Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

Filtering by Tag: Africa

Toubab

My olive skin that marks my mixed European descent acts as a curious barrier to categorization. In Asia locals thought I was Indian or Sri Lankan. In Italy people are confused by I can’t speak Italian. My students in Chicago thought I was mixed race but the most predominant assumption people make about me is that I’m Spanish. 

Through the medina of Fes shop keepers go through the three sentences they know in myriad languages, “Madam, come look, I make you good price.” in English, French, Spanish. Often I’m shouted at, “Hola señorita.” In Senegal I was told I must be Spanish because I was there at the beginning of the rainy season and “Spaniards like rain.” The customs agent greeted me in Casablanca in Spanish and warmly welcomed me to Morocco. A Spanish woman asked for directions to the castle in Portugal in Spanish. I was able to answer her and she was surprised and impressed when I told her I was American. 

In Laos the word for white person if Falang, literally “French person.” In Senegal, another former French colony the word is Toubab. Like many Americans, I can trace my roots back generations to my European ancestors, some of whom were French and immigrated to England with William the Conquerer in 1066. That side of the family has been in America for a long time. I’m about as removed from being French as one can get and yet I still feel the shame of colonization when I’m called out for my skin color. 

This little girl lived in a village in Casamance, Senegal.

This little girl lived in a village in Casamance, Senegal.

The Senegalese children are wont to point and shout “toubab, toubab,” when we walk by. We saw a gaggle sliding down a dirt hill on a crushed 10-liter plastic water container as if it was a sled on powdery snow. The children want their photo taken with us and to practice any English or French phrases they’ve picked up. They don’t seem to say “toubab” derogatorily or with any particular malice. We simply look so different from their own very dark skin. 

In Morocco people come in all shades. There are light haired, green-eyed Moroccans who can trace their roots back to the piracy and white slave trade of the 1700s. There are black Moroccans with roots father south in Mauritania, Algeria or Libya. There are short and tall, curly haired and strait haired Moroccans. There are Berber Moroccan women with tattooed foreheads and chins.

The Senegalese kids loved taking selfies with my cell phone.

The Senegalese kids loved taking selfies with my cell phone.

We stick out in other ways though. We don’t speak or read Arabic. We look like western tourists with our backpacks and our sneakers, checking our phones for directions and speaking in English. We don’t wear shorts or short skirts but we also don’t cover our heads. Not all Moroccan women do, but certainly more than half of the women we see wear a hijab. 

Megan and I stuck out like a sore thumb every where we went.

Megan and I stuck out like a sore thumb every where we went.

We haven’t spoken to many women in Morocco. Like in Senegal, the tour guide industry is male-dominated. Women are often at home raising children and taking care of the household. We see tons of men in bars drinking tea and watching sports but we never see women loitering about.   Morocco is one of the most liberal muslim countries in terms of women’s rights but like the world over, I can still see inequalities. 

I’m lucky to have been born a white woman in America. I recognize that traveling is a privileged not afforded to everyone and I’ve been reminded time and time again of just how hard it is for a Senegalese or Moroccan native to get a visa to Europe or the USA and how easy it is for me to travel wherever I like. 

Soccer is Life

With 4 billion fans, soccer is the most popular sport in the world and with two major tournaments going on during my time in Africa, it’s been incredible to see how sports fandom is expressed the world over. 

In Senegal wrestling is more popular than soccer, and more popular than rugby but they have national teams for all three. Senegal is in the Africa Cup of Nations, which is a tournament held every two years. There are 24 teams playing in Egypt for the $4.5 million in prize money. Senegal’s team is the Lions and when the national team plays, everyone watches. The hostel staff in Dakar pushed back he start of dinner to watch the Lions win against Tanzania. People on N’gor island shouted and ran around the bar when their team scored. Men in the street walk around selling green jerseys with the team’s official logo and no matter who’s playing, the Africa Cup is on the TV, talked about in person and reported on the news. While we were in Casamance, a house with a big screen TV drew seemingly the whole village. People crowded around the door and windows to watch the tournament. Senegal is doing very well having beat Kenya, Uganda, Benin and Algeria to make it to the final round of the tournament. 

Morocco and Egypt are the Cup of Nations as well and as our tour guide in Rabat told us when we asked about the sports popularity, “football is life.” It’s a big dream in Senegal as well as in Morocco to play professional soccer and especially to make it onto a European team where both the pay and the prestige is greater. 

Megan, Chris and the drum salesman wear Senegal caps in Dakar.

Megan, Chris and the drum salesman wear Senegal caps in Dakar.

 Soccer still lags in popularity in the United States, ranking 4th behind American football, basketball and baseball. I’ll admit to not being a huge soccer fan myself even as the US Women’s team takes the World Cup by storm beating Spain, France, England and finally the Netherlands t claim their 4th world championship, the most wins by any FIFA team in the tournament’s history. 

Children everywhere play soccer in bare feet and in flip flops. They play in sand on the beach with sticks demarcating the goals. They play with deflated basketballs, with volleyballs and with tattered soccer balls that are hardly recognizable. Walking through the narrow, winding pedestrian paths of the Fez medina we saw goals spray painted on opposite walls in a square. Driving through the desserts of Morocco we saw soccer field after soccer field with metal goals sans nets and raked dirt piches.

The French woman who runs the Casamance NGO tourism company we used said all of France is now rooting for the USA even though they beat France. Megan Rapinoe has a purple pixie cut and plays forward for the US. She’s become a mouth piece for equal pay for women’s sports and a vocal proponent of equality across the board. She’s been kneeling for the national anthem during the World Cup in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s questioned why FIFA would allow the Africa Cup and the Women’s World Cup to be at the same time siphoning viewers away from the women. The protesting prone French, love her, which eases the sting of the loss. 

The women’s final was on our last day in Senegal. We watched the end of the game with the hostel staff where we stored our bags for the day. The game ended with 7 minutes of overtime for a penalty. All of the players looked exhausted. The staff told me I looked like forward Alex Morgan. I don’t look like her. She and I are both white women. We both have brown hair. But that’s about where the similarities end. I remember when I first started teaching on the south side of Chicago and struggled to tell my male students apart. Perhaps it’s the same in reverse with Senegalese men and American women? 

