Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Baay Bia

This weekend. Where to start….

Pop quiz:

Which of these is least likely to have been true of Naomi’s Sunday night?
a) She spent the night reading a memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer in China, by the light of her headlamp, because the electricity had gone out again.
b) She was out until 3 am partying with a Senegalese rap star and his fashion designer friend—and cut the night short after only one dance club, because she had her Wolof class to attend the following morning. At which point, she was escorted to her door with cries of “Good night my sister!” and “Saturday we’re really going to dance!”
c) She went to a dinner party at the house of Michelle’s Senegalese friend—a musician, music teacher, and talented artisan who builds a wide range of beautiful traditional instruments. We ate grilled fish and salad, and were serenaded by beautiful African folk tunes, played and sung by many of the other guests, who were also musicians.

Clearly, b) is the least likely to be true. As we have discussed previously, I am not what you’d call a “fly” girl. I don’t hang out with rappers. I don’t stay out until 3 am on school nights.

And, of course, the rules of dramatic narrative require that, in fact, my Sunday night was occupied by the activities described in b).

(For the record, a) is what I did last night, and c) is what I did on Friday night.)

The rapper is Baay Bia, the husband of a woman in Seattle, whom I spoke to before I came to Dakar. She is the friend of a friend of my African dance teacher and she is also an artist and a dancer.

Ask yourself this: if you got a phone call from a stranger, some weirdo foreigner who’d spoken once to your wife, and she wanted to meet you, what would your reaction be? Would you vaguely agree to meet up for coffee at some point? Would you invite the person over for dinner one night, and complain to all your friends that you’ve got to host some stranger for dinner, and what on earth are you going to cook, and what could you possibly have to talk about?

Last September, my cousin came to visit me in Washington for a week. Although I was glad to see him, I complained endlessly about the invasion of my space, and the weighty responsibility of keeping him entertained.

Baay Bia, before having met me, immediately offered to let me live in his house indefinitely. This is what I mean about how friendly people are here. It’s ingrained in the culture, and guests are given the best of everything and welcomed with open arms. After all, the guest would do the same for someone else who was a guest in his country.

It’s a lovely cultural trait, and is great for me as a newcomer. When I went to interview the peace corps guy in Fatick, his host family invited us for lunch, where they served a giant bowl of meat yasso (a traditional dish). Normally they eat fish, which is cheaper and more readily available, but for me, the white visitor and friend of their friend, they served meat, and chided me constantly to eat more, and get more of the meat.

But this trait is also partially the source of some of the biggest culture clash. Senegal is a poor country. People here know that, and feel it. They also know that white people’s countries are much richer, and so by extension, all white people are rich. And if white people have so much, why wouldn’t they share it with the impoverished people in the country they’re visiting?

On Sunday afternoon, I was meeting up with a freelance journalist who has been here a few years already, and I ended up waiting a corner for a few minutes before she picked me up. This was pretty far out from the city, near some of the bigger, fancier resort hotels. It wasn’t a commercial area, and there weren’t many people around. But there was one guy, standing on the corner next to a bench. I got out of my taxi, and he immediately called to me. Welcomed me. Invited me to come sit on his bench.

Lovely and friendly, right? Except that there’s always a catch. I wasn’t sure what it was (although it’s usually money), and I wasn’t sure how to say no. I told him I’d prefer to stand in the shade. But there was a bench there, too, so he came over and invited me to sit with him. I didn’t want to get into this, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. So I sat down. Where are you from? How long have you been here? What are you doing here? These are the questions that everyone asks, and they’re very polite.

And then the guy pulled a little, ugly, beaded necklace with a shell as a pendant from his pocket, and told me it was a gift. No thank you, I told him. But he insisted. Take it. It’s a gift. Enjoy it. It’s from Senegal. So I held it in my hand, wishing the woman I was meeting would hurry up and get there already.

But she wasn’t there, and the man was looking at me expectantly. Didn’t I have a gift for him from America? 100 CFAs maybe? And there it was. This was the point of the entire encounter, and I was annoyed. Could I have given him the 100 CFAs? Probably. It’s only about 20 cents. But I didn’t want his necklace, and I hadn’t asked for him to chat with me. This was an area full of Toubabs (white foreigners) and this was his racket, and I didn’t want to pay into it. So I told him no. And I got up and walked towards the corner to wait in the sun. And he asked for his necklace back.

So there are two sides to the welcome here in Senegal, and it’s sometimes hard to figure out which kind of welcome you’re getting. And the friendlier someone is, the more worried I get, because I don’t always know what they’re going to ask for in return.

