Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Great Feast

The alternate title for this blog entry was, "A Sad Day For Goats."  I finally figured out why there are goats everywhere in this city, or at least why there WERE goats every where in this city...

Wednesday was Tabaski, which is the Muslim equivalent of Thanksgiving and a time of great feasts.  I think I have found the secret to world peace: declare every day a holiday to be celebrated with a great feast.  The streets were mostly barren here on Wednesday - with some carryover celebration into Thursday.  Heck, many people took Friday off also.

With the holiday, the head of the family must get a ram to feed his family.  While the cost of a ram is reasonable (maybe 60,000 CFA, or $120), you may remember wages of many workers here are as little as 50,000 to 60,000 per month so it is quite normal for the head of household to save for several months to be able to buy this ram.  It is also quite normal in Senegal for the head of household to have more than one wife, which means that a man could literally save up for the entire year to provide both of his wives with a traditional feast. 

This is probably a subject for a different blog entry, but who would want two wives, anyway?  The wives can't be too happy ("Honey, I think I'll be sleeping with you-know-who tonight") which obviously must lead to twice as much nagging for the man.  But back to our regularly scheduled broadcast: 

For Thanksgiving, we Americans have mostly chosen the humane solution for feasting which is the drive down to the local supermarket to pick up our feast already decapitated, plucked and with a packet of giblets inserted into its cavity that can be easily thrown away (with thanks to the folks at Plainville Turkey Farm for doing all the decapitating for us!). 

For Tabaski, the head of household is expected to bring home a real, live ram.  A real, live ram tied up to a post right under my bedroom window for the entire night before the feast.  A real, live ram that bleats all night long while tied up to a post under my bedroom window for the entire night before the feast.  Frankly, I wish they would learn to buy their meat at the store, but this holiday is all about sacrifice...

I wandered through several different neighborhoods on Tabaski to see some of the sacrificing.  The man is in charge of slitting the throat of the ram (after much prayer and thanks, of course) and then the animal is carved up on premise.  I saw buckets overflowing with goat parts and not a single piece goes to waste.  It's pretty disconcerting to see a bucket with goat intestines and eyeballs sloshing around, and I'm not sure what one guy was trying to do with the skull (although he was holding his machete in an upright, Samurai position as I walked past), but give these people credit in the "waste not, want not" department.

The holiday is celebrated because the Bible says Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his only son but instead of a son, God came down and provided a sheep instead.  Or a goat, I guess, depending on the region you live.  I say the Bible, but this is where it gets a little tricky, because the Muslims have a different Bible called the Koran that says the same thing.  The only difference is that Abraham's only son is two different people because Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael because Abraham had two wives (at the time anyway) although he cast out one wife with the son Ishmael and kept the other Isaac, although he didn't really keep either one because God said he had to sacrifice "the son he loved", which the Muslims say must have been Ishmael and the Jews say must have been Isaac because he had already cast out Ishmael even though the Bible also says Abraham only has one son.  So, Ishmael is the father of the Muslims and Isaac is the father of the Jews although Isaac and Jesus pretty much led the same exact life (only begotten son, took a donkey up a hill, son carried the wood to sacrifice himself on his back, etc.), so I guess Isaac is the father of the Christians, but Abraham was the real father of everyone -  or so it seems - because he got married again and had lots more children and lived to be 137 years old.

I'll put my views on religion aside for a moment, but the fact that people want to kill each other over the interpretation of a book that has so many tall tales and inconsistencies makes me wonder if maybe we'd be a whole lot further along if God had spared the ram and actually taken the son. 

Tens of thousands of goats in Senegal would surely have agreed.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the U.S. Role in West Africa

I always enjoyed the way philosophers of old would name their treatise with "On", such as "On the Philosophy of Natural History" or "On Liberty."  Given the vast importance of this topic, I thought it deserved to be accompanied by at least some pomp and circumstance...

Senegal is seen as the centerpoint of the West African region for a few reasons.  All of West Africa was formerly under control by the French, which means it was underdeveloped and the people were lazy, but the wine was good.  Oh wait, that's France!