We’ll arrive in Egypt the day after the Africa Cup finals. We’re still cheering for Senegal, who have managed to come so far even though they’re not favored to win. The US women’s team will make their rounds in America. Rapinoe says she’ll refuse to visit Trump’s Whitehouse. In the meantime we’ll keep an eye on the score by popping our head into coffee shops where men (always men and only men) gather to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the game. 

The Tanneries of Fes

The Chaouwara Tanneries in Fes have been processing hides from goats, sheep, camels and cows into supple dyed leather for nearly 1000 years. Crafts mades out of the bright yellow, pink, blue and brown leather are made and sold in the souks where stalls While the reputation of the tanneries are that the shop owners are pushy to make a sale, the pits themselves stink and the viewing platforms are crowded, I experienced none of these and had an incredible time watching the workers from above.

This is the door that magically opened when we walked up to it (I have the suspicion someone inside heard us talking in the alley.) A man opened the door and told us to wait a minute. Another man re-opened the door a few minutes later and took us up to the 4th floor rooftop to observe the tannery below.

This is the door that magically opened when we walked up to it (I have the suspicion someone inside heard us talking in the alley.) A man opened the door and told us to wait a minute. Another man re-opened the door a few minutes later and took us up to the 4th floor rooftop to observe the tannery below.

We had read that the early morning was the best time to go to beat the crowds so we set out at 7 a.m. and arrived around a half hour later to find all the shops closed and not another soul in sight. Moroccan culture is late to bed and late to rise. You’d be hard pressed to find a cup of coffee before 9 a.m. but I was shocked that none of the doors on Rue Chouara were open, especially since the touts we talked to the night before said the workers start the day at 5:30 a.m.

The Chaouwara tanneries are the oldest in Africa having been built in medieval times and refurbished in 2016. The process remains unchanged and many of the workers are from the same family who orally pass down the technique through the generations.

The Chaouwara tanneries are the oldest in Africa having been built in medieval times and refurbished in 2016. The process remains unchanged and many of the workers are from the same family who orally pass down the technique through the generations.

There are touts all over the Medina. These young men sit around with their friends or pace the streets looking for tourists to chat up and guide. “Hello, madam, that way is closed, turn this way, madam,” is a favorite line to draw foreigners toward their friends’ or family’s shops. They’ll try 2 or 3 different languages until they find one that sticks. I been greeted with “Bienvenidos” more than once. They will guide you to the mosque, to the tanneries or to the museum seemingly acting like a good Samaritan then expect a tip or walk away in a huff when you don’t respond or tell them you’re not interested in their services.

Rawhide from cattle, goats, and camels are brought to the tannery via car or pack mule to begin the process of softening and dying before they’re made into leather goods.

Rawhide from cattle, goats, and camels are brought to the tannery via car or pack mule to begin the process of softening and dying before they’re made into leather goods.

We wandered down a few of the tight pedestrian alleys that make up the maze of the Fes medina. We passed a garbage collector who scooped up the piles people leave by the stoop and placed it into the pack on his donky’s back. We found closed door after closed door and a tout who told us to come back at 10. We eventually found ourselves at No. 70 around the back side of the tannery. Magically the door opened and we were lead up a winding staircase to the viewing platform at the top.

Hand stitched “poofs” are leather pillow covers of dyed and embossed leather are used to sit on at low tables in many Moroccan restaurants and tea houses. Megan bought one she’ll stuff with cotton batting at home then put in her classroom’s reading nook.

Hand stitched “poofs” are leather pillow covers of dyed and embossed leather are used to sit on at low tables in many Moroccan restaurants and tea houses. Megan bought one she’ll stuff with cotton batting at home then put in her classroom’s reading nook.

I’ve never been much of a fan of leather but seeing how challenging the work is I have a new appreciation for the material. Men used huge hooks to scoop heavy soaked hides from the bath that softened the skin and loosened the hair. Other men used big brushes to clean the soaked hides and remove the fur. In the brown stone pits, cleaned white skins were thrown into colored vats of dye made with indego, henna, and poppy. They then jumped into the vat stepping on the hides and swirling the mixture with their feet.

The Chaouwara tanneries use natural dyes. Yellow color comes from Saffron, which is the most expensive and it applied to the hides by hand rather than soaking the hides in vats. Here two men dye goatskins with saffron dye.

The Chaouwara tanneries use natural dyes. Yellow color comes from Saffron, which is the most expensive and it applied to the hides by hand rather than soaking the hides in vats. Here two men dye goatskins with saffron dye.

The tanneries produce a lot of leather, a lot of pollutants and include less than desirable working conditions for the men who are exposed to ammonia and lime as well as chilly winter temperatures (5ºC/40ºF) while wearing flip flops and being half submerged in the vats. The days are long and the smell (while not as bad as I imagined and not as bad as I’m told it used to be) isn’t great.

Once the hides enter the tannery, it will be soaked for a few days in white stone baths. The liquid is a mixture of water, cow urine, salt, pigeon droppings, and quicklime used to soften the hides.

Once the hides enter the tannery, it will be soaked for a few days in white stone baths. The liquid is a mixture of water, cow urine, salt, pigeon droppings, and quicklime used to soften the hides.

Because we arrived so early in the morning, we didn’t have to share our viewing gallery with anyone. There were three aggressive dogs on adjoining balcony next door. Our French-speaking guide asked us if we wanted to get a better view from the dog balcony (minus the dogs.) We agreed and he warned us that it wasn’t cleaned up yet. We said that didn’t matter. What we didn’t quite catch is that it was piles of dog excrement that wasn’t cleaned up as the dogs run around on the terrace at night. Fez’ homes don’t have back yards and parks inside the medina are non-existent. We watched our step and laughed that the dog poop smelled worse than the tannery pits and took our photos and watched the poor mules carrying loads of skins back and forth.

