Sunday, November 24, 2013

One year in Guinea- Bissau: Thought and reflections

I arrived in Guinea- Bissau on November 24th at 1 am, 10 days after I turned 23 in 2012.  That is exactly one year ago today.

I remember waking up the morning after I arrived and feeling like how it must feel to hatch from an egg.  I felt so strange, the sun was so bright, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying and the kids in the house stared at me inquisitively.  

It makes me laugh to remember those first couple of days.  It took me a few days to adjust to the humidity and that fact that everyone was black!  I didn’t know anyone, so my friends became the 5 and 8 year old kids living at my Aunt’s house who spoke to me in rapid fire Creole.  My step dad was very paranoid about the security in the country (and for good reason) and would not let me walk around after dark by my self. I spent so much of those first couple months reading, exercising, taking naps, and trying to explore what seemed like a barren city.

But after a couple of months, living in Bissau went from feeling like I landed on Mars to feeling like I knew it like the back of my hand. It’s a small place, so it’s easy to catch on. I also had some great Creole teachers.

In the year I’ve been here there has been a lot of struggles, frustrations and disappointments. I’ve probably cried more in my time here than I have my entire 4 years in college. I could easily say it’s been the most difficult time in my life. But even with all that in mind, coming to Bissau is absolutely the best decision I could have made.  

I’ve always believed that you have something to learn from any place you go, and any person you meet. Some lessons that these people and places bring vary in depth, importance, and relevance.

By far the most important thing I’ve gained from my time here has been learning about who I am and where I’m from. The sense of knowing ones history is so powerful. I feel like I found answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.  Layer that with all things I’ve learned about my self during my ups and downs. It’s has changed how I see the world and it has changed how I see my self.  

I knew very little about Guinea Bissau, my family, and the political situation of the country before I arrived.  But now I can say with confidence what it means to be Fula (although I can’t speak the language), What it means to be Bissau-Guinean, and what it means to be from West Africa (I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit other countries in the region). I can put faces to names of family members and understand completely when my dad speaks about the little village he was born in. 

Having lived here for this long feels like a major accomplishment. And I am proud of my self for having lasted this long.  It has not been easy! But I didn’t want to come here and get a superficial experience. I wanted to live the Guinean life, I wanted to feels what it means to be Guinean. *

            *And no matter how long I live here, I can never truly know. I’m considered white here- imagine that!  And there are certain privileges that come with having fair skin and an American passport.  

So on to another day, another month…… another year?  I doubt I can last that long, but as the days pass we will see what the future has in store.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dany Boy and Little Paris

This fine fellow here is my friend Daniel, but he goes by Dany, aka Dany Boy.  Surprisingly he is quite the model as you can see. Lol

Without going into too much detail, I met Dany back in December.  He was a friend of a friend here in Bissau. After the1st 20 minutes of meeting him I decided I didn’t like him. He knows why. But after a while I came to understand that I had caught him on a bad day and I found that he is actually a nice guy and super funny and we became good friends. 

Theibu Dien, a traditional Senegalese dish
When I was trying to buy my ticket to Dakar I had 2 options: Bissau to Morocco with a 10 hour lay over, then a connecting flight to Mauritania or a flight to Dakar with an over night stay and then a connecting flight the following day to Mauritania.  I was so tempted to go to Morocco, because it is one of the countries I really want to visit, but a 10 hour layover wouldn’t have left time to do much of anything.  Dakar also happened to be a cheaper flight, so the only problem was that I needed to find a place to stay over night while in Dakar. Dany happened to be in Dakar finishing his Masters, so when I asked f I could crash at his place over night going to and from Mauritania he said I was more then welcome.

After the first day in Dakar I realized one day on the way back was not going to be enough, so I moved my ticket to give me 3 days instead.  Dakar is not called ‘little paris’ for no reason!  And while in Mauritania I also learned that I have a lot of family in Dakar, so I needed to take the opportunity to see them while I was there. 
My Unce Idressa and Family

My Aunty Maryama's children

Once back in Dakar we planned the 3 days military style. Dany drew a map of Dakar on the white board and drew symbols for all must see tourist locations.  Then he turned to me and asked,   “What are your priorities?”

