Sunday, December 24, 2017

Lan men nanu def?

While I understand the importance of sharing my results with government officials and NGOs, I feel that the real value lies in sharing it with the community members who are directly impacted by mining and mercury.  I thus spent the final two weeks of my trip to Senegal traveling to mining villages.

Each morning, Falaye and I would walk to the market to buy a bag of kola nuts – these are given to hosts as a sign of respect and are essential to establishing ourselves appropriately according to Senegalese tradition.  We then continued to the car stand, where we’d find a car traveling to our set destination.  In Senegal, there are no public transportation schedules; you arrive at the car stand, buy a ticket for the car, and wait for the rest of the seats to fill up.  There are 7 places, but sometimes 9 or 10 people are assigned places before the car leaves.  The best bet is to arrive around 8 or 9 and then be prepared to hang out for up to a few hours before the car is ready to go.

On one particular morning, we arrived at the car stand looking for a car only to learn that no car would be going that day – the normal store stock delivery (foods, toiletries, etc.) that helps to finance the car had not arrived and thus the driver did not want to spend the gas money to get there.  The two of us, along with two other passengers who were waiting for the same destination, offered to rent a car – we would buy the extra four places in the car.  At first, they wanted to charge us extra for renting the car, but we bargained them back to the normal fees, with each of us paying for two seats.  Once this had been decided, someone was sent to the other car stand to get a car.  Thinking this was the car we’d take, we all got in.  Instead, it brought us to the second car stand where the driver knocked on the window of another car.  It was 10 in the morning, but this other driver was still sound asleep in the back of his car.  He woke up, agreed to take us there, and then set about his morning routine: washing his face, praying, rearranging the items in his car, tinkering around under the hood, pouring water over the tires.  Finally, after almost an hour, he told us to get in the car.  We all piled in and four men pushed the car down the block until we reached a downhill section for him to start the car’s motor.  We were off…until we reached the carshop down the road.  He pulled over, we all got out, and we waited while they adjusted the tires, tinkered under the hood, and did some other adjustments.  Finally, at almost noon, we were all in the car and being pushed down the road one more time.  We were off, down the paved road for an hour and then down a dirt road for another hour, until the car started making strange sounds.  We pulled over, all piled out, and the driver again tinkered with the tires and under the hood.  He finally decided we could make it the five kilometers to the next town where there was a carshop, if we drove slowly.  So we continued down the dirt road, stopped at the carshop, waited for the car to be fixed, and then continued on our way.  Soon after, we reached a police checkpoint.  We were all asked to show our ids and explain where we were going.  One man did not have his id, and we had to wait while he spoke with the police, gave them some money, and then we continued on our way.  Finally, around 2, we reached the village.

Falaye had tried to call his contact in the village the day before to alert him that we’d be coming, but had been unable to get through.  Upon arriving in the village, we realized this was because cell phone reception was out.  Luckily, everyone knows everyone, so we asked someone on the street who pointed out his contact’s compound.  We arrived there, greeted everyone in the family, and were asked to sit down for a bit.  Falaye explained that we were there to present the results of my research to members of the community.  So his contact brought us to the village chief’s house and introduced us.  Falaye presented him with the kola nuts and some money to buy sodas for the meeting.  We then waited while the chief’s son called together the imam (religious leader) and other members of the community.

Finally, the chief told us it was time to start.  As I couldn’t speak the local language (and since it’s better for information on such a controversial issue to come from a local Senegalese rather than a foreigner), Falaye led the conversation.  He introduced himself and explained why we were there.  He then had me introduce myself (which he translated into Bambara).

Falaye then began the discussion, running it as a question and answer session rather than a lecture.  He started by asking what they knew about mercury.  Invariably, they explained the benefits of using it for gold processing – it was easy to use, cheap to obtain, and was effective at recovering gold.  One man demonstrated the process of adding mercury and how small balls of gold-mercury amalgams could be squeezed into one larger ball using a piece of cloth.  An older man was quick to add that mercury hadn’t always been used in the mines – the technique was brought by men from Burkina Faso in the early 2000s.  Falaye then asked them if they knew why mercury was bad to use.  There was silence.  The chief finally spoke up that they’d been told it was bad, but had never seen anyone sick from the mercury.  When asked the symptoms of mercury toxicity, however, they didn’t know.  Falaye began to explain, and I searched the faces of a few men with trembling hands (a sign of mercury toxicity) to see their reaction.  They remained composed, but were suddenly concerned and curious as to why they’d never been diagnosed as such.  (The response: the hospital and local health post did not know the symptoms of mercury toxicity either.)  Falaye then went on to explain the results of my research – people can be exposed to mercury both from the aquatic system (e.g., water, fish) and the terrestrial system (e.g., soil, crops, vegetables).

