband’s direct left, often directly beside him, lay his voluptuous, light-skinned second wife. While her youth was beginning to give, her triumphant smile was still vivacious as she poured herself over the head of the household and ordered others around.

Then there was the third, who hardly ever sat. She was always collecting water from the well; hunched over a big boiling pot of broth, fish and vegetables; combing and braiding the children’s hair; or mopping the floors by shuffling a soapy towel across the entire house with her feet. Her only true concern was her daughter. Only 4 years old at the time, the little girl needed a lot of defending to get an equal share of the food and not get pushed around by her older step siblings.

Now that I’m writing this, I’m realizing how parallel this family structure is with that of Cinderella’s: replace the stepmother with the husband, the father of Cinderella with the husband’s late brother, and the stepsisters with the other wives, and voila – African Cinderella is born. But there is no prince, no hope of escape for African Cinderella, or the third wife, in this story. The binds of family are simply too strong. However, this is also real life, and things are not so grim. The third wife was afforded a remarkable amount of liberty, exempt from occupying herself entirely with the whims of the head of the house because of all the work she did both in and out of the house; when she wasn’t doing some household chore, she was making her own money as a manager of a nearby national park.

Each wife in the household, to me, represents a kind of wife stereotype here in Senegal. The first wife, quiet and out of the way, represents a perfect Senegalese wife. “A good woman is to stay in the shadows,” is passive advice I’ve received from male friends time and time again. “Senegalese men just want a woman who won’t say a word. They’ll brag about it saying, ‘oh yea, my wife is great – she never talks,’” T remarked more forwardly. “You have to clean the house, raise the children, cook the food, all the while satisfying the expectations of your husband, his family and your own. And if something bothers you, you are expected to smile and not say a thing! If you don’t, your husband will just pick up and find another wife, leaving you behind.”

The second wife might represent what men really look for in a woman; beautiful, voluptuous, lively – someone to tame and show off, I once heard it described. The evidence of the husband’s preference in this home was found in the sleeping arrangements; the first wife had her own bedroom while the second always slept in the same room as their husband. As a side note, one interesting stereotype of the second wife is that she is actually a homosexual woman taken in by a rich man as charity. This type of second wife, as I’ve heard it described, is often allowed to have her own private life, provided she bares children for her husband.

The third wife in Mouit is typical of all Senegalese wives in that her number one concern is her children. The most important quality that Senegalese women seem seek in a man is the ability to provide for a family. This is the excuse that women often give for being unfaithful before marriage. It’s just practical, many of them will say, if you are looking for a man that can best provide for you. Once married, a woman, particularly one with children, is much less likely to divorce her husband, polygamous or not, out of fear of the negative impact it will have on the resources and mentality of her children.

However, a polygamous marriage can have many different negative effects on children as well. Resources for the children of one wife, for example, will be immediately cut in half once the man takes a second wife. Moreover, jealousy that enters the wives may push some women as far as to turn to mysticism to harm their co-wife or her children. For instance, one Senegalese woman I read about recently said that her children began to behave very strangely after her husband took a second wife. One day, she got a phone call from the principal saying that her children had not been to school for three weeks. When she confronted her children about it, they told her that each day they would walk to school but, before entering, some force would pull them to not enter, so they would turn around and return home. The woman visited a fortune teller who told her that it was a curse that had been cast but, now that she knew about it, the curse would be broken once she purified, or washed, her children. She did as the fortune teller said and the children’s behavior returned to normal. The woman still believes that the second wife had performed this curse out of jealousy.

Despite all this, however, the popular conception of polygamy, at least that in which there is one man with several wives and he is the only one benefitting while the women suffer, can actually be turned on its head in practice. Rather than the man having all the liberty and the women having no choice in the matter, some women actually opt for polygamy because of the freedom it yields them. “I chose polygamy to have time, because when you are in a monogamous marriage, I feel you do not have enough time for yourself,” one Senegalese woman explained.

I wanted a husband who could come two days, and I’m free for two days. I am free. To have my time to myself, to see my parents, to do leisure activities, and therefore, to be a woman with a free mind. Besides being religious, I wanted to be free, to not be my husband’s love all the time. No. Marriage, for me, there’s work and there’s the marriage, and there’s the family…I am a free woman in my mind. I like liberty. And I think if I was in a monogamous marriage and my husband tightened the rules a little at the house, I would not be able to do it. I would not be able to because mentally I am not ready to be a wife to be managed, who receives orders. Absolutely not. I am an intellectual woman, who is free-minded, so I do not think I could manage very well in that situation.

In my experience, Senegalese society puts a lot of pressure on women to get married, and so, for those that want more freedom, particularly those that want to pursue higher education, for example, polygamy might be the best option.

Baring that in mind, polygamy can be a very difficult experience for men. Benn jabar, benn soxla – naari jabar, naari soxla, (one wife, one problem/responsibility – two wives, two responsibilities) is what they say in wolof. Indeed, polygamous marriage is a lot of responsibility and it is not easy to provide for two families. Women are beginning to work more and more, not only because they wish to, but out of necessity to provide for a family. This means that two providers are becoming more and more necessary in a family, making one provider for a bigger family more and more difficult and stressful to sustain. Moreover, one polygamous Senegalese woman, the first of two wives, described that she believes no polygamous man is happy:

For the first one, you say you will leave and come back. She lets you do that, mainly because she no longer wants to see you. And there you lose the grand love. And with the second, you do not have all of the same capacities you once had, so you cannot satisfy her…And what does she do? She abandons you. Because she is disappointed. All that she thought you had you do not….The first no longer loves you, and the second no longer loves you. You find yourself between a rock and a hard place…And you are left unhappy…So there are a lot of consequences for the man and the women.

Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that Senegal will ever make polygamy illegal. It remains an important freedom to many. Moreover, forbidding polygamy is largely seen as an acceptance of Western culture, and, pitted against the legalization of anti-Islamic homosexual marriage, that simply won’t due for many Senegalese. “If they are going to legalize anti-Islamic homosexuality in France, then they should leave polygamous marriage alone in Senegal,” a polygamous Dakar resident named Bouba Diop stated. He was reacting to the idea of a round table discussion held at the University on the “evolution, forms and perspectives” of polygamy in Senegal. “[It’s] a dirty[] event and we are not going to sit down and allow that to happen,” he said. “Polygamy is in the mind,” another polygamous Dakar man stated, “those who have not experienced it don’t know anything about it and therefore criticize it.”

Some think that the end of polygamy would result in a reign of adultery, which, given the normalcy of infidelity that I’ve seen, may not be an unreasonable conclusion. “I love my country. I really do. There is just one thing I deplore, Althea, and that is the infidelity of my country’s men,” T said to me. One 22-year-old student at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar named Lamine Camara, explained that he would rather be a polygamist and “officialise all my relationships instead of taking a string of girlfriends and risking diseases such as AIDS.” While the first part of his reasoning may be true for him because he is simply not one someone that can achieve monogamy, the second part is one example of how many of the ideas surrounding polygamy, often in its defense, are sadly evidence of an uneducated population. Polygamy, in fact, has been cited as a possible cause of Africa’s high incidence of HIV, in addition to low savings rate, high levels of child mortality, and female depression. Moreover, the idea that there are so many more women than there are men, and thereby polygamy must exist, couldn’t be further from the truth. According to ANSD’s statistics of the year 2013, women actually make up approximately 50.6% of the population in Senegal. Some calculations show that this should leave 1 in 5 men unable to marry due to a shortage of women. This ratio is congruent to that in China presently, which has been caused by sex-selective-abortion. And yet the misconception that there is a larger population of women is undoubtably the most common reason Senegalese people continue to justify the practice of polygamy.

Perhaps if people become more educated about the actual makeup of the population or if the number of women drops, then the practice of polygamy will continue to drop at a faster pace. However, it will probably take another generation or longer for Senegalese society to reject polygamy, though many people privately oppose it. Senegalese women’s rights activist Codou Bop explained that Senegalese women are just not ready to fight the tradition because of their struggles in other areas like access to education and employment. “Struggling against polygamy is not yet a priority when you consider all the problems they have to tackle – the economic, the social, the political level,” she says. However the problems she cites seem to stem back to family structure, at least to me. West Africa is one of the few places in the world where the birth rate is still growing, placing quite a strain on already limited resources. This rate is of course only made worse by polygamy.

I was recently quoted in an article on the subject of polygamy by my friend Zoe, who came to stay with me for a few weeks in Dakar, saying “The situation for women here [in Senegal] is really messed up.” Not my most eloquent moment, but certainly a simple explanation for why polygmay has become more and more interesting to me. Outside of my day to day interactions with polygamy, often mysterious or even blind, I recently became more interested in the practice for the difference it may represent in the construction of gender in Senegal. Specifically, the way men treat me – sometimes like a child, other times like a possession, sometimes just like an uneducated person – began to make me wonder where this behaviour was coming from. Though research into the subject has certainly shed some light onto my inquiries, the issue seems to be layered and steeped in a history, language and culture that still remains out of my grasp skill-wise. Despite my new discoveries on the position of women here and how that may be impressing upon me, I still have so many questions left unanswered. What am I consistently overlooked in important decisions, for example, with my band or even my friends? What was really going through my landlord’s mind when he made his adversity towards single, foreign women so clear to me without any explanation? Why do women seem both proud and threatened when they catch me on stage or television with male artist?

