Monday, October 20, 2008

Jolie Means Pretty

I never was big into following the lives of the stars, and I can't say that has changed much, but there is something to be said for Angelina Jolie. I have always been impressed by her love and interest in humanitarian issues in Africa. As a movie star, she can raise global awareness in a way that someone, say, like me, just can't. She has given money for Darfur; she has adopted African children, and even gave birth to one of her children in Namibia. There are some similarities between Angelina and me, so I thought I'd take my latest blog post to point them out for you (in case you hadn't already noticed).

While Jolie gives money to Darfur, I work with the African Union soldiers who go there as peace-keepers. Seriously. That's my job. I am a French-speaking actress working for humanitarian issues.

While Jolie adopts children from Africa, I too have been asked to do the same. It's not at all unusual traditionally for a Senegalese woman to give her baby to her best friend to raise. Close friends are like family, and it's an honor to know your friend will raise your baby as her own. I learned about this practice in my first month or two living in Senegal, while taking Wolof language classes. We learned a lot of vocabulary through study of cultural values. I never imagined that nearly ten years later I would be asked to consider adopting my dear friend's baby. In the cooler months of 2006, when sweet baby Mareme was not yet 2 years old, her mother asked me, if anything should happen to her, to adopt Mareme and take her back to the States to raise her as my own. What an honor to be asked. What a weight to consider how I could do this. How could I take a baby away from the rest of her family if she had just lost her mother, my friend? I prayed that my friend would keep her good health, and live to raise her daughter to adulthood. Sadly, the following year, Mareme fell quite ill at the end of the rainy season last October, and passed away after a month of illness. Mareme was adorable, sweet, funny, and yes, she was jolie too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The finer points of laundry and other troubles finding a “bonne”

When we lived in Senegal, we were pretty much expected to hire someone to cook and clean for us. I was pretty uncomfortable with the proposition. Many wealthy Senegalese families had someone who would do the cooking, someone else to do the laundry, another nanny, a gardener, a guard who would watch outside the tall walls surrounding the house property all night long, and possibly a driver. As American newlyweds in our mid-20s, it was sort of hard to imagine even taking on a part of that sort of lifestyle. After all, I was going to Senegal to study francophone African literature at the Université Chiekh Anta Diop in Dakar as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. My scholarship was generous, but in my role as a goodwill ambassador of sorts, I had trouble with the idea of having "household help." But it seemed expected, so we got our first "femme de ménage" or housekeeper, who would also cook lunches for us.

She was a relative to one of the housekeepers of the Rotarian we stayed with for our first few weeks in Dakar. It was difficult. The bathroom of our rented apartment needed quite a bit of deep-down cleaning before we were anxious to have company over. Not that we had anyone to invite over, but still, you can imagine that we wanted a clean bathroom. The windows in our apartment were jalousied louvers, so they never completely closed, letting breezes as well as sand and dust drift into our place. Unlike most homes we had seen, we had a rare "commodity" of wall-to-wall carpet. What that meant though, was additional work trying to sweep it clean on a daily basis with little straw brooms.

Laundry had to be washed by hand in big plastic basins on the balcony or in the "washroom" which was a little room of sorts for hand-washing laundry. Sure, I had hand-washed delicate clothes myself back in the States. Pretty much I would swish the clothes around in some water and gentle detergent, and then I would rinse until the water ran clear. I was laughed out of the laundry room in Senegal because of my light-handed technique. There was a special "Senegalese" way of doing it, which involved getting a special squoooooshing noise with each movement. Without the squooooosh, our "bonne" (maid) didn't think I was getting the clothes clean. I imagine I seemed as unskilled as a 2-year old Senegalese girl might be, not at all like an older girl or young woman skilled in the squooshing noise technique!