Next, they asked us: “Lan men nanu def?” (“What can we do?”).  Falaye turned the question on them – asking for their suggestions of solutions.  And this is the part that always amazed me.  When we met with government officials and NGOs and asked them the same question, they responded that they didn’t know of a solution and that we should tell them what to do.  But when we met with the villagers, they always had ideas of possible solutions to reduce their exposure and of how they could be reinforced.  The solutions ranged from making protective equipment (masks, gloves) available in the local markets, to establishing a place far from the village where everyone would burn the mercury, and to imposing a fine for the burning of mercury without the use of a retort (cover that captures 80-90% of the mercury emitted) that would be enforced by the locally elected and well-respected mining police.  After these solutions were proposed, we were asked again what we thought.  Falaye would translate for me at this point to allow me to give my opinion.  I supported their ideas.  Eliminating the use of mercury is difficult without an alternative; until one is found, the solutions they proposed seemed effective pathways to reduce human exposure.

We allowed them time to ask us questions.  Usually, after about an hour, everyone had had the opportunity to speak, we asked them to share this information with others in their community, and we were thanked by the village chief.  We then stood up, grabbed lunch, and waited for a car to fill up and bring us back to Kedougou.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Gis nana jen bu dey

                In Kedougou – the regional capital – it is much easier than Dakar to meet with local officials.  We walk into offices, announce our desire to share results, and wait our turn.  Sometimes, we wait a few minutes.  Sometimes, we wait over an hour (for example, while the Director of Mines bargained with a woman about the price of land).  Most places are located within the town, and we walk from place to place.  For another, we borrow a motorcycle and Falaye (my partner here) drives us the 20 minutes along a dirt road to meet with an official there.  (We arrive completely covered in dust, and I accidentally flash – aka, my skirt rides high above my knees – the official as I dismount.)
                While many of the local authorities are aware that mercury is harmful, they also have many misconceptions:

11)      “Mercury is legal.”  I listened as the chief of the hospital described the trucks full of mercury that constantly pass by the police.  But mercury is, in fact, illegal in Senegal.  Senegal is a signatory of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which was signed a few years ago and went into effect this past August.  The trade of mercury is forbidden by this Convention.

22)      “People can be poisoned by mercury by bathing in water near artisanal gold mining.”  This source of exposure was listed by nearly everyone we met with.  But this is, in fact, not possible.  Mercury in water is dangerous because its concentration increases across the food web – small amounts in water lead to larger amounts in small fish and huge amounts in large fish (that eat many small fish and accumulate the mercury).  While it is good that they think mercury is dangerous, they do not properly understand how people are exposed to it.

33)      “Gis nana jen bu dey” (We’ve seen dead fish: “Dead fish are washing ashore due to mercury poisoning.”)  This was stated by the local governor (sous prefet) overseeing the mining region.  This is, in fact, highly unlikely.  While fish are accumulating high concentrations of mercury, the quantity is likely not high enough to kill the fish.  In fact, fish are generally not susceptible to mercury toxicity, but birds, mammals, and people eating them are.  Even then, it is more likely that mercury toxicity symptoms will slowly appear, rather than sudden death.  Fish are likely dying from other toxins entering the water near these areas.

44)      “The authorities already know that mercury is in the water and soils due to artisanal gold mining.”  About half of the people we met with made this claim, stating that what was needed was a solution, not more proof of what was already proven.  The other half knew the reality – my research is the first proof in the world that mercury in soil near artisanal gold mining has high levels of the more toxic and bioavailable (able to be taken up by organisms) form of mercury known as methylmercury.  While it may have been assumed before, some people sympathizing with the miners’ use of mercury vehemently disagreed that mercury was in any form other than the liquid elemental mercury.  Thus, my research shows otherwise.