Maybe more answers next time.

Love,
Althea

Weeks 25 & 26: Ceddo Ci Touba

Dear Internet,

A few notes before I officially begin this letter; 1) Ceddo Ci Touba means ‘Non-Believer In Touba’; this is about 99% of everything know about religious life in Senegal and is thereby colored by my own biases and ignorance; 2) I’d like to thank Khadim Diouf for taking a large part in writing this piece; and 3) unless it is a caption, emphasis or another language, all text that appears in italics has been translated by yours truly.

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A Car Rapide, a form of public transportation, with the word “Touba” on the front

The blackness is thick at 1 am in front of my new apartment building. I don’t know he’s there until he grabs my arm, which is when I realize that he can see me. He pulls me towards the main road, towards the light, as we tread through the sandy alley.

KD: Well, he was someone who was very close to god. A disciple of god… He fought against the whites for Islam and the culture of our ancestors, well certain parts of the culture. He also did a lot for the spirit of Senegalese people. He said that you must always believe in something. He wrote many things in his khassaides, which are like poems. Many of them were written about God, Mohammed, other prophets, and sahaba, people who were close to the prophet Mohamed. He wrote more than 7,500 tons of books.

AS: 7,500 tons? What do you mean?

KD: We’ve never counted exactly how many books, but that’s what is said. It was seen. He also threw some of his books in the ocean and others were burried.

AS: And all the books were composed of khassaides?

KD: Mhm, and prayers….

We approach the main road, the congested intersection. Boubous hang off the others waiting, glistening in the hot, sickly orange city night. There is an of air anxiety as one of maybe three buses back away from the small crowd. As we emerge from the shadows, Khadim releases my arm, to traverse through the others with our friend Boga.

He was important because… There was a marabout [spiritual leader], a well-known marabout in Senegal named Serigne Mbaye Sarr. He had children and some wives, more than 3 wives, 4. And when there was a drought, he didn’t have anything to eat or drink. So he wrote a letter to God and buried it in the ground. When he buried it, there was no one but him and God. And at the moment that he buried it, and a little more than one day after, when he got up, he saw that there was dust coming from the North towards him. As it came closer, he saw that it was horses and camels with food for years to come. It was this that he had demanded from God. The day after he put the letter in the ground, Serigne Touba was the one that sent the horses and the camels. When they asked who had given him this, he said it was Serigne Touba that gave him this. It was at this moment that one began to say that Serigne Touba was God. There was no one there when he buried the letter, how could Serigne Touba have known? It was this moment that he said that Serigne Touba was God. You know that, also, it was this moment that Serigne Mbaye Sarr became one of his disciples. He said that he didn’t want to stay there, that he needed to see the man that had done this. He had written a letter to God and it was a man that responded. He had to see this man. Serigne Touba gave him a house in Touba and some talibe, to learn the Qur’an there.

The bus reproaches the crowd and Khadim pushes me on. It is nearly packed to the brim with giant Senegalese men and their wives cradling one, two, sometimes even three or four children. I quickly take note that I am the only non-African on the bus, though no one seems to take note of me. I will have this moment repeatedly over then next 3 days, but I don’t know it yet. In the aisles, as is the case with most buses in Senegal, there are little benches, no more than a square foot in size, bridging each row of seats. They are mounted with axles such that they can be lifted up. There are only two spots that remain. I lift up one to sit in the other, only to turn around and see that neither Khadim nor Boga are behind me. They don’t seem to be in front of the crowd that’s trying to get on the bus either. I breathe in the shared anxiety, but feel impossibly isolated as I breathe out. “Altéa kaay.” (‘Althea come.’) I pop right up from the bench and walk back to the front of the bus where Khadim has mysteriously appeared once again.

There was someone else named Serigne Abdourahim Deme, who was also a master of the Qur’an. He said that he knew the Qur’an better than anyone else. He travelled around Senegal to see if there was someone who knew more about the Qur’an than him. Before he came to Diourbel, it was said that there was a grand marabout named Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Khadim Rassoul — Serigne Touba — who was there. So he went there to see Serigne Touba, and test his capacity with the Qur’an. For two days, after he got to Diourbel, he did not see Serigne Touba. The third day, when he saw Serigne Touba, he could no longer recite the Qur’an. Serigne Touba said ‘Ah, Abdourahim, you know that the Qur’an is in me. I have the key to the Qur’an.’ It was at this moment that Abdourahim became a disciple of Serigne Touba because he had never encountered someone more knowledgable about the Qur’an than him.

Khadim regains his grip on my bicep, pulls me off the first bus and pushes me onto a njaag njaay he has managed to flag down that happened to be headed to Touba. I am surprised to see each row holding 7 or 8 people in a space made for no more than 5 when the bus is going to a town about 4 hours away from Dakar at 1 in the morning. Then Khadim tells me that it’s a maggal, or the celebration of a religious leader in Senegal, tomorrow. The maggal of Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, specifically. My anxiety, already heightened by a budding claustrophobia found on this bus, immediately doubled. The grand maggal, that of Serigne Touba, attracts millions of people from all over the world. I don’t like to be in crowds, especially crowds of people speaking foreign languages, no more crowds of religious people. This is why I have avoided traveling every other maggal that’s passed while I’ve been in Senegal. I feel lucky that Khadim managed to install me next to a window, and try to breathe in the cold night air to release the tension. However, with my fatigue, all the people, and the lack of space, I begin to panic. I half fall asleep for a brief moment before a surge of tension flows through my entire body, propping me upright, over and over again for the next 5 hours.

Serigne Touba did things that the Senegalese, everyone not just the Senegalese, had never seen. It was because of Cheikh Ibrahim Fall that we know of Serigne Touba. He was the first disciple of Serigne Touba who exposed us to everything about Serigne Touba.

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a portrait of Ibra Fall and his followers found in a friend’s home

After 5 hours, we finally arrive in Diourbel. Diourbel is defined as a city by Senegalese, but would be a village by any American’s standards. Nonetheless, I am very impressed by the passing of buses and cabs traveling to Dakar on the main road – making the economic center of Senegal just a short walk away at any time of day or night, at least during the maggal. Khadim, Boga and I hop off the back of the bus half in motion and walk about 100 meters to Khadim’s home. He scales the large barrier, wakes his 70-something-year-old grandmother and retrieves the keys. A few other members of the household, all men, wake up and greet us. I reach out my hand to them, as I always do, only to have it slapped out of sight by Khadim. ‘Great, all that stress to arrive in a place where men won’t touch me,’ I think.

He was important because he got rid of the white people. He sent disciples to fight the white people sometimes. When the white people came here, they didn’t want Islam to develop. There were a lot of missionaries for Christianity. When they got here, there were a lot of non-believers. It was the non-believers who had slaves, who sold the slaves. The biggest non-believers were kings. They didn’t believe in God. It’s for this reason that they sold their brothers and their friends, people of the same blood.

The next day, after a bit of sleep and endless amounts of food, Khadim, Boga and I travel to Touba. Touba is essentially the Mecca of Senegal. It was founded by Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke (1853-1927), or Serigne Touba (“the Holy man of Touba”). It is said that he founded Touba after experiencing a cosmic vision of light under a large tree. In Arabic, tūba means “felicity” or “bliss” and, in the Qur’an, it is the name of the tree of paradise. It represents an aspiration for spiritual perfection and closeness to God in Sufism.

Touba in the daytime (pictures taken in 2011 – it has since changed):

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Khadim’s cousin, more like a sister, gives me something modest to wear: essentially a full-sized, beautifully printed chiffon bag with a matching scarf to cover my hair. We catch another njaag njaay at the main road. And, as we approach Touba, the streets become more and more congested with people in their best clothes. The women are particularly striking, sparkling with rhinestones and glitter from their eye shadow to their shoes.

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The Great Mosque, originally conceived by Serigne Touba but completed 40 years after his death, has been the cause of Touba’s growth from under 5,000 people in 1963 to 529,000 in 2007. It was built on the money raised by individual Mourides, many of which were peanut farmers who later began traveling outside of Senegal in search of business. It is quite an achievement that such a small population should create one of the continent’s biggest mosques. The last time I visited the Great Mosque in Touba was almost exactly three years ago, and, like three years ago – from the fountain spurting up from some 10 foot tall sparkling arabic letters to the ironically European marble that adorns the mosque’s walls and archways – I find it to be like a theme park for the religious. For me, a non-believer, it is not dissimilar to mega-churches in the United States.

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We finally enter the mosque with our shoes in our hands. It is beautiful and crowded. There is a long line of women. ‘Men are on the other side.‘ Khadim tells me. He takes me by the hand and starts talking to a guard, negotiating how to get me in, to see what, I don’t know. The guard leads him to a place where it is easier to enter the line. As we approach, there is another guard hitting a woman with a belt to get her to behave on line. ‘I really don’t have to go in – I can stay and wait for you somewhere.’No, you’re going in. Don’t worry.‘ A very kind lady lets me in front of her. She squishes against me into the next person as we walk past the guard in a singular line. Once we are past that check point, there are volunteers with trays, handing out Cafe Touba.