Wet laundry would be hung to dry on the line on our balcony, and usually would be dry by the next day. Unfortunately, extra work was then required. All clothes had to be ironed. Why? Certainly not because we wanted all of our clothes pressed into crisp, clean lines, though we did become accustomed to the look fairly quickly. We really did it to avoid getting mango fly worms. That is, we wanted to avoid having mango fly worms burrow into our skin due to the un-killed eggs in our line-dried clothes. Ugh. This is what the guide books said. Everyone in Senegal seemed to wear neatly pressed clothes. So to iron was to avoid worms in our skin. You see, the flies would land on the wet clothes and lay their eggs. The warmth from a person's body would help them hatch, and then the little new-born flies would burrow into their new human source. Ironing would kill any eggs, and make the clothes safe to wear. As our maid was asking for the supplies she needed to do her job, she asked us for charcoal. Charcoal? We had no Weber grill; in fact we had a gas stove with a gas bottle attached, so we didn't see how we could possibly need charcoal. She told us the charcoal was for the iron. The iron? Yes, we had a cast-iron iron, heavier than an old-fashioned doorstop, and to heat up, our maid had to put hot charcoal into the opening. Every now and then we would see the results of a random spark on some delicate clothing, but that was pretty unusual. And it wasn't until years later that I worried I might have mango fly worms… Ah yes, that's a story for another blog post…

We never did get used to telling our first housekeeper what we expected of her, because she always seemed to scowl at our requests. She stuck her tongue out to point at things she was talking about. (To me, that seemed like a 2-year old thing to do.) After several uncomfortable and frustrating weeks, we fired her. It was a huge relief to be on our own. But after the need to dust the tables daily, to broom sweep the wall-to-wall carpet, clean the bathrooms, go shopping at the open air markets for food, washing the laundry by hand, and ironing, oh and making lunch, I really wouldn't have any time left to pursue my studies, the reason I was in Dakar.

American friends learned that a cousin of their housekeeper was looking for a job, and we ended up hiring a wonderful woman, Marie. She worked for us until we left Senegal, and we are still in touch today. In fact, I will be seeing her in less than a week when I go back to Senegal for work next Friday. Who would have ever guessed that our housekeeper, who was so professional, respectful, and a bit shy would be a lifelong friend? And our other close friend, Ngone, we met first when she knocked on our door, asking if we needed a housekeeper. By then, we were happy with Marie, but that's also how we started a slow friendship with the entrepreneurial woman who worked in the sandwich shop on the first floor of our building.

Back to present-day: I have to go clean the bathroom now, plan the grocery shopping list, and put more laundry in the washing machine. At least I don't have to make the squooshing noise to get my laundry done!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Price of Rice

I recently called two friends from Senegal to let them know I'll be coming to town soon. I thought I'd share a little bit about my one friend, Ngone.

My one friend, Ngone, happily reported that her husband is back to work. He earns about $30/month working at a hotel in the capital city. It's not nearly enough money for them to live well, but with the extended family they live with, everyone pulls their resources. A few months ago when her husband was out of work, she called with an urgent need for money to pay for rice that is so crucial and a staple for their everyday life. You may remember that there were world-wide riots and protests when the price of rice greatly increased recently. A store-owner had given my friend's family several huge bags on credit, but it came to a point where they were getting desperate. I offered to send her some money, which I did via Western Union, but before I could do that, she asked me to call the store owner to explain that I was going to help her out. It was a very interesting conversation since the man spoke no French, and my Wolof skills are very weak and basic. I managed to say something like this in wolof, "Ngone is my good friend. I live in the United States. I am going money Senegal. I am going money Ngone. Ngone is my good friend." Not the greatest telephone exchange, but I think it assured him that she really did have someone in the United States who would be helping her out. I am looking forward to being able to see her, even if only briefly, to see how she is really doing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The 10 day forecast for weather: Advice for Travelers

Hmmm. Same, same but different...

My next trip to Africa is in ten days. Being a typical American somewhat obsessed with checking the weather, I am gathering information on the 10 or 14 day weather outlook for Dakar, Senegal. Eleven years ago when I was first preparing to live there, I was amazed by the 14 day weather forecast online… sunny, no chance of rain, high around 89 degrees, everyday. Well, somedays the high varied by one degree, but that's about it.

It seemed like every day would be exactly the same. And more or less, it was. At least for a month or two. We wondered if someone online was making up the weather, whether anyone was actually making a real forecast. Of course, I know we often ask ourselves the same question when the meteorologists on TV seem to get the weather wrong half the time in the United States as well!

Since then, the Internet has grown, technology has improved, and a typical long term weather forecast is more reliable. Or is it? I checked out my three favorite sites for weather forecasts, and here is what I found.