The Fez River, which runs along the eastern side of the tannery was for many decades polluted with chemicals from the tanneries and craft workshops.  Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni wrote her Harvard thesis on the revitalization of the river and improvements are slowly but surely taking place.

The Fez River, which runs along the eastern side of the tannery was for many decades polluted with chemicals from the tanneries and craft workshops. Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni wrote her Harvard thesis on the revitalization of the river and improvements are slowly but surely taking place.

Our guide ended up just being the door guy. While he took us into the three floors of shops, he said he couldn’t actually sell us anything because he didn’t know the prices and that the shop keeper wouldn’t arrive until 10 a.m. This worked out wonderfully for us as we felt absolutely no pressure to buy anything and could look to our hearts content. We tipped him 15 dirham for unlocking the door for us and sharing his knowledge about the tanning process before heading back to our hotel for breakfast.

Dozens of shops sell handcrafted leather goods and each of the viewing balconies over the tanneries has its own boutique filled with purses, coats, shoes, wallets, and cushions.

Dozens of shops sell handcrafted leather goods and each of the viewing balconies over the tanneries has its own boutique filled with purses, coats, shoes, wallets, and cushions.

Moroccan Cooking

I had been waiting to feast on the Moroccan delights since about a week into our time in Senegal when I got tired of the endless piles of rice and dry chicken. Tajines, the conical-shaped ceramic pots for which this famed dish is named, are on every menu. The Viande aux pruneaux (beef and prunes) is a sweet tagine served with a cinnamon and allspice sauce surrounding a tender cut of beef. A hard boiled egg and sesame seeds garnish this tajine along side prunes and sometimes apricots. I’ve had it twice and it’s been my favorite Moroccan dish so far. Couscous is the national dish of Morocco, also served in a tajine. It comes with carrots, eggplant and a choice of various meats.

Zalouk egg plant salad is served with mahrash and spicy bread and harira soup.

Zalouk egg plant salad is served with mahrash and spicy bread and harira soup.

Snail soup is on offer as a street food and vendors with carts of piled shells set up in the souks (food markets) and on the roads. Tacos are a stable on every fast food menu but they aren’t like any taco I’ve ever eaten. Most akin to a panini or a grilled wrap, meat or falafel is wrapped up with potatoes, sauce and vegetables then grilled. 

The final chicken bastilla is dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon to balance the savory shredded chicken stuffing.

The final chicken bastilla is dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon to balance the savory shredded chicken stuffing.

Moroccan tea is super bitter, which is cut with loads of sugar and sprigs of mint. Tea is everywhere and comes out of scalding hot ornate silver tea pots. Experts pour the tea from on high into small handle-less glass cups and back again to mix it in an elaborate display. The coffee is thick and equally sugary. It’s just as likely to be instant as not. There’s also a big fresh juice and mocktail culture here as alcohol is taboo for the muslim majority.

Black olives are simply salted while green (and the purple olives that grow on the same tree) are soaked over and over to lessen their bitterness before flavors like garlic and chili powder is added.

Black olives are simply salted while green (and the purple olives that grow on the same tree) are soaked over and over to lessen their bitterness before flavors like garlic and chili powder is added.

We took an amazing cooking class at Cafe Clock in Fez led by the hilarious and talented Souyed who took us to the market, told us stories about Moroccan home remedies and taught us to cook a salad, soup, main and dessert.

Camel steak, burgers and kabobs aren’t uncommon. The meat is rumored to strengthen male virility.

Camel steak, burgers and kabobs aren’t uncommon. The meat is rumored to strengthen male virility.

Stretchy Moroccan filo dough is made on a hot griddle and brushed with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Stretchy Moroccan filo dough is made on a hot griddle and brushed with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Moraccans love their bread it comes in tons of sizes and textures. It’s often greasy and as our cooking instructor told us, Moroccans don’t mind a big belly or behind.

Moraccans love their bread it comes in tons of sizes and textures. It’s often greasy and as our cooking instructor told us, Moroccans don’t mind a big belly or behind.

Morocco grows a ton of produce and it’s almost all organically grown and brought into the medina by push cart or donkey.

Morocco grows a ton of produce and it’s almost all organically grown and brought into the medina by push cart or donkey.

The teaching kitchen in Cafe Clock is a beautiful and cozy space filled with wood and natural light.

The teaching kitchen in Cafe Clock is a beautiful and cozy space filled with wood and natural light.

The chickpeas for the Harira were pealed so they cooked faster. We roasted the peppers and egg plant on the metal rack over a gas range for the zalouk salad. The eggs were used for the Fassi maccaroons and in the filling for the chicken bastilla.

The chickpeas for the Harira were pealed so they cooked faster. We roasted the peppers and egg plant on the metal rack over a gas range for the zalouk salad. The eggs were used for the Fassi maccaroons and in the filling for the chicken bastilla.

The citrus macroons used the zest and juice of two huge lemons and an orange, 4 eggs, powdered sugar, flour, coconut, oil, and orange water.

The citrus macroons used the zest and juice of two huge lemons and an orange, 4 eggs, powdered sugar, flour, coconut, oil, and orange water.

Rabat, Morocco

A large French-speaking Moroccan woman who occupied my seat in our shared car on the first class train ride from Casablanca to Rabat nearly gave us a heart attack when we asked her when the Rabat Station was coming up. She non-chalantly told us we had passed it and we frantically went into Plan B mode. The train wasn’t expected to even arrive at the station for another 6 minutes. I checked the map. We were still two stations away. Crisis adverted. The woman just shrugged. 

Morocco is not Senegal (nor did I expect it to be.) It’s a developing country and economic powerhouse as far as the African continent goes and business is booming. We walked 2km through a long market street with our packs as vendors around us hawked toys, fresh juices, pastries and bread. Rabat smells like donuts frying in oil, piles of perfumed soap for the hammam, and the sea breeze that comes off the Atlantic. 

Rabat is an unlikely Arabic capital as most muslim leaders tended to keep their capitals inland and leave the sea to the sailors. The medina was all but abandoned when an influx of Moors from Andalusia were pushed out of Spain during the 16th century and fled south to Rabat. They were skilled pirates and stole from the Catholic Spanish and kidnapped Europeans for ransom in what our tour guide called “the white slave market.” 