Actually, the reason Senegal is the focal point is because you rarely hear about it in the news.  It has never been mired in a modern history civil war.  It has a stable democracy - including a peaceful transition after the defeat of a major political party.  And, more important, it's not Nigeria.

Traditionally, all of Africa has served as sort of a pillaging ground for developed nations.  Europeans pillaged natural resources in the 1700's and 1800's and - heck! - the United States pillaged 10's of millions of people during that little period known as slavery.  After World War II, some of the European nations lost their appetite for colonizing the world and in the mid-1960's, the French gave up control of this region.  Hold that thought for a moment, while I turn my attention to the U.S. role. 

I had an opportunity to meet with the U.S. ambassador and several dozen U.S. citizens in a "town hall" format meeting this week.  None of these people have real jobs; they are all here working as missionaries or serving in some other "non-governmental organization" doling out alms to the less fortunate.  In all the time these people have been here, they haven't made one iota of a difference.  I'm sure they can point to many instances of meaningful assistance, but from a macro-political/macro-economic view, they haven't had any impact whatsoever.

From a military strategic perspective, the United States has never had a major presence in Senegal.  There are very few natural resources worth fighting for in this country. There is no oil, no gold, no diamonds - just a giant fibrous plant called the baobab. So, what's changed and what is the U.S. role? 

Well, when the French left the region in the 1960's, the vacuum of power in many areas was sucked up by the Muslims.  Which means the money that started flowing into the region after the French left was Arab money.  New roads, infrastructure, etc. were being developed and the only thing these new benefactors asked for in return was THEIR SOUL (que soundtrack for deep, dark villianous laughter).  For example, the major thoroughfare near my residence was widened and re-paved, but the Muslims were allowed to build a giant mosque on a nice swath of waterfront land that previously served as a major launch for traditional fishing boats.

So, the U.S. finally took notice that it was losing the war over the hearts and minds of an entire region and decided to do something about it.  It was going to build a giant, waterfront embassy about a half mile away from that new mosque.  We secured the rights to build our version of a waterfront temple on a couple of cliffside acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  Well, technically, it was cliffside hectarage, but Americans don't know what a hectare is and (without the help of one of the fine readers of this publication, I wouldn't have spelled it correctly either), so I'll continue to refer to it as acreage. 

Then, the Army Corps of Engineers came in and determined it was unsafe to build on this couple of cliffside acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  So, now we the world's most expensive softball diamond and children's playground facility in all of West Africa!

Never mind that all around this region, there is new construction on every other plot of cliffside acreage.  A massive new shopping mall was developed next to a massive new Radisson Blu hotel next to a massive new artistic monument.  The U.S. of A. picked the one place on the entire coastline that could not be built upon.

In true U.S. fashion, we would not sit idly by and become the laughingstock of West Africa.  No, it was time to turn to Plan B.  We usurped the region formerly known as "Club Med" in a very tony beachside neighborhood, tore down the entire facility and have now broken ground on a new facility that will cover enough space to host Super Bowl VXIII.  The new embassy building is expected to be complete in spring 2013 (yes, it's that big) and will employ 525 employees including a new U.S. Marine Security Guard quarters. 

And why are we doing this?  Unfortunately, parts of West Africa have recently become a training ground for Islamic terrorists.  Forget Pakistan and Afghanistan  - regions that have been at war since I've been alive - and welcome to the peaceful side of West Africa.  The deserts of Mali are where the secret wars are being fought, and you can expect U.S. military troops to die here. 

On the U.S. role in West Africa?  In the paraphrased words of Bob Yamate, newly appointed Deputy Chief at the embassy, "We just completed construction on a new school building in a rural area. That school has the emblem of the United States indelibly etched into the building.  That's the type of goodwill that will last longer than anything else we can do over here."

Hopefully, we're not too late to the party.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Island Celebration

This weekend was the Goree Diaspora Festival.  For more information on this festival, please visit
The website is written mostly in French, so I'm not sure of the exact purpose of the festival, other than one of the islanders telling me it serves as a nice kick off to the annual tourist season for the Ile de Goree. 