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Cafe Touba is made from a somewhat mysterious powder of coffee beans ground with djar, an African black pepper said to have stomach-settling and aphrodisiacal qualities. It is nicely spicy, though ridiculously sweet and rarely contains milk. It was created by Serigne Touba, who was said to make the mix for medicinal purposes. A plastic cup about the size of a double shot, littered throughout Senegal, costs 10 cents. The Cafe Touba in Touba is particularly syropy, with a little je-ne-sais-quoi. Khadim tells me later that the reason Cafe Touba is so sweet is because the water is salty in Touba.

Next someone comes from the right side of the line, blindsiding me with perfume that they were spraying on each person on line. Last, another from the left, hands me a little sponge cake. The guards were kind to me while I waited. Both encouraging and laughing at my attempts to speak wolof despite being so bewildered by the scene transpiring around me. I finally entered the mausoleum, the mausoleum of Serigne Touba. The guard hustled me into a little spot. Women throw in money and get on their knees, putting their hands on a large, opaque plexiglass box, much larger than that of a coffin. Between them and the box is a set of bars, like those that keep out sacce, or thieves, from the surrounding homes. They adorn the space beautifully, but further obscure what is inside. I put my hand on the box and kneel, attempt to meditate for a brief moment. I then stand up to make room for other women. I walk towards the back, where, separated by another set of bars, you can see the men’s side. They are all standing, toppling over one another, yelling/singing prayers and throwing money. I feel lucky to be with the women, sitting on the floor quietly praying. I sit back down, against the wall, and take it in. I unhitch my mind from my spine such that it can float directly above my open, surrendering hands.

The last story of white people and Serigne Touba is called Bureau Baccal Ndar, or the abandonned office of St. Louis. The French government wrote letters to 94 marabouts. Serigne Touba was the 4th. When the 94 marabouts came for the convocation of the governor in St. Louis, they called the 3 marabouts before Serigne Touba. They all accepted the proposition of the governor that they would no longer have the daaras of Islam. They threatened them with bloody knives. If they did not agree, they threatened to kill them. So all three accepted. After them, it was number 4 – Serigne Touba.

When he came and the white people demanded that he no longer teach disciples nor continue to practice Islam, Cheikh Ibra Fall, at the side of Serigne Touba, took a kaftan, put water on his hands and dispersed it on the desk, the office of the governor. To make ablution in the room, so that one could pray there. After that, Serigne Touba took out his prayer rug and he did two deraka. After that, he returned to his place before the governor. Serigne Touba presented the Qur’an to the governor. The governor told him you must no longer believe in God, because God does not exist, there is no God. Serigne Touba responded that God does exist, there is only one God, and his name is holho-walla-ahaad-alaahoo-samad-lam-yarid-wallam-yoorad-wallam-yakkul-loxo-kufu-am-ahad [please excuse me for my terrible phonetic spelling]. “So you, you do not want stop. So we will bring you where no one has ever returned. You will see that God does not exist there.”

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‘allaahoo’ found in a friend’s home

When the white people brought Serigne Touba to the sea, Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, you can write Ibra, and Maam Thierno Birahim Mbacke, Serigne Touba’s brother, were there. They were the ones that guarded the other disciples, the daara. Serigne Touba left them to guard his family, saying that he would come back soon. Ibra cried at this moment. Ibra told Mbacke that he did not want to see Serigne Touba leave with the white people alone like that. He asked Mbacke to let him drink all of the sea, because he didn’t want the whites to take Serigne Touba to the sea. Mbacke responded that it’s God who has made this happen for all to be in peace, for Islam, the belief, to stay here in Senegal. When Serigne Touba got on the boat, the boat cried that Serigne Touba is going to help us all. They left with Serigne Touba and tried everything they could to kill him for 5 years. They brought him to a place called Wiri-Wiri in Gabon. It was on an island. There was a not a ghost, but a genie, a yax [a devil], who was there and ate all the people that they brought there. The people never returned. Serigne Touba prayed for all the skeletons, all the people who were already dead there. Maam Diarra Bousso, the mother of Serigne Touba, and Serigne Abdu Khadre, a marabout, the son, well not the real son, of Seydina Mouhamed, the prophet mohamed — a Moor – they appeared in front of him there. They said that they would help him with the mission God had given him. He told them that no, it is work that God has given him, and that it was him that must complete this mission alone.

When the boat left Serigne Touba on the island, they left him with another Senegalese man named Samba Laobe. He was the one that spoke ill of Serigne Touba and told the white people about him, told them to get him. The French had grown distrustful of, well angry with the man and left him there with Serigne Touba to die. When they got off the boat, Samba Laobe told Serigne Touba that it was only him that could save him from this island. Serigne Touba pardonned him for every bad thing he said to the white people. ‘You must stay behind me,’ Serigne Touba told him. ‘Close your eyes, when I tell you to open them, you may open them.’ When Serigne Touba told him this, the genie came out of the sea. Samba Laobe had only closed one eye and as soon as the genie came out of the water, Samba could no longer see. When everything was done, Samba told Serigne Touba that he could no longer see. Serigne Touba told him that his curiosity was to blame. Serigne Touba spent several days there. Cheikh Fall sent food and reparations by putting it on the sea and hitting it in such a way that it would go directly to Serigne Touba. Others saw it and were impressed, so he stopped. He began to give it to the white people with boats to give it to Serigne Touba.

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portrait of Serigne Touba found in a friend’s home

I exit and look around for Khadim. There are lots of little boys in circles singing pentatonic chants from memory in arabic. I finally decide to just stay in one place, thinking Khadim will eventually find me. And he does. ‘I was so worried! I couldn’t find you!‘ he exclaims. ‘Yes, I figured, but then I figured that you would just ask someone where the only toubab [light-skinned person] in this place is.’ I say. Khadim laughs.

We situated ourselves to wait for Boga, looking up at the mosque from the cool, reflective tiles. I ask Khadim about the contradictory nature of things in this grand mosque; the way the women are dressed, for example, conservative, and yet so flashy – or how about the guards hitting people on line? Aren’t these things contradictory behavior to Islam? He says, ‘sure, but this is Senegal. Serigne Touba was a Senegalese man.

Khadim Mbacke, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Dakar, and a Mouride himself, said in a nytimes article that, more than other Muslims in Africa, the brotherhoods in Senegal have adapted Islam to African culture. They follow a strong leader, in keeping with African tradition, and leadership is passed down through sons. There are three prominent brotherhoods in Senegal, composed largely of Wolof, Fular, and Tukulor people: the Xaadir, the oldest; the Tijaniyyah, the largest; and the Mourides, the richest and most active. Of the three, the Mourides are the only ones whose founder is from Senegal, or even West Africa; Serigne Touba.

When the white people returned to the island, they saw that the genie was dead. They said no, it can’t be true. They brought Serigne Touba and Samba Laobe to another part of Gabon. They brought them to a colonial base, a military base. They kept them there. The white people gave Serigne Touba 15 francs each week and 5 little biscuits to eat. He returned the biscuits and buried the money in the ground. He took the leaves from the trees. He drank the liquid of the leaves and ate the leaves. He did not want to eat something that the white people gave him. The biggest bank in Gabon is now where Serigne Touba buried the money. People in Gabon don’t eat chickens because there were chickens there and Serigne Touba gave them food, he didn’t eat them. No one ever saw him eat. It’s kind of like the Buddha who did not eat. Well maybe his mother saw him, but he wrote all the time and he prayed all the time and no one ever saw him eat. No one saw him sleep either. It’s a mystery. You know that big house in Diourbel? There are more than 275 rooms there. In each room, there was a sahaba, or a follower of the prophet that stayed there. Even the prophet Mohammed stayed there for 15 days. That’s the reason why Serigne stayed there for 15 years. In fact, that’s why Serigne Touba never stayed anywhere for more than 15 years.

The Mourides, or yoonu murit in wolof, engage in practices denounced by traditional Islamic scholars, like prayer facing the Atlantic Ocean, away from Mecca, a tradition that began with Serigne Touba’s exile to Gabon. Serigne Touba’s messages were also sometimes a departure from conventional Islamic teachings. He placed great emphasis on the Prophet Mohammed’s saying “work as if you were going to live forever, and pray as if you were going to die tomorrow.” Salvation, Serigne Touba said, comes through submission to the marabout and hard work. Some draw parallels between this and the protestant work ethic, which leads to conclusions about why Senegal is more open to the West.

However, though the Mouride doctrine of hard work did serve French economic interests during the colonial era, those perhaps the most molded by said doctrine are some of the furthest culturally from westerners, in my opinion. Specifically I am speaking of Baay Falls, who are particularly present running through the streets of Touba. Baay Falls are easy to spot: they have strikingly vibrant, though ragged, clothing and majestic dreads. The dreads are called ndiange, ‘strong hair’, and are often decorated by homemade beads, wire or string. Baay Falls (meaning ‘Father Falls’) are disciples of Ibra Fall, or Lamp Fall (“Lamp” referring to the light of Mouridism). I later find out that the guards at the mosque are all Baay Falls and that, during the grand maggal of Serigne Touba, they carry clubs instead of belts. There are also Yaay Falls (meaning ‘Mother Fall’) who drape themselves in large amounts of fabric and often wear striking jewelry handmade from natural or household things.