The Salé graveyard overlooks the ocean and the Oued Bou Regreg river.

The Salé graveyard overlooks the ocean and the Oued Bou Regreg river.

Our tour guide was named Abdel and he taught at New Haven College in Connecticut on a Fulbright award. He was as laid back as his long black curls bounce around his face. He posted his services for a free walking tour on GuruWalk and met us at the largest gate that used to lead to the palace but now leads into a art gallery. 

The Hassan Tower is a 12th-century minaret that was never finished.

The Hassan Tower is a 12th-century minaret that was never finished.

Rabat sits on Atlantic Ocean on the west bank of the Bouregreg River. Sale is on the east bank. The two cities are connected via two car bridges, two tram lines and row boat ferries. Each has a walled medina with a graveyard separating the beach from the city. Locals and tourists alike swim, relax under umbrellas or participate in water sports ranging from surfing to jet skiing to wind surfing. 

The city of Salé is less of a tourist attraction than Rabat, (which itself isn’t as visited as Fez, Marrakech or Casablanca.) Instead of stalls upon stalls of gold jewelry followed by stalls of leather goods, soccer jerseys and electronics, we see live chickens on the ground beneath their slaughter brethren in the butcher cases. We see half cows skinned and hung on giant hooks and stalls full of housewares, hardware supplies and produce. 

The gate and walls of the Medina in Rabat.

The gate and walls of the Medina in Rabat.

In the Jewish quarter in Rabat the wooden shop houses above the market have balconies. Abdul says that’s because Muslim’s keep the magic inside in the courtyards of the  traditional riads while Jews don’t mind having the world see in. There are very few Jews living in Morocco. Many have moved to Israel or other countries. There’s a beautiful white cathedral near the train station but in a country where more than 99% of the country is Islamic, I don’t imagine it’s often used. 

The riverfront in Rabat is a popular gathering place in the evening. Rowboat ferries bring people from Salé to join as well.

The riverfront in Rabat is a popular gathering place in the evening. Rowboat ferries bring people from Salé to join as well.

Most, but not all of the women cover their heads with a scarf. I see a few wearing a full burka, but that is the exception, not the rule. Alcohol is relatively expensive but not impossible to find and the roads are paved, there are traffic lights and the rule of law prevails. We are warmly welcomed wherever we go and offered directions, henna tattoos and travel tissues to buy on the streets. Rabat is the perfect introduction to the organized chaos of Morocco.

Senegalese Live Stock

Humans and their animals occupy the same space in Senegal. I stepped in my flip-flops though sandy beaches covered inn sheep dung, avoided horse excrement in the street and even got guano on me from the fruit bats that live in the trees above the cafe tables at the French Culture center in Ziguinchorr. 

A horse stands on the beach in Toubab Dialaw.

A horse stands on the beach in Toubab Dialaw.

A Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha, is coming up August 11 and all the families who could afford to raise a sheep this summer will slaughter it for the festival, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. In St. Louis, rams were staked by their legs to the ground and some had their horns sawed off. The ewes and lambs often lived in small pens. The goats and their kids nearly always ran free. 

Tied-up sheep graze in St. Louis.

Tied-up sheep graze in St. Louis.

At Toubab Dialaw we saw a man pulling his sheep on a leash to the surf. He scrubbed it with sand and then rinsed it in the salty water. The sheep didn’t seem too happy about his bath, but as we were told, a family’s wealth is not in the bank, it’s in their livestock, so a clean and healthy sheep is a retirement account and a rainy day fund.  

A sheep hangs out under the eaves of a house in Casamance.

A sheep hangs out under the eaves of a house in Casamance.

We never see goat on the menu. We understand that pork is uncommon in the predominately Muslim country and only eat it once, at a pizza joint run by an Italian couple in Dakar. It seemed like the entire Italian ex-pat community hung out there. They made a nice tiramisu as well. But otherwise, no pork, no problem. It’s the lack of goat meat that’s confusing. The Senegalese people we talk to confirm that people do eat goat and not infrequently but they draw a blank when we ask why it’s not listed on the menu. 

Every once in a while we see some guinea fowl hanging out with the chickens or ducks. Their distinctive black and white speckled feathers and red crests makes them stick out. We don’t eat any, nor do we see any offal or insects for sale at the markets. 

A horse and cart drive by the fish market in St. Louis.

A horse and cart drive by the fish market in St. Louis.

On the drive from Toubab Dialwa to Dakar, a dead sheep was lying on the side of the high way like road kill with it’s legs sticking strait out from it’s body. I’m surprised we haven’t seen any dead cats or dogs as packs run through the streets, fighting over scraps and eating garbage. Many of the dogs’ ears have been bitten or torn off. Some of the cats are so small and skinny it’s hard to judge if they’re still kittens or full grown. 

Cattle with long horns that are used to make lacquered handicrafts live in abandoned lots, and on the beach. I don’t know what they eat as we’ve seen an utter lack of grass in Senegal. Some are staked by their feet, others are given permission to run free. Milk and cheese aren’t on many menus so I assume these cows will be slaughtered for beef. Some have ear tags, others are painted or branded. One Senegalese man we talked to said people just look at the markings on the coat and know which animal is theirs. We are reminded again and again that people don’t steal from each other, that Senegal is an honest place. I’m invited several times to the feast in August. I won’t be around but it’s nice to think that what little people have, they’re willing to share.

Imma Cashew

Paco takes us on a walking tour of the village adjacent to Ossouye where our hotelier Pier’s family lives. Pier is wearing pink sporty capri’s and a gold speckled tee shirt when we mean him but changed into a Barcelona jersey for the trek where we passed his aunts, great aunts and neighbors on the way to the cashew farm at the edge of town. 

A red cashew fruit hangs from the branch.

A red cashew fruit hangs from the branch.

I’ve never given much thought to how cashews are produced but as I’m sure many nut enthusiasts have, I’ve lamented the cost of nuts. Now that I’ve witnessed first hand the amount of labor and effort that goes into their production, I actually think nuts are under valued.

