Sunday, February 14, 2010

When marriage is a family affair

I have had the good fortune to attend three weddings (or at least wedding-related festivities) since coming to Senegal last September. Although each event was quite different, there are a few overarching themes to Senegalese weddings. First, the actual process of getting married is just that, a process. Second, the presence of the bridge and groom themselves at many wedding festivities is optional.

When a prospective groom decides to ask for a woman's hand in marriage, a process of negotiation begins between the two families that involves the exchange of gifts, money, household visits, a religious or traditional ceremony in which the actual wedding takes place, and finally the arrival of the bride at the groom's household. These various steps could take place over the course of weeks or months.

The first wedding I attended in December was the union of a bride and groom who both reside in the United States. After the man's family asked for the woman's hand in marriage, the bride's family provided a list of items that they wanted for the brideprice. The list included: crates of drinks, bags of rice, various household items such as blankets and other linens, a pig (they are Christian), and a certain sum of money. The ceremony that I attended involved the arrival of the groom's representatives with all of the requested items.

Crates of drinks brought to the bride's family by the groom's family

After their arrival, the family negotiations took place in which the bride's family made a show of taking inventory of the items, and then formally "gave" the woman in marriage. The groom was not in attendance, and it was just by chance that the bride happened to be passing through Dakar and was able to attend the event. Since they are Catholic this ceremony will be followed by a religous ceremony in the US at some point, but as far as their families are concerned they are now officially married.

The second wedding event I attended was referred to as a "reception", and it took place in the early evening after a religous ceremony at the mosque in which the bride and groom were married by a Muslim officient. The bride wanted the groom to attend the reception, but as it turned out he was too busy attending to the guests at his house, so he sent his younger brother to represent him.

The reception was in many ways like an American bridal shower. The guests (over 400 of them) were about 90% female, and the main event was a long receiving line in which each guest offered a wedding present to the bride and was then photographed with her. Nonetheless, the happy couple did a slow dance to a Celine Dion song, which was also captured on video and by the photographer. Too bad the bride had to do her wedding slow dance with her brother in law.

The third event was in the village this weekend and it was the event called "seysi" when the bride leaves her family home and joins her husband's household. The religous ceremony at the mosque took place a few weeks ago, but this was the main wedding event, a wedding reception and seysi rolled into one.

A delegation transported the bride from Dakar to the village late Friday night (they arrived at about 4am on Saturday). Saturday's events involved lunch for 400+ people (they cooked 200 kilos of rice), an afternoon meal at around 6pm, a band of drummers and dancers escorting the bride to her husband's house with stops along the way at other important family members' houses, and the presention of wedding presents by the bride's peers.

The bride receiving prayers from the groom's mother's brother.

While the under 30 crowd was busy dancing to Senegalese pop music under one tent, the 30+ crowd was under another tent where various friends and relatives were exchanging money and toasts to various family members who had contributed to the event. Although the groom had orchestrated the day's events to welcome his bride, in many ways there were bit players in a much larger social drama.

The village wedding was definitely the most exciting, not only because so many different parts of the process of getting married were happening in a condensed period of time, but also because I was close enough to the groom's family to have a behind the scenes view of the fun, stress, and chaos of organizing a huge event for hundreds of people.

Things came off largely without any hitches, and I couldn't help but be a little sorry that I wasn't welcomed into my conjugal home to the sound of singing, clapping, drumming and my in-laws dancing circles around me. Perhaps we can arrange for some drummers to inaugurate our new home after we buy a house in Woostah this summer?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Code de la Route

Now that I consider myself an expert Dakar driver (i.e. it doesn't require almost 100% of my concentration just to operate our car), I have had some time to appreciate the nuances of driving in our bustling metropolis. Every city has its driving culture and Dakar is no different. The following is my initial attempt at codifying Dakar's unwritten driving rules.

Hand gestures: There are two main hand gestures that one needs to master in Dakar traffic. The first is the thumb's up sign. The thumb's up sign is a slight variation of the thank you wave that Americans give to fellow drivers after being let into a traffic lane or after being allowed to turn in front of opposing traffic. The slight variation here is that the thumb's up sign can be used whether your fellow driver has let you into traffic (which sometimes happens), or if you have simply forced yourself into a lane by refusing to yield to the driver who technically has the right of way (a much more common occurrence). In the latter case, the thumb's up gesture actually means, "Yes I know I just cut you off but I will diffuse your anger by showing you the thumb's up sign as a combination thank you/apology for driving right in front of you."