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Cheikh Lo, a prominent musician and Baay Fall in Senegal

Ibra Fall considered work a form of adoration of God. He created the Baay Fall sub-group of Mourides, many of whom substitute hard labor and dedication to their marabouts for prayer and fasting. However, the term Baay Fall has become much more flexible with time. For a long time I thought of them as muslim rastas. Many musicians I know, including perhaps my favorite Senegalese musician of all time, Cheikh Lo, refer to themselves as Baay Falls. Instead of manual labor, more and more Baay Falls have taken to begging in the streets, not unlike talibe, which are sort of like a younger version of Baay Falls.

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portrait of Ibra Fall found in Dakar

Talibe means disciples and are young boys sent to the Daaras, or the Senegalese Qur’anic schools run by Senegalese marabouts. The concept of Dieuf Dieul (‘you reap what you sow’), created by Ibra Fall, is deeply instilled in the talibe working for their marabouts. The many reasons a parent may send their child to a Daara includes the need for de facto fostering because of financial difficulties, the want to build a relationship with the brotherhood to which the marabout belongs, or to prepare the child for a career as a marabout. However, particularly as more parents send their kids to the Arab-style Madrasas, the talibes have begun to resemble child slaves begging in the streets for their marabouts, particularly in the eyes of human rights organizations abroad.

There was a Gabon woman who worked where Serigne Touba was and cried often for Serigne Touba. She gave Serigne Touba water for his ablutions, to drink, etc. because he did not want to touch anything the white people gave him. This woman had no sons or daughters. Serigne Touba prayed for her and she immediately became pregnant with her husband.

The white people put Serigne Touba in a plane with bombs to kill him, but when they came back, they found him alive. They could not understand what had happened. They put him back on the boat. There, they put him in a room with a starving lion. The lion hadn’t eaten for 10 days. When they came back, the lion was beside Serigne Touba and he was writing. The white people were impressed and open the cage. The lion attacked them and they cried to Serigne Touba to make the lion stop. Serigne Touba called the lion and it returned to his feet. The lion told Serigne Touba to ask God to give him the life of a human. This is the reason why one of Serigne Touba’s sons is named Serigne Cheikh Gayande Fatma, Gayande in wolof means lion.

Boga finally rejoins us and we leave the mosque. Outside there is a market full of framed portraits of the different marabouts, incense, Qur’ans, religious caps for men, more glittering arabic letters, mangoes, cold water, cola nuts… ‘Touba has the second biggest economy to Dakar,’ Khadim says, ‘Some call it the second capital of Senegal.’ We walked pass the vendors and the buses. I tell them I have to go to the bathroom, at which point I see the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen in my life; easily the length of my hand. We keep walking to the house of Serigne Fallou where his son, also a marabout of course, is speaking. I am far too short to see him in this Senegalese crowd.

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portrait of Serigne Fallou found in a cab

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portrait of Serigne Fallou found in Dakar

Pulled into, between, and from groups of Baay Falls, little boys, little girls accompanied by their mothers, older religious men, Khadim and Boga bring me finally to a less crowded place where there is a tent set up in the shadows. The smell of weed is pretty obvious, which stuns me. Forbidden in this holy city are supposed to be all illicit and frivolous pursuits, such as the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and thereby certainly weed. The playing of games, music and dancing is also forbidden, but I suppose I’ve already seen those things in Touba as well.

At this point its about 3’o’clock in the morning and I’m beginning to fall asleep, so Khadim says goodbye to his friends and we begin the trek home. Things have quieted down quite a bit, and I finally get to take a real look at the town of Touba itself. ‘Nobody owns the land in Touba. You can’t buy it either. It must be given to you.’ Khadim tells me. In my later research, I find out that the Mouride order maintains absolute control over its capital, completely independent of the state. Land tenure and real estate development in Touba is managed autonomously, along with education, health care, supply of drinking water, public works, and administration of markets. It’s actually kind of like the Mecca and the Vatican of Senegal.

The rules are set by the grand caliph, currently Serigne Sidi Maxtar Mbacké, Serigne Touba’s grandson. There are no french schools. When the World Bank financed the first public school, it was rejected by the grand caliph. “The caliph did not want strange habits to be imported here,” said Abdoulahat Mbacké, the director of the Qur’anic school that took over the unused public school, another grandson of Serigne Touba. He is also known for banning Sabar in Touba, which is a Serer drumming tradition that can be found all over Senegal.

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Portrait of Serigne Sallou, Serigne Touba’s son, found on a motorcycle

In the schools in Touba, the boys and girls primarily speak in Wolof while learning the Qur’an by rote. Khadim went to a school like this. A boarding school. I was shocked when he first told me that he quit the public school at 13 and spent 2 years at the boarding school. ‘It was nice because you ate well, you behaved well. You learned nothing but the Qur’an. You didn’t watch television. You didn’t play games, well most games. You could play spiritual games, only your head, you know?

‘There were only 4 rooms. Each room had at least 20 young boys. Next door to our school, there was a Qur’anic school for the girls. You woke up at 4 am for the prayers, and then studied the Qur’an until 9 am. If you recited well, you would get your breakfast. If you did not recite well, you had to wait until 1 pm before you could eat. Then, if you were one of the good ones, you got a pause until 3 pm. You then continue to read and learn the Qur’an until 6 pm. There’s a break for prayers from 6-7 pm and then you go back to studying the Qur’an until 10 pm, with a break for dinner at 8 pm. If you recited well again, you went to sleep. If you did not recite well, you had to rest in the salon. There were no mattresses there, only plastic mats. We had days off, Wednesdays and Sundays. We would go to the beach often on Sundays. And Fridays we went out to the mosque.’

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Khadim

When Khadim returned home at 15, he could no longer keep up with the French at his public school. He learned to do metal work to support himself, going on to be a motorcycle mechanic and businessman. He is one of many friends here that has a close relationship to Serigne Touba.

For me, an American non-believer, Serigne is the equivalent of a Martin Luther King Jr. figure to Senegal. They are both icons that a lot of graffiti could be attributed to. One could argue that Serigne Touba had a much more profoundly spiritual influence, but Martin Luther King was a pastor. They both practiced and preached non-violence where others could not, and how can you deny the parallelism between the fight for civil rights in the United States and that against colonialism in Africa? The primary difference I can note is that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, while Serigne Touba was not.

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a portrait of Serigne Touba – an iconic image that can be found all over Senegal

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poster for a religious event with prominent marabouts at a soccer stadium

The white people could no more try to kill Serigne Touba, so they returned him to Dakar. They decided afterwards to go to other countries to ask the marabouts to do things to harm Serigne Touba. Cheikh Fall, among others, were there to meet him. The white people got off the boat for 10 or 15 minutes before they saw Serigne Touba, and Cheikh Fall thought that maybe he was not there. When Serigne Touba appeared, Cheikh Fall was so happy that he carried Serigne Touba on his back. Yalla kudul Yalla menul ko bot. No one but God can carry God, is what they say. So it was that day that they said Cheikh Fall was God as well. You know teranga [a Senegalese form of hospitality]? Yes, well he showed Serigne Touba a lot of teranga that day at the palace, which the french had sold to Cheikh Fall. It was also Cheikh Fall who organized the papers for Serigne Touba to return to Senegal. He gave these very good, rich vegetables to a colonial man named Terponde who did not know where to buy them. It was him who helped him get the papers to have Serigne Touba return.

Serigne Touba, Khadim’s namesake, died in the house next door to where Khadim grew up in Diourbel. ‘In the house where he died, you open 7 doors before you enter the room. At each door, he put a letter for his oldest living son, Moussapha. They told him to take care of things well and quickly before the whites came looking.’

Until next time,

Much Love,

Althea

Beautiful footage of the grand maggal: http://vimeo.com/92521980

 

 

Weeks 19-24: Korist Ku Jigeen

Dear Internet,

althea vieilles pirogues

photo credit: Louis Dominique Faye

‘No that can’t possibly be the bus…’ I say to Khadim as we approach Sahad’s apartment building. This is where the Natal Patchwork convenes before a concert date outside of Dakar. As usual, no one is there at the declared time. Unusually, however, there is a large, plush-looking bus parked outside instead of a rickety, squished njaag njaay. ‘But look – there are drums packed up top. It must be your bus.’ Khadim responds. I furrow my brow. ‘But we’re Sahad & the Natal Patchwork!’ Khadim lets out a little laugh and shrugs. We install ourselves on a cement block on the side of the road and wait.

Sahad, Pape Sy (our sound engineer), and Brahim (the lead guitarist) finally show up. They throw some baggage inside the bus, some instruments up top. The other members of the band gradually appear. Then, Alibeta, Sahad’s older brother, and his band show up. Next, members from L’Orchestre National. Finally, Pape Niang and his players. I wave goodbye to Khadim as he races off with my bike and the bus starts up. We are headed to the St. Louis Jazz Festival; 5 days of music on nearly every stage, restaurant and bar in the cidevant capital of (colonial) francophone West Africa. I am the only woman, the only non-African. I nearly have to pinch myself sitting beside these Senegalese music legends.

