a retrospective look at February

Phoebe Shea Perez - Senegal


June 1, 2019

After
looking at and listening to past journal entries, notes in my phone, audio
recordings from late at night when I’d talk to myself, drawings from my
siblings, photo reminders, and memories engraved in foreign songs, I’ve begun
to develop an appreciation for the beauty of my
Février in Touba Toul.

My
unhealthy obsession with individualizing systemic issues and the
post-independent travel readiness to leave my host country made January the
most frustrating of months in Senegal. 
The
anticipated anxiety of leaving and the eagerness to make up for all the lost
time rendered March so exasperating and bittersweet – by far, more bitter than
sweet.

But
February was composed of 28 lovely, meaningful days – there were annoying times
and deeply fulfilling ones, there was as much ignorance as there was knowledge,
but even my xamuma’s had grown
mature, even they carried themselves more gracefully. There was good and bad
and there was a balance.

In honor of
the love I’ve developed for this time, I wanted to share some of the phrases in
the languages that dominated my sojourn in Senegal and to tell some of the habitual occurrences and particular stories that made this month so extraordinary.

 

02/02/19 – sa bess bu dellu si moo neex

Literal
Meaning: The day you arrived here was good

Actual
meaning: happy birthday!

This day
was my (biological) dad’s birthday. Along with my mom, he’s one of the most
important reasons why I feel so grounded in my roots and, simultaneously, so
free to leave the places I call home and go looking for new ones. I recorded a
video this day asking friends to wish him happy birthday in whatever languages
they wanted to and one of my favorite beignet ladies taught me to say this. I
asked her the Wolof equivalent of “joyeux
anniversaire”
and she struggled to remember it for a while, something I eventually
grew accustomed to, as I noticed common phrases in Wolof had been replaced by
the French versions, even in the lexicon of people who don’t speak French
fluently.

 

02/03/19 yag na

Meaning:
it’s been a while

One of the
things I found quite common and endlessly enjoyable was being invited to go
spend the afternoon (or even an entire day) at different people’s houses. Each
time, there was always a plentiful ceebujenn meal (rice and fish à la
senegalaise!), tea-making and drinking moments, nap-taking alone and with all
the women in the family, and charming conversations over the most uneventful
topics. One such Sunday, I went to cook and to have lunch with my uncle’s
family. After we had finished with all the cooking and cleaning, my aunt and I
went to watch music videos on the TV in the
fancy living room. Just as a new song started playing, my uncle quietly entered
the living room to get some school papers he needed to grade. One of my
favorite things then happened: witnessing an older person unexpectedly
encounter something from their youth. He stood in complete silence, barely
moving at all. Then, when the song ended, he said with a somewhat melancholic
smile “yag na” – it’s been a while.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EPZtlPXm08

 

02/09/19 – jot na


Meaning: it’s time

February was the
month for presidential elections in Senegal. Quite interestingly, there was a vibrant
conversation over France’s presence in Senegal. Historically, this (former)
colonial power has yielded powerful influence over the country –
  most notably seen in the fact that the
country operates with French as the official language and that the official
currency is the French-controlled CFA (originally standing for Colonies
Françaises en Afrique / French Colonies in Africa; currently meaning Communauté
Financière Africaine / African Financial Community).
Jot na / it’s time was the campaign slogan of one
of the 5 candidates: Ousmane Sonko. Sonko based his campaign on denouncing
liberal economic practices (as it pertains to gas and oil contracts and tax
exemptions for foreign and local companies) and proposing re-negotiations for
the fair distribution of profits, to the benefit of the Senegalese people. His
most noteworthy point, however, was that he advocated for Senegal to leave the
CFA zone; that is, to stop using the currency backed by France and instead to
establish a national currency. This was a rather controversial point not only because
of the vagueness of his alternative to the financial status quo, but also
because it represented a direct attack to France’s economic interests in the
region.

[P.S.: No,
he didn’t win.]

 

02/12/19 – Mangi melni damay wax ak muur

Translation:
it seems like I’m talking to the wall

Sadly, this
phrase took over my tongue when talking to the students in the English classes
I helped to teach. Each two-hour session served as a harsh reminder of how
terribly hard it is to sustain a nourishing class environment when there are
45+ students in the classroom, an absence of material resources, and a
high-demanding curriculum. Of all the high school courses, English is unique
because it operates under the Communicative Linguistic Teaching curriculum and
thus, doesn’t work in the traditional way. English classes are more interactive
– students recreate events, come up with skits, lead warm-ups, engage in
relevant discussion, and take more ownership over their foreign language
acquisition. In some classes, we discussed terrorism in West Africa and had
conversations about the different interpretations of and activities associated
with Islam as a religion, given that Senegal’s Islam is relatively liberal.
Other days we wrote speeches on the importance of democracy, read articles
about the health effects of skin lightening practices in Senegal, and wrote
letters to the minister of education regarding the use and misuse of technology
in classroom settings… English classes, above all, considered students and
teachers equal participants in the learning process AND were intended to be
specific to the social context of the students. As a Paulo Freire nerd, I was
at first amazed by the institutional attempt to promote such a radical
education model. After working in this environment, however, my understanding
of this pedagogical style in the Senegal, high-school context was challenged.

Slowly, I
realized that encouraging students to get into a critical mindset for one optional
class when in every other required course, they simply memorized information to
later regurgitate during exams was so disorienting for them that when they came
to our class, they just listened and tried to hold on to whatever they could
write, while teachers helplessly were forced to have conversations with the
walls. 


Phoebe Shea Perez