The other important hand gesture is often the responsibility of the front seat passenger. When trying to turn or to merge into an impossibly dense mass of vehicles (i.e. most rotaries and intersections during rush hour), you often have to rely on the kindness of other drivers. The way to ask for a favor is to roll down your window, stick most of your arm out, and wave your hand up and down in a gesture that means "yes there are a million cars that are trying to merge here but have pity on me and let me in." Although drivers are quite aggressive here, most will yield if you employ this version of "pretty pretty please."

Turn signals: Not everyone uses turn signals reliably when they are approaching an intersection and actually planning to turn. Nonetheless, there are a few instances when most drivers will employ turn signals to alert other drivers to current road conditions. In the first instance, the driver uses the left turn signal to tell other drivers that there is an obstacle ahead that requires drifting into the left lane (most often a taxi or other public transport vehicle that has stopped to drop off a passenger). My favorite use of turn signals is when drivers use them not because they are actually turning, but because the road itself is bending to the right or the left. This use of turn signals means, "don't think that you can just keep driving in a straight line because the road is about to bank to the right, so let me use my right turn signal so that you will notice that the road is turning and you should turn with it."

Horns: This dimension of traffic communication remains a bit fuzzy. There are many things that can be said with a honk of the horn, including:
"I see you."
"Do you see me because you are coming right at me?!"
"Yes I see you but I don't like what you are doing!"
"This is not a good place for you to stop in the middle of the road to let off your passenger!"
"If you don't accelerate I am going to ram your rear end!"
I still need to figure out if there are honks of different durations to indicate which message is being conveyed, or if the context itself conveys the meaning of the honk.

Perhaps the most important honk is the one that drivers use for pedestrians who are walking in the middle or on the edge of the road. This honk is to remind pedestrians that they are actually walking in the road and that if they should be nudged by a passing car, it is not the driver's fault, because they are the ones who are choosing to walk in the road. I was hesitant to blare my horn at pedestrians initially. Then my research assistant explained that if I were ever to brush a pedestrian, I would receive the hostile query, "Well why didn't you honk at me if you were about to hit me!" Fair enough.

Gender: One road rule that I might resist in the United States, but which is actually quite advantageous, is a kind of road chivalry based on the assumption that women don't know how to drive. While this edict is indeed patronizing, it does have some advantages. Since women don't know how to drive, male drivers give us a wide berth, they don't get too upset when we cut them off, and in general they try to stay out of our way lest we suddenly lose control of our cars and go careening into them. And if it means I'll get where I'm going that much faster, let's hear it for a little vehicular sexism!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Culture shock

One of the reasons we had a pretty low-key Christmas was that we knew we would be going on a six-day river cruise down the Senegal River starting on January 2nd. With some minor lobbying I was able to recruit five other people to join A, myself, and our guest S who was visiting Senegal for two weeks.

The cruise seemed like an ideal way to entertain a guest with no language skills and not much experience with third world travel. Six nights, all meals included, and excursions scheduled every day--seemed like a perfect break from the hustle and bustle of Dakar and a way to see some cool sites on the Senegal River. And yet we were in for a few surprises.

On January 2nd all of the cruise passengers convened in Saint Louis for a last luncheon on land before being bussed up to the cruise ship in Podor. One of the first things that I noticed was that our group was not in the demographic that typically signs up for the cruise. A and I were holding down the senior end of our group (late 30's), while our five companions were early 30's, late 20's, and early 20's respectively. We brought the average age of the cruise passengers down by about 30-40 years, as they seemed to be almost exclusively French retirees.

Aside from noticing the age gap, it wasn't until we got on the boat that more subtle (and not so subtle) differences became more apparent. At the top of the annoyance list, the smoking! French people smoke like it's good for you, and I'm not exaggerating. First you need your get up and go cigarette around 6:30am, then there are your after meal cigarettes, your late morning and late afternoon cigarettes, and your winding down getting ready for bed cigarettes. I am all for live and let live, but the close quarters meant that we were often, if not always, inhaling second-hand smoke.

Another less annoying cultural difference with greater novelty value was the French bathing habits. There were only a few luxury cabins with interior bathrooms, so most of the 53 passengers had to share the public toilets and shower stalls located around the boat. There were lots of French passengers of a certain age showering in pairs, walking around in towels, and generally showing a lot more skin than one might see in a group of American retirees. Viva la difference!