But there is someone there to do it for me; one of the bus organizers pulls down the bench that bridges the gap between the rows of seats beside me and begins to pinch/rub my thigh, calling me his “toubab xarit” or ‘whitey friend‘. At first, I’m simply stunned. I don’t know what to say. I know others can see it and I’m embarrassed. He reaches for something and I’m freed, but not for long. The hand returns, this time closer to where my legs meet. I first joke with him “Ey – defal ko ag Pape Sy,” (Hey – do that to Pape Sy,’) who is sitting at the other side of him. The comment is meant to be a reminder that he’s misled to treat me any differently from anyone else on the bus, but he pretends not to hear it. I make a fairly strong statement in wolof – “baay ma,” (‘leave me alone,’) – though quietly, as I push his hand off. But it quickly returns. “Arrete, s’il-te-plait” (‘Please stop‘) I plead, trying not to make a scene. He turns to look at me – he must be in his late thirties, but the drinking and smoking has rendered his face that of someone in their early fifties. “Ey – fais attention,” (‘Ey, be careful,‘) he says, pointing his skinny, crooked finger in my face. His breath stinks through the few browned teeth he has left.

The bus comes to a stop at a restaurant and I quickly hop of the back. “Ey – viens! Questce-que tu cherches?” (‘Ey – come! What are you looking for?) he says, running after me. “Laisse moi tranquil, s’il-te-plait.” (‘Leave me be, please.) I tell him, and he retreats, a bit. When I get back on the bus, I sit next to Tass, the drummer in Sahad & The Natal Patchwork. He quickly seems to turn bitter and covertly lashes out at me – pulling my hair painfully, punching me as though it were in accident – though the bruises on my right arm tell the true story. I ignore it and carry on as though it’s not happening. In New York, I would have gladly taken the chance to loudly make his harassment known and embarrass him. But here, where I have received repeated lectures on why women are to ‘stay in the shadows,’ I know that such an act would inflict more conflict and difficulty upon myself than my harrasser.

I was niave to think that my status as a musician would relieve me from my status as a woman. A few months ago, my kora teacher said to me, ‘Ah – you have another gig? Well, yea, you’re a woman, and a toubab [light-skinned] at that so…’, rationalizing why I would be getting opportunities to play here so quickly. He was right, but it still hurt. People, often musicians he works with, talk about me to him, saying how great it is that one of his students – the toubab korist(!) – is mounting stages all over Dakar, and actually plays well! I’ve seen him lower his gaze and nod at a comment like this, as if embarrassed. It’s a response that’s very difficult for me to interpret, particularly because it comes from the person whose opinion means most to me, musically. My current conclusion is that he knows that the hype is only due me being a woman and a toubab, which is probably disappointing, and maybe even frustrating, for someone of his stature.

But no one needs to tell me that I’m only hired because I’m a light-skinned woman. I know that. I know that the only way I came to even learn the kora is because I’m a foreigner; families in Senegal aren’t often capable of investing in musical education for their children, particularly if they come from outside the tradition and particularly if their children are girls. It is for this reason that it is striking to see a light-skinned woman playing the kora. I can see it in the eyes of skeptical spectators every time I mount a stage. It used to be motivating. But, after a time, I came to feel that that motivation was often in vain each time someone would ask me, for example, if I was a dancer or singer while I was holding my instrument, an instrument I crafted myself, in plain sight. Now, the skeptical gaze, the harassment, the fact that some people will never see me as a respectable musician no matter how good I get, is just the norm. Frankly, sexual harassment for women, particularly in the music industry, is typical, and not particularly in Senegal. Senegal is simply more difficult because I’m alone here; I have little community. Furthermore, I don’t always understand the culture, the language. But, no matter what, come nightfall, the concerts will start with or without me, and, like the mosquitoes, so will the men descend.

At some point on the bus to St. Louis, after going to the bathroom, I pull out hand sanitizer to clean a little cut I have on the inside of my palm. The man pokes his head through the seats, pulling at my hair again, and says to Tass, in wolof, The toubab will always think us Africans are dirty while she takes advantage of our country. Never forget that,’thinking I don’t understand. “Ey sama xaritu benn bakkan la.” (Ey that’s one of my best friends) Tass says mildly. Tass was the only one directly involved, but lots of the men could see what was going on; at least 30 men on this bus and not one said a word. It’s scary. I’ve played with most of them – would I even be on this bus if they didn’t think I was descent player?

Perhaps not. Ever since I’ve started singing back-up vocals in Sahad’s band, I’ve begun to be treated differently. It seems I’ve begun to fill a space to the side that only women seem to occupy and it devalues my place as an instrumentalist. It’s all parallel to the place women occupy in the larger society. When the sound of my kora doesn’t work, “c’est pas grave” (‘it doesn’t matter’) Sahad says. When there is enough amplification to go around, “c’est pas grave – Althea tu joues pas se soir” (‘it doesn’t matter – Althea you don’t play tonight’). And, yet, like the rest of group, I have to make sacrifices, sometimes play for no money and rehearse for long hours. And I do it. I’m on time. I’m professional. I am loyal to Sahad, but is he loyal to me?

There is another American, a blond guy from Nashville named David with a fancy electronic piano. He plays mostly with Sahad’s brother and with us from time to time. He is never at rehearsals and yet always gets paid. One night during the festival in St. Louis Sahad told me there wasn’t enough room for me while David was invited to play. “Yea, it’s completely unfair, I know. I don’t know why he does it this way. Yea, no, you could never make demands [such as always getting paid] like that,” David says to me one night. American musicians are very highly regarded, we both know, but not American women.

So why do I do it? “It’s bigger than you,” Mo Fia, one of my closest friends and a well-known sound engineer, and Edou, my kora teacher, have both said to me. It’s bigger than me. I love the music and the music pushes me to persevere. The music pushes me to become better, to make space for women. In my first blog entry of this trip, which I wrote in the airport, I wrote:

It became clear to me very early on in my studies that simply having the agency to study music is hard to come by for most Senegalese citizens. In most cases, it stipulates that one be a man, that his family be open to the idea and be able to afford to give him the education without much expectation of a return, among other things.

I want to change this. But I can’t change what I don’t know. I must know what women go through here. I must endure it. I must be strong. I must come out on top. If I can do that, and provide the opportunity for more girls, if only a numbered few, to mount stages like I have, then it will all be worth it. And I’m on my way. When I get frustrated, I think of my guitar students. I’ve racked up 6 young girls, ages 8 -16, all enthused, appreciative, and hard-working. I teach them all for free because I know their parents can’t afford it. Every time I think about going home, I remember that their music education will stop where I’ve left them. My skill set is far better used empowering them, then behind a desk in New York.

But these thoughts don’t always make it easier. At first, sexual harassment can feel flattering, but after awhile, it breaks you down. Every time a strange man asks for my number before my name, calls me “ah sama guitarist” (“ah my guitarist!”) without even looking at the instrument on my back, or tells me I look sexy when I come off stage after working incredibly hard musically, they can’t possibly know the hacking on my spirit in which they are taking part.

On Friday morning, the morning after the 7 hour bus ride to St. Louis, my breakfast tastes salty, soaked with tears, as I mentally break down. I miss my mom, my language, my home.

But who is first to come to my aid? The men in the band; hugging me, telling me it would be okay and asking if there is anything I needed. I mustn’t forget this, nor the kindness of Sahad’s 14-year-old nephew when they wake him up at 4 in the morning to give me his bed such that I am comfortable. Nor my friend Khadim, who has continued to make me feel safe by changing locks, fixing windows and helping me with my aggressive landlord in my new apartment, often without me asking. I can not forget Edou, my kora teacher, who has spent hours upon hours training me to be a better korist, sometimes without pay. Or Mo Fia, who controlled a violently drunk man when he threatened one of my few fellow female musician friends.

“Ah – c’est une kora au derriere, eh?” (‘Ah that’s a kora on your back, huh?’), Ablaye Cissoko, the best korist in Senegal, says to me at L’Institut Francais in St. Louis after coming off stage. “C’est rare, une femme avec un kora. Bon courage. Prends mon numero” (It’s rare, a woman with a kora. I wish you courage. Take my number.) I quickly pull out my phone and save his number. Send me a text letting me know who are so I remember you,’ he tells me before other fans approach him.

Asalaamalekum. Althea SullyCole laa tudd, korist bu jigeen ki nga gisoon ci institut francais laa. Enchantee franchement, jerejeff bu baax.

Peace be unto you. My name is Althea SullyCole, I am the female korist you saw at the French Institute. It’s a pleasure to meet you, truely, thank you so much. 

Being the only female korist in Senegal does have its advantages.

Until next time,

Much love,

Althea

Week 19: Ibrahima Diallo

Dear internet,

Last Monday, April 21st, I was on a motorbike with a friend when we hit a child. It was a classic scenario: it’s a beautiful day; the sun is shining, a gentle breeze is blowing from the sea, when a lone, benign, chartreuse ball comes bouncing into the street. But, this time, instead of a profound but brief pang in my heart, a sudden stop and perhaps a disparaging look before my fear fades and I continue silently on my way, we hit the racing child otherwise oblivious of his surroundings. It was too fast, there was no way of stopping it. I cried out as I felt the boy’s tiny ribs hitting my foot, whipping past him.

They day before was Easter. I woke up and called my kora professor, Edou, one of the only christians I know. There had been hoards of children at Edou’s place that afternoon and when I returned to pick up my motorbike the next day, they had knocked it over, breaking the mirror. Looking at the poor thing, I decided it was finally time to repair it. So I stopped by my friend Khadim’s place. I have found Khadim to be a very trustworthy 30-year-old mechanic and baay fall, a friend of many of my other baay fall bandmates in Sahad & the Natal Patchwork. I stopped there before heading to a rehearsal with a new jazz group that I’ve been singing with called Zal Top Project, to which Khadim told me he would drop me off.

