Our Fragile Human Nature

Human Nature:
Raw. Desperation. Beauty. Fear.

Human nature is … so fragile. It is paper thin, like the wings of a butterfly. But people are so egocentric they only see themselves. And they think they are the only ones in the world who feel this intense fear inside themselves.

Isn’t it our nature to be afraid? If we do not feel fear, how will we strive, how will we become successful, how will we survive?

Maybe our fear is an instinct, like an animal’s smell of prey before even seeing it coming.

“Don’t worry this recording is going to be anonymous. Written. On paper.”

Your voice as clear as crystal, no shaking, and your knee high skirt a stark contrast to your buttoned up blouse. Up to the neck. You sit upright, no blemish on your perfect skin, your eyes hard to read…

“What are you afraid of?”

“-Failure. Isn’t that what is on everybody’s mind? What happens when we fail?
I’m scared of losing my job… and what comes with it. Sometimes I am afraid of people seeing through me, of people realising that I am not pretty… Because… I am not. Pretty. I know it. When I get home, and take my makeup off I see the ugliness of my skin and the tiredness in my eyes.
I just realised how superficial all of this is. What I’m saying…”

“No not at all. You are just being honest. When you were a child, were you scared about failure?”

“As a child…I think when we are young we see the world differently. I probably didn’t even know what failure meant! I was scared of the dark. When it was night I just couldn’t go outside alone.”

Imagine the world around you had no laws, no government, nobody to control you, nobody to judge you, nobody to punish you. What would you do?

Image courtesy: legend.az


The Farce Awakens

So many things that I felt during my volunteering…

Senegalese Adventures

First off, I just want to say this before turning to the actual seriousness of this blog: while I used a pop culture reference as the title for this entry, due to the fact that I live in the freakin’ African bush I have not actually seen the new Star Wars movie. The things I have given up…



A lot of blog-keeping Peace Corps volunteers write a development aid blog at some point in their service. I have been waiting until the end of my time here in Senegal to write mine and honestly, even after two years of this experience I still had a beast of a time writing this down. Its a hard subject to talk about with anybody who has never spent substantial time in the developing world.

But here goes…

Stage One: March 5, 2014 – January 2015. The “Yay aid!!!!!!!!” phase.

I joined the…

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The imminent arrival of departure

I know. I know.

Stop thinking about leaving. Enjoy your time now. Enjoy your last moments with the ones you love the most…

I want to forget that I am leaving in what…. 17 days, but…

Departure is in my head every single minute of the day. It is there when I talk to people, it is there when I stand on the terrace and look over Thiaroye, beautiful, messy Thiaroye. It is there when I laugh with people and when I my eyes fall asleep.

This departure looms over me like an ominous shadow, blurring the way I see things.

After having spent one whole year in Senegal, I just cannot keep calm at the thought of leaving all these people. When will I come back?

Once I leave, all these experiences, all these people, all these places will be gone, floating in a wind of memories…

But I want, I need, to promise to myself that even though I cannot stop thinking about this departure I will stay positive throughout these last few days and make the most of my stay. Most importantly of all, I don’t want to sadden people by letting the fear flowing through my body take hold of me.

So I will smile, breathe in Senegal and look forwards, forwards, forwards.


Fashion in Senegal

Beauty is defined by society, by media, by culture and even by the individual himself.

Every country has a different perspective of beauty. In Senegal, it is very common to buy one’s own fabric and to give it to the tailor to be sewn nicely. Colours and long flowing fabrics are a common everyday sight. Additionally, women tend to prefer the extravagant and the big. The more people look at you, the better.

In comparison to France, in which the colour palette is a lot more toned down and make-up is used to look ‘naturally beautiful’, Senegal uses everything from hair to shoes to stand out from the crowd.


