Thursday, December 21, 2006

[singing] Hanukah, oh Hanukah, come light the menorah [/singing]

As is my fairly inconsistent and unpious custom, I made it a point to prepare not at all for Hanukah.

I told various friends that I wanted to have a latke party at my house, but didn't actually invite anyone or buy potatoes.

And I told Rose all about how I was going to have to light lots of candles every night, and that I didn't have a menorah, but didn't think too hard about how I was going to solve that problem.

Suddenly, it was the day of Hanukah eve, and I had no plans and no menorah.

Surely it was hopeless.

But no!

As I lay around in my pajamas on Friday morning pretending work on my computer, I got a phone call. It was EmbassyMan, and he was inviting me for a small-dinner-with-latke-and-menorah celebration at his house.

Perfection. Except the holiday lasts eight days and I still had no menorah of my own.

Newly energized, I threw on some clothes and went out to Naw.

Take me to the wood guy! I proclaimed with vim.

It shall be done, he intoned.

Or maybe I just explained what Hanukah was, and told him I needed something to hold my eight candles (plus the other one). Either way, I drew a fabulous schematic of what I had in mind.

To wit:


So off we trotted to Abdoulaye, our neighborhood wood guy.

I showed him my technical drawing and explained the concept.

He was getting fairly excited. He pulled out drill bits and matched them to the candle stub he had lying around, and made practice holes and discussed logistics of length and width. You can usually tell when someone is just nodding and thinks you're crazy and when they really get it, and Abdoulaye really got it.

Now, I was just picturing a plain block with holes for candles, and one elevated part for the shamus. Simple, utilitarian, disposable.

But Abdoulaye is a craftsman, and he had other ideas. And when he started talking, I just told him to go wild. Just as long as it had the spots for all 9 candles, and was ready by 5 o'clock that afternoon.

Y'all. I had no idea.

Abdoulaye, who has never seen a menorah in his whole life, who has probably never met a Jew in his whole life, made me the coolest menorah.



Except... Well, wood burns. And so now, my beautiful, NON-disposable menorah is getting ruined.


So I'm going to find an alumninum guy to make me some candle holders.... It's a work in progress.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A First

Last week, Théo and Marie Suzanne’s cousin, Juliet, had a baby.

This family is as close as it comes for me to having a family of my own here. I still have only met a fraction of the extended family (African families are BIG, y’all) but the fraction I’ve met have been wonderfully welcoming to me. I’ve spent holidays in their village and accompanied them of a pilgrimage. They stop by (thanksfully not very often, says the toubab in me) when they’re in the neighborhood, and invite me to parties.

And, on this baby’s eighth day of life, I got to introduce it to the world.

If this were a Muslim family, I think this would have been called the baptism (I haven’t actually been to a Muslim baptism yet, so I could be making that up) and been a much bigger deal. And they, I’m sure, would have had it’s own customs and traditions.

But for Christians, baptism means something different, so this was just… kind of a coming out party, really.

I got to Juliet’s house at about 4 pm. She was there with her sisters, her mother, and her best friend—the baby’s godmother.

I sat down and started watching. The conversation was flowing fast, but it was in Wolof and Serrer and I didn’t really catch any of it. It didn’t help that I had no idea what to expect, and everybody else knew all the steps without question.

Juliet’s two sisters put a kola nut, water, and some millet couscous in a large gourd. They unwrapped a brand new bar of soap, and Juliet handed the baby to her older sister. Her younger sister held the gourd and the bar of soap, and the older sister began shaving the baby’s head.


It took a while, and was interrupted briefly when the head-shaving sister (whose name I’m mostly, but not 100%, sure I know, so I’m not going to use it here) got a call on her cell. And while all this was going on, all the boy cousins showed up.

Then it was my turn.

They cut up the kola nut, sharing it to everyone around.

As I was leaving the office today, I told everyone that I’d be carrying a baby on its first trip outside, and joked that, anyway, at least I’m pretty sure I know how to carry a baby.

What I forgot, of course, is that we’re not in Kansas anymore.


In Africa, baby’s are carried on your back. Which I’d never done before, let alone with a teeny, tiny, one week old baby, in front of the entire damn family.

But in the end, with help, the baby was strapped on, and I headed outside.

“You have to show her what’s around,” Juliet told me. “She’s never been outside, so you have to explain what everything is.”

“What should I show her?”

“Whatever you want,” she said. “Show her where America is,” she joked.


And so, trailed by kids and friends, I walked up and down the street in front of the house. I was feeling bashful, so I don’t think I put on a very good show of giving the grand tour, but I’ll be ready next time (if it comes up).

Welcome to the world, little Orella.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Ti a yebi, mbada warga.

If you're lonely, make tea.

I saw the truth of this Fula proverb first hand yesterday morning.

A lazy Sunday morning found me sitting in the shade, across the street from Naw's shop.

"Dafa weert," Naw complained. "It's so quiet."

Our street is full of foreigners, and even the Senegalese who live there act like foreigners--which means they don't hang out on the street. Being home, means being inside, and on our dusty road, on a Sunday, tumbleweeds would not be out of place. A ghost town.

On a weekday, there's decent foot traffic. Maids, drivers, taxis, construction workers, random people with things to sell.

"Madame? Madame, vous vous maquillez?" (Madame, do you wear make-up?)

An extremely polite cosmetics dealer wandered by about a week ago, and displayed his wares with all the aplomb of central casting's door-to-door salesman. He pulled out from his duffel bag all manner of fancy perfumes, lip balms (à la base de fraise--strawberry-based), and an Aveda make-up kit with eye-shadow, blush, and assorted brushes.

It cracked the boys up, and they snickered equally at my polite dismissals ("thanks," "merci") and my response to his earnest "Do you wear make-up?"

"No, not often."

It's become Naw's favorite joke. Every time he sees me, he turns to me with a disingenuous expression and asks, "Madame? Madame vous vous maquillez?" with his terrible French accent.

Friday is prayer day in this Muslim country, but Colonial habits are hard to break, and so Sunday is the day of rest. People stay home from work and that happens in neighborhoods far from where I live.

So Naw and I sat, just the two of us, chatting about our lives, loves, and relationships, for nearly an hour. Just before 12, he said, "let's make tea."

And in the time it took to gather the ingredients from his shop, and pull over the charcoal grill to our other shady sitting spot on the stoop at the corner, the world appeared.

Before the water boiled, there were no fewer than five people sitting on the mat with us on the stoop, and more people wandered back and forth.

Tea is a ritual that takes at least two hours, from start to finish. The tea, a matchbox-sized carton of green tea, is boiled strong and dark, with a lot of sugar. It's served in three rounds, each one less strong and more sweet.

But the most important part is the frothy foam. The pictures from my last post show the intricate process, which involves pouring the tea from one glass to another, back and forth, from as great a height as possible. It incorporates air into the tea, and eventually as much as half the tiny glasses fill with the foam.

After the foam is ready, the tea goes back in the pot for reheating, depending on the preferences of the tea maker. Then he—very carefully, to keep the loose tea leaves from pouring out—pours the hot tea into the frothy glasses. He passes around the glasses, and each person slurpily sucks down the tea, leaving the foam in the bottom of the glass for the next person's serving.

I stuck around for an hour and a half, through the first two rounds of tea. But the third round is too weak for my tastes, and it was time for lunch and to get ready for my afternoon activity.

But I left Naw in good company—surrounded by cousins and friends teasing each other in Fula.