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Friday, January 30, 2009

Marabouts and Magic and Grigris, Oh My!

The Muslim culture in Senegal is steeped in mystery and mysticism, belief in the potency of magical spells and the power of thought and prayer. In essence, these ancient religious mores take root in what we know as voodoo, still practiced in many parts of the world, including the United States. For you Savannahians, think Minerva, the root doctor, in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Here, the Marabout, or religious leader, is at the highest rung of the brotherhood hierarchy and the one who is sought out to heal all sorts of ailments, ranging from a hang-nail to a life-threatening disease, emotional tribulations, general angst or even marital problems. Both physical and spiritual troubles are treated with equanimity and there is a basic recognition that the two are intrinsically linked. Body and soul are one--energy is transmitted from one to the other in a life flow that must be addressed simultaneously.  To me, it seems closely related to both Chinese and Ayurvedic ways of treating the system as a whole, with a dash of magic thrown in for good measure. The Marabout is both priest and medicine man and his importance is not to be underestimated. I have witnessed many suffering Senegalese consult their religious leader before even considering a visit to the local conventional doctor. At first I thought this was simply a monetary issue. The Marabout subsists on alms and people are asked to pay what they can afford or what they feel the visit was worth. A trained physician, on the other hand, might charge the equivalent of a months' salary. This is certainly an issue for many, if not most, Senegalese, however, as I have learned, it is not the primary reason the Marabout takes precedence. It is because he is highly trusted and many times, efficient. It is because faith is stronger than medicine and it is because this is what they have been taught generation after generation.
Marabouts often prescribe a grigri, an amulet that protects the wearer from harm or brings good luck, prosperity or improved health.  It is made by the Marabout himself and is considered sacred. Grigris are typically encased in cloth or hide and strung on a custom-fit cord that is worn around the waist. However, it can also be made loose to plant in the ground to guard property and bring about positive consequences. The grigri contains a concoction specific to its purpose and person and may contain any combination of herbs, oils, stones, bones, roots, hair, or grave dirt.  Most are made to bring about peace, although I am told they can be quite effective in warding off or hexing the occasional adversary. Now that you have a bit of background, here is my personal story about a Marabout, some magic and a grigri.
A few weeks ago, a very close friend passed away suddenly in the middle of the night and when I learned that she had died, it rendered me taciturn, dumbfounded and depressed. Alternately the tears would pour, my heart would pound, then barely seem to beat. I felt heart-broken and very far away. When I learned the details of her funeral, my friend Hester helped me book a flight back to the States and my departure was set. I had to act. I had to move. I had to go there and say goodbye. It felt like a step I could make. The flight was scheduled to leave at 5:00am the next morning. My husband was sad for me and because he loved Leah in his own way. He was hit hard by the precarious nature of life and nervous about my flying across the ocean, twice. So he took me to see a Marabout and I didn't resist. Our friend Zorro drove us out into the country to see "the old man", a well-known, hard to get an appointment with, mystic Marabout who had helped him many times.  As the villages became fewer and farther apart and the Baobob trees replaced electrical poles, I fell asleep with my daughter on my lap, red dust settling in on our hair through the open window. When the car pulled to a stop, we were surrounded by goats and curious children. It's very possible they had never seen a white person, let alone a family of four. They tried to follow us as we went inside a rickety door. We passed through a courtyard full of people and were asked to take off our shoes as a sign of respect before entering the room of the Marabout. Zorro pulled the curtain back and I saw the old man sitting on the floor on a prayer rug. He wore a pale blue "boubou", a typical religious robe and a white head cap. As he gestured for us to sit in front of him on a brightly colored woven mat, his feet were curled under him in such a way that I thought his legs had been amputated. But then he rocked forward to greet us and I knew he had just been sitting this way for a long, long, time. He looked at us for a suspended moment and then he began to pray, repeatedly fingering a string of beads and chanting in whispered Wolof. I scanned the room: it was his personal bedroom. Far from the somber sanctuary I had envisioned, I took in garishly embroidered red poly curtains at the window, green satin sheets on his bed and a Jimmy Hendrix poster taped to the crumbling wall with blue duct tape. It was the first time I had felt the urge to laugh in the two days since I had lost my friend. It was just too absurd. I felt his eyes on me and he finally spoke. Zorro translated in French: "I am sorry for your loss. Your friend is at peace." Now there were tears and I began to listen. He told me that I would depart and return to Senegal in comfort and safety and that I would meet someone, (or perhaps more than one person) at the funeral who was meant to cross my path. I would heal and my friend's spirit would guide me. He saw nothing but love and longevity in our small family, prosperity in our business and goodness in our hearts. My children listened intently, although they understood none of what was said. It was his voice that commanded their attention. It was both low and loving and in combination with his soft sunken eyes, let them know they should be quiet. They sat with their legs tucked under them, hands folded in their laps, mimicking his posture, in a near trance. After a long period of praying, he finally spoke to Zorro and began to make grigris for us. He reached behind him into several dirty plastic bags, pulling out pinches of this, finger fulls of that, carefully placing the mixtures in small sachets of waxed paper. He then sealed each one in his hand and spoke to it, or at it, I suppose infusing it with his intent. Isn't that what magic is? The smells were foreign and a bit disconcerting, but I didn't ask. Now it was time to leave. I bowed, feeling this man merited such a gesture. Richard paid the Marabout something which brought a smile to his face and he took my hand, placed the grigri in it and wished me well. I thanked Zorro and my husband because somehow I did feel better. I held the talisman in my hand and felt that someone with a connection to a higher power had understood my fears and my pain and had conveyed them to the Universe, or God, or Allah and had received confirmation in return that I was worth being protected.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Teranga and The Communal Dish

