Friday, November 26, 2010

Ode to My Roof

The first couple of months we were here, it wasn’t possible to sit on the roof and watch the sun set. It was just too damned hot.  But, now, the weather is perfect.  Almost (not quite, but almost) from the moment I wake in the morning, I look forward to around 6pm, at which time I head up to the roof (very often with a cold beer—yes, I’m usually having a cold one during the evening call to prayer, a juxtaposition which I kind of enjoy, truth be told), plant my chair along the west side, lean back, put my feet up and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic.  Every sunset is different.  Even the ones I expect to be crappy because it seems too cloudy, or not cloudy enough, or too hazy, aren’t.  They are always spectacular.   I look out over the ocean, my view framed by palm trees on my left and a building on my right, and I watch the clouds and the sun, the water and the waves, the birds and the fishing boats.  And when I say fishing boats, I mean the brightly colored pirogues used by Senegalese fisherman, probably for centuries.  You wouldn’t think it by looking at their boats, which are beautiful but seemingly so basic, but these men feed a nation.
When I head up the stairs and open the door to that view, I am so incredibly grateful to be here.  I feel like I’m becoming a little addicted to that view, and I wonder what I will do without it.  If I ever live on the ocean again, it will have to be a west coast somewhere.  I’m not sure that an east coast view of the sunrise and my morning drug, coffee, will do it for me.  It’s the sunset and the beer that are my cuppa tea.
It’s quickly becoming routine for the three of us to sit up there, and for the last couple of nights, we’ve been staying up there until it is quite dark, marveling at the stars once the ocean fades from view.  I’ll be ordering a book on the constellations for Christmas, for sure (let me know if you have a suggestion).  If we’re going to learn anything about the stars, this is the place to do it.  Grace is captivated by the idea of shooting stars, which she has never seen.  She asked tonight if I could just please, please, please show her shooting stars on the internet.  I’m resisting.  How is that magical at all?  Luckily, Elijah supports my reasoning.  So, please let me know if you hear of upcoming meteor showers.  I’d like to get Grace her shooting star before we go home.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I met a woman yesterday, whom I went to visit so I could ask her to be in my research study.  When I arrived, I sat down and she told me a bit about the work she does, and then I told her about the work that I do.  She showed me pictures of her and her garden from years past.  I was very excited about meeting her because I’ve had a lot of trouble finding women gardeners to participate in my study.  Then, she told me that she hasn’t really started cultivating this year because her oldest son died 26 days ago and she is in a period of mourning.  She went on to explain that he just got sick and died.  It all happened very quickly.
Recently, the brother of my taxi-driver friend, Thomas, died as well.  He’d been sick for awhile, and it was evident when I saw him that, in the absence of some kind of miracle, he was not long for this world.  He was emaciated and could barely move.  I spoke with Thomas the day after his brother died.  I almost didn’t recognize his voice, it was so heavy with grief.  Thomas is now in the village with his brother’s family, helping with the harvest. 
Of course, everywhere people get sick and die.  Of course.  But, it just seems so up close and personal here…and so common.  And so often, no one knows what caused it.  So-and-so just got sick and died.  I know that this is part of the story of Africa.  Disease and death sometimes seem to overshadow the rest of the story of Africa, which is unfortunate, and maybe makes Africa a place that seems scary to a lot of people.  But, it is true that death is more familiar here…and I get the feeling that it always seems very close to people, both physically and metaphysically.
I used to think that people here were so used to death that each individual death didn’t mean that much to them.  I thought that because it seemed like death was treated so matter-of-factly, and maybe it is.  Also, crying is relatively uncommon and not something one does in public.  But, that doesn’t mean each and every death isn’t felt deeply.  Death is treated with the gravitas it deserves, and it is, as is so much of how people live, a community event.  There are very clear social and cultural ways of dealing with it, which I think helps people to move through mourning with a lot of community and family support.  People do not mourn alone and there are constant acknowledgements of grieving through certain words that are said, and certain practices that are carried out over a period of time.  In a way, it kind of seems that death is integrated into life.  I have no idea if that makes sense….
Still, it is too common and the causes are too mysterious.  That is all. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Life and Death of Food

This journal entry was inspired by the above NYT story, and by a friend's comment that I shouldn’t have referred to the annual slaughter of sheep as 'murder' in my post on Tabaski. She’s right, of course.  Murder is defined as “unlawful killing” and usually refers to the killing of another human being.

On the morning of Tabaski, Grace went to her friend’s house and watched a sheep being slaughtered.  When she told me about it later that day, I was struck by how matter-of-fact she was.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  By now, watching animals being killed is, if not standard, relatively familiar for both kids.  Last summer was the first time they saw animals being killed for a meal.  The first time they saw it was when I first killed a chicken.  The only anxiety was my own.  Shortly after that, they watched a pig being killed, which is a much more dramatic event, filled with screaming (of the pig) and fear (also of the pig).

