To snap or not to snap….

We spent the day in Saint Louis. Very interesting lecture in the morning about Mouride transmigration, and interactions and intersections in Senegal and abroad, particularly the US (although Canada came in for a mention too!). In the course of the conversation, finally confronted race head-on. One of the faculty members on the trip is African American, and, while we all bring our own contexts to the trip, certainly her blackness is a significant factor. Not surprisingly, her blackness was also a factor that nobody mentioned. Until today. During post-lecture discussion, she asked the speaker, AbdouRahman Seck, about whether the general American racism towards black people more generally facilitated the migrant Mourides’ attempts to maintain their group identity. Also not surprising, the speaker, who is Senegalese, did not at first completely get what she was asking, and when he did indicated that, while very a very interesting question, was not something he had considered in his research.

[Continuing the nuancing and complicating that has been the trademark of the trip thus far, the Mourides migrants, according to Seck’s work, are both very interested in maintaining their identity, but at the same time are interested in weaving themselves thoroughly into American society — with identities as intact as possible? Complicated.]

But, race question out of the bag, the door was opened for thinking about the implications of what we are doing here, and how. Don’t remember if I’ve written yet about our visit to the Touba yesterday, but there were all kinds of interesting power dynamics we brought onto the site which we really did not actively attend to. Hell. A bunch of white, mostly Catholic (interesting, yes?) American academics coming in, eating food, and asking questions of African Mouride Sufis. We had asked about gender, and the one man who was taking the lead in answering our question first indicated that women are different because of biology and then, almost in the same breathe — and much to the surprise of many of us — quoted Simone de Beauvoir on the constructedness of gender. oy.

But then on to pictures, and the impetus for the header to this post: I’ve been taking lots of pictures, and will try to get some posted sometime soon. But the taking has also raised so many questions. In particular, but not only, pictures of people. I have only been photographing people who have given me their permission or who are situated in the picture primarily as extras (i.e., not central to the frame). But still. When is it alright to capture a stranger on film? Particularly when most likely I will at some point be posting many of my pictures. This question became particularly pertinent this afternoon as we drove through Guet Ndar, a portside fishing neighborhood with one of the highest population densities in the world — apparently about 1600/sq.km. It was fascinating to drive through. Clearly very poor, and full of people doing things like washing their laundry on the sidewalks as we drove by (in our air-conditioned bus bubble). Lots of interesting details which I will try to outline sometime soon. (Not tonight. Tired and going to bed shortly.) But the crux of the matter is that the people of Guet Ndar are well aware of their African-poverty-porn status, and actively resist being photographed. In fact, one of our group had, somewhat accidentally, gone for a walk through the neighborhood with his camera this morning (our hotel is very near by), and someone had actually hit him! All this to say that too much thought makes picture-taking problematic. But i have a whole bunch anyway ….

Ile Goree – slaves and trinkets

Amazingly, still have wifi and a few minutes before we get started, so will write briefly about Ile Goree, an island which was one of the (perhaps _the_) major slave departure point from West Africa. Today it is, quite jarringly, this delightful and pretty island, on which 1800 or so people actually live, marred only by the most remarkably persistent, perseverant hawkers of cheap tourist trinkets that I thus far have encountered. One slave house has been maintained and transformed into a museum, and there are a few other historic monuments, plaques, and sites on the island. But also lots of restaurants, pretty walkways, greenery. Apparently, “The Guns of Navaronne” was filmed here. And then the women. I had been warned before I even left for Senegal. They befriend you on the boat, and then keep appearing all over the island with their wares. And then get back on the ferry when you depart, and follow you as far as you will let them. There stories are, of course, good ones, and probably genuine. And there you are on this island which was at the heart of the slave trade. And how do you say “no”? But how do you not? And what a problem tourism is, but also this is their livelihood. And meanwhile, the slaves. Unimaginably horrible. I have been to one concentration camp, in Poland. There it was grey and somber. Goree is bright, beautiful. Maybe even cheerful. And yet…

So much to learn!

The lectures — and conversations that have ensued — have helped to add some nuance and complexity to what we are seeing and doing on this trip.