There was so little time and so much to do!! Aside from visiting family I also had to do some much needed shopping (which with me is always very time consuming) and of course do some sight seeing!!

View of Gore Island
I was able to accomplish ALMOST everything on my to do list except go to the beach (there was just no time!) And had it not been for Dany there is no way it would have been possible.  

He helped me navigate Medina, a neighborhood in Dakar, so I could get to my uncles house.  From my uncles house I went to Pikine, where my 3 of my first cousins live whom I had never met.  They are the children of my dad’s sister Maryama who recently passed in 2010.

He took me to Gore island, a small island just a 20 min boat ride away from Dakar.  The Island is famous due to its tragic history of being one of the many slave ports where Africans were kept before they were shipped to the Americas. Such slave houses have been turned into museums and tourist attractions. The famous ‘door of no return’, where even Obama has had his photo taken,  is located in side the house of slaves which was the door Africans went through to embark the slave ships.  Despite its history, the Island its self is gorgeous!
The door of no return

Dany even put up a fight so I wouldn’t have to pay the inflated non-African citizen fee to go to the Island! (Although he lost the money I gave him to pay for the ticket [Did you get rid of those shorts yet??] which essentially tripled the price of the ticket hahaha… but it’s the thought that counts!)

We went to the highly controversial African Renaissance, constructed by the ex-president of Senegal Abdoulya Wade as a symbol that “African people and nations shall overcome the current challenges confronting the continent and achieve cultural, scientific, and economic renewal." (source)  

The controversy is over the image of the statue. Senegal is a 80 percent muslim country, in which modesty is a pillar of the religion. The Image as you can see, if of half clothed men and women, the womens breast even being out in the open.

He held my bags while I shopped, gave me advice on shoe colors, and argued prices for me when my French and bartering skills were lacking. 
The African Renaissance Statue 

Did I mention he picked me up at the airport after midnight twice?! And on the way to Dakar from Mauritania the flight was delayed by almost 2 hours and I had no way to tell him, so I arrived at the airport to find he had waited the entire time.

 And all the while he put up with my criticisms, complaints, frustrations, and fatigue ( Hey, I’m only human!).  If those are not the characteristics of an incredible human being, then I don’t know what are!

I absolutely loved Dakar, but I know that it wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing of an experience if he hadn’t been a part of it. I have been truly blessed with his friendship.

So Dany, this post is dedicated to you as a symbol of my appreciation for kindness and hospitality you showed me in Dakar.  Thank you, Obrigada, e Merci Beacoup. 

Message to the Youth

To the youth of Africa
And of the diaspora
If one day your steps lead you
to the foot of this monument
Think about all that we have sacrificed
Our Liberty and our lives
For the Renaissance of Africa

-Abdoulaye Wade

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reunion with Pop's in Noakchott, Mauritania

Go figure the pilot from the night before in Bissau was the pilot for my flight to Noakchott, the capital of Mauritania. I was happy to see him, but from the look of  fatigue on his face I questioned whether he had gotten some sleep since the time I had seen him the day before.

My dad's apartment building
I arrived in Mauritania at 3 am (sorry Baba). I came packed with all the culturally appropriate clothing: long skits, scarves, long sleeve shirts, but when it was time to get ready to go to the airport, I couldn’t bring myself to change into them.  So while I sat in the airport in jeans and a tee-shirt, I immediately regretted not having dressed a little more conservatively.  I was getting A LOT of strange looks. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t naked! Someone at the airport gave my dad a call and said, “ There is an American girl here waiting for you.” Ahahaha  He told me this after he picked me up.

Fishermen at the Port de Peixe
It was CRAZY to see my dad after almost a year. He looked so happy, and younger! My Aunty was also in Noakchott, so it made for a nice reunion.

I spent 6 days in Mauritania, and I spent it unlike I’ve spent any other vacation. But then again, I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical vacation.  

My dad has a nice apartment just out side the capital. There was electricity 24/7, I took my first hot shower in almost a year, and ate home cooked meals (I’ve been eating out since September). I was completely blissing out on these simple pleasures.

My dad teaches by day and studies by night.  stays up until about 7 or 8am to study and eat breakfast and then sleeps until anywhere between 2 pm- 5pm the following day.