Given the age, language, and cultural differences between our group of seven and the rest of the passengers we pretty much kept to ourselves. Early in the cruise we claimed a table for seven in the dining room, and it seemed that most other passengers also sat with the same crowd every night. This system seemed to be working just fine until the night when we arrived for dinner and found a group of three sitting at our table. No worries, we picked another table and settled in for dinner.

Unbeknownst to us, the domino effect would send our new table's former occupants to a table where they would be firmly rebuffed, which began what is now known as the "international incident." There was cursing, huffing and puffing, anti-American insults, and even threatening throat-slashing gestures as the displaced party stomped around the dining room. They even went so far as to threaten not to pay their week's bar tab (a hefty amount, I'm sure) if they did not get their original table back.

The cruise staff calmly explained that there were no reserved tables on board, and ironically the offended party of six had to break bread with the original offenders, the party of three that had taken our table in the first place. We weren't quite sure whether to be amused or offended, but at the very least we were falsely accused since we were table refugees ourselves.

Lest you think that anti-American spirit won the day, our fellow passengers made it clear that "fraternite" would persevere. One woman came over to our table immediately and in an apologetic whisper said, "don't worry, we're not all like that." Other folks made jokes with us at the expense of the offensive six. The clearest indication of our fellow passengers' feelings was the pariah-status that the group of six came to occupy. While everyone was coolly polite, no one took any meals with them for the duration of the cruise.

And so the cruise ended without further hostilities. But I think I can speak for the rest of the group when I say we were all relieved to get back to the real Senegal where we understand the cultural values, social habits, and local mores so much better. So much for the civilizing mission.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

I have a dream

This week one of the sessions in the girls' empowerment program was devoted to thinking about dreams. In the session the girls reflected on different kinds of questions: What is a dream? Why are dreams important? What are my dreams?

The idea was to get the girls thinking about their hopes for the future. If one has a dream, the logic of the session goes, one can begin to envision the steps one needs to take in order to make one's dream come true. Since these are girls who have minimal schooling, many of them have been taught that their main calling in life is housework and child care. If they could dream up a future for themselves, what might it look like?

To help the girls start thinking about goals that they might pursue, the group leaders read an excerpt from the "I have a dream" speech that was translated into Wolof. (This was not an easy passage to follow, but hopefully the 13-16 year olds have a better Wolof vocabulary than I do.) After we discussed the speech, the girls were told to close their eyes and imagine themselves at age 40. What memory would make them the happiest? What would they have liked to achieved? What would they have done that they would be proud of?

Each of the sixteen girls drew a picture of her three answers, and then they shared their dreams with the rest of the group. Perhaps this shouldn't have been surprising, but I found the similarity in the girls' answers striking. Three themes emerged as the runaway winners: studying and getting a diploma (14 girls mentioned this), sending one or both parents to Mecca (10 girls), and building their parents a house (9 girls). About ten girls also mentioned having some kind of career aspiration, from just "working" (2) to being President or Mayor (5).

Without reading too much into the exercise, it is obvious that almost every girl wishes she had been able to attend school. Some of them have never attended, while others went for a few years before they were pulled out to help with housework, or because "girls don't need to go far in school since they are just going to become wives and mothers." Each girl who completes the empowerment program will be recognized at the year end ceremony next July. I've been told that every year there are proud tears as the girls receive their diplomas.

The other clear message is how much social status and recognition comes from doing right by one's parents. Sending your mother to Mecca, or building a house for your father, is a clear sign of a good son or daughter who puts the needs of others (particularly parents) first. Perhaps this is not a radical path to girls' empowerment, but these girls have definitely learned what is valued by their society and culture.

Perhaps most interesting was the brainstorming session about how to begin working to make their dreams come true. My favorite answers: be determined, respect yourself, get up early, don't sleep until the sun is high in the sky, be ready to work hard and sweat, and don't get married too young. Words to live by. You go girls!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I certainly have nothing against Christmas, but one of the nice things about being in another cultural space is that one gets to embrace a totally different events calendar. Who needs Halloween and Christmas when we've got Tabaski and Tamxarit and even Magal Touba?

We hadn't planned on doing much for Christmas, and we still don't have any definite plans for he 24th and 25th, but I was mistaken if I thought that Christmas would pass by largely unseen here. Although only 5% of the population is Christian, Senegal seems to have fully embraced Christmas (at least the version with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, tinsel, and lots of cheap plastic crap for kids).

One of the earliest signs of the season was the ambulatory artificial tree salesmen. Not only do they carry artificial trees around, but they often have long strings of tinsel wrapped around their necks. This makes for quite a festive scene.