Bakary Sambe, who recently wrote a book on the Boko Haram, is one of the co-leaders, and he presented our first lecture, which gave us some insights into the tariqas of Senegal. There are four main tariqas in Senegal, and they are sufi (or sufi-esque?) groups who follow particular leaders. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, most of these groups really came into their own during the colonial period, and in diverse ways — sometimes accommodationist, sometimes more actively resistant — became a means of maintaining some sense of Senegalese peoplehood in the face of colonialism, a kind of quiet opposition. Particularly interesting to me, Casamance, which is an area in the very south of Senegal which was able to resist colonization longer than anywhere else in Senegal, is also the least Muslim. In light of what is happening now in Africa with Boko Haram and ISL, and what is happening with al-Quaeda elsewhere, it is refreshing (nay, invigorating!) and also very helpful to see a means of opposing a perceived Western threat that is incredibly potent and not based in violence.

This is perhaps a huge oversimplification. And we keep coming back to the issue of why some of the better known (at least to the “West”) radical groups do not seem to have made such significant inroads into Senegal. Early on, someone posited that it was “democracy,” but that is so problematic. Religion is tightly ingrained with politics here, and Senegalese democracy, from what I have been able to ascertain, does not match very closely American ideas. Although, from conversations we have had, I would guess that many Senegalese would be very quick, and appropriately so, to problematize American democracy as well.

While Bakary Sambe began are conversation, it was extended in provocative ways by Blondin Cisse, a political philosopher who looks at Hannah Arendt and Mohammed Iqbal — and their influence on West African political philosophy(? not sure of this last!).

We’ve also been talking a lot about gender, and on Wednesday met with Fatou Sow, a leading Senegalese feminist scholar. We’ve been meeting with various religious leaders, including two women who run schools that are encouraging to girls (Mariama Niasse and a woman who runs a Mouride school in Touba), so it was refreshing to meet a woman coming from outside these voices. She is fighting hard for maintenance of Senegal’s ostensible “secularity”. She is fully behind the anti-veiling laws in France, which gave me some interesting food for thought. While I am still gravely concerned about those laws, and believe that at least some of the women who veil are doing so not at the insistence of their own communities but in response to the denegration of the larger French community, I had not thought as seriously before about the more global implications of supporting veiling in France. How to maintain support for the choice to veil in France, while making clear that what one is supporting is entirely the choice and not the veiling in and of itself? Perhaps I am overestimating the reach of globalization, but does opposition to the anti-veiling laws France get read in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan as support for veiling?

The Mourides of Touba

Spent yesterday afternoon at a Mouride school in Touba, a Mouride city in Senegal. Lots of interesting driving to get to and from there. More on that later. Touba is a city established by the Mouride brotherhood. Their founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba, is buried there. The Mourides are a fascinating group generally, and our afternoon was strange and interesting.

We arrived at about 12:30pm, and our understanding was that we would have lunch and then tour the city, including the mosque which is one of the biggest (maybe the biggest?) in West Africa. As women we had been told that this was a day for skirts and headscarves. We were ushered into a long, relatively narrow room with a dusty table, air-conditioner, and big, leather couches and armchairs all around the room. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Various men walked in and out, and spoke with the director and co-director of our trip.

At about 2:30, we were finally served lunch. Another “sharing the bowl” experience. They had made chicken, but provided a fish bowl for the two of us who prefer not to eat meat.

Then after lunch we asked questions. The Mouride folks mostly spoke Woloff, so all of the asking and answering was done through the translation of our director.

Much of the afternoon felt like sitting with someone’s relatives who you don’t really know so well. Can’t help thinking about Chabad as I meet these various brotherhood groups. Interesting similarities to core mission, and in some ways, to approach. They are not explicitly proselytising, but clearly are promoting a moderate but conservative form of Islam. And at the same time, we are also clearly seeing what they want us to see.

Never too old for hip hop

Just came back from Festa2h “Urban Women Day”. Festa2h is the “Festival international de Hip Hop & de cultures urbaines, and Urban Woman Day is an evening of women doing hip hop. Our day was pretty long and exhausting, and so wasn’t entirely sure I would make it, but one of the others in my group agreed to go, so we went. It was at the Institute Francais. We took a cab there, and that was a bit of an adventure. It is near the French embassy, but not exactly at, and I kept saying “Alliance” instead of “Institute,” which surely added to the confusion. But we finally got there. The Institute is the big-ish, open space, with a restaurant, and some vendors, and an open air stage. The concert space was not full, but the audience were young, and pretty clearly genuine fans. There were a dozen or so white, ex-pat or tourist -looking folks, but most of them were young too. We entered to some DJing, which was pretty screechy/scratchy to my too-old-for hip hop ears, but then the evening really got started with fascinating dance troupes (one all men — so much for Urban Woman Day). Fascinating, carefully orchestrated bodies moving all kinds of muscles separately and together, individually and as a group. And then two women. According to the schedule “Phoebe and MC Tagz”. Just tried to look them up because the one who soloed first way meh, but the second one was tremendously amazing. Beautiful voice and provocative lyrics. I want to hear more… We left well before the end. (Early start tomorrow, and I’m old) I hoped we might be able to buy CDs on the way out, but that just goes to show how outdated I am ;> Lots more to write about, but it is already after midnight, and we start early tomorrow. Keeping track though. More to come soon…