Musa, the go-to fish cleaner at Port de Peixe
In Bissau I’m up by 6 and in bed by 1030, so it was almost completely inverse to my schedule. In Mauritania I slept every night at 3 or 4 in the morning. We read a book together every night called Milestones, which is actually a banned book in most muslim countries. It is written by Seyid Qutb and is about how Islam has been influenced by modern culture. My Aunt and I would take turns reading and then stop and discuss what we read with my dad. I also read about sharia law, purification of the heart,  and other spiritually and islamically rich books. 

Aside from late night reading sessions, almost all of my time was spent talking and discussing and asking questions.  I had met and spent time with lots my dad’s family and I had gone all the way to the village where he was born,  and  now I could finally share my experiences with him get his perceptive and input on stories and histories I was told.

So in all honestly I wouldn’t say I saw too much of Mauritania because, as I mentioned, I spent most of my time picking my dad’s brain. I only went to downtown one time. But it was so much like Bissau that one time was enough. We went to the famous port where they catch and sell fish as well.  I went on a couple walks to the big market and around the town to see what there was to see.

Despite my limited explorations, I learned a lot about Mauritania via discussion with Mauritanians (In my broken French haha)! Here are some things I learned:


Effect of Rain, many places throughout the city look like these.
Mauritania is a desert, so there is almost no greenery or vegetation. Due to climate change, in the past 5 years Mauritania has received more rain then ever. There is no infrastructure set up to deal with the amount of rain they are receiving, so after just 2 days of rain, many neigborhoods were flooded. This means that people become stranded at home, there is limited transportation ( it is a city highly dependent on Taxi services), it damages houses and roads, and increases filth and odors due to lack of a public waste system. 


There is electricity but water is bought and sold from underground pumps that the government put in throughout the city.Health Care seemed to be the same as Bissau. There is a national hospital, but most people who have the means, resort to private clinics managed and funded by international NGO’s. There is a university and a medical school, an Olympic stadium.  And evidence of their booming industries are the many factories you find along the coast.


Typical streets just outside of Nouakchott
I don’t think I saw a police officer once. My dad said that because the country is 99% Muslim country there is a very low crime rate, so most police. I’m not convinced by this answer. From what I picked up, My aunt and dad tended to romanticized the conditions of life in Noakchott. Because If I’ve learned anything in Bissau,  its that just because you are Muslim doesn’t mean you are not human and apt to commit a crime.

Mauritanian culture was very much like Guinea Bissau in that women stay home and cook and raise the children. The food is similar and they also drink warga (strong green tea) . The only major difference was that the country is 99% Muslim, so the country functions in accordance to Islam. This means that most women wore head scarves and holidays are taken on fri and sat, not sat and Sunday, and etc..

There are however, 3 highly controversial social issues that Mauritania is facing.

The first is SLAVERY! While it was abolished in 1981, it only became illegal to have slaves in 2007!!  An astonishing 10-20% of the population of Mauritania is considered slaves!!

Due to the persistence of slavery in society, racism is incredibly high.  The division is between the ‘white’ moors and the black Africans.   

“Cotton describes the class and race structure of society in Mauritania. The ruling class is known as white Moors, who are descendents of the intermingling of two groups of people: the indigenous Berbers and the Arabs who moved into the territory centuries ago. Historically, the Arabs have always had slaves. Owning other people as property is evidently not a foreign or repulsive concept to them. While this may not be true for every white Moor, they generally look down on black Africans.”          

Lastly,  the force feeding of young girls, called leblouh, is cultural practice  which can be found mostly outside the capital city. Beauty standards in Mauritania are such that women are found more attractive and marriageable if they are heavy/fat. So Girls ages 7-12 are force-fed to make them get fat so that it will be easy for them to find a husband. The participation of girls in the education system is not prioritized, so the best hope for a girls success in the future is to find a good husband.

Here are some links to a video series which touches on some of these issues

Every country has its problems, some worse then others.  In my experience, Mauritanians are very kind people. I was disappointed I didn’t get to explore out side of the capital, where the desert scenery is beautiful from what I’ve seen in photos. But maybe one day I'll go back. 

Donkeys like to go to the beach too! 

Fish for Daaaaaaaaaaaayzzzzz