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Friday, February 27, 2009

Leaving the Shore

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore" ~Andre Gide

I am not a risk-taker by nature. Most people looking at my life from the outside would say that's a ludicrous statement. I am, after all, in Senegal, Africa, having agreed to follow my husband here because he is the explorer in this relationship and I am the often reluctant, fearful follower. Where he sees beauty and potential in the open flow of living something unknown, I imagine the thickness, the dark what-ifs that we may not have control over. I suppose somewhere between us lies a balance that allows him to reign in his blind excitement and permits me to slowly explore my unwarranted fears. I trust Richard, his instincts and his talents, and so I almost always acquiesce to the bigger decisions in our lives, like coming here. I credit myself with at least recognizing the value of being led out of my comfort zone from time to time. It's the smaller, seemingly insignificant choices that always pose the bigger problem for me, the ones that are my decision alone, that don't effect anyone else. I tend to be the one who sits and watches, who stays behind (because someone has to), who reads a book and watches the fun out of the corner of my eye.
At the beginning of this week, we took a short trip to the Sine-Saloum Delta along the Saloum River, which is Senegal's only functioning area of protected waterways.  We accompanied a family of eight--French friends of ours who have a vacation home not far from ours and who had visited this area before. The 4-hour drive took us through a changing landscape of arid bushland to a river surrounded by tropical forest and dotted with small, mostly unpopulated islands. Along the way, we passed flat-land salt paddies that stretched to the horizon, their white crystals collecting around the edges of the marsh basins. We decided to take the sand route that ran parallel to the  cattle-laden "highway" after an hour long obstacle course of vertebrae-crushing potholes. For the kids, skidding through the sand in our 4-wheel drive Landcruiser was better than any amusement park ride. Monkeys skittered among the low bushes and, apart from a few intermittent cars, we were alone for most of the time, the other members of our caravan having passed us long ago in their modern minivan. Every hour or so, we would start to see women walking along the side of the road, indicating that we were approaching a village. As we slowly drove through these densely populated areas, the children would run to the side of the road to wave and smile at us, jumping up and down, sometimes dancing, shouting "toubab, toubab" (a non-derogatory word meaning simply "white people".) Sunny and Jamie would lean out the window, their arms stretching towards the children, sometimes grasping small fingers for a moment as we passed by. We stopped for fresh clementines, bread and Baobab fruit, otherwise know as "monkey bread", which naturally heals and prevents all sorts of stomach ailments. When we arrived in the village of Toubakouta, it was mid-day and very hot. We shed most of our clothes, keeping only what kept us decently covered and waited for the pirogue boat which would take us to Keur Bamboung, the island that would host us at its eco-lodge. After loading the boat with provisions and overnight bags, the half-hour ride to the island along the Saloum river left our group silent. We meandered through crystal waters framed by miles of lushly green mangroves as dolphins accompanied the wake of the boat. Once on the island, a donkey cart was loaded with our belongings and our tired children, while the adults and older children set off on foot for a two-mile hike to the other side of the island where the camp sat. We were welcomed at the main lodge with cold drinks and then led to our round huts made of earth bricks and thatched windows and ceilings. There are six in total, each perched on the precipice overlooking the river and equipped with a water tank, solar powered lights and surprisingly comfortable beds. Nothing to do, no sounds save the occasional human voice, tropical birds and monkeys. As Richard and the kids rested, I sat outside taking in the views and reading a book. I heard laughter coming from the river basin and decided to explore. Our friends had changed into their bathing suits and were down below splashing in the river. Because it was low tide, there was an area of open water and then a large part of the basin was exposed. I watched as they swam across the river to the delta and began to walk among the birds and close to the mangroves. On a whim, I ran back to our hut, stripped and threw my bathing suit on, then ran down the path, descended the rickety stairs to the water to join them. By the time I got there, they had all swum back and were laying on the beach, panting out their enthusiasm. Oh, I thought to myself, I missed it. Maybe next time. As they climbed the stairs and their voices faded, I walked into the water to wet my feet. I couldn't see the bottom. The air was starting to chill. I was tired. I was alone. My book was waiting. It was just as well. I looked across to the wide expanse on the other side. Was it near or was it far? The flat bottom of the river bubbling up visibly, birds hovering, some picking their way along the massive flats, mangroves swaying at the edge of the distant shore. Then I looked back down at my feet in the water. I inched in a little further. Sun descending. A small current swirling. Something darting between my ankles. Feet in the water isn't much, I thought. A small shiver. And I dove.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Breakfast Club