There are two ways to reach Goree Island from Dakar.  The first is to rent a traditional fishing boat that is the size of a four man shell utilized by college crew teams on the Charles River. I predict this vessel has an 85% chance of capsizing.  The second method is to go to the new ferry terminal and take a large seaworthy vessel named "BEER."  I couldn't make that up if I tried.  "BEER" costs 5,000 CFA (about $10) for the round trip and is about a 15 minute ride.  Beer is not included on "BEER", but I'm thinking you could BYO.

The great thing about developing nations is the complete lack of detail for safety features that would have started numerous lawsuits in the United States.  When we docked, two of the ship's crew helped us jump off onto a long, concrete breakwall/dock.  And I mean jump because the gap was well over two feet.  Then, if the waves ever crested the breakwall, it would have sent a few dozen people (including senior citizens) directly into the bay.  By the way, senior citizens were hoisted by both arms and swung onto the dock if unable to jump.

We were traveling with a dignatary - the former minister of education - who is well liked throughout Senegal.  Goree Island's Iman (Muslim leader), as well as several other important looking people, greeted us on the dock.  This was especially nice because the minister himself is Christian and the purpose of his visit was to pay homage to the Catholic church on the island during the festival.

Of course, our welcome paled in comparison to the welcome given when the next boat arrived carrying none other than Pedro Pires.  Who? You'll just have to click onto this next website to find out.  Please make sure your volume is turned up because I would not want you to miss this stirring version of their national anthem

Pedro had at least a dozen military officers surrounding him, the entire police force of Goree Island (all four of them), plus an assortment of men with suits and even more important looking people.  I estimate Pedro is no more than 4 feet, 3 inches tall but you can't really tell that from his photo.

Goree Island is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Dakar, if not all of West Africa, for a very odd reason: The House of Slaves.  The House of Slaves is one of the oldest buildings on the island and today serves as a monument to the Dark History of the Dark Continent. 

You can walk through cement holding cells with separate quarters for men, women and children.  There are even tighter quarters for the rabble rousers and dissidents.  According to the guides, millions of slaves were chained together two-by-two with heavy shackles and boarded onto awaiting ships through the very famous "Door of No Return."  The door itself is actually an opening at the end of a long cement corridor.  Ironically, the opening looks incredibly inviting as the sea green waves brilliantly offset the darkness of this exit.  Unfortunately, the end result was not so incredibly inviting and many slaves chose instead to jump - still shackled - into the shark inhabited waters and to a certain death.

Now comes the biggest horror of all:  Not much of this is actually true.  I had the good fortune to be introduced to a history professor who retired to Goree Island.  I learned the House of Slaves was built in 1776 (how's that for irony?!), nearly 200 years after the slave trade was established.  Slaves were most likely loaded onto ships at a nearby beach because the area adjacent to the Door of No Return is too rocky for any boat to set anchor.  Next, the number of slaves that actually left from Goree Island probably measured in the thousands, not millions, given the small capacity of the island itself (about 1,100 year round residents today).  Still, the building is an especially poignant tribute.

Now back to the fun stuff.  Goree Island is an incredibly laid back place that combines the best of Jamaica and Peaks Island.  Maine residents will understand the Peaks reference because it's just a short ferry ride from Portland, but a world away.  Many of the local men wear dreadlocks, and many islanders choose to work as artists or merchants selling local arts and crafts.  One estimate says 500,000 people visit the island each year, so this is especially welcome news for the residents who would otherwise have no source of income.

I met many islanders including a guide who steered me into his mother's restaurant (good) and then stiffed me for a beer (not so good, but I would have bought him one anyway).  The funny part was that I saw him about an hour later and his eyes lit up as he said, "I was looking for you!" 
But my favorite was a Rastafarian looking dude (his name is pronounded Day-lee, but I have no clue how to spell it) who instructed me on how to play the kora, an ultra-cool instrument that any guitarist would be immediately drawn to.  The kora is essentially a multi-stringed lute with a body made from a hallowed out, giant gourd and strings of nylon fishing line.  Day-lee then asked me to purchase the instrument for $100, but I was good enough to inform him that only a fool would travel to Goree with $100. 

Who wants to bet on whether or not I'll come home with a kora?