Mandinka-ness


5 May, 2011

6:59am, sitting in Dabo.  Definitely the earliest I’ve ever seen this town.

My last ride out was not ferocious, more a slow rotation that began before dawn.  Maneuvering down the bush path, my mind drifted between fuzzy scenes dense with the feelings of leaving my family of two years that morning and my favorite memories from the FB.  Hollywood tells us that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. Well, I most certainly am not dying, and even though it was just a week over two years of my life, my time in Fodé Bayo was in ways a life of its own. A life that as of this morning I will never be able to return to in the same way.  (Sorry for the clichés and the drama, communicating how this all went down is a bit beyond my english skills at the time.)

Many of the ethnic groups in Senegal have a tradition of bidding farewell via a left-handed shake. Seasoned readers of this blog will remember from my cultural integration training way back when, that to give something, receive something, or gesture with your left hand is considered very rude in Senegal. The idea of the left-handed shake then, is that when you leave someone who you are not sure if or when you will see again, you bid them farewell by shaking with the wrong hand. Shaking hands with the left is awkward and uncomfortable. It goes against years of social training. As hands clasp and move in up and down in their familiar gesture, the urge to squirm away and correct it is overwhelming. This, is exactly what the left hand shake is intended to do – it’s a manifestation of the feelings people are experiencing as they give someone the love of an uncertain farewell.

 

18 July, 2011

Above is my attempt to sort through my emotions while I sat in my road town the morning I left Fodé Bayo.  In line with village tradition, I woke to leave before the first call to prayer at 5am. Whenever people leave village, they leave before anyone in the village wakes up so that a new day can began without having to say goodbye. Instead, everyone wakes up and you are gone and life is supposed to continue as if it was always this way, without the dramas of in-person farewells.

In Mandinka, when you know you are going to be sad, you say that you will be sick. There is a word for sadness, and there is a word for missing someone or something, but when the sadness is the type that will be overwhelming, it becomes not just saddness but a bed-ridden sickness as well.

My last night in village, we cooked a whole sack of rice and had a drum circle until two in the morning. While everyone knew this was for my goodbye, no one mentioned it. We all just ate and danced and said goodnight as normal. It was my counterpart who stopped me before I went into my hut and said that he would be sick all day the next day, because I would not be there. I didn’t know how to respond.

That morning when I wheeled my bike out of my hut at 4:45, I was supposed to just leave. I sat on the floor of my hut with Nacho, giving him a last few scratches behind his ears (Nacho was thrilled at this 4am wake up – more hours in the day to pay right? That definitely could be the only explanation for waking up this early). As he zoomed off into the bush and I started to leave the compound, I couldn’t keep up the tradition of leaving the village before dawn on my own. So, I woke up my counterpart, who woke up my brother Malan, who woke up my two favorite moms, Diara and Aminta. Together, they wheeled my bike and walked me to the edge of the village. It was clear when we got to this point that no one was sure what to do, considering I was as usual breaking all normal protocol for the situation. My counterpart started to cry, then my brother, and as I turned to my moms, Aminta just walked away.

We exchanged blessings, and promises of seeing each other soon. I awkwardly climbed on my bike and slowly wobbled down the path (no moon, very difficult at 5am with 50lbs of junk on your bike). The ride and car into Kolda was uneventful, which is good since my head was in a cloud.

And just like that, my two years in the village were over.

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Feast your eyes on my second guest blog, brought to you by my recent demyster.  “Demysting” is what we call the five days trainees spend in or near their future villages, “demystifying” themselves on the realities of PCV life in Senegal.  My demyster, Cibyl, is fantastic (click on her name to check out her blog – it’s great!).  We had an enjoyable, eventful, and definitely memorable few days together… but I’ll let her tell you about it.


I became a “Being Ñamoo” reader sometime last fall, amid my own Peace Corps preparations. I was living with my parents, only sporadically employed and recently invited to serve as a health volunteer in Senegal. In an attempt to feel productive and visualize what this would mean I had taken to trolling YouTube for volunteers’ videos, which is precisely how I ended up here. Finding Amanda’s video of her village and this blog was like seeing into my future; I read a few entries and thought, “Okay, I could see my Peace Corps experience looking something like this.”

Staying with Amanda in Fodé Bayo was like stepping into a storybook. How often do you stumble upon a random blog about someone’s tiny Peace Corps village in the African bush and then a few months later get to stay there with the very person whose face you first saw peeking through a YouTube channel on the other side of the world? I mean, come on. It made my whole demyst experience that much more surreal – as if it wasn’t enough to be walking through a postcard image of an African village, listening to Amanda and her fellow villagers chirp away in this wonderfully silly song of a language they call Mandinka.