The bbc world weather provided me with a good 5-day forecast after I finally spelled "Dakar" right in the search. You can also choose to get info on the "yearly average conditions" for many cities (Dakar is in there). If you're looking for 30 day weather forecast, this yearly average feature is probably your best bet. Maybe it's just for bragging rights, or "complaining rights," but I like preparing myself for how bad the humidity tends to be in a given month. Thus, I am dreading the "high" humidity rating for Dakar in October but there's nothing you can really do to prepare. Just make sure you pack some antiperspirant, and maybe some facial wipes (or those baby diaper wipes) to clean up the sweat.

Another feature I like on the BBC is the "Country Guide" feature. When I'm headed to a new country, I like to have an idea of the weather there in general. They also include some pretty pictures and an image of the country's flag, which can help in my Facebook geography competition. (My obsession with that will have to be another post someday.)

Last month when I was headed to Parakou, Benin, my stand-by weather site, The Weather Channel, didn't have anything for me. BBC did have a five day forecast. And even better was (Weather Underground) which gave me a five-day as well as a long range weather forecast. Parakou is a good seven-hour drive from the largest city of Benin, so I was pretty impressed to get this info from two sites.

I still remember the feeling of stepping off the plane in Dakar in October 1997 for the first time. Even around 9:30 pm in the dark, it felt oppressively hot, like someone was blowing a hairdryer in my face in a steamy bathroom. If I don't melt away in Senegal this year, I'll return to some brisk November temperatures and hopefully there will still be some fall colors to enjoy. Oh and by the way, here are the highlights for the forecasts for Dakar, Senegal on October 23, 2008 which vary a bit, just as one would expect!

Partly Cloudy, High 85F, Low 78F, 10% chance of precip - Weather Channel

Almanac for Dakar, Average high 85F, Average Low 70F - Weather Underground

Average Conditions for Dakar, Average high 32C (90F), Average Low 24C (75F)- BBC

Monday, October 13, 2008

Travel Compression Socks: One remedy for fat ankles

Fat ankles on airplanes could only mean one of two things: a diet is long overdue or it's time to buy some travel compression socks. I know mine were quite swollen on my last international trip from Paris to Cotonou a few weeks ago. And they ached for days after landing. Coming back home, I didn't notice the same kind of issues, but I do think it's time for me to think about buying some of the fancy-schmancy, perhaps life-saving socks.

Why life-saving? You may have heard of economy-class syndrome or DVT as a possible life-threatening issue on long flights. Economy-class syndrome is more serious than wanting to boot your neighbor out of the plane due to lack of hygiene or invading your personal space. Deep vein thrombosis causes a blood clot to form, typically in the leg of someone who hasn't been moving around for a while, and then it can move to your lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (blocked artery in the lungs) which is potentially fatal. A dear friend of a close friend of mine died less than a year ago due to a blood clot. She was an international humanitarian worker who has one of those jobs that require travel very frequently. Whether it was a blood clot caused by an international flight and/or DVT, I don't know. But I know she is dearly missed. I know of someone else who had a stroke due to a blood clot, which was apparently caused by an irregular heartbeat. These two situations, one life-changing and one life-taking have made me realize it's time to buy another travel accessory, maybe the most important one I'll ever own.

I did a little hunting around online and found some sites that have all kinds of support hose and travel socks, but two of my favorites sell them, so I plan to buy some in the next few days. National Geographic sells some they call therapeutic travel socks, and Sahalie sells the travel compression socks. The pricing is very similar for both stores. Amazon also has a great selection for men and women travel compression socks.

If anyone has a favorite brand or something to say about these types of socks, I'd welcome any comments.

Oh and by the way, apparently a "sense of anxiety or nervousness" is a symptom of DVT. Don't we all feel a bit anxious and nervous if we're sitting in economy class on a long, full flight???