"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly" . . .  M.F.K. Fisher
I realize this is starting to resemble a food blog, something that will not be lost on those who know me well. I am certainly a foodie and a passionate cook. However, this entry is more a glimpse into the Senegalese culture than a study of their kitchens, although the two are closely intertwined. "Teranga" in Wolof means "hospitality, brotherhood and the art of sharing" and the Senegalese are famous for it. They welcome foreigners and kin alike into their country, their homes and their hearts.  Homelessness does not exist in Senegal (except in rare cases of mental illness or drug abuse) due to the two principles they prize most: family and generosity. There will always be someone willing to help someone else, bring them into their home, feed and care for them. Although food is sometimes scarce and poverty continues to varying degrees, few go unfed. The concept of a small nuclear family is unheard of, the average household feeding as many as 15-30 people, including parents, children, grandparents, cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. When a meal is prepared, there must always be enough to feed the unexpected friend, religious leader, village elder or  passerby who happens to wander in for the meal.  The solution is the communal dish, prepared with a "stretch" base of rice or cous cous and served with vegetables, spices and usually fish, chicken or beef. Since I arrived, I have been fortunate enough to sample the communal dish in the homes of several new found friends, but it wasn't until Richard and I hosted lunch at our house that I truly understood how spiritual this meal was. Several weeks ago, we decided to invite the Earth House team, their children and a few friends for a Sunday of rest and repast at the beach. I immediately thought of potato salad, chips and salsa, burgers 'n dogs on the grill--you know, a good ole' fashioned BBQ. As I was making my shopping list, Richard looked over my shoulder and let out a little yelp. "These people wouldn't know what to do with a hot dog," he said. "Besides, most of them are Muslim, they don't eat pork." Oh well, so much for showing them a slice of Americana! I felt deflated until he explained to me that it would be much more a statement of appreciation if we provided them with something familiar-- a communal dish served with a side of Teranga. OK, I was on board. Just one small problem. I didn't know how to make it! Our friend Zorro's wife, Ami (pictured above), came to the rescue. She agreed to "let me watch" the lengthy preparation of a typical dish called "Tieboudienne" made with fish, root vegetables and lots of garlic served over copious amounts of spiced rice. As I helped Ami peel carrots and Manioc, I asked her why the communal dish was so important. She explained her ingrained belief that food is meant to be shared, that a meal feeds both the body and the spirit and that eating in numbers only increased the benefits. The more people who ate from the dish, the more grace bestowed upon it's partakers. How cool is that? When Emeril asks his Food Network audience, "Can you feel the love?", he is barely scratching the surface of this concept.
Ami spent the entire morning peeling, sauteing, boiling, simmering and watching over her enormous pot with all the love and attention of a gardener tending to seedlings. The result was a meal I will never forget. It was served in large, shallow bowls flanked by eager eaters hunkered down on their haunches. This meal is usually eaten with the fingers, but after several sad attempts and a few snickers from my neighbors, someone handed me a large spoon and I dug in with fervor. But what struck me more than the intense flavors was the camaraderie and joy that bubbled up to the surface. We all felt it--all 25 of us. As predicted, there were lots of leftovers which we promptly delivered to a nearby dwelling less fortunate than ours. Giving back a little Teranga sure felt good.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Home Delivery

I lived in New York City for 16 years of my life so I know all about home delivery, especially of the food ilk. On my very first evening in my very first apartment, alone and 21, I was petrified, stupefied and hungry. I took the elevator to the lobby of my apartment to talk to the one person who looked approachable, my doorman (look for more about doormen in a later post!) "Where is a good place to get something to eat around here?" I asked. He pulled out a large manila envelope from under the front desk and handed it to me. "You had a long, busy day," he said. "Why don't you order something in?" Those words and that stack of menus changed my life forever. My understanding of home delivery had been limited to the occasional late-night, oops forgot to eat, oops drank too much beer, oops can't remember who I made out with, Domino's Pizza in college. But this, this was different. Grilled Cheese and Tomato? Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, burgers, blintzes, bagels, eggs at 10:00pm? It was a dream come true for a tired working girl . . . which is why I gained 10 lbs. in my first six months in New York. Big City, Big Butt!
The stretch of beach in front of our house in N'gaparou, Senegal, offers an all together healthier daily delivery option. At about 9:00am, Aisha and Sarah stroll down to our house, always beautifully dressed and smiling, carrying bright, plastic buckets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables on their heads.  I usually don't see their approach, but hear them call to me in a lovely lilting duet "Ellen, Na nga def?" It's my favorite moment in the day, one that has become a familiar ritual, to see them smiling, exchange greetings and news (Aisha's cousin got married last week), and choose what strikes me on that particular day. They almost always have perfectly ripe pineapple, the reddest grapefruit and gigantic melons, along with small gold potatoes, non-waxed cucumbers, petite and delicate onions. They are the most expensive "marchands" because they have the freshest produce. However, I hand them the equivalent of only about $8 and watch them gracefully bend their lower bodies in order to set the baskets back on their heads. With a promise to see me tomorrow, god willing, with straight backs and long floor-length skirts, they perform a dance, as their arms reach up to balance their wares, and then, always to my disbelief, they remove their hands and walk down the stairs, swinging their arms, with nary a worry on their strong, slim shoulders.
I wonder what Ousmann, the fisherman, will bring me today?