I arrived at Dave’s compound in Dabo after a good 10-hour bus ride from the training center in Thiès, tired, hungry and dehydrated. Amanda showed up a few minutes later, shouting Pulaar greetings to Dave’s host mom, and got me and my stuff on a bike and on the road in a matter of minutes. Now, I will admit it has been a while since I did any serious biking, but I’m not in such bad shape either. That being said, keeping up with Amanda in the Senegalese sun (even late afternoon sun) along sandy bush paths with a backpack, purse and pillow tied precariously to the back of my bike was no easy feat. She was a great host and made sure to check in and take water breaks (especially after I heaved into the bushes on that first afternoon – oops), but as she herself put it to another volunteer a few days later, she tends to bike the bush paths rather “ferociously.” Add that to my list of goals for my service: learn to bike ferociously.

When we got to Fodé Bayo we were greeted by a hoard of smiling Mandinkas (as far as I can tell there is no other kind) and everyone wanted to know who this new white girl was and why her Mandinka was so terrible (ironic that I understood when they remarked that I didn’t understand Mandinka). The rest of my visit I did a lot of listening and watching, trying to master the cadence of village greetings while Amanda defended my limited language skills (I think she was just excited to have another Mandinka around even if I only speak baby-Mandinka). I would sit and watch her jabber away with the locals, wondering how and when I’ll ever be able to communicate well enough to do this job.  It’s such an enormous part of being a Peace Corps volunteer and there’s so much pressure and expectation placed on language acquisition, when I think about it too much I get dizzy. But somehow people make it through. Somehow Amanda has made it through. She’s got the gestures, the affirming tongue click, the ability to explain herself and make jokes. It’s amazing to watch. I have to just keep reminding myself that the Mandinka will come and meanwhile I’m just glad that these people are so friendly and warm and patient.

We spent our days hanging out village style, lounging under mango trees, drinking tea, meeting my people and then would bike back to Fodé Bayo in the evenings. I enjoyed being a wallflower (which is good because I’m sure there is much more of that to come), and in between we had our moments of excitement: dehydrated puking in the bushes, tasting my first cashew apple, collecting honey in the moonlight, Amanda’s tire exploding on the road to Mampatim, our chicken dinner trying to escape before we got it back to Fodé Bayo, joining all of the Mandinkas in the area for an all day all night religious celebration known as a Gamou and parading around in matching outfits.

But I think some of my favorite demyst moments happened in the quiet moments when Amanda and I were able to escape in English and get to know each other a bit. There was an element of passing the torch as her service is coming to a close just as mine begins and it was nice to pick her brain, to get to know Amanda instead of just hearing about Ñamoo (because she is a popular figure in our Mandinka community and I have a feeling they’ll be talking about her for a long time).

I install May 17th, not long after Amanda leaves Fodé Bayo, and will take over as the lone Mandinka volunteer in Kolda until her replacement comes in October. Amanda, I want you to know how much I appreciate all the work you’ve done to prepare my beautiful site and get another Mandinka in Kolda and to thank you for showing me the ropes. A baraka!

[For those interested in reading more about my demyst with Amanda, I wrote about other aspects of my experience for my own blog, which you can get to by clicking here.]

27/12/2010

Dear Mrs Goodrich’s Kindergarten Class,

Hey everyone! Did you have a nice holiday season?  What did you do for new years?  For Christmas,  a bunch of volunteers and I gatherered in the city of Kolda and celebrated together.   Lots of food, fun and good times.  NO snow though.

I was thinking about the letters I’ve written you this year and realized that I’ve never really explained the Peace Corps to you.

The peace corps is the organization I work for.  It was started in 1961 by US President Kennedy.  Today, Peace Corps volunteers work in over 130 countries all over the world.  When volunteers (like me!) get assigned to a country, they live there for at least two years.  As a peace corps volunteer, you live with, eat the same foods, speak the same language, alive in the same environment, and follow the same cultural norms as your host country family and friends.  As you know, I’ve been living and working in Senegal since March of 2009 and will leave here sometime in May of 2011.

As you may have figured out by now, life in Senegal is pretty different than life in Boston, MA, where I lived before coming here.  For example, in Boston, one of the leaders of the city is the mayor, but in my village the leader is the chief and the Imam (the religious leader of the community). 

Something else that’s different – food!  Not just how it tastes, but also where it comes from.  Where do you buy food in Maine? The food store? The farmers market? The cafeteria?  In my village, we grow all of our food, and when that runs out, we go to a weekly market called luumo.  The luumo consists of a bunch of traveling vendors who sell everything from vegetables to clothes to spoons and pots.

What are the daily sounds you hear living in Mine?  Horns form cars driving by?  People talking to each other? Cell phones ringing and music playing? In my village, I hear animals all the time.  Donkeys, sheep, and goats are the loudest animals – they like to make noise all day and night.  Sometimes it drives me crazy!  But usually I don’t notice day-to-day because I’ve lived here for so long.  When I hear people talking in my village, no one speaks English like the y do in Maine. Here, I hear people speaking Mandinka, Pulaar, French, or Wolof.  I speak Mandinka in my village, but  have learned a little Pulaar, French and Wolof for when I travel.