Here are a few keypoints of Senegal fashion:

  • Like everything else, make-up is colourful. Most Senegalese women colour coordinate their eyeshadow with whatever they are wearing.
  • Taille-basse, a top and skirt sewn from african fabric is very popular amongst Senegalese females. Very tight, it compliments roundness and softens features.images     7273696-11179411
  • Hair-styles are very important. Senegalese are very good at tressing and often add false hair into their tresses to have long hair. Many women also like to wear wigs or a “greffage” (false hair sewn onto the head).42767__Feeding-Cornrows-2012-300x300     images4
  • Many young men like to do the ‘checkdown’ (wearing their jeans very low).
  • Fabrics of great variety and price can be found on every cornerstreet and change every year, influencing new fashion trends. It is for mariages, baptisms and big muslim celebrations (such as Tabaski), that people wear carefully chosen, embroidered and extravangant fabrics.

    Senegalese fashion reflects rich colours, traditional patterns and wide fabrics. Western style clothes however, are very popular as well, especially amongst the younger generations.

Photo courtesy from the following sites:



KHESSAL – Skin Whitening in Senegal

Somehow we humans are never happy with what we have.

Women with curly hair want it straight and those with straight hair want it curled.

In Europe, America, Australia, we use bronzing creams to attain a more ‘beautiful’, tanned skin, while in the whole African continent, in India in China, Thailand, Japan, women (and men as well) are considered more beautiful, the whiter they are.
Every culture has a different definition of beauty. I wonder who decides what is beautiful and what not? Is it the influence of the media? Is it fashion and its continuous changes? Is it tradition and historical background? Or is it simply the influence of society, of family and friends? I think it is a mixture of all these things.

After having lived in Senegal for ten months, I have heard a lot about Khessal. Firstly, almost all Khessal creams destroy the skin. I have seen so many women with discoloured, damaged skin; their feet and hands are white but there are little black spots everywhere, while the rest of their body is their natural skin colour. It is sad to see a woman destroy her skin (and in this process making it actually worse) just in order to become whiter.
The fact that skin whitening creams destroy your skin is widely known, however women continue to use them. One young women I spoke to told me that “one just hopes that it won’t happen to us. Not all creams damage the skin, so we just take the risk.”
One of my very good friends works in a cosmetics agency and sells Khessal creams (i.e. makes Khessal creams). When I asked him if he thought whether skin whitening was something good or bad, he just said that “it is the client that makes the choice, I just sell the products and make money.” But when I asked him if he thought women to be more beautiful after they had done the Khessal he told me that “women are beautiful as they are. There are many beautiful ‘coal-black’ women.”
Senegal is a country rich in languages and ethnicities. There are the Serere, the Wolof, the Toukouleur, the Diola, the Mandinko, the Manjaque and many other tribes. The Toukouleur, who have the lightest skin of all ethnicities have had a history of supremacy over the other ethnicities, while the Diola and the Serere, who are the darkest skinned, have always and still are being placed ‘at the bottom’.
Several men with whom I have spoken have told me they want a ‘djiguene bou khes’ (which means a ‘light-skinned’ woman in Wolof), because these are the most beautiful women.
In the end however, I don’t think that a man choses his wife due to skin shade. And if he does, then that is not true love and one will never be happy in one’s marriage.
I have heard women say ‘he is so ugly’, simply because the man they were talking about was very dark. When you meet someone however, when you talk to that person, when you laugh with that person, does it matter what their skin shade is?
What truly attracts people is their personality. If you are beautiful, but arrogant, selfish etc., people will move away from you after having seen your character.
One day one of my friends told me how the older generation used to do khessal… Women used to put petroleum cream (that invisible cream similar to Vaseline which smells of petrol) upon their whole body. Then they would but layers of clothes upon their bodies, most often sport training jackets and pants and would sit in the sun so they would sweat a lot. They would sit like that for several hours, then remove everything, wash their bodies and find themselves whitened.
What they did not know was that in fact the petroleum cream burns away their skin, removing several layers and excessively damaging their skin tissue. When the skin gets exposed to the sun, especially the hot Senegalese sun, it darkens naturally. Which means that after a few weeks these women would go through the whole procedure again. When I take the ‘car rapide’ (Senegalese public transport) I see so many old women, their skin completely ruined…
It is the fault of society and the media that people continue to do Khessal. Senegalese publicity spots should more often place darker skinned women and men as a representation of ‘beauty’.
When this will happen I have no idea…