The fancy Casino grocery stores are selling real (real!) Christmas trees at a variety of prices, from $25 to $500.There has also been a glut of inflatable Santas in a variety of sizes being sold all around Dakar. I was in an elementary school yesterday, and the classroom I was in had a tiny tree with a single bow on it. In the school's corridor an inflatable Santa was hung up by the neck, which made him look a little bit like he had been lynched. Poor Santa.

I'll need to start doing some research to find out how best to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Dakar. Stay tuned for more holiday updates.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two dozen interviews down...dozens to go

Between the two of us my research assistant and I have conducted about two dozen interviews over the past month. (When all is said and done, we hope to have a sample of around 80 women, some of whom we will interview more than once, so a ballpark grand total of about 160 interviews).

There are of course many pros and cons to using interviews as a research strategy. On the plus side, if you have worked hard on your questions, and you continue to refine them over the course of your field work period, you are able to ask direct questions that get at exactly what you want to know. On the down side, interviews are a very artificial form of communication. No matter how much you try to put a person at ease, it is just not a normal style of conversation when one person is asking all the questions and recording everything.

Another down side, and one that we are struggling with, is that people are often unwilling or unable to give full, truthful answers to our questions. (Hence the importance of field notes in which you write down what people actually do and say in more informal interactions, instead of relying solely on their own accounts of their actions).

In this first round we are interviewing a lot of people we know, so we have a pretty good idea of what they are omitting. By far the most difficult thing is for unmarried women to admit that they have had sex. The "good girl" ideology is so powerful here (and good girls, of course, don't have sex before marriage) that even girls who we know have multiple boyfriends who they use for different things (money, going to clubs, eating in restaurants) are still unable to discuss sex directly. They will tell us that they think about 80% of young women sleep with their boyfriends, but not them of course. I haven't decided what to do about this methodological conundrum. The interviews in which women have actually recounted their sexual experiences, and there are several, are worth their weight in gold.

We are still polishing our interview guides, but we have a few gems among our questions. Among my favorites: What advice would you give to a friend who was about to get married? This question brings out all kinds of answers that touch on what kinds of behavior society expects from married women, but also the inevitable disappointments that marriage brings and how to cope with them.

Questions about polygamy and relations among co-wives also generate a lot of interesting responses. Some women are convinced that polygamy never works, while others contend that it is no big deal as long as you have confidence in yourself and your own relationship with your husband. As one woman reasoned, "no woman is the second wife in the bedroom." Words to live by, if you find yourself with a co-wife that is.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Post-Tabaski update

It was bloody. It was gory. It was Tabaski. According to some estimates around 650,000 sheep were killed in Senegal last Saturday for the "Fete d'Abraham." People ordered sheep from the rural areas to be sent to them, bought them in their own neighborhoods (expensive if you live in Dakar or environs), and sometimes even traveled with their sheep from one part of the country to another.

We made it out of town two days before the holiday, which still made for lots of chaos and jockeying trying to get out of the city. Once we hit the main roads things were fine, but we found all the pre-holiday congestion and last-minute shopping in Saint Louis that you would find in any American city the day before Christmas.

On the day of Tabaski we arrived at our friends' house just as the 9:15am prayer was getting started. Most men go to the mosque for the holiday prayer, then head home to start sharpening their knives and gearing up for the slaughter. You have to wait until you get word that your imam has killed his sheep first, and then you can proceed to kill your own.

We got the green light slightly before 10am, and our friend M was ready to go. Assisted by his 25 year old and 10 year old nephews, M expertly cut the sheep's throat, drained most of the blood, and then proceeded to skin and butcher it. Although the actual moment of death is a bit harrowing (I actually thought A might keel over, much to the amusement of all the kids watching him gape in horror at the whole thing), once the sheep is dead the butchering process quickly becomes more like a science project. You quickly forget the drama of death and become interested in sheep anatomy.

M knows his way around a sheep, so it was fascinating to watch his strategies for getting the skin off intact, removing the forelegs and hindlegs, and then proceeding to open up the insides. About two hours later the whole process was over, and M's wife N was grilling us up a lovely late-morning brunch of fresh grilled mutton.

The day after we returned to Dakar M telephoned to say he had totally forgotten to package up one of the legs so we could bring it home with us. I told him he had already gone above and beyond the call of teranga (Senegalese hospitality) and not to worry. Besides, what do people in an apartment with a tiny freezer and a small oven do with an entire sheep leg, complete with foot and hoof?