Still Baay Bia seemed genuinely friendly, and his wife in Seattle was an American (which means something about his ability to cross the cultural barrier, I guess) and he invited me out with him and his friend for Sunday night. We taxi-ed downtown, where he bought dinner. And then we picked up some drinks, and headed towards the main square to hang out and chat for a while. It was about 10:30, and apparently in Dakar, it’s not worth going to the dance clubs until at least midnight. I’ve heard from others that on a Saturday night, things don’t pick up until 2 am at the earliest.

Baay Bia, with his neatly-twisted dreadlocks (covered by his rasta-themed wool hat) and his pimp walk, Bamba, his friend, in fashionable jeans and a black zip-sweater, and… me. Drinking in the empty square. On a school night. Baay Bia pulled out his discman at one point, and played his upcoming album for me. It’ll be released next week—his second solo album, with tracks accompanied by Youssou N’Dour and Baba Maal, two of Senegal’s most famous musicians. Youssou N’Dour has won (one? or two?) grammies.

So okay, now you have an image of Baay Bia the rapper. Take a moment to shift gears, because he is also an environmental activist. He walked me past the Presidential Mansion and the office building for all the ministries, and he told me about how he worked for a year with the Ministry of Fishing on a water clean-up project. He organizes a free concert every year in his home village as a fundraiser for the environment. And each of his albums features at least one song discussing environmental issues.

But shift gears again, because Baay Bia is also a devout Muslim, in a very Senegalese manner. Remember those dreadlocks? In Senegal, that’s a sign of Baay Fall, a very unorthodox brand of Islam, very popular among young Senegalese, and practiced only here. They don’t pray, they allow their followers to drink alcohol and smoke, they don’t learn the Koran. Baay Fall see their role as supporting the marabouts (spiritual leaders), whose learning and charity they can then be a part of. So Baay Fall donate a portion of their earnings to the marabouts, with the understanding that it will be distributed as aid to the truly needy. Baay Bia spent nearly an hour telling me stories from Senegal’s muslim history and of upcoming pilgrimage to honor one of Senegal’s heros, Serigne Touba, and of his beliefs as a Baay Fall Muslim.

And then we started teaching each other tongue twisters in Wolof and English (“Said the flea to the fly to the floo, oh what, oh what should we do? Said the floo to the fly to the flea, we must flee. Said the flea to the floo to the fly, we must fly. And they floo.”) Which is one of my favorite things to do with speakers of foreign languages. Tongue twisters sound so cool when you don’t understand what the words mean. Just sounds and rhythms that are impossible to remember and even harder to say.

And, finally, when I was ready to go home and go to sleep, we headed for a night club. Which was much less foreign seeming than the dance club in Bostwana (and much emptier), but equally fun.

And I haven’t even told you about the softball tournament organized by the US Embassy. Softball, y’all, in a country that has never heard of the game, played on grass fields growing within driving distance of the Sahara Dessert. Professional stadiums in Africa sometimes don’t have grass. And we ate hot dogs and Doritos specially imported from America, and watched drunken Peace Corps volunteers from all over the region (Mauritania, the Gambia, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, etc.) play against each other and lose to local international school teams. The back of the Gambian tshirts said, “Je ne sais pas French.” Because they speak English in Gambia. That might not be funny, but it cracked me up.

And on Sunday afternoon, (after a day of hanging out a pool at the American club, which was open to the (American) public for the duration of the tournament) I went for a late lunch with a bunch of foreign correspondents and freelance journalists, at a little restaurant on a beach next to Club Med.

Welcome to my life.


Blogger Scooter said...

Meat yasso naturally reminded me of Bart Yasso, the Runner's World guy who developed the theory of Yasso 800's. There's a running tie everywhere.

12:04 PM  
Blogger jeanne said...

Good God, woman, get a life!

I guess you figured out what to write about! i don't know which is my favorite part: the reformed muslims, the "american club" (picturing India during the raj, you know, cricket, G&T's, nubile young waiters), the softball, or the way-past-my-bedtime nightclub. Or being force fed beef (in the nicest possible way!) I wouldn't last 10 minutes.

Keep 'em coming!

2:11 PM  
Blogger susie said...

I am exhausted just reading this. Aren't you supposed to be working??? :) (And you were worried about meeting people!!)Oh, maybe you weren't. Maybe I was worried about you meeting people. So it's all good!!

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Dolores said...

Dude! Eeee! Nabih totally toured with Youssou N’Dour this year! WHAT, SON?!

6:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, well written.

Sounds like you are having too much fun to ever come home.


1:10 PM  
Blogger Denise said...

You are going to have the most amazing book to write!

10:59 AM  
Blogger Scooter said...

Time for a new post! We're wondering how life there is going.

11:50 AM  
Blogger boy said...


1:26 AM  

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