Joal

Elizabeth Schmidt - Senegal


December 2, 2014

I have now been in country for two months and I have made the switch to my final host stay. Although I am going to miss my family in Dakar, I definitely feel like I left off in the best possible way. My two older brother had become some of my best friends, my uncles and I are super chummy, mom/grandma (I don’t actually know which she was) and I started to have real conversations, my two younger sisters and I went on a macramé bracelet making spree, and Karl, the other American, is actually pretty cool and also became my good friend.

Now I am living in the city of Joal, a moderately-sized city of about 40,000 in the Petite Cote. It sits right on the beach and has a huge fishing industry, which basically sustains the entire city between yielding fish for food and also the taxes that are brought in by exports to Guinea and other parts of Senegal.

My house is a small walled plot of land in the busy part of the city. Most of it is an open yard with close-lines. The indoor part consists of the bedrooms and a small living room with a thick pad to sit on and a television. Our kitchen and bathroom are across the yard and there is a separate room for showering and the toilet, which is a porcelain squatty potty. The shower room is a small space with floor that slopes into a drain, and we shower with buckets of water. Inside the kitchen is a small cast iron stove, a table with all the dishes, pots, and pans, a mortar and pestle, and two buckets for food waste that my mother empties into the ocean every week. The stove is heated with coal and when my mom lights it, she often has to carry it outside so that the smoke doesn’t choke us out of the kitchen.

Next to my house is the school where my dad works and where I am teaching English. Like my house, it is a mostly open space with indoor classrooms lining the perimeter. Each classroom consists of many desks facing a giant chalk board. In the middle of the school is a basketball court/soccer field. Although school technically started at the beginning of October, it was another week or two before classes begun because many of the kids stay home to help their parents on the farms and others are just take their time coming home from visiting family for Tabaski. The outside of the school is painted in bright colors. The pictures: different ways to get AIDS, including needle injection, intercourse (the picture is just people cuddling), and mother to child. In front of my house and the school is a sandy yard were kids play soccer and a group of wrestlers and college kids hang out and chat. My first day in Joal, I thought that all the guys here were super buff because most of the ones I had met were wrestlers. One of them, the town’s first national champion, said that he will take me anywhere in the country that I want and show me around. Later, he also said that he would make me his wife within a year, but I managed to convince him that my mom in the US would be a better match. Now, he says that she would be better off with his father, who is closer to her age. So he went from being my husband, to my dad, to my brother –  you know, no problem.

There are markets on either side of my house, which are basically semi-open shelters with dimly lit rooms separated by sheets of fabric and a more open space for fish and vegetables. At both of them are people selling fabric and other random goods—basically any non-food things that you buy in a super market in the US can be found there—in the more closed spaces. The rooms for most of the food are filled with tables pilled with vegetables—carrots, cabbage, okra, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, things that look like baby pumpkins, bissap, sweet potatoes, and a lot of root vegetables that look like sweet potatoes, but that are definitely something else. Most of the fish is fresh (in fact, the venders de-scale and gut it right there, or we just wait and do it at home) but there is also a huge assortment of dried fish that I have barely begun to get a grasp of. On the perimeter of this room are people selling spices that are hung from the ceiling in small bags, oil, and various condiments/ packaged food (mustard is used to cook just about every other dish).

My job in the kitchen is usually to peel and chop the vegetables (we do not use any cutting boards) and drop them in a bowl of water. Afterwards, I use a mortar and pestle to grind or mush any spices that we are using. However, the small amount of work that I have done has made me feel far more intimate with my food’s anatomy. My mother is slowly letting me do more in the kitchen, and I can almost prepare ceebu jen on my own, YAY!!! A huge leap was when she started letting me handle meat, which has certainly made me feel more intimate with my food’s autonomy. For anyone who has not been presented with the opportunity to wash a goat head with your fingers or pull the fins of a fresh fish, I can’t necessarily say that I recommend it exactly, but neither would I dissuade you from giving it a try. The meat won’t bite you or anything; after all, it is pretty dead at that point.

Besides cooking lunch and dinner from scratch (breakfast is usually a baguette with cheese, butter, off-brand Nutella, spaghetti, fish paste, red beans, or peas), we also clean the house every morning, sweeping and scrubbing the floor with a rag. Because the house is small and doesn’t have carpets we can do this, clean the shower and toilet, and do laundry (by hand) within an hour and a half if we rush, but no one in Senegal rushes. In fact, schedules don’t really exist; people just do things as they get around to it.

Small shops also line my street selling food and some art, and you cannot go more than 20 feet without running into a tailor or salon. If you go down my street in one direction, you will eventually reach the port, which is where most of the fish for the town is processed. It consists of a huge open shelter filled with people selling piles of fish, which are laid out on the floor atop tarps. The vendors spill out onto the beach, where people scurry around bargaining or carrying buckets of fish. Boats will the water and people wade to and from the shore to take the fish from them. Behind the shelter, huge trucks wait to take the fish to “The Tan,” which is a huge area, lacking vegetation, instead filled with mass barbeques where the fish are smoked or dried in the sun with salt. Afterwards, most of the fish is exported to neighboring countries. These exports provide most of Joal’s income.