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Taxis and the Usual Chaos: Traffic Accidents in Dakar

The road bandits, the never-ending potholes and the general craziness of the road I recently traveled between Parakou and Bembereke in Benin reminded me of my first African days on the city roads of Dakar, Senegal. In my first two weeks, I was in two traffic accidents! I wondered if I would survive the academic year if I continued to take motorized vehicles. The first was in a multi-colored "car rapide", an oxymoron of sorts for a mini-bus and the cheapest form of city transportation. (Car rapides will get their own blog entry someday.) A few days after my first traffic accident, my taxi bumped into another vehicle before we even got very far down the street from my apartment. I shrugged my shoulders and hopped out of the vehicle, as taxis stopped left and right to take the toubab anywhere she wanted to go. (Toubab is the ubiquitous term for "white person" or most lighter-skinned foreigners in Senegal.) I tried to be nonchalant about it, but my understanding is that car accidents are the leading reason foreigners die in Africa. I'll try to research whether that is actually true or not.

Having arrived in Senegal as a newlywed with my new husband, our two suitcases and a carry-on, we were not living the typical ex-patriot life abroad. We did not have a personal driver. We did not have our own SUV. In fact, we planned on taking public transportation as much as possible. I think I mentioned in a previous blog that there seemed to be as many taxis as people in Dakar. Certainly, this is an exaggeration but it seemed possible to us in those first weeks. There was an overabundance of 1980s Toyota Cressidas hanging on to a new African life as taxis in Senegal.

It was not hard to "hail" a cab. Exiting our 4-story apartment building on a side street covered in sand, we would walk about 100 yards to the larger cross-street, Rue 10. On Tenth Street, taxis would see our blond hair reflecting like a spotlight in the tropical Africa sun. "Here are the toubabs!" our glowing halos would announce. Literally up to five taxis would stop at the intersection before we even arrived there, in hopes of getting a good fare.

Getting a good fare, from our point of view, was important. It was a source of pride, and we felt it would help the next tourist or foreigner to get a fair price. So we did our best. It was recommended to ask the taxi driver to put on the counter, which would provide an accurate price, but in our two years, we rarely asked. The one time we had the meter on, the price ended up being much higher. We suspect he had the "night rate" on, but there was no way for us to see the difference between day and night rates. So, it was essential to commence firm negotiations before entering in the taxi, and to agree on a price. In 1997 when the price of fuel was not so terribly expensive, we were able to negotiate ride from our home to downtown Dakar for about $1. In a town like Washington DC, I would imagine the same ride would be at least $10. And for the "rich" tourists secluded at some of the high end resort hotels in Dakar, they were usually asked to pay around $6 for a short trip, a price which was really like highway robbery! (Keeping in mind, the average income of a Senegalese was probably $30 a month at that time, you can see that $6 is a lot of money!) The negotiations were time consuming at first, but as we learned good, fair, acceptable prices to the places we tended to frequent, the process became less onerous. It was all a bit of fun as well, especially as I began to learn and practice my wolof skills, the most widely spoken national language.

Now, after having a tough round of negotiations on the taxi price, it was more important to steel yourself for the crazy ride ahead. The drivers all seem in a hurry to get to their destination though you can never judge how fast they are going, because every speedometer in the country seemed to be out of order. The dented cars will pass dangerously, zoom through intersections, and have to dodge hundreds of pedestrians crossing streets in random spots. Even the biggest of intersections functioned as a free-for-all, without traffic lights. Surprisingly, before President Clinton came to Senegal on an official visit in 1998, many of these street lights were repaired. We breathed a sigh of relief. Finally we would feel more comfortable driving around in taxis. But no! Not everyone wanted to respect the traffic lights, and so it was actually worse than ever, because the typical road rules were thrown to the wind. A few weeks after Clinton's visit, most lights were broken once again, and life went back to the usual chaos.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Arriving in Africa for the First Time: Remembering the Smells of Senegal

I'll be headed back to Senegal in a few weeks, and that got me thinking about when I first went to Africa just over 11 years ago, in October 1997. I was a newlywed, ready to study at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop as a Rotary Scholar. Back then, we had to shuttle back and forth from our apartment in Dakar to a cybercafé, which was one of maybe two cybercafés in the capital city of over 1 million people. Now in 2008 it seems there is internet access on every street corner.