I have always wondered what it would be like to have a large family, a house bustling with kids, forever in my way and yet catching me on the brink of losing my patience with some antic that brings me back to laughter. I have that family in my life right now, although I know they have only been lent to me. They are not mine to keep. I call them 'The Breakfast Club"-- seven Senegalese children ranging in age from 4 to 14 who live behind our rented house on the beach. They are the various children and grandchildren of Barbakar, the guardian of our property. It's hard to say how old Barbakar is, but I'm guessing he must be in his seventies. He is tall and lean, with deep, blood-shot eyes that betray his hardships and a thin smile that attempts to overcome them. He is responsible for feeding, housing and caring for over 20 people who live with him in his small but clean house. There is constant activity emanating from those walls, people coming and going, hellos and goodbyes at the door, waving down the street to so and so, arguing amongst themselves. The din that reaches our ears is another language altogether, one mixed with foreign words and unfamiliar intonations. Sometimes it is soothing, other times disconcerting. In the interior courtyard, there are several stray cats and 10 goats that help dispose of fish carcasses, food scraps and all sorts of household debris. There are two wobbly newborn goats who I call "thing one" and "thing two" and when they bleat for their mother's milk, you'd swear you were hearing a small child's cry. Sometimes it is. Either way, my adrenaline flows and I have no way of knowing if I am responding to animal or human stress.
Who lives in Barbakar's house? His family tree is a complicated one to decipher. Each time I try to figure it out, I get lost in the labyrinth of his relations. All I know is that he's in the middle somewhere, growing old in the hot sun, providing shade to the others and spreading roots that can barely be contained. If you ask any of these children how they are related to the others they will tell you "he is my brother" or "she is my sister," although it isn't true. They also have no idea how old they are or on what day, in what month or in what year they were born. What for us is a an identifying piece of information engraved in our memory, is to them birth facts recorded in a family ledger. Because the Muslim religion condones polygamy, Barbakar has at least two wives that we know of, one of whom lives with him. Two of the oldest children are his by this wife, two appear to belong to the wife's sister, who abandoned them, and the rest are grand-children or second cousins as best we can figure. None of these details matters to any of them. They share a roof and a life and so they are family. 
Their infiltration into our own small family came about gradually. In the beginning we would glimpse them all hiding behind our fence, too shy to be seen, but young enough to be heard. Their whispers would turn to screeching laughter once we turned our heads. They would run away but always come back in the afternoon, this time walking on the beach in front of our house, pointedly ignoring us. I spoke to the oldest one, Aysa, on a day when the others weren't around and asked her to come up the stairs. She shook our hands and smiled at Sunny and Jamie and left. Somehow that small gesture broke the barrier and served, in her mind, as an invitation to put the games aside and enter our lives. She is the steward, the responsible party, the leader of the pack. These children, though always clean and well-mannered, do not attend school and are left to their own devices during the day. For a 14 year old, Aysa manages very well, caring for these children, dressing, feeding and commanding good behavior. But she is still a child and I love to see that side of her, her bright laughter when she occasionally lets go of her responsibilities. But even when she plays, braiding Barbie's hair or putting the doll's small clothes back on the right way, I can see that this is not really fun for her, but rather her need to keep things orderly, her constant attempt to put things right.