Jean Sebastian (Pier’s friend’s) father created 3 factories when he retired. As we learned from the potter’s retired husband, Senegalese workers enjoy months, not years of pension support and have to take retirement jobs of be supported by their children. Jean Sebastian (who was wearing a yellow tank top and jeans) told us his father wanted to bring jobs to the villages and make something to sell. As per always he spoke in French and Megan translated for us English speakers.

Cashew trees (pronounced caj-shoo in Senegal) produce after 5-6 years of being planted. The fruit looks like a bell pepper hanging upside down with an additional green conical “stem” where an individual cashew nut resides. The fruit itself is edible raw (though a bit bitter and pithy, I didn’t like it) and the juice can be drank or turned into wine called Bon Bon. The fruit can also be processed into rum, or jam. The nuts have a more involved process to take them from the tree to edible. 

Jean Sebastain takes us on a tour of his family cashew farm.

Jean Sebastain takes us on a tour of his family cashew farm.

The first roasting is done over a charcoal stove on the ground.

The first roasting is done over a charcoal stove on the ground.

Once the nuts are picked by hand they’re taken out of the green stem and roasted and left in the sun to dry. The outer casing is broken to free what we would recognized as a cashew nut and those are laid onto cookie sheets and baked over a wood fire. Cashew nuts have a corrosive oil surrounding them that burns the mouths if it’s not cooked and burned off. Cashews also have an inner shell like a peanut that must be pealed before packaging.
Jean Sebastian speaks slowly and deliberately. The workers are done with the day’s shift by the time we arrive at 5 p.m. but he’s clearly ready to deliver the information. He looks taken aback when Megan asks for a Facebook or website to help promote the product. No, he says, they don’t sell online, only in town and at the factory. We buy five bags at 2,000 CFA or a little less than $4 a piece. Jean Sebastian is happy with our purchase and invites us back any time. There are also star fruit and mangos on his property. He warns us to walk quickly between through the mango grove because they are ripe and could fall on us without warning. 

Jean Sebastian reminds me of a Sudanese man named Ashraf we met at our first hotel in Casamance. He studied to be an English teacher and he showed me his teaching certificate, which he keeps folded up with his passport and ID card, but he never taught. Sudan is too unstable and government paychecks aren’t consistent. He came to Senegal on an exploratory mission to see how he could buy land and make his own Cashew factory. 

The second roasting is done in one of two wood-fire ovens. Each tray can hold several kilos of nuts.

The second roasting is done in one of two wood-fire ovens. Each tray can hold several kilos of nuts.

Senegal is a peaceful country and Ashraf wants to sell his cashews to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where they would fetch a good price, much better than a teaching salary in Sudan. 

The inner skin of the nut is peal after the second roasting before the nuts are packaged.

The inner skin of the nut is peal after the second roasting before the nuts are packaged.

He invited us to visit (which the US government under no uncertain circumstances expressly warns against. Knowing the amount of labor and time involved in growing and processing cashews, I’m impressed that this young entrepreneur who didn’t speak French, is contemplating a cross continent move to such a seemingly poor country. Opportunity is always relative.  

Jean Sebastian sells cashew juice and several flavors of roast nuts such as honey, pepper, lime and sugared at the stand at the factory.

Jean Sebastian sells cashew juice and several flavors of roast nuts such as honey, pepper, lime and sugared at the stand at the factory.

Making Petite Jarres

A few days ago Paco dropped off a bag of brioche with a group of boys on the road and told them to take it to their grandmother. He told us we would come back to see her pottery studio and learn about traditional ceramics. When we come back Paco brings soccer cleats for one of the boys. When he’s not guiding Paco runs a schools and summer camp and has a big interest in seeing the kids of Casamance succeed. 

Démonde works on her pot as her grandson’s look on.

Démonde works on her pot as her grandson’s look on.

The potter’s husband is a retired police officer. He tells us he received a pension for the first three months of his retirement but now the government doesn’t give him anything. An adult daughter with intellectual disabilities sits in the corner and laughs. She shakes our hands but she doesn’t speak French. The three young boys huddle around us and spread out a bamboo mat for their grandmother, Megan and I to sit on. 

The grandmother explains that she digs up the earth and mixes it with pulverized sea shells to create her clay which is grey and gritty when wet and red when fired. She fires the pottery she makes in a patch of earth just outside the wall to her house. She sets the pots on the ground, builds a fire of palm branches and lets the pots cook in the fire over night. She says we can pick up our creations the following morning. 

The patch of earth where Démonde fires her clay pots is just outside the walls of her garden.

The patch of earth where Démonde fires her clay pots is just outside the walls of her garden.

We break the gritty clay into tennis ball sized blobs and roll them out on 2”x6” slabs of wood the boys have laid out for us. Her name is Démonde and she speaks French to Megan who translates to English for me. She’s wearing floral print pants, an over sized tee shirt from an even in 2012 and very French-looking hat with a red stripe. She isn’t wearing shoes. 

Megan and I with our pots before they’re fired.

Megan and I with our pots before they’re fired.

The technique she shows us is a spiraled coil pot. There is a reused plastic bucket of slip the same grey color as the clay and a few wooden dishes to be used as a sort of wheel to turn the pots as we smooth the coils inside and out. She is a strict teacher and quick to tell us, “Not like that,” then take the pot from us and fix it herself. 

We were supposed to just watch her make a pot but, as an art teacher, I asked Démonde if we could participate and she acquiesced. We rolled the clay into 1” diameter snakes, secured in on the inside of the pot and continued the coils until the earth resembled an orb. She then told us to use small, smooth pieces of wood dipped in slip to smooth the inside and out better than what we had done with our fingers. She slapped the outside of the pots with a slab of wood to perfect the shape before rolling a piece of twine over the outside to make a pattern.

Paco demonstrates a traditional drinking cup and cooling clay container for water.

Paco demonstrates a traditional drinking cup and cooling clay container for water.