He then told me “les gens vont te regarder quand tu montes cette moto…” (“People are going to look at you when you get on this bike…”) “Pourquoi?” “Parce qu’ils n’ont jamais vue un blanc sur une moto comme ca. “Ah bon?” (“Why?” “Because they have never seen a white person on a bike like this.” “Oh really?”) It was like a turtle out of it’s shell, this bike – no siding, no lights, no mirrors. As exposed and bare as a bike could be. It had good wheels, though, very capable of handling Dakar’s roads. Riding on it was like flying on a levitating stool.

Khadim stopped as fast as possible before leaping off the bike and running to the boy, while I tried to stablize it unsteadily. I was slower to process things than Khadim. I can’t describe the terror I felt in the potential of turning around and seeing the boy dead. Before I turned, I could hear him crying. As horrible as it was, there was a miracle in this cry. A crowd began to form. I finally got the bike steadied to get a better look – he was pretty badly scraped.

It wasn’t my first accident in Dakar. I recognized the boy’s scrapes well from my own knees, still healing, but these were on his head and arms in addition to his legs. People around began to pick him up. Others started surrounding me, asking if I had been the driving and pushing me to get into a cab to the hospital. I watched wide-eyed and stuttering as the family and the boy got into a cab, while Khadim and I remounted his bike. Khadim clearly instructed me that I was to stay with him, though people grew vocally distrustful of us as we got back on that bike together.

We went to a hospital rather far in Centre Ville. On the way there, Khadim told me that kids are often getting hit in that neighborhood because all the families are Guinean and don’t look after their kids properly. “Ca ne serait jamais arrivé s’ils étaient Senegais,” (“This would have never happened if they were Senegalese,”) he said. I couldn’t tell how much of what he was saying was the truth and how much of it was trying to assuage the shaken feeling we were both experiencing. A sheep started to run towards the street as we pulled up to the hospital and we both gasped as Khadim halted the bike. The sheep turned in the other direction, and we laughed in a brief moment of relief.

The cab parked inside the maze of a hospital while we parked the bike outside, leaving us to search for the family. They weren’t too hard to find, though; like bread crumbs a child would leave through the forest to find his way back home, so was there a trail of fresh blood scattered through the hallways leading to the wounded boy.

His name is Ibrahima Diallo. I learned this after shaking his mother’s hand and telling her how sorry I was that this had happened. “C’est pas grave,” (“it doesn’t matter”) she responded, to which Khadim and I glanced at eachother knowing very well that this boy was lucky to be alive. “Naata at la am?” “Six, walla sept?” (“How old is he?” “Six, or seven?”) The father looked up from where he was holding the boy, saying “2006 donc… il a 8 ans.” (“2006 so… he is 8 years old.”)

The boy, his face swelling, kept looking at me. I gently stared back despite my instinct to look away, remembering what my friend Tass had told me about children: something like ‘see all those kids? see how they’re staring at you? danga baax, danga baax.’ (‘… you are good, you are good.’) He was explaining to me why, on our trip to Niodior, an island pretty far south of Dakar, I was the only one that had been invited to eat with Sahad’s parents, while the fairly large group of Senegalese, German, Belgian and French friends ate outside. I’m sure the rest could have joined, but it still felt like a strange honor. Tass told me that the reason why Sahad’s parents wanted to eat with me was because there were so many children around me when we arrived. They were clearly attracted to me, which is an indicator of “nit nu am xol yu rafet” (“people who have beautiful hearts”). According to the Senegalese, children will never touch, let alone look at a truly bad person.

I’ve always liked kids, and maintain some deep relationships with many. In New York, I babysat a remarkably clever boy named George for almost 5 years. I look upon our time learning guitar, reading and playing together fondly. I think of him very often as a little brother and I miss him a lot. Here, Faada’s 4 children, Ata, Penda, Marie, and the littlest that I just call ‘the baby,’ have also come to feel like younger siblings. Since Christmas, I’ve visited his family about once a week, eating dinner, singing and teaching the childfren guitar. I’m surrounded by hundreds of children from all over the world, many of which I know by name, at least a few times a week at the International School. There is nothing like being greeted at work by three or four children hugging you by the waist and legs.

Ibrahima became each and every one of these children the moment that he ran into the street that day. The first thing that came into my mind as I processed the situation, steadying Khadim’s bike, was each of their faces on that pavement… George, Ata, Penda, Marie… My hands begin to shake even writing this nearly two weeks later. But looking at Ibrahima in the hospital, it was as though he had 10 years on that boy who was running in the street just moments ago. No longer tiny and fragile, but stout and tough, hardened. He was lucky – nothing broken, just a lot of scraped surfaces. Still, I know how bad those scrapes hurt and I’m sure he will be afraid of motorcycles for the rest of his life.

Oddly, the night before, I had had a vivid and horrifying dream in which I took part in the death of someone, tangentially. The shock of the gun shot in the dream paralleled that of the moment we hit Ibrahima. The tiles on which the man’s head lay matched those in the hospital. I awoke hysterically crying and already shaken that day, in which there was the most mysterious air of fate. As soon as I returned home that evening, I kept playing various little choices and timing in my mind because it all had such a magnetism about it.

My first instinct when trying to sort this all out was to e-mail Alec, the “glorified roadie,” I mentioned in my last blog entry, whose ability to articulate things has always proved to be very comforting. Senegalese people tend to see things that turn out okay as not worth belaboring; talking about how you’re feeling is generally dismissed as unnecessary and unproductive. My friends and family back home, however, are just as fragile as I, and with the added distance, it’s more difficult for them to understand. No one could really understand what that day was like besides Khadim and I, but I knew few could come as close as Alec, who returned to Belgium a few weeks ago. “Ultimately it remains that timing and choices you made strangely created this odd and fuller picture with variations on the theme of childhood and death…The unfortunate act of hitting the child, cast all the past and following experiences in a peculiar light,” he wrote in response.

“Your[] words reflect the thoughts and conversations we’ve had on the frailty of human life in Senegal… I wonder why does life appear more delicate in Senegal? Must it be that way? Does culture justify it for the best and the worst?”

In my response to him, I wrote that I agreed that life appears particularly delicate here, and that I also agree that there is a cultural element to that. However, I also feel that there are general environmental and socio-economic factors at play and I can’t help but wonder if, in some ways, the feeling of delicacy in life here in Senegal is more rooted in reality than the feelings of stability and security that one might find in the western world. As soon as I returned to the states in 2011 from Senegal, and even more so when I returned to the states from India in 2008, my sense of stability and security at home felt much more rooted in illusion than before. The reality is that life is fragile. Despite any stability we do feel, however far it may be from those who starve, are raped, or murdered day in and day out, it is still connected to the greater suffering in the world and can be taken from us in an instant. I don’t like to be in dangerous situations, but I definitely prefer being in a place where each second is more savored because of the dynamism and even potential danger presented with each day, rather than being in a place where stability and security makes life slip by more quickly without a sense of just how precious it is. Whether life has to be this way or not is an interesting question I can’t answer, but I do respect some of the harsher elements of Senegalese society for making people strong, even if I often can’t understand it (somewhat related: http://www.radiolab.org/story/runners/). Though the feeling of my life being constantly at risk is being to wear on me, maybe the extra boost of adrenaline is actually healthy for me too.

Khadim and I had become particularly bonded before this ride, but the accident has certainly solidified a deeper friendship. I’ve passed by his home several times since; a place that manages to be strikingly tranquil despite being on one of the main roads in Dakar. One afternoon, we shared a cup of whiskey perched on his doorstep, while his little cousins, nieces and nephews played soccer and rode bikes in the yard. Our faces sparkled with the afternoon sun running through the leaves of the coconut trees swaying in a breeze. I think it’s been relieving for us both to be able to share how we’re feeling with just a few words – not having to explain what was experienced.

I have yet to visit Ibrahima Diallo and his family, despite longing to, heeding Khadim’s advice. He was willing to go with me, but hesitant. He said that if we showed up with money, they would take every little bit we had, and if we didn’t, or if we didn’t have enough, he didn’t know how they would react without the communal bonds of wolof and Senegalese society holding them responsible. Khadim paid for the hospital stay and the prescriptions given to the family and I know that alone was a deep strain on him. I feel so cowardly not going, though I know I must follow Khadim’s advice not to go alone. The accident has instilled a new cognizance of the gravity of my own recklessness, eventhough I wasn’t the one driving, and I hope that, if Ibrahima is ever placed in our position, he will do better than we have.

 

Until next time,

stay safe,

Althea

Weeks 10-18: Sex, Drugs and Mbalax

Dear internet,

My sincere apologies for the long absence. I have been overwhelmingly busy with rehearsals, concerts, and teaching. Since I last wrote, I’ve performed solo kora for the Senegalese prime minister Aminata Touré, my parents visited for two weeks, I completed my first semester teaching english to a college class of 47 students, been in meetings with a non-profit called Give1Project about funding a traditional music program I’d like to do for young girls here, among many other things.

edouparents

my parents with my kora teacher

One particular highlight since the last time I wrote was a trip to Saly, a touristy town in a beachy region of Senegal called Mbour. I traveled there on Valentine’s Day with Sahad and 5 other members of the Natal Patchwork: Brahim, the quiet bohemian lead guitarist; Tass, the gentle and joyful drummer; Hono, the boisterious Djembe player; Francois, the intellectual bassist; and Eli, the now departed (to England) German saxophonist. We also had 3 cameramen and our sound technician, Papy Sy man, in tow. The other musicians; animated brothers Gis and Thieupe from the Congo, who play trumpet and trombone, respectively; our stylish and charismatic manager Lou Lou and his equally chic French girlfriend Perrine; and our glorified roadie, Alec, from Belgium; would join us on Saturday.