Getting Here, Being here

The adventure has really begun now.  Even from the airport gate, it was a different experience than I’d had before.  Almost everyone at the very full gate appeared to be Senegalese: black, and also dressed in not typical American clothing. Women in flowered dresses with headscarves or bandanas. Men wearing long embroidered shirts.  Even some of the younger people wearing jeans (not all of them) somehow seemed  to have their outfits differently put together.  Lots of very tall people too. It was hard not to speculate about the other white people at the gate, particularly since it is not really tourist season right now.  One of them was on my trip, so I did some speculating about who he might be, but then there were a couple of older men, a couple, some younger men and women.  

Sat on the plane with a woman originally from south Sudan, now American with children in Seattle, who works in south Sudan for a German aid agency, GIZ? Also, an academic from Urbana-Champagne, who has been working for a number of years with CODESSRIA, the Council for Development of Social  Science Research in Africa.  The woman was flying from Seattle for a four day workshop, then flying back to Seattle, and while she has spent much time in Africa, has spent very little time in Senegal. The academic, on the other hand, has spent a great deal of time here, and has clearly gotten to know Senegal very well. His research sounds fascinating.  As I understood it, he studies how and why aid organizations, while in theory strongly promoting democracy, often end up undermining democratic principles in their efforts to achieve their organizational aims.  Not so surprising, but conceptually important, problematic, and certainly, if one considers democracy valuable, worth not only academic study but probably some practical efforts towards change.

The plane left late and landed late. Remarkable flying into Dakar to see just how peninsular the peninsula is! Does that sounds silly? Somehow it just looked more like it does on a map than many places I have seen. The airport was pretty simple. First checkpoint was a temperature check, a remnant of this winter’s ebola epidemic, from which Senegal, despite proximity, was able to remain almost entirely unscathed. At passport control they took fingerprints, but I had a bandaid on my left index finger, so I’m slightly less thoroughly documented than some! Picked up my bag, and then started to walk out. It was not entirely clear how to exit. There was a long walkway leading out that passed by an area where people were sitting, standing, waiting? To get picked up or to pick up? Lots of people asking me if I had a ride, if I needed a ride, where I was going. I had walked past the sitting area when two young men, having asked me if I needed a ride, indicated that I had gone too far. A situation I had not encountered before. I did not feel harassed by the men. They indicated that they knew the driver from the Residences Mamoune, the hotel where I am staying, and, in fact, they did.  And they offered to call for me, and they found him for me.  I’ve been in places and situations before where as a foreign woman it was clear that people would take advantage of me if they could. I did not get that sensibility here. They were nice and friendly, and insistently helpful without being pushy. In the end they were very straightforward. They helped to track down my driver, and they would be very grateful if I would give them some money for it — which I did. They would have liked more, but they didn’t get it, and there were not major scandals or difficulties. Serigne, the CIEE director who is leading our trip, confirmed that it was not a problematic interaction. And it had not felt like one, although my American “are they taking advantage of me?” radar was on high alert. 

So onto Dakar itself, sights and sounds. [While I want to get down my first impressions, this may have to wait as Ithink I need to sleep…]

Back on the Road!

Getting ready to leave for Senegal later today.  9:30pm flight direct from JFK to Dakar.  Haven’t had as much time as I might have liked over the past month to think about this adventure, but I expect that I’ll have time in the airport.  I’m surprising myself by how nervous I am feeling right now.  I considered myself a reasonably “seasoned” traveler, but it has been a while – and West Africa will present challenges I haven’t encountered before.

Sprayed my clothes yesterday with premethrin hopefully to keep some bugs away.  Took my first malaria pill  with breakfast this morning.  And doing my best in between things to practiquer mon mauvais francais ;> A demain….