How to successfully learn a language

  • Start by learning vocabulary. Every day, learn new words and familiarise yourself with the language.
    If you live in the country in which the language is spoken, carry a small notebook with you. Every time you hear something new, ask people what it is and write it down. Also ask for new words- everyday you should have written down and learnt a few new words, especially if you are starting to learn the language.
    Don’t only write words down, get them into your head, recite them before going to sleep so that you are sure that you know them.
  • Don’t be shy. People are always happy to help someone who is trying to learn their language!
  • Learn basic sentences, such as greetings and introductions, off by heart. As soon as you know them, start using them.
  • When you hear people talk, concentrate and listen. It is very easy to fade away when one cannot understand what someone is saying, but try and truly listen to a conversation and try to see if you can recognise any words you already know. This will also help you get accustomed to the sounds and way of pronunciation.
  • Immerse yourself completely- listen to music, watch movies and try to read (children’s books are always a good beginning).
  • Get interested into the languages culture and its country. Doing this will not only motivate you more, but it will also make you understand the ways of a language. For example, the importance of greeting people in Senegal (when mearning Wolof).
  • There are some really good and free language learning apps- download them, as they can be a fun way to learn. ‘Duolingo’ is pretty good and I suggest ‘Obenkyo’ for Japanese learners. ‘Apprendre le Wolof’ is perfect to learn Wolof, but you need to be able to speak French.
  • As soon as you start to understand the language, start studying sentence structure; figure out how you can build your own sentences. Then, start learning the language’s grammar: verb conjugation, how to form past, present and future etc.
  • Continue to learn vocabulary throughout and try to challenge yourself constantly.
  • Learning a language takes time so have patience!

Image courtesy of: blog.allmyfaves.com

Senegalese Similes

-Quelques anecdotes que seuls les Sénégalais (et ceux qui ont vécu au Sénégal) comprendront…