55)      “Senegal has developed viable solutions to mercury use in artisanal gold mining.”  This was claimed by a few government officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Dakar and Kedougou.  While I wish this were true, conversations with people who have gone into the field to actually visit the mining sites and talk to the miners have shown this to be a fallacy.
There have certainly been attempts to devise methods of artisanal gold mining with reduced mercury use.  For example, for the past few years, some NGOs have distributed retorts.  These are essentially covers that are placed on top of the stove where the mercury-gold amalgam is burned.  As the mercury evaporates, it is caught by the cover and condenses, reducing the loss of mercury to the atmosphere.  However, miners are loathe to use this because it takes longer than traditional methods and they are distrustful – the gold buyer might be cheating them since they can’t see what is happening but see their mercury-gold ball shrinking in size.
Another attempted method is mercury-free processing of gold.  The government has invested in a large, expensive machine that makes this possible and claims that people are using it.  However, while people are using it, they use it for pre-mercury steps, then take their solution back to their village to add mercury and continue with the mercury amalgamation process, thereby completing bypassing the objective of the government-funded equipment.
Finally, the third solution I heard (which astounded me) was the use of cyanide as a substitute for mercury.  I listened as a local NGO La Lumiere explained that cyanide is preferable since it photodegrades and can’t be transported in the atmosphere. And, cyanide is already used sometimes by people from Burkina Faso to recover even more gold after mercury is used, so it is easy to obtain.  But this opens a new can of worms.  Cyanide is even more toxic than mercury at small concentrations, posing huge concerns for humans and animals if ingested.  If it’s not contained (as it likely won’t be), cyanide can leak into groundwater and rivers.  Thus, in a few years, there’d be a movement to stop cyanide use rather than mercury.  This is not a safe solution.

This is not to say that all government officials and NGOs in Senegal have all of these misconceptions or that they even have any of them.  But, in order to eliminate the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, to properly educate community members, and to find a solution to the current mercury problem, it is important to address these misconceptions.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Leegi, men nanu wone nit nu ci mercure bi ci environnement bi

I have spent the past two weeks sharing the results of my research with Senegalese authorities and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Dakar.  The process of meeting with officials in these government ministries is not as simple as it may seem.  First, it relies upon knowing the name of who you want to speak with and having someone introduce you.
              Fortunately, I am accompanied on my Dakar wanderings by a close friend – Mor.  He works in the government (though in the northern part of Senegal, on the border with Mauritania) and has many contacts in Dakar.  So, after he spends an afternoon calling friends, getting more phone numbers, and making some more calls, we are set to go.  Some officials require us to first deposit an official request for a meeting, but others tell us to just stop by.
              We begin with the Ministry of the Environment.  We wait for his friend outside the building – though the work day officially begins at 8 am, most people don’t arrive until 9 or 10 (then leave again for a pause at 1 or 2, maybe returning again at 4 to work another hour or two).  When his friend arrives, we follow her in.  Mor gives her a bag of clothes he’s bought to thank her for assisting us, thereby spurring her to go out of her way to ensure we have the meetings we want.  We sit down and talk for a bit, then she knocks on some doors, and presents us for a meeting with her director.
              Ibra Ndiaye is glad to greet us. He has heard of mercury use in artisanal gold mining, but doesn’t know much about it.  Mor introduces us both in French, then leaves me to launch into an explanation of my research in Wolof (which I’m more comfortable speaking than French).  I explain how mercury is used by the miners (to isolate gold), how it’s burned off into the atmosphere, how mercury in the form of methylmercury is especially dangerous, and how I’ve found high amounts of methylmercury not just in water (where it had previously been expected to be) but also in soil.  This then poses an additional source of exposure either through direct consumption of soil (by eating soil or from dust blowing onto food) or through the entry into the terrestrial food chain of crops, vegetables, and livestock.  The Director listens, asks some questions, then tell us we should meet with his Director who oversees the Ministry’s work on mercury.  She’s not there, so we leave a note requesting a meeting and move on to the next office.
              At the Water and Forests Division, the Director is very excited to learn about our results.  He immediately calls a meeting of all Lieutenants present, and I launch once more into my explanation.  They are saddened to hear about the large amount of mercury contamination but see this as parallel with their mission of reducing deforestation from artisanal gold mining – not only does artisanal gold mining destroy forests, but also poses a huge threat to environmental and human health.  Their next humble question puts me back into place.  They want to know what solution I propose.  I explain the importance of education for mining communities through conversations about the dangers of mercury.  Mercury usage will only decline if the miners choose to stop using it.  I unfortunately can’t offer them any advice regarding the mercury capture retorts or mercury-free mining processing techniques that have been proposed by some governments and NGOs.  While I wish I had a better response, I can only elaborate that I am a scientist, providing the with the data, so that they can act accordingly.  But they’ve taught me an important lesson – I have the ear of policymakers who are concerned about the scientific data I am presenting.  While informing them is important, this is an opportunity to suggest changes in policy and something that I should consider next time before having these conversations.
              My meetings continue in this matter of one-on-one or group meetings as I talk with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Protected Lands, Oxfam International, World Vision, Artisanal Gold Council, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Africa, and some university professors.  They read over my short summary report, one or two skim the long manuscript, and they comment that mercury is really bad and a problem.  The most common response is appreciation.  They know mercury is bad, but this is the first proof they have – as Maimona Diene from the Pesticide Action Network Africa said, “Leegi, men nanu wone nit nu ci mercure bi ci environnement bi!” (Now we can actually show that mercury is entering the environment), which they couldn’t before.  According to the Minamata Convention on Mercury which went into effect in August, they must create a National Action Plan to reduce mercury use in Senegal.  I’ve now met with all the major players – all I can hope is that my results will better inform the decisions they make and will trickle down to improving the health of mining communities.