One of our first memorable emails home to our friends and family in the United States was about the smells of Dakar. Those smells haven’t changed much in 11 years, but I am used to them now, in a sense. In our first few weeks back in 1997, we stayed with a Senegalese Rotarian, who introduced us to the delicious odors of Senegalese food cooking at home, and the fresh aroma of fruit being sliced (mangoes, oranges, apples). I don’t think I had ever sliced a mango before arriving in Dakar. A more noxious smell we welcomed was that of our mosquito spray to lessen our chances of getting malaria. But in that first week back in 1997, the smells outside the house were so “exotic”, at least to us!

As we walked around, whether in downtown Dakar, or out more in the suburban sprawl which is still densely inhabited, we encountered many new smells. First was the subtle roasting smell of peanuts harvested here in Senegal. They were heated in their shells, in metal bowls sitting on the dusty ground. Next to that, goats were tied to the tree on the corner, crying, bleating or shouting at us. They remained stationary all day long, and I really didn't know why they were there. Maybe they were for sale. Or maybe someone tied up their goats on the corner while they worked at roasting their peanuts. In any case, the goats left a special earthy smell as they do their business where they are, of course. The smell of exhaust fumes was ubiquitous in this city, which seemed to somehow have more vehicles than people. Certainly in a rather poor country, this was not the case, but that’s what it seemed like at first. I arrived in Senegal with a sore throat, and the fumes felt like they were scraping my throat dry. You could taste the diesel fumes.

In downtown Dakar, or the centre ville, we passed by Lebanese restaurants which make chawarmas, hot, sliced meat with a few grilled onions inside, wrapped in a pita. That was a really welcome smell, much better than that of the garbage in the gutters. And the gutters are usually dampened by the men and boys who urinate wherever they want. Amusingly, sides of buildings are sometimes spray-painted with "Défense d'uriner" (No urinating) and maybe it works, to a degree. Some of these also threaten a monetary fine equal to an average person’s daily wages. I've yet to see anyone choose those places as preferred locations for urinating…

Despite the fact the rainy season had just ended, some water remained on the street in stagnant puddles and attracted the worst of smells. The garbage was something we had to get used to. Small plastic grocery bags are everywhere, as well as small plastic sandwich-size baggies. The smaller ones are sold with tap water or a red juice called bissap inside. Anyone who buys these bagged beverages sucks the liquid right out of the bag from the bottom (they're closed at the top) and then throws them on the ground. Sometimes I wished we could “adopt a street” and clean up the trash, but which one would we choose??

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Traffic Accidents, Bandits and Armed Robberies

Today I was in my hometown of about 10,000 people, near the Pennsylvanian capital of Harrisburg. I was a bit surprised to hear that someone was recently robbed at gunpoint just a few blocks from my parents' home. Earlier in the week, similar events were taking place in Alexandria, VA a city of over 120,000 people just across the river from Washington DC. Twice in this past week armed men robbed (or attempted to rob) our local pharmacy in our Del Ray neighborhood with a small-town feel, where it is said that "Main Street still exists." I feel like the bandits followed me home.

Last week I was working in Benin, a country which is about the same size as Pennsylvania. We spent the night in a nice hotel called Les Routiers in Parakou, the largest town in northern Benin, but we worked about a 2-hour drive away in a smaller village. Our long daily commute had to be done during daylight for optimum safety. The thin layer of asphalt on the two-lane road had eroded away in many places, leaving great potholes to swallow up small vehicles and cause many flat tires. And traffic accidents. So between the potholes, cars and trucks passing on your left even when there wasn't sufficient room, and drivers who like to conserve energy by not using headlights at night in the dark, we certainly had enough incentive to travel by day.

For me though, the best reason to be back at the hotel at the end of the day had to do with the local bandits. We noticed some men working on the side of the road, attempting to shovel dirt in to the potholes. The men were really shabby-looking, dirty, and were looking for money from every car that drove past, to pay them for their efforts. At night, this road apparently became a haven for machete-wielding bandits, thus solidifying our desire to commute during the daylight hours. I imagine these shady impromptu road-workers were the bandits of the night.

It just seems very odd that all this banditry in the Benin countryside, in my small Pennsylvania hometown, and here at home in Alexandria should happen in the period of a week. I know the financial crisis has world-wide implications, but should we all prepare for more crime and theft as a result? For now, I'll stick to daytime commutes through the African countryside, and won't frequent the pharmacy in the middle of the night. (I'd prefer to be sleeping at nighttime anyhow!)