Near “The Tan” is a quartier, the name of which translates into “The Village of Peace.” Although most of the people in Joal live fairly well, the Village of Peace is the most impoverished part of the city. Every time it rains, the houses in this quartier flood and the people are forced to take shelter in the mosques and churches. Never the less, walking through, most of the people are smiling. This is one of the things I love most about Senegal: no matter their situations, rich or poor, everyone is joking, laughing, and praising God for what they have.

If you walk in the over direction from my house, there is a lagoon with a bridge that takes you to a small island called Fadiouth. When the water has receded under the bridge a few people search for shell-fish in the mud, pigs and dogs also wander around foraging for food, and eventually boys will go out to play soccer once the mud has hardened. Joal has a significant Christian population so pork is a well-established industry. The island itself is mostly residential. People sit out outside their homes talking or selling dried fish and peanuts and goats, pigs, and chickens wander the streets (actually, the goats and chicken wander everywhere in Joal, and they make me smile). The entire island is covered in shells that are stuck in the dirt the way polished stones might be put into concrete.

Overall, Joal is beautiful. Although most of the beaches near my house aren’t clean enough to swim in because of fishing and food waste that gets dumped into the sea, the beach near Fadiouth is beautiful. There the sand is filled with tiny holes that crabs scurry in and out of as you pass. The water is always warm and the salt takes me by surprise each time I go in. A short distance from the water is an isle filled with lush bushes and small trees. Even on the beaches that are dirty, the boats that are always out on the water or pulled up on the beach are huge, elegant, and brightly colored and overall beautiful and the sunset over the water is unfailingly gorgeous every night and afterwards that sky is filled with stars that are brighter than any I have seen except in the backcountry.

There is another bridge extending off Fadiouth that leads to the most beautiful cemetery that I have ever seen. It contains the graves of Muslims, Christians, Animists, all beside each other. In general, people here are very religiously tolerant. It is not uncommon for Christians and Muslims to be in the same family, and everyone celebrates the holidays of both religions with their friends and family. In fact, my host father originally wanted to be a Catholic priest, but then converted to Islam because he thought that it better answered his questions about life and he wanted to have a family.

Besides consciously choosing his belief system, my dad is super cool in a number of different ways. He taught French for about 20 years before switching to school administration. Now he is also the deputy mayor of Joal. His family is from the South of Senegal and he is ethnically Diola (pronounced like Joe-la), which is one of the few ethnic groups in which it’s a norm for men to cook and clean. He wants to eventually become a minister of education in the national government. His current office with the mayor is following one with rampant corruption, and they won office with an anti-corruption campaign, hopefully that remains the office mentality. One of his main projects is going to be to process the trash in Joal, which as of now is usually left scattered on the streets.

As for my mom, she is awesome! I am pretty sure that she is 28, only 10 years older than me. Watching the way she runs the house—commanding my little brother around, cooking ridiculously elaborate (and delicious) food, and perfectly balancing her schedule so that the house is cleaned daily, lunch is ready as soon as my dad comes home, and she still has time to hang out with the neighbor. Or how she can switch from being my unfailing guardian when people on the street speak too fast or kids follow me pointing and staring, to my soft and patient teacher as I struggle to learn my way around a Senegalese kitchen… she is nothing less than hard core.

However, her youth is also very apparent. Once, when our yard was flooding (the rainy season in Joal is pretty intense) and she was running around trying to secure everything and I would see her stop, rain pounding down on her already soaked hair and body, and laugh like a young girl. Her and my neighbor also gossip like crazy as they go through potential candidates for me to marry in Senegal, which was a little unsettling at first (my mother was adamant that I was going to get married to one of my friends in Dakar), but now it is pretty fun and girl-friendy. She also loves to dress up, and every time I get some slack in my budget, she plans a trip to the market and the tailor to get Senegalese clothes; next week we are going to wear matching styles.

I also have a six year old brother, Iddi. He can be a handful, but at the end of the day he is a sweetheart. As much as I yell at him to stop pulling my hair or touching my computer, when he asks me to pick him up and falls asleep in my arms, all is forgiven.

Additionally, I have friends my age now! YAY!!!! The wrestlers and college kids that hang out by my house are my bros now, even the wrestler who said he was going to marry me. The other day we all went out to the beach, and I challenged one friend to a swimming competition. He beat me (by a lot), but that what you get when you challenge someone who grew up near the ocean and is way more buff than you could ever hope to be. At least three of these friends have taught me how to make attaya (Senegalese tea), and I am finally able to do it by myself.

Finding women-friends took a little more work since women hang out on the street less during the day, but my mom is really close with a really huge family down the street, and a few weeks ago about ten women gathered around in a circle in their house, Senegalese music blaring from someone’s phone, and they taught me how to dance. Now whenever I see the one woman from across the street we clap out a rhythm and practice right then and there and sometimes we cook peanuts and chat afterwards. There is also another girl who is 18, who I met at the tailor’s shop. The other day I went to her house for tea, and ended up getting more dancing lessons from her younger cousins.

Overall, I absolutely love Joal. The people are wonderful and the surroundings are beautiful and it already feels like home.

Elizabeth Schmidt