The tour was everything one could dream a tour with a big band of musicians could be – a rickety tour bus, beautiful beach location, late nights and terrible food. We piled into a rented Njaag Njaay – a white world war II era vehicle remodeled to serve as public transport throughout urban areas of Senegal – with our instruments at around 3 pm on that Friday. In our bus, you could watch the wheels struggle over Senegal’s turbulent roads through the holes in the floor. Snacking on hot clementines and cold bags of water, we passed through the congested center of Dakar to the gritty suburbs to the spacious country in a fog of cigarette smoke and mbalax. As you enter rural Senegal, the landscape diminishes to a very low escape, save a few spiny baobabs reaching upwards to poke at the vast, cloudless sky. 

Just as I was immersing myself into the surreality of it all, we got pulled over by the gendarmerie outside of a town called Rufisque. It made me a bit nervous, especially since I didn’t bring my passport out of the fear of it being stolen. As soon as the cop came up to the driver’s window, members of the band started offering him slices of clementine and cigarettes. The driver explained we were a band playing at Les Vielles Pirogues festival in Saly. The cop walked to the back of the van to check out all the cargo. Before I knew it, he and a few other cops were playing guitar and serenading us. They gleefully wished us a safe trip and we were on our way.

cops

serenaded by the gendarmerie

The first night in Saly we stayed at a compound that belonged to Sahad’s friend. It was essentially a gated plot of sand with two small rooms, covered by thatched roofs, built in the corners of the entrance. There was also a very large well and a small structure in the center for protection from the sun while sitting outdoors.

We visited the festival briefly that first evening, mainly to see our friends in the band I-Science perform. At the festival, in addition to the stage, there were many tents with artists of all mediums selling their work, local liquor makers selling their elixirs, and fry cooks serving up street food. At the entrance, there was a helicopter and several old-fashioned fancy cars on display. Last, there were a few inflated structures for kids to bounce and slide in. However, fatigued quite quickly by the cold wind and dust in the air, we headed back to the compound before the concert was over.

On route, the sound engineer purchased some whiskey, to my surprise. Although nearly everyone in the group, save one christian and two non-believing westerner`s, follows the Islamic faith, nearly everyone in the group also drank that evening, which I had not seen before. I also saw the hair of several of these baay falls for the first time (“baay fall” literallly means “father fall” and signifies a member of a branch of the Mouride brotherhood founded by Cheikh Ibrahima Fall). I found myself staring a bit, to the amusement of the band. I headed to bed early, wanting to be in good form for the following night’s performance. My face illuminated on one side by the warm, flickering candlelight below and, on the other, the cold, relentless moon above, I fell asleep to the sounds of the men’s voices accompanied by acoustic guitar and cigarette smoke.

The whole weekend all I ate was sandwiches that would be horrific to some Americans. The next morning, for example, I ate a sandwich filled with pasta and black eyed peas that was about 4 times the size of my stomach. “No – you’re American! Eat! Eat!” Fran, the bassist, told me after I asked him if he would like to share. I did as I was told and finished it, but could hardly eat for the rest of the day.

We were all relieved to see the 5 other members of our group join us at the festival before sound check on Saturday afternoon. The evening before, Brahim had what seemed like a very casual and unalarming conversation with Thieupe, the trombonist. But when I asked him what Thieupe had said, Bra told me that the brass brothers in our band did not have enough money to come. I immediately texted our roadie and he made sure to take care of it. We clapped, cheered and hugged upon seeing our missing members walk up to our tent.

Our lodging Saturday night, a beachside villa on a local resort, was a dramatic contrast from that which we inhabited Friday night. The ocean was just a few sandy footsteps away from our abode, stuffed with 10 beds for 15 people. The palm trees, full of coconuts, were so perfect they looked like fireworks exploding in the daytime. Flowers, adorning nearly every inch of the property, reflected the colors of coral reefs. We spent the afternoon there, waiting for I-Science to bring back the keys and take out their belongings.

Reunited and settled at last, the group became particularly bonded by a mutual mission. When the time came for us to fully execute it, we were ready. Come nightfall, Sahad gathered the whole group and told us to focus and not mess up. He then told us we would be doing something different for this performance. “We are going to improvise something right now and go to the stage from within the crowd singing this new tune.” And so it was.

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Sahad & the Natal Patchwork performing in Saly

Sahad’s plan was perfect, save the fact that there were no steps leading up to the stage, meaning I had to jump over some barriers in my new, short maroon and pink dress created by Baay Souley. It wasn’t the first time I would see suggestive glances in the audience. They were one of the few things I actually noticed from time to time in the crowd through the blinding lights and fog machine, my eyes getting weary from bits of sand blown in a cold wind that was also lifting up my dress. It was a bit disorienting, but Sahad’s music is so comfortable and fun that the band came together in a solid fashion.

I got drunk pretty quickly coming off stage, with people handing me everything from cans of royal dutch beer to fine limoncello. In the morning, after a 10 hour sleep, I felt as though someone had punched me in the face. It was oddly nice to be able to party knowing that there were 10 dudes watching out for me. On the way home, now with some 15 people in our group, all of the instruments had to be placed on top of the van. I watched Sahad hand Brahim pass the guitars to one another, holding my kora with a niave obliviousness to what was happening. Thieupe pointed to my kora and then the roof of the van, smiling. “jamais, jamais, jamais,” (“never, never, never,”) I say, shaking my head. Surely he must be joking. “Non, il faut Althea” “Non Sahad, s’il-te-plait, non.” (“no, you must, Althea” “No, Sahad, please, no.”) “Non,” Sahad says, now shaking his head, “Il faut.” I recognize his tone. The authoritarian is coming out. I place my head in my hands, refusing to watch it go up, and cringe the whole ride to Dakar. I’m happy to report that my kora is sitting beside me now, safe and sound.

sahad

placing instruments on top of the Njaag Njaay

Ever since I’ve returned from that festival things have begun to change. People have started to recognize me where I don’t expect them to. In studios, I’ve begun to be known as “Jali bu Xees” or “Jali Ndiaxas” (“light-skinned griot” or “biracial griot”). Every once in awhile, especially now with the somewhat distinctive long pink braids I had put in after growing tired of cutting my hair, people will call me by that name when they see me with my kora riding around on my vespa.

I’m often snapped out of this rockstar lifestyle, however, in deeply humbling moments. Just the other day, for example, Ndongo D of Daara J invited me to the studio specifically when they would be filming a special about Bois Sakre (his studio) for RDV – national television. I go to his house for lunch from time to time and we always have very interesting exchanges about hip-hop. ‘We can have a discussion – just like this,’ he says when inviting me. I think this is an awesome idea and I am more than honored to be beside Ndongo anytime.

ndongo

with Ndongo D of Daara J and Momo of Give1Project

The day of the shooting, as with many days here, I found myself running around to different parts of town like a chicken with its head cut off. People often move slow here and I find myself trying to pick up the slack, successfully or not. That particular day, I taught at the international school for 7 hours before rushing to grab my kora for the rehearsal I would have after going to Bois Sakre. I then scooted over to the studio, made fresh and clean for the shoot. I, on the other hand, was already exhausted and felt rather worn from my day. Lots of artists from the label were there, incanting jali bu xees as I came in. The film crew asked me if I played the kora and, when Ndongo invited me to sit beside him, they asked me to take it out. As they were filming, they only ask Ndongo questions, in wolof no less. Sure, I can speak wolof – enough to know very well that there’s no way they are directing these questions at me. ‘Of course,’ I think, ‘why would anyone care what I have to say, really?’ I still feel cool being the person sitting beside Ndongo with my kora in the studio. To my surprise, however, they do turn to me. But instead of asking me about hip hop, they ask me to play. I tell them the kora isn’t tuned and I don’t have my tuner. Someone hands me one, and so I start tuning, knowing very well I am going to have a very tough time navigating the diatonic instrument over the freestyling beat they are playing for Ndongo. But I think of my brother, a percussionist based in Boston, who once told me to never say no to an opportunity to play, and decide that I’m just going to have to wing it.

bois

Bois Sakre family: Daara J, Afreecan Dingkelu, Prof, 1Pac, and Margaux Malya

I was horrible. So horrible it was comical. So horrible I was nervously farting (inaudibly at the very least) through the whole thing. As soon as it was over, I reflected on how a young, light-skinned girl is going to look playing the kora horribly next to one of Senegal’s biggest stars and I am mortified that that girl will be me. I felt as though I could die from the embarrassment. But, ‘no, I can’t die because if I die this will have been the last thing I would have done.’ This is all I can think of clutching my vespa that evening on the way to my next rehearsal and I drive extremely slow and safely.