              My next step – on to educating the public.  I was already ushered onto a tv set to share my results with whomever tuned into the 7 pm news.  Now, I’m on my way to the gold mining region in southeastern Senegal to spread the information there.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gis gna mercure bi?

              On Friday, it was finally time to travel to the mines.  We’d spent all day on Thursday meeting with officials in Kedougou city (Direction of the Environment, Direction of Mines, Water and Forestry Division, Police, Governor in a town 7 km away) to inform them of our activities; they were all glad to be informed and repeated that it’s important that we came to them.  This all relates to the Senegalese system of everyone wanting to be a part of a project by being informed, even if they will play no part in it.
              Friday morning, we set off with our overnight bags and cooler of empty sample bottles and bags.  After a breakfast of a bean sandwich, we went to the garage to find a car going to Saraya, where we’d be based for the next few days as we visited the large mining town of Kharakhenna.  Fortunately, the van filled quickly, and we were all set to go.  But, the car had to stop first at a few houses to retrieve some baggage.  There were some complaints from passengers (particularly from one well-dressed man who insisted he was in a rush to make a meeting in Saraya), but the driver declared he had only one stop left.  He then proceeded to enter a tire mechanic shop to fill the rear tire with air.  However, after several minutes of failed attempts to fill the tire, it turned out that the tire wasn’t just lacking air – it also had a hole.  All 14 of us passengers filed out of the car to wait as the tire was removed, patched, and placed back on the van.  During the wait, over the sparks of a nearby metal working and the pounding of three carpenters building a bed, I was able to sit and examine the other passengers.  I was particularly struck by one woman (not much older than a teenager) and her 3-year old child.  I had noticed them in the car as she stroked his head, an affection not often shown here.  I had also noticed large bumps across his scalp earlier, but now I noticed that he was unable to hold his head up, and it kept flopping to the side while the woman tried to help him sit up in her lap.  When she went for a walk and swung him onto her back, she had to place his arms around her neck and legs around her waist, while leaning over so that he would not slide off, as he was incapable of these maneuvers himself.  She then had to hold his body while his head flopped at a dangerous angle.  When she turned toward me, I saw his eyes rolling into his sockets, teeth black and wasting, mouth turned in pain, and legs and arms too skinny for a child.  He was starving, sick, and likely didn’t have many days left.  It was an incredibly sad sight.
              Eventually, the tire was rolled back into place on the car, and we set off.  The road to Sarya was recently paved and beautiful as a result of the gold mining industry – though there are some potholes, these don’t take up the entire width of the road, and driving is easy.  The 60 km trip only took an hour, and I was eager to continue to the gold mines in Kharakhenna after dropping off our bags, but that is not the Senegalese protocol.  First we had to stop by the governor and police stations to alert them of our presence and our activities.  Then we had to walk around Sarya to greet Falaye’s friends and acquaintances.  By that time, it was rude to leave without waiting for lunch (around 2:00 in Senegal) and then too hot to travel until 4:00.  (Nothing happens in Senegal between 1:00 and 4:00.)  But eventually we did find a car, waited for it to fill, and traveled an additional 30 km on the beautifully paved road to Kharakhenna, where I was completely unprepared for what I saw.