  • Regarde ce Toubab la! Il à tellement duré au soleil qu’il est devenu rouge comme le Dieg Bou Diar! En Wolof: Xonc nga ni dieg bou diar.
    (Le Dieg Bou Diar est une marque de pâte de tomate utilisé tout le temps dans la cuisine Sénégalaise.)
  • Ce qu’il parle, c’est du n’importe quoi, c’est comme mélanger le fondé avec le thieboudienne!
    (Le fondé est une sorte de bouillie sucré à base de mil alors que le thieboudienne, le plat national du Sénégal, est à base de riz avec des légumes et du poisson.)
  • Ah… son coeur est noir comme du café Touba!
    (Le café Touba est la spécialité du Sénégal; un café épicé et très sucré.)
  • Dans le bus je me sentais serrée comme dans une taille-basse!
    (La taille-basse est un habit pour femme- jupe et haut sont tout les deux très serrés. Cela se porte partout mais surtout les jours de fêtes!)
  • Elle est café au lait, elle est métisse!
  • J’ai tellement mal à la tête qu’on dirait que je me suis tressé hier!
    (Ce faire tressé fait très mal, cela donne des maux de tête, même parfois de la fièvre!)
  • Mais c’est moche comme une poule qui vient d’être tué!
    (Une poule morte n’est pas très jolie c’est sur…)
  • Ah je me sens réveillé comme si j’avais bu 10 cases de Ataya!
    (Le thé Sénégalais est très sucré et très fort- c’est sur qu’il te fait tenir debout!)
  • Elle m’a fait attendre comme le Ndogou du Ramadan!
    (Le Ndogou est le nom Wolof pour la rupture du jeune et c’est sur qu’après toute une journée sans manger ni boire, le ‘Ndogou’ ce fait bien attendre!)
  • Il a complètement changé ma vie, comme les pluies de l’hivernage qui rafraichissent une journée de chaleur.
    (Pendant la saison de l’hivernage les matinées sont souvent épouvantablement chaudes, alors que vers l’après-midi, après que les pluies descendent du ciel, l’air devient frais et agréable. C’est un changement paradoxal c’est sur!)
  • Aimé et apprécié comme Youssou N’dour.
    (Il n’y a aucun Sénégalais qui n’aime pas Youssou N’dour, le plus grand chanteur de Mbalax.)
  • Sa peau est douce comme le Jadida.
    (Jadida, une marque de margarine très connue pour sa ‘douceur’.)
  • Elle est Toukouleur mais elle est noir comme un Diola.
    (Les ethnies des Diolas sont très connus pour être très noirs, alors que les Toukouleurs sont connu pour être plus clairs.)
  • Riche comme Thione Seck.
    (Thione Ballago Seck, un grand chanteur de Mbalax et père du fameux Waly Seck, a récemment été dévoilé a avoir faussé des milliers de billets d’argent. Alors qu’il était déjà très riche, il a voulu s’enrichir encore plus!)
  • Lourd comme un sac de riz.
    (Ici, comme l’on mange du riz tous les jours, les familles achètent de grands sac de riz qui peuvent durer quelques mois pour nourrir la famille.)
  • Il y avait tellement de gens, comme le jour avant la Tabaski au marché HLM!
    (Le jour avant la grande fête religieuse de la Tabaski, tout le monde a besoin d’argent. C’est pour cela qu’au grand marché HLM de Dakar, les foules se pressent pour faire de bonnes affaires avec les marchands.)
  • Connu comme le Wolof.
    (Pour communiquer il faut connaitre le Wolof, qu’importe si tu es Serer, Diola ou Français…)

Les Talibes

-The Talibes, no! It’s bad, real bad!

-How can parents send their children away like that? Is it because they have too many children, they don’t have the means to take care of all of them?

-Yes that’s right…

-And the Marabout gets everything?

-Everything! Have you seen the Talibes walking in the street? Their clothes are ripped, they don’t even have any shoes!
Here in Dakar if you buy clothes for a Talibe, they will take off these clothes and will sell them so they can get a bit of money. If they would keep these clothes, they know that upon their return to the ‘Daara’, the Marabout will take their new clothes and give it to his own children. So they prefer to sell them and thus keep the money. With the money they buy themselves food which they eat quickly before returning in the evening….

-But that’s crazy! That’s just so crazy! …. Do Senegalese support this…religious system?

-No. Most Senegalese don’t, but nobody does anything. You know, the Marabout have a lot of power. They are everywhere, they are a big part of politics. And this is religion we are talking about. Even if it is bad religion, it is still religion.

-Ah I see… Have you ever been to a Daara?


-Today… I saw…. It was such a small room. They told me that there are 50 of them sleeping in there. I still can’t believe it! How can 50..!? If one of them gets sick, everybody else catches the sickness as well. And there were so many flies…

-You see!

-We treated their wounds, did a few band aids, we even talked to the four Marabout. Samba told me these Marabout are good men. I had this burning question upon my tongue (Are these Marabout like all others? Do they take all the money from the Talibes?), but I knew I couldn’t ask in front of them and when we left…. It was so hot, the burning sun and the tiredness filling my body made me forget.

-What do the Talibe do when they get older? How can they ever get a job? They can’t speak, they can’t read French…

-Exactly! Well most of them become Marabout as well; they create their own Daara…

-It’s like a vicious cycle!

-Yes, a vicious cycle it is…

Who are the Talibes?