Sounds a little bit different from daily life in Maine, huh? One of the things I miss the most about living in the east coast are the seasons – warm summers, pretty fall leaves, lots of flowers in spring and snowy winters!  In Senegal, the season mostly change between hot and less hot, (though right now the nights get very chilly), then from rainy to dry.  No fall leaves or snow here!

Anyway, I must run – lots of errands to do today!

Your friend in Senegal,

Amanda

Among the frustrations and annoyances that being sick supplies, it has also offered me the time to peruse some reading that I haven’t touched in a while.  For example, the little Senegal textbook that my aunt purchased for me as a gift before coming here.  It’s a series called Culture and Customs of Africa, my book aptly being titled Culture and Customs of Senegal by Eric S. Ross.

I have to admit that before I arrived in country, the little Senegal textbook read as thrilling as your college biology book did. Yes I was thrilled to be going to Senegal, but I had so much to wrap up before leaving, and because most of it was foreign and unpronounceable to the point that my already overwhelmed brain glazed over. I knew I’d have two years to figure it out. So, I breezed over most of the sections, noting things that struck me as amusing (such as donkey and zebra hybrids, which I dubbed Zonkeys) or curious (naming the different dialects and deciding on which one I would want to speak based on whether or not I could even pronounce the name.  I think at the time I’d decided on Sereer).

These days though, as a twenty-one month, cultured and wise volunteer (bah!) the book made for a much more interesting read as I can now relate and identify with most of the discussion points. In particular, all the sections on Mandinkas! (Though not to get too excited because there in fact were not that many. Most underrated ethnic group ever.)  Either way, realizing that twenty-one months into my service I still haven’t talked about a lot of the basics surrounding life here in this blog, I’ve decided to share some of the book’s more interesting thoughts on my people, and more specifically, the Mandinkas in Senegal.

(The following bit I learned from my Peace Corps language teacher, Aziz Abdou Diatta.) Mandinkas are part of the Mande kingdom, which originated in Mali and was part of the Malian empire. Mandinka the language, originated in the 14th or  15th century and is a spoken language, being written in the past few decades for learning purposes only (usually foreigners learning the language aka there’s not a lot of consistency in the way the language is written aka I think the way my brother and I write Mandinka is the best so take THAT Gambian workbooks).  There are eight or nine languages that grew out of Mandinka, all which fall under the Mande family as well, including but not limited to: Mandinka, Jahanxke, Bombera, Sonike, Malinke, Suusu, Dioula, Soso and so on.  Interesting note about the languages in the Mande family: it is said that when you go down the list of languages, you should be able to communicate and understand people who speak the language on either side of the one you speak. Two languages away?  You’ll get no further than basic conversation along with a bout of charades.  Indeed it is true, as I’ve met people speaking each of these Mande languages during my time here, and while we could hold basic conversations we found that fundamental, simple words were different.  Like, for example, the word for “big.”  Aziz claimed that since all of the languages are from Mandinka, he can understand them all, which may or may not be true, but there you go.

Back to history class.  The Malian empire was a huge regulating force in West Africa way back when, and in fact stomped their way through the very lands in Senegal from where I type to you from this moment.  Here’s what my little history book says:

Mali was an ancient Mandinka kingdom centered in the upper Niger River basin on the border of present-day Mali and Guinea.  As in the case of Jolof, a legendary hero named Sunjata (Soundiata) Keita is credited in the orature for galvanizing his people and launching them on the path of empire building. By 1240 Mali had annexed the remnants of Ghana to the north and had initiated westward expansion into Senegambia.  The Gambia and Casamance river basins were conquered by General Tirimaxan (Tirimakhan) Traroe, whose heroic exploits are lauded in the orature.  Mandinka farmers and traders settled in these areas in his wake.  These western provinces were fully integrated into the Malian empire, and the Mandinka language and political culture survived long after the fall of the empire.   (Pg 16, Ross, 2008)

Cool, huh?  Now it is all clear: the reason that my village is a lonely village of Mandinkas in a sea of Pulaars is because we were one of the guys who were like, “eh, this works, no big, we’ll park here,” and so decided not to return back home to Mali after pushing the Pulaars around.  A good fact to know  when people yell at me for not speaking Pulaar in Kolda.  Now I can definitively return with, “Step off! My people used to regulate your asses.  I’ll speaka tha Mandinka until your head spins.  Now sell me some bananas.”

That’s all for this class, extra credit to whomever gives me PB M&Ms by the next one.

Back in July (eek!) I began a blog post about the first Mandinka wedding I was able to attend in my site.  Well, I think the idea for the post has flown at this point, but here’s the link to the wedding photos.  Excuse my forgetfulness and enjoy!