Inside her workshop, which doubled as a chicken coop filled of tiny cheeping chicks and their mother, were rows of finished clay pots. Small Grecian-esque pots, large water vessels, vases and similar pots to what we made were waiting to go to market. 

Once the pots come out of the fire, they are varnished with the juices of a local plant, deep purple in color and watery in texture. It looks like the Bissau jus laucaux we’ve been drinking in the restaurants. Our pots are almost too hot to touch when we come back in the morning to retrieve them. Paco said we’re the first tourists who have participated rather than just watched the pottery demonstration. He said he was proud of us for getting our hands dirty. Americans and Europeans seem to have the reputation in Senegal of not knowing how anything works and not wanting to do any manual labor or walk anywhere. I’m sure it’s a carry-over from Senegal’s colonial past which ended not even 60 years ago. 

Village Life

Our driver is Samba, the same driver who picked us up from the ferry dock and brought us to the hotel and showed us the calabass fruit. HIs station wagon is cramped with he and Paco in the front and Chris, Megan and I in the back seat. We’re going to Samba’s village to experience every day life in Casamance. 

The drive is dusty with divets every so often in the road where the rainwater will drain when the rains finally come. There are also speed humps translated as “donkey’s back” in French. There are more Christians down here and Paco tells us there is only one god so the Christians, Muslims and Animists get along just find and respect each other’s traditions and share what little they have. 

Cesar is the pet monkey.

Cesar is the pet monkey.

The village, Agnack has 700 inhabitants, several schools with kids on summer break, several mosques and a small church that looks like it hasn’t been used in quiet a while. None of the roads are paved and families are mostly gathered outside their cinderblock houses with thatched roofs. 

We find our later that the house we are visiting is the family of the husband of the French woman who runs the NGO Casamance a Provance.  Everyone is related here. The cook in the hostel in Dakar walked us to the canoes to go to Ile N’gor and had his friend pick us up to take us to his restaurant. Our driver to Lake Reba bypassed two other tour companies to hand us to his friend’s jeep and boat tour. Senegal runs on kickbacks and relationship building. Everyone has a cousin or a brother who can help us. Social currency matters more than income in a poor country with few options. 

The children run up to us and shake our hands when we approach the house. Some of the women are roasting cashew nuts over hot coals and offer us some. There are no men around. Perhaps they’re dead from the rebellion or working or simply elsewhere. The children show us their pet monkey, Cesar. He’s tied up by his waist to a tree and tolerates being man handled by the kids. One woman (who must be close to 6 feet tall) has a foot pedaled Singer sewing machine set up under a tree. She took part in a course on sewing and is practicing what she learned. We sit in green plastic chairs under a mango trees eating the yellow fruit and trying to get our bearings.

Most of daily Senegalese life takes place outside.

Most of daily Senegalese life takes place outside.

I get the sense that while the family doesn’t mind our presence, they are as baffled as we are as to what we’re supposed to do or how we’re supposed to act. To them the idea that we would want to do something rather than sit around in the shade during the hottest part of the day seems foreign to them. Sitting around in chairs after sitting in the car makes us antsy. We ask for a tour of the village. You, short for Youseff, shows up on his motorcycle with a friend and joins us on the tour. He’s the younger brother of the husband of the French woman who runs the NGO and is a mechanic in Zigunchor. You wears stylishly torn jeans, a fanny pack and a tee shirt that doesn’t look dirty or torn at all. He wouldn’t look out of place walking down the street in any US city. 

This man is soldering a mold to make cinderblocks, the building material of choice for many Senegalese buildings.

This man is soldering a mold to make cinderblocks, the building material of choice for many Senegalese buildings.

You and Paco show us the various plants and architecture styles in the village. We see women making fishing net weights from clay and a man soldering a mold to make cinderblocks. His colleague looks on and asks me about myself in English. I am taken aback. He says he is from The Gambia as he pours himself a cup of tea from the pot heating over hot coals. 

The English-speaking Gambian man didn’t want his photo taken, but said I could photograph his tea.

The English-speaking Gambian man didn’t want his photo taken, but said I could photograph his tea.

There are half-naked and shoeless children running every where. There are goats and sheep and pigs. The chickens, we are told, are inside the houses because they get run over when trying to cross the main road that splits the village in two. 

Senegalese tea comes in small glass cups. It’s strong and bitter with lots of sugar added.

Senegalese tea comes in small glass cups. It’s strong and bitter with lots of sugar added.

There are overturns and rusted mills for separating rice grains from the husks. We are told the women are back to doing it by hand. The NGO who brought the machines isn’t around any more and no one kept them up. 

Communal eating is the norm in Senegal.

Communal eating is the norm in Senegal.

You buys a pack of cigarettes and Paco buys a water from a shed that is as close to a store as we’ve seen. I don’t fault You and his brother for getting out and wanting something different, something better than an outdoor kitchen an a mattress on the floor in a house of 10 people. 

Thieboudienne is the national dish of Senegal.

Thieboudienne is the national dish of Senegal.

We eat communally at 5 p.m. we are ravenous as we had nothing but mangoes for lunch. Paco brought the fish and the women made thieboudienne, the national dish of Senegal.  We are all given a spoon and sit around a giant platter of rice in tomato sauce served with fish, carrots, eggplant and onions. It’s delicious. I drink tea out of tiny glass cups that are refilled and passed to the next person. They may not have much but this village has warmly shown the spirit of teranga, the Wolof word for the welcoming and helpful spirit of the Senegalese people.

The Other Senegal

Paco came to pick us up at 8:30 but Chris was doing some work and we didn’t get on the road until after 9. Today’s driver picked us up with a bush taxi, a beat up station wagon with three rows of seats and room for 8. I’m in the back seat by myself. It’s not comfortable. The inside of the car is rusting to the point where I can see the smooth pavement flying by in a hole between my feet. I wonder if the back end of the car will break off and what would happen to me. I don’t like the thought and focus on the dried up rice paddies we’re passing. It’s the end of the dry season and everything is dead. It’s dusty and smells like diesel fuel. I cover my mouth and nose with my bandana. 