I posted a couple videos on my Facebook page that documented both the chicken and pig killing.  After watching those videos, a few friends emailed me, surprised at how easily Grace and Elijah accepted the killing.  It’s been my observation that kids are much more comfortable with death (and killing) than adults.  In fact, it was my own discomfort with the process of killing that prompted me to want to kill my own chicken.  I mean, really, how ludicrous is it that I eat meat, but that I don’t want to get my hands dirty by killing it.  It is hypocritical, to say the least. I felt that to be a responsible meat-eater, I needed to at least be willing to do the deed and to slit the throat of the thing that would give me sustenance.

The disconnection between us and the animals that sustain us has caused us to develop an extremely inhumane production system.  Indeed, one might never give a thought to the idea that the meat that you put in your mouth was once living and breathing.  We buy our food in the store, packaged and (seemingly) sterile, without thinking about what went into its production.  By this time, I don’t think I need to provide a bunch of examples about the social and environmental effects of our food systems, because many of us have seen them via films like “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” and “Supersize Me.”

I think, generally, people in so-called ‘developed’ nations look at Africa as un-modern and backwards.  The fact that people raise and kill their own animals is somehow seen as primitive.  But, though it may be un-modern, it is decidedly more humane than the system we’ve got in the US.  It’s probably also cleaner and less likely to make you sick.  Do I feel any qualitative difference between eating a chicken here and the one I buy at home in the store?  Yes, I do.  First of all, here, I can buy, at a reasonable price, a chicken that has not been pumped full of hormones.  Second, I really do feel better about eating a chicken that had some space to roam, and that lived its life doing chicken-y things.  Third, because meat is relatively expensive, we don’t tend to eat that much of it; we eat chicken maybe once a week, and meat no more than 2-3 times.  And each time we eat it, we eat communally, out of a single bowl, which probably reduces the amount we consume each time.  Lastly, the meat tastes better.

Part of the push to extend the industrial food system to places like Africa is based on the rationale that peoples’ food preferences are changing, that they are demanding more meat, that more and more must be produced and that only an industrial, modern food system is capable of producing the output required to feed a hungry planet.  I tend to think, however, that the implementation of an industrial food system is actually a cause of, not a response to, changing eating habits.  If meat is cheaper to produce, which is accomplished by using the inhumane techniques associated with the industrial food system, then perhaps people will eat more meat.  But, it is not a fait accompli that people must eat more meat, nor is it necessarily a sign of modernity.  The purveyors of the industrial food system know that it behooves them to fear-monger around the idea of starvation, and I think a lot of their projections about the future dearth of food are contrived based on their assumptions of changing eating habits, (as well as a whole lot of other assumptions.)

It’s ironic that so many in the US are striving to take back the means of their own food production when a similar system here is viewed as anachronistic.  I, personally, prefer the way the food system is set up here.  I like that I can kill a chicken in the morning, and eat it a couple of hours later.  And, from what I can tell with my research, Senegalese like it, too…and are not at all sold on the idea of a ‘modern’ food system.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Today is the day thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of sheep meet their maker.  It is the Festival of Sacrifice, otherwise known as Eid-al-Adha in Arabic, and Tabaski throughout West Africa.  Muslims worldwide are celebrating the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, as a sign of obedience to God.  Luckily for Ishmael, but not so lucky for the sheep, God intervened at the last second and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead.  Hmmmmm.   It’s the kind of story that can only work in retrospect, I suppose, when the supernatural was apparently commonplace, e.g. virgin births, burning bushes, people turning into salt, etc.  I’m guessing a willingness to sacrifice your son these days would not be well-received, in general.
Every Muslim household of means is supposed to kill a sheep, keep a third of it, give away a third to friends and family, and another third to the poor. The mass murder proceeded quietly, at least from my little corner of the ‘hood.  This morning the air was filled with prayer over loudspeakers, but I heard not the bleat of a sheep.  Kind of eerie, really.  All that blood, shed so quietly.  Just yesterday, thousands of live sheep moved through their day innocently, happily even. Over the last few days I’ve seen multitudes of sheep being bought, sold and transported.  I’ve seen them along the side of the road, in backyards, on tops of buses, and in the backs of cars.  Now, I smell them in the air, marinated and barbequed.

On this day, here in Senegal, by way of greeting, we say, "Baal me aq (Forgive my sins)," to which the response is, "Baal naa le (I forgive you)," followed by, "Yalla ne Yalla bolle baal (May God allow us all to share in the forgiving, or something like that).  And then a hearty, "Amin!" (Amen)" rounds out the whole thing.  It's nice to have a holiday where I'm forgiven all my transgressions.  I move to tomorrow with a clean slate.