Besides Aysa, according to age, the children are: Sorna, Bou, Alisahn, Nabu, Leinda, and little Djimba who is exactly Sunny's height and size. I call them The Breakfast Club, because shortly after we met Aysa, she began bringing them over every morning on the early side. They would shake our hands and then we would all sit quietly outside, taking each other in, not quite awake or comfortable with each other, culturally or linguistically. I began offering them whatever we had leftover from our breakfast: heals of bread, pieces of cheese, half a fruit, butter, jam, cereal, milk. The food would disappear within minutes and they would wake up a bit, relieved to have food in their stomachs, and the day would unfold. Over time, the silent handshakes were replaced by big smiles and small touches and eventually hugs and kisses. Once afraid to cross the threshold, they now enter without knocking. Like any friendship, time brings about deeper levels of feeling and familiarity, expectations and habit. After three months of knowing them, the once shy, silent group now moves in and out of our house individually, with total ease and confidence. They are always here. There are games, books being read, walks on the beach, fish and crabs brought back and dissected, hair being braided, clothes being washed, songs being sung, running, jumping, dancing, cuts to be healed. Jamie and Sunny have welcomed them as much, if not more, than Richard and I. They share more easily, dare more often, give without hesitation. The few occasions that they have been invited into Barbakar's home have given them an understanding of otherness, of basic needs barely being met. It's not so complicated for my own children to recognize that their friends don't have what they have and because they love them, they want to help. Sunny and Jamie, who once refused to share that last cookie between them, now hand that cookie to someone else. They have given these children their own toys, clothes and simpler things like unusual shells, rocks or flowers. There is an easy give and take that I love. Sometimes, Aysa will ask me to give her oil, flour and sugar. But she returns later that day with the Madeleines or beignets that she has baked for us. We often play Senegalese music for them on our ipod and they try to teach us impossibly limber dance moves, arms and legs flailing in all directions. Like any family, there are also lines that get crossed, barriers that are tested and must be re-established. There is always a point in the day when I tell them its time for them to go home. But before that time comes, we all mark the end of our day with a walk on the beach before the sun goes down and that's when I feel this family the most. I never know who will take my hand, who will bring me a whelk's shell, where we will go, what tomorrow will bring.
Our egos, as privileged people, tend to derive great satisfaction from helping those less fortunate by giving them what we think is missing from their lives. In most cases, foreigners who visit Senegal (or any impoverished country) feel the need to give money, to buy them what we think they need. They will ask, and because we feel something akin to survivor guilt, we will give. I've learned that this is a dangerous habit, solving only a need in ourselves to fix what feels uncomfortable. Money has little value here and the gesture is soon forgotten. It is spent too quickly because it is already owed and when it becomes expected, it becomes poisonous. What we have built with these children--relationships, love, trust--feels more like human currency and the rewards have been pure and numerous, not just for them, but more unexpectedly for us. They have given us a return to basic ways of relating, taught us that our worlds are divergent and similar at the same time, helped us to eclipse our cultural differences, and reminded us how to love each other a little bit better with a lot less complication.
Photo #1 Left to right: Aysa, Sunny, Sorna, Alisahn, Jamie, Bou
Photo #2 Jamie & Bou
For those of you on Facebook, look for more photos of The Breakfast Club on my page.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Fish Sticks: The Reason and the Recipe