A Talibe’s day is filled with begging in the street and learning verses from the Koran. Every Talibe lives in a Daara (housing/shelter) and belongs to one or several Marabout, who is their teacher and guardian until they are twenty years old.

In Senegal, there are thousands and thousands of Daara. Many families living in the villages send their children to bigger cities to become Talibes, seeing it as a good opportunity for their children to gain religious understanding. Additionally, many parents don’t have enough means to sustain all of their children.

Some are as young as two, three years old. The youngest I saw was four years old. Most of them never see their families again; from the day they become a Talibe, they are under the supervision of a Marabout. It is he who teaches them religious verses from the Koran and sends them out to beg in the streets to learn ‘humility’. The money a Talibe collects, goes into the hands of the Marabout- it is he who provides them with food and shelter. Most Talibes however, are not treated well; clothes, food, sleep, health and moral support is not properly taken care of.

If you live in Senegal, you know the Talibe. Every day, you cross them in the streets. It is only when you go into a Daara however, that you truly realize in what conditions these children are living.

Today was overwhelming:

Beads of sweat upon our skin, flies are everywhere and… it is so hard to keep a straight face when you walk into the slums. I didn’t want these people to read my face, I didn’t want them to see the feelings that were running inside me.

The slums are nothing compared to the ghetto I live in.


In the ghetto people don’t live in sheds built from a few thin metal sheets.

The Daara I visited is surrounded by a slum; these people live next to a huge rubbish heap and the airport itself and….

I am so lucky.

I am so lucky in this world.

It is so easy for me. I spend a few hours there, I talk to people, I try to understand their lives… But then, I can just walk away. And the thing that hurts me the most is that they can’t.

There are so many people living there. If I try to change something there, there will always be more and more people.

My friend Samba is helping the Talibes. I admire him and his team, because what must be really hard is walking in there and choosing only a group of children to help, all the time knowing that there are so many others as well!
I felt many things: tiredness, shock, uncertainty, but most of all I felt so powerless…


I wonder in what situation the Talibes will be in years to come?

I don’t think one can remove this system, but I have heard of organizations creating buildings for these children, teaching them math and French as well as the Koran, places where they can play and where they can eat well.

I hope that is the direction not only the Marabouts but also we as a society, will thrive to support.

Image courtesy: yveslebelge.skynetblogs.be

Thiaroye in all its greatness

Thiaroye is a humid mess- sometimes it is only 25 degrees but it feels like 45 because the air is just so thick, so heavy.
Even with the ventilator, a film of sweat covers our skin and water always needs to be within a hands reach.

It reminds me of Australia and those hot school days spent within a scratchy uniform. I am still within hot classrooms without air conditioning, but instead of being a student, it is I who is the teacher now…

And I have to say that sometimes, that can be very tiring! Especially if you have three classes one after the other, from 15 until 18 o’clock non-stop. The smile of a child knowing his alphabet however, brings one back to reality.

In the evening, when dark clouds cover the sky, everyone knows it is time to run home if you don”t want to walk through knee-high water while getting absolutely drenched by the thousands of waterfalls falling from the sky.

If  you made it safely back however, you hear the thunder, you see the rushing water and you smile, because, at least for a few hours, it will be cool and refreshing. And it is beautiful…

And who doesn’t mind a candlelit dinner?

Thiaroye in all your greatness, you are a wooden bench on which I slept at school, too lazy to go back home into the stuffy room.

You are laughter and the sweetness of ataya (Senegalese tea).

You are gossip and stumbles.

You are so familiar now that even though I am still a Toubab here, I am called Maimouna in the street.

You are so filled with colours, sounds and smells that sometimes things go so fast they become a blur. But everything has become a lot clearer these last few months. The blur has changed into distinctive forms, images which are now fixed into my mind.

My body, is not confused anymore but rather dances to the rest of the beat, the beat of the people of Thiaroye.

Image prise par A. Granier

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