Me with my bandana.

Me with my bandana.

We drive an hour and a half back toward the Atlantic from Zigunichor and stop at a village with a two-story house made of packed dirt and sand. The house was completed around 1950. The builder was inspired by his time in WWII fighting for the French. He saw two story houses with staircases instead of a ladder and two balconies for air. He wanted to bring that grandeur and comfort back to Casamance. The house was built between October and June, in the dry season. Every two weeks the builder added on to the pillars and walls with a sandy cement mixture 2-3 feet at a time with ample days to dry in between. 

The current woman of the house wasn’t home so a man from the neighboring museum shows us around. The grandmother died two years ago and the grandfather died 20 years ago. The house has 2 granaries for storing rice, one for the men and one for the women. The men’s side has been empty a long time. The women’s granary is musty and dark. I cover my face with my bandana again as the museum man tells us about rotating the rice crop and eating the older grains first.

Eight children aged 6 months to about 12 or so are home alone as were poke around the house and hear about the construction. We’ve seen plenty of 6-10 year olds in charge of their younger siblings. I asked Paco who was taking care of his 11 year old daughter while he was with us as he said he’s not married. He looked very confused and told me she was grown. I said I thought she was 11. He said she was. We have such different ideas about the roles of children. 

The inside of the bush taxi.

The inside of the bush taxi.

Paco has worked for the past year for a French-backed NGO called CAP. There are two other guides, none of whom really speak English. Paco has some words and phrases but we all rely on Megan as the intermediary. Paco refers to “the two Senegals.” He is Muslim and lives in Zigunichor. He tells us that Casamance used to be it’s own region and that at one point it was a Portuguese colony before Portual traded it to the French in some deal involving territory in the Caribbean in the late 1800s. In 1982 there was a big rebellion where the people of Casamance tried to break free from Dakar, which they thought didn’t properly represent them. They did not succeed and instead got soldiers from the north running check points throughout the region that exist to this day.

The bush taxi had seen better days but we survived unscathed.

The bush taxi had seen better days but we survived unscathed.

Casamance is more Christian than the north. We see sows and piglets roaming around. It’s a poor region, much poorer than the area near the capital and for a long time it was cut off from the north by The Gambia. Today there’s a bridge and driving, flying or taking the ferry are all travel options, though we only met one person from Casamance who had traveled out of the region. 

Paco and Megan stand outside the two-story earth house in Casamance.

Paco and Megan stand outside the two-story earth house in Casamance.

Cachiouane, Cassamance, Senegal

My non-airconditioned room in the impleuvium with a circular courtyard and slanted roof for the rain to fall into during the rainy season wasn’t actually too bad. The animals started waking up around 6. I could hear goats and sheep calling out in the pre-dawn light. The stars last night were incredible since the island didn’t have electricity and the solar lights that most households rely on were few and far between. The Milky Way shown brightly and I spotted the Big Dipper on its side and Orion. 

The round building called and impleuvium was constructed by hand and has 8 rooms around the courtyard.

The round building called and impleuvium was constructed by hand and has 8 rooms around the courtyard.

Breakfast was fresh baguettes from the baker in the house next door. He has an outdoor wood-fire oven and makes mini-loaves of French bread. Instant coffee and sugar cubes and powdered milk is the norm and Titina cut open a soursop for us before we took a group photo and got onto the boat back to town. Michel drove us and two other villagers to the Elinkine. If they want to take the public boat off the island it has to be full, meaning 30-40 villagers also have to want to go, so a lot of the 700 people who live on the island hitch a ride with the hotel boat, which leaves whenever guests are coming or going. 

Michel drives the Campenment Sounka Chez Papis motorized canoe.

Michel drives the Campenment Sounka Chez Papis motorized canoe.

Titina showed us the women’s garden last night. It’s surrounded by a chicken wire fence to keep the animals out and each family has a plot. It’s the end of the dry season and not much was still growing but we saw turnips, tomatoes, mango trees, soursop, and white and red bissap, which looks like a weeds and is used to make juice and cook with. 

We stopped by some of Titina’s relatives’ house. Two young women had a baby girl named Marie. Titina took the baby who eventually peed on her. The baby wasn’t wearing a diaper or any pants, likely to make clean up easier since it didn’t seem like there would be money for diapers or anywhere to buy them. We were offered (but declined) tea made on a metal stove over coals by a woman also named Marie who was undoing her corn rows. 

The man of the house looked to be in his 50s or 60s. His French was not as good as the hotel staff, but our guide Paco said that unless Senegalese people have interaction with foreigners or international business, they don’t practice their French since they speak Wolof or Jola or another local language with their family and friends. 

Paco took us on a tour of the village, which included stops at two sacred wells that never dry up, even in the dry season. The wells are safe-guarded from the pigs, cows, sheep and goats that roam free by a stick fence. Legend has it that a man from the very north of Senegal had a vision of a light in the south that he was compelled to find. He dug wells by hand along the 2,000 KM journey including the two in Kachouwne. People come to drink out of the calabass fruit bowl and wash themselves. The calabass is a green fruit the size of a watermelon that grows on bushes and looks like it has no business hanging from the branches rather than sitting on the ground. The fruit is cut in two and dried to make bowls that are sometimes used as drums. As a symbol of respect for the sacred well, people leave their shoes outside the gate when they go in to pour water on themselves and drink. 

Awa, Youssou, Modou and Titina welcomed us with drumming and dancing on the beach.

Awa, Youssou, Modou and Titina welcomed us with drumming and dancing on the beach.

We finished our day back on the hotel bar patio where we play a dice game and mancala with the hotel staff. Their uncle owns the hotel and the 6 of them take care of it. Their French is good since they interact with foreigners all the time at their 11-room hotel. Youssou had a bum right leg that’s smaller than his left and ends in a stunted, curved foot. Michel drives the boat. Awa and Titina, run the kitchen and bar. Modou and Samba play cards and hang out while they’re waiting for the rains to come back. They’ll work in the rice fields until they go back to school in the fall.  