Before we came to Africa, where everything is distilled to its simplest form, my children believed that fish sticks came from the ocean intact, washed up on the shore waiting to be packaged in bright yellow boxes of 18 or 36 by a slicker-clad salty Sea dog. All you had to do was heat them up, put them on a plate, blow on them a bit, then eat them. Goldfish crackers also fell into this category, because, well they're fish, although they weren't soggy and they tasted like Vermont cheddar. 

Before we came to Africa, if you were to ask my children where apples and oranges and all form of produce came from, they would have said, "the grosswie." They would have also offered that cookies and cakes are made inside hollowed trees by cheerful, pudgy elves, save the exceptional cupcakes from their favorite bakery, which are as anyone knows, made by winged kitchen fairies. 

This is of course the shared fault of the proliferation of child-targeted TV ads and my laziness when it came to shopping for and preparing their meals. Actually, because I let them watch commercial laden children's shows (but never while eating!), it's entirely my fault. Shame on me. Our willful ignorance as a consumer society only became glaringly apparent to me once I was removed from it. 

We've forgotten the origin of our food!  We've turned our backs on the growing cycle, nature's generous involvement in what we put on our plates and in our bodies. Instead we rely on other people, often large profitable companies, to tell us what to eat, what's "good" for us and what to avoid. Preparing a meal has never been easier (just look for the red heart symbol in the frozen food section) and because EASY is an option nowadays in many areas of our lives, its what we fall back on most of the time. Hey, I'm not judging anyone. I am as guilty as the next person and I'm a cook. But while I painstakingly toiled over Blanquette de Veau for the adults in my life, I was dulling my children's tastebuds (and general health) with boxed protein, pre-sliced, pre-packaged veggies and treats that enticed more for the cartoon characters on the outside than the taste itself.

So being in Senegal, where a meal isn't so evident either in terms of procurement or preparation, felt like the perfect opportunity to remind myself, and educate my children, about where our food comes from. I decided to get back to basics now that the ease and temptation of packaged foods has been removed. The home-made chocolate chip cookies that I began whipping up for them elevated me to miracle-worker status in their eyes. "Wow, mom, did the elves teach you how to make these?"  (No, dears, an insider-trading megalomaniac home-maker named Martha Stewart did.)

Hand in hand and without intention came a second reminder about waste and how fortunate we are to have three meals a day. One morning in a remote seaside village we were visiting, my children saw about 10 young Senegalese, resembling more a soccer team than a group of friends fishing, haul a huge net out of the ocean and pick through it, keeping the larger fish. We made a game out of searching for the unwanted, too small or not so perfect ones and hurriedly flinging them back to the ocean, thereby rescuing any number or Nemos in a single day. After our task was finished (and we took it very seriously), my children began looking at the fish that lay in the buckets and questions ensued about staring eyes, gills, fins, and tails, heads and bones. We watched another round of net fishing and headed home. 

That night my son requested fish sticks for dinner. Coincidence? I think not. "I don't think we can find those in Africa,"  I said automatically, picturing the frozen box with longing on behalf of my son who missed what was familiar. But wait! There was fish to be had, and bread crumbs, and so I decided to try a homemade version. After he wrinkled his nose because they didn't look exactly the way he remembered them, and after a fair amount of prodding, Jamie tried one and then another and after two plates full, proclaimed that they were the best he'd ever had! 

So what if I couldn't multitask while the frozen, mass-manufactured kind heated in the oven? It was worth the time to prepare real fish instead of parts and flavor enhancers. Just good 'ole fashioned real food, the way we used to serve it. Hmm, I think I might be on to something. Here's the recipe. It's simple and it ain't just for kids.

AfricanEllen's Homemade "Batons de Poissons"

Serves 2 hungry kids and 2 adults
2-3 fillets of fresh Monk fish (or any other firm fish)
1 cup of flour
1-2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups plain breadcrumbs seasoned with salt & pepper (I made my own using leftover stale bread)
2 tablespoons (+) of vegetable or olive oil
lemon or lime slices

Cut fish fillets into small, thick strips about  two inches long.
Fill three shallow pans in a row of the flour, the egg and finally the breadcrumbs.
While you heat the oil over medium heat in a large saute pay, prepare the fish.
Dredge each piece in the flour, coating both sides. Shake off excess.
Now dip the floured fish in the egg to coat both sides.
Finally, dredge the fillets in the breadcrumbs.
Place the fish pieces in the hot oil until nicely browned on both sides, flipping after about 4 minutes.
Squeeze the lemon or lime over them and serve with rice and a fresh green salad.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Hook, Line and Sinker