I got a few text messages when the show aired, letting me know that I was on TV. I ignored them all and haven’t watched TV here since. Now, in addition to jali, I’ve been getting called out by simply “Daara J! Daara J!” It takes me awhile to come to when I hear this, and it always makes me feel a mix of things. First, I’m so proud, honored, and taken aback to be associated with my two biggest heroes in Senegalese music. Then, I realize I am associated with them for being that girl on TV. Now, however, these slight feelings of disappointment and embarrassment motivate me. When the filming was over, Ndongo told me I had played well, to which I responded, shaking my head, “massa, massa lool” (“I’m so so sorry”). In that moment, I realized that people here see something in me that has yet to arrive. It is already so special to see a woman playing the kora. It is also remarkably special to see a light-skinned person playing kora. But the two? And then for that person to play well? The significance is so large that I can’t even fully understand it, let alone articulate it, myself. But the honor comes with pressure, and anytime I disappoint I realize just how much I have to live up to. I must match the pre-conceived eminence people see in me with my playing. My work is cut out for me.

 

Until soon,

Althea

 

P.S. Check out some of the artists I’ve been working with!

Sahad & the Natal Patchwork

Daara J Family

1pac

Afreecan Dingkelu

Royal Messenjah

P.P.S. The Writah

Vendredi Slam

Rocky Daba

Weeks 8 & 9: Jaxas

my kora playing featured in a Sonatel commercial! Scroll down for [unrelated] photos

Dear Internet,

Apologies for no updates last week. I’ve been working a lot, which is a wonderful new development. Unfortunately, however, having more experiences means sorting out my experiences is more time consuming.

This week’s theme is “Jaxas”, which means ‘a mix’ and is how a biracial person such as myself (my mother is a caucasian American of French descent and my father is African-American) would refer to themselves in wolof. It is also the title of one of Sahad’s songs, which I’ll be posting soon.

Before I get into that, however, I’d like to tell you about the red vespa I’ve been traveling around with in Dakar. A few weeks ago, after a show, my friend Matthew, an American percussionist who lives here in Dakar, picked me up on a white scooter. I looked at the thing with wide eyes; recognizing it from my dreams. You see, in 2011, I became a seasoned taxi driver negotiator (you can pretty much get anywhere in Dakar for $3 USD), car rapide passenger (a form of public transportation also referred to as ‘rolling coffins’), and shot gunner in my friend’s massive Range Rover, singing at the top of my lungs to roots reggae as we sped down the winding coast of the Atlantic. I would watch the black, shiny globes of helmets atop motorcycles and scooters zip past us in traffic and think, ‘If I ever come back here, I want to get around on one of those.’ Remembering this promise, I set out to get my driver’s license (never before much motivated to have it) a few months before my departure date. I finally received it in the mail only a few days before getting on a plane to Dakar. Upon my arrival, I realized that I didn’t quite know the city as well as I remembered and driving conditions were as frightening as ever; many streets are heavily blanketed with sand blown in from the sahara and missing street lights.

Looking down at Matt’s scooter, however, reified the hope of commuter freedom for me here in Dakar. Riding on the back of it, I asked him “how much did this cost you?” “You shouldn’t have to pay more than $600 (USD) for a scooter like this – I can’t remember how much I bought this one for.” “Where did you get it?” “Koloban”: you can find just about anything at Koloban, though it is one of the more dangerous outdoor markets in downtown Dakar. After I dismount from my sweet, fiery little red vespa people look at me with disbelief when I tell them that I found it there. “You?! You went to Koloban? Alone?!” “Yes,” I say as I raise my eyebrows, smirk and nod knowingly, just a pinch of arrogance as I bend their notions of what’s okay for a light-skinned American girl to do here on her own.

While owning a scooter has lived up to my hopes of freedom, one must also roll with the punches and Dakar’s streets can often feel like a boxing arena. From flat tires, to cabs backing up into me, to broken speedometers, I feel like I’ve experienced all possible things that could go wrong in the past two months and yet also know that it is just the beginning. Still, driving along coast line, my silhouette cloaked in the velvety night, I feel so liberated as I hear the waves crash along the shore below; for the first time in my life only the stars can spy me zooming from place to place. The trials and tribulations of having this freedom feel like a negligible part of the adventure.

I often arrive at work at the International School of Dakar on my red vespa. As I take my helmet off, revealed by the sherbet colors of sunrise, I can feel my identity change from a performing musician to a first-grade teacher, which is what I was for most of last week. I am only supposed to be teaching in the music department, but they were rather short-handed, and I was happy to sub for a teaching assistant, if only for the extra cash.

Leila, one of the 6-year-old members of the class I had been working with, skipped up to me with a huge smile on her face on my third day. “Miss Althea! Miss Althea! Hi! This is my doll and that’s my mom!” A blond woman walks up behind her and shakes my hand. “So you’re Miss Althea. Leila has been talking about you all week. She keeps saying ‘mom, mom – there’s a teacher with curly hair like me in my class!'” the mom chuckles. I look down at Leila looking up at me, her smile now diminished to a mildly embarrassed smirk.

The contrast of her cafe au lait skin tone against her mother’s cream color stirs a flashback to my elementary school days. I remember well not looking like any other kid in class. Too white for the brown kids, too brown for the white; a social context shaded by socio-economic realities I was far too young to comprehend intellectually at age 6, and, yet, emotionally, understood complexly.

As a child, I felt my appearance betrayed my membership to the African-American community; the only side of my family that was consistently warm and welcoming to my sister and I. As deep a claim as I’ve always felt to my African-American heritage, my whole life has been spent processing and accepting that there is one aspect of the African-American, and more broadly black, experience that will always be denied to me: the experience of being perceived as black. This realization came fully the last time I was in Senegal in 2011 when a group of Senegalese boys in my neighborhood explained to me why the word ‘nigger’ was okay for them to use. Staring back at them blankly, I could only hear my dad (who has lived as much of his life in a segregated society as an integrated one, and retired only recently as the head of African-American studies at Syracuse University) explain to me firmly why I was never to use that word when I was Leila’s age. This word is an American word, one with which my African-American family has had a much more personal historical experience with, and yet I must step back and accept these Africans explaining this decontextualized resurrection of an oppressive American relic to me. Despite my deep personal knowledge of it, there is very little I can say that will be meaningful to them on the topic. Being a biracial person, though my experience is both white and black, it is also neither white nor black in this way.

Accepting my experiences for what they are, however, doesn’t make them easier to grapple with. In second grade a group of my black male classmates collectively spit on me for telling them that I was black. I can feel the spit ricocheting on my skin, at least emotionally, each time a person looks me square in the eyes and says “no you’re not” in response to me telling them I’m black. It happens a lot more often than you would think.

People all over the world fetishize biracials, making race-based value judgements that reinforce what makes growing up biracial so difficult. There is a biracial model who looks over her bare, toasted almond colored shoulder and smiles alluringly at you as you drive around Dakar. In french, the billboard reads: ‘suddenly, you look in the mirror and you’re perfect, perfect white™’ – it’s a skin bleaching like soap.

Senegalese women with their hair set stiffly in place, their make-up impeccably set, their tight skirts just pushing the line of risqué, and their high heels far beyond anyone’s comfort zone, often shoot me looks of disdain as I walk into a club beside Daara J or Nix in my casual pants, conservative top, and sneakers with my natural hair and naked face. Le Jahmo Band, the collective that performs with Daara J, give me reports of women demanding who I am and why I get access to band. The observations they make of me seem to relay that the combination of my skin tone and position in this music culture is somehow an insult to them personally. I always look back at these women – their thin yet curvaceous bodies and elegant faces wrapped in beautiful dark, smooth skin –  with astonishment. Their beauty is so evident to me I don’t think they need to put in half the work they do with their appearance. Moreover, I can’t comprehend how they could perceive me as their competition. They never assume that I, too, am a musician until they see me on stage. Even then, my privilege seems undeserved.

To some degree, and perhaps then some, they’re right about my privilege. I have been granted access to this community because I am an anomaly as a light-skinned female korist anywhere in the world. The privilege of learning the instrument is a question of the arbitrary position I was born into, not a testament of my own personal hard work. However, if I was dressed differently – more made up – I know that my privilege would not be so questioned. “Why don’t you ever put on a nice dress, girl? Some nice shoes?” my friend Mo asked me. “Would you ask me this question if I was a man?” I respond. He laughs. “I get enough threatening attention as it is, I don’t want to invite more.” Mo nods with understanding, but there is no way he could possibly understand.

Looking back at 6-year-old Leila, however, I know she already understands, even if only emotionally, like I did at her age. I know she’s been told how lucky she is to be biracial and yet already also knows the many ways in which she’s not. I know we’ll always be able to spot a deep, resonating sameness in one another, and those rare others that look like us, from across a crowded room. And yet that sameness is predicated on deep difference as well. We are a gray area: both black and white, and yet neither black nor white. A mix. Jaxas.

Until next week, much love,

Althea

Alec and his new kora

 

Alec and his new kora

the tree that grows out of a wall in bois sakre, giving it it's name (it is mysterious to everyone)

 

a tree that grows out of the wall mysteriously at bois sakre, giving it its name

Boabab in Ouakam (photo by Alec Saelens)

 

a boabab in Oakam (photo by Alec Saelens)

Concert announcement for Sahad and the Natal Patchwork at Charly Bar

 

concert announcement for Sahad and the Natal Patchwork

 

earlier: Namenala