Da Cars in Dakar

The single highway into Dakar is at a stand still. We are waiting in line for a toll booth and trying to make way for an ambulance with flashing lights flashing when I feel a slight thud from behind. Our driver, Dodo puts his truck in park, opens the door and bursts out without bothering to close it again. We have been rear-ended by the sedan behind us. Road traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in Senegal behind stroke, heart disease, flu, diarrhea, malaria and TB. Luckily, the truck was fine, Dodo got back in and we continued on our way.  

Dodo’s car with Chris riding shotgun.

Dodo’s car with Chris riding shotgun.

Big white block letters on a blue field signify a license plate for Senegal. Black is for The Gambia, White is Mauritania and Red is Mali. Since war broke out in the Ivory Coast in 2011, a lot of the shipping in east Africa has been re-routed to Dakar where trucks unload their goods onto boats at the port and reliably transport their merchandise. The huge trucks don’t help an already crowded motorway filled with Fords, Renaults, Mercedes and Kias.

I don’t see too many motorbikes in Dakar. Maybe it’s too dusty or they’re too expensive or too dangerous even for the locals’ tastes. What I do see everywhere is a mess of cars, driving on the right side of the road, or in the middle of the road or swerving from side to side to pass one another with mere inches to spare before the next car comes from the other directions. Some roads are paved but many are not. There’s a big unfinished bridge on the way north out of Dakar and it causes a traffic diversion through a village of bumpy dirt roads. 

The open-top jeep we rode around Lake Retba.

The open-top jeep we rode around Lake Retba.

People who don’t have cars often drive a two-wheeled cart pulled by small, skinny horses with short-cropped manes and blinders. The drivers are often unforgiving and wield a whip ad nauseam to increase their speed. The carts carry people, bales of hay, bricks, a refrigerator, or whatever else needs moved from one place to another. The horses, like many of the animals I’ve seen, aren’t always castrated and spend their non-working hours on the beach or in empty lots.   

Chris video tapes the ride into Dakar until our driver tells him to stop. Not a minute later we’re at a roundabout manned by policemen, who do not take kindly to being recorded. The next day, our driver quickly urges Megan to put on her seat belt. She obliges just as we pass a police officer stopped at a street corner. The police are not well-paid in Senegal and corruption runs rampant. We are stopped by two police officers in yellow checkered vests and military-esque hats on our way back from Lake Retba. The driver again checks Megan’s seatbelt (she’s sitting shotgun) and manually rolls down his window to show his papers. I’ve yet to be in a car with automatic windows or air conditioning. Driving in Senegal has up to this point been a dusty, blustery affair. 

Mor’s car with Megan riding shotgun.

Mor’s car with Megan riding shotgun.

Taxi drivers are required to pay for a special permit to allow them to drive tourists around in addition to having a valid driver’s license. Today’s driver is named Mor. He is quiet and his French is quite poor compared to many of the service industry workers we’ve encountered. He’s from Saint-Louis in the north and tells us it’s much more beautiful than Dakar with a wonderful bird sanctuary. He has bad body odor and says “oui” which sounds more like “oo-way” than “wee” to Megan, even when he doesn’t understand her questions.   

He managed to tell us that there was a big accident nearby when we were touring the lake. Two mini-cars (large white vans used for public transportation) crashed into each other. Seven people are dead and everyone else is at the hospital. It is quite the tragedy. We tell him we agree it’s very sad. What we don’t tell him is how grateful we weren’t involved and how we would never want to drive ourselves around Senegal. 

Flying to Dakar, Senegal

Flying into Dakar is like watching a pirate’s treasure map form above. The plane followed the coast of Africa south from Lisbon passed long stretches of desert in Morocco and Mauritania into Senegal. It’s the end of dry season. The rains could start any day. (I’m nothing if not an off-season tourist.) But for now it’s hot and dry. The dust builds up on the shriveled shrubs and everything looks brown and dead. 

The flight wasn’t even half full so I let Megan and Chris have their own row and moved back next to a Senegalese woman who hid her phone under her tray table to video chat with someone for nearly the whole flight. There was no WiFi offered on the flight so I know she just took her phone off airplane mode to do what she wanted. 

The new Dakar airport opened last year.

The new Dakar airport opened last year.

Other people were laying across three seats doing our 40 or so minute delay on the runway before takeoff. Finally we were cleared from Lisbon and the flight attendants went from row to row urging people to sit up and put on their seat belts, “Just for take off.” A mob of children ran up and down the aisle chasing each other and playing. I could feel we were entering a place of  lawlessness, where the rules are mere suggestions but really it’s each for their own. 

The flight crew gave up and served us fish with potatoes and “oatmeal salad with chicken,” a new one for me, for lunch. It was incredible to touch down. After 6 months of planning, 3 flights and nearly 24 hours in transit, we had arrived. 

Customs was painless. We went up as a trio and Megan, the French teacher, did the talking. The agent asked where we were from and switched to English when she said America. We showed him our itinerary, digitally recorded our fingerprints for the government and got free entry stamps in our passports. All 3 of our bags arrived on the carousel safe and intact. The ATM worked and we got a SIM card for remote internet on our phones for the next 12 days. The SIM wouldn’t take in Chris’ phone but did in mine so I’ll hotspot Chris and Megan on my WIFI when they need to check in or look something up. 

Senegalese drivers drive on the right side of the road.

Senegalese drivers drive on the right side of the road.

Chris has messaged with Sobo Bade, the artist colony resort we had booked and asked that we be picked up at noon. It was two and no one had shown up holding a sign with out names. Megan called on the new SIM and it turns out they thought we were coming at night even though they asked Chris, “AM or PM?” And he had (correctly) responded PM. They sent another driver. We putted around in the airport while we waited. Megan and Chris taught me some survival French. And two Senegalese men asked to take a photo with me. I’m going to be so famous all over Instagram in West Africa. 

Finally, our driver arrived in a beat up old station wagon with astroturf floors and no seatbelts, but we were in fact off to Toubab Dialaw is a small coastal town 30km south of Dakar and only a 12km drive from the new Blaise Diagne International Airport.