There comes a time in every relationship when the rose-colored glasses begin to fog up or get salty and gritty from constant wear. It only takes something small, some imperceptible shift and we begin to clearly see forgivable faults in that person (or place), tiny fissures in the pristine facade that we ourselves constructed. After all, no one is perfect, no place without it's secrets. And when we focus back in again, after digesting the imperfections, we may even find the new vision charming, particularly if we are in love.
My experience with Ousmann, the fisherman, was like a huge windshield wiper on my heretofore untainted view of Senegal. He came sauntering down the beach one day and introduced himself as the brother of Ballah, the cook at our neighborhood French restaurant. Ousmann provided all their fish and since I had eaten said fish on many occasions, I knew it was fresh and very tasty. He told us he made his living this way, fishing tirelessly at night and selling his catch to "a select few clients" the following morning. Wow! I felt privileged and proud, like my local connections had yielded a back-stage pass to "people in the know in Senegal." We began buying fish from him on a bi-weekly basis, and each time he came, he would linger a little longer, telling us his story. As he casually puffed on a cigarette, we learned how he came to be a fisherman (his Dad had been one and taken him out on long hauls at the tender age of four), his favorite fish to catch (Bar, because it was the most challenging) and how his life was hard  (exhausting hours alone on his Pirogue boat, a single unreliable light to guide his way and his line through the perilous night waters). I wasn't sure if I appreciated his fish or his stories more, but Richard and I came to anticipate his visits. A novice fisherman, Richard relished the details of Ousmann's technique and wanted to know if he could go out on the boat with him sometime. "Inshallah" was Ousmann's only response. "God willing." So the weeks passed and we congratulated ourselves on our Mediterranean diet and our resourcefulness. I began to notice that Ousmann was a remarkably precise fisherman, catching exactly what we wanted at exactly the moment we wanted it. "Next time you catch some sole", I'd say," we'd love a few small ones." Or, "Gee we haven't had red carp in a while." "Wouldn't some monk fish be tasty." The next morning, he'd bound up the steps, catching his flip-flop on the last stair and voila . . . sole, red carp, monk fish! A talent this rare is hard to come by and so we praised him for it.  He promptly raised his prices citing inflation, lack of tourists, the need to buy a new rudder for his boat. Oh, well, that's the price you pay for a personal fisherman, we rationalized. 
Shortly after one of Ousmann's morning deliveries, I ran into his brother, Ballah, on the beach and thanked him for introducing us to our fisherman extraordinaire. We were so pleased with him and were awed by what an amazing talent he had. He must be so proud of his brother given the long nights Ousmann spent on his boat, sacrificing so much to follow in their father's footsteps. Judging by the smile on Ballah's face, I was touching on family honor. But that smile crept slowly into laughter and by the time I had finished touting his brother's accomplishments, he was doubled over on the ground, unable to speak. He raised his hand to indicate that he would be with me in a moment, when his fit had subsided. I wondered if Ballah was epileptic. I started to laugh along nervously, because, of course, that kid of belly-aching joy is contagious. "What?" I asked finally. "What! My face grew serious as Ballah explained between renewed bouts of laughter that their father had been a welder and that Ousmann had never been on a boat in his life. The only thing he had ever tried to catch was a woman and that had not been successful. He didn't know how to swim and the only reason he knew the difference between a monkfish and a carp was because that was what the purveyor handed him when he bought it at the fish market. And resold it to us. For twice as much.
Ousmann the fisherman promptly became Ousmann the lying, stinking bastard! I huffed and puffed my way back to our house, seething. I had been had, cheated, lied to, taken for a lousy tourist. But as I began recounting the story to Richard, I started laughing because the story was funny. And as I laughed, I forgave. Still smarting the next day, Richard confronted Ousmann and asked him why he had done it? "I thought it was what you wanted to hear," he said, and continued down the beach with his cooler full of bought, not caught, fish. I thought about the real fisherman who had provided all of our dinners and wondered if he was any where near as colorful as Ousmann. Hadn't he entertained us? Wasn't that worth something? Perhaps the romance was over, but I had believed because I had wanted to be wooed. I had no one to blame but myself and the rose-colored glasses I had willingly placed before my callow eyes. And what I had seen was a fisherman, what I had heard was his tale. Ousmann's lure had been his lore and I had fallen for it . . . hook, line and sinker.

End note: I mentioned Ousmann in an earlier post, back when I believed he was a fisherman. This picture was taken yesterday. We came to an arrangement where he still brings us fish from the market from time to time. But there are no more stories.