              I had been told that mining villages are transient communities whose populations have swelled with the gold rush.  People from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, and Nigeria flock to the mines for a chance at striking rich.  And not just miners come, but also people selling wares and prostitutes.  Kharakhenna was once a small village, but it’s population now likely exceeds 15,000.  As the population boomed, people didn’t have time or space to build compounds (a series of huts surrounding an open area where a family lives together), but instead constructed just a single room.  In fact, the rooms weren’t even constructed of mud as in villages or cement as in cities; instead, they were created by weaving dried weeds together and then using plastic sheets to cover any holes.  These rooms extended for several kilometers in every direction.  On the road, lines of people sold every possible item from food to containers to gasoline, similar to what you’d see in a city but all based out of weed huts.  Interestingly, there were a lot of people selling solar panels (the first time I’ve seen this in Senegal), and many were placed on top of the weed roofs to provide power for the rooms.  There were also a few places selling new motorcycles, a big attraction for people who strike it rich in the mines.
              We were met by one of Falaye’s friends who acted as our guide in the village.  I was introduced to many people, the first of which was wearing a Syracuse t-shirt.  There is truly a sense of community in the village, despite its strange construction, and people were welcoming and kind.  As it was a Friday, no one was working in the mines.  This originates from the Western African belief in genies, who they say are active on Fridays and Mondays.  As a result, if people try to work in the mines on these days, they are likely to be injured, and it is best to either process mined dirt or to relax for the day.  We walked up to the mines, where it is ok to look at them, as long as we don’t try to dig.  Thousands of holes dotted the hillslope; each hole was tens of meters deep and then continued horizontally.  Men descend via rope tied to a wooden pole over the hole, and a fan keeps the air circulating.  Sometimes they descend for multiple days at a time, bringing food and tea into the hole with them.  Dirt is lifted back up from the team at the top of the hole.  The process is extremely dangerous, and many holes collapse due to lack of structure; theoretically, every 10 meters is supported by wooden poles (leading to deforestation as people chop down trees for these support systems), but in reality, people often don’t reinforce the walls as often as they should.  There is also the danger of reaching the water table, whereby water begins to fill the hole and needs to be pumped out before the digging can continue.
              Once the dirt is removed from the hole, it is brought into the village, where it is ground into a sand, mixed with water, sieved on an angled wooden plank covered by a mat.  The dirt on the mat is then dunked in water, and the water is checked for flakes of gold (which it usually contains).  At this point, mercury is added to the solution since it selectively binds to mercury, which one man demonstrated to me in his hand, while asking, “Gis nga mercure bi?” (Do you see the mercury?).  The mixture is then taken to huts and burned by the women, releasing large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere and leaving the gold behind.  Additionally, some of the tailings are then bought by men from Burkina Faso, who move it to the bush and add cyanide to remove even more of the gold.  They know that cyanide is prohibited by the government, and this process thus occurs very secretively.  In fact, people are generally loathe to mention that they use either mercury or cyanide, for fear of repercussions by the police or Senegalese government.
              Traditionally, Senegalese people had mined for gold using just water, and no chemicals.  However, as more people from Mali and Burkina Faso learned of the Senegalese gold deposit in the 1990s, they immigrated to Senegal bringing not just themselves, but also the technique of using mercury to extract more gold.  And thus, the black market trade of mercury (originating from mercury mines in Ghana) began.
              When people are not working in the mines or processing the dirt, they behave like other Senegalese (or West Africans) – they sit, talk, drink tea, and smoke cigarettes (another sign of their wealth – nearly everyone I saw smoked a pack a day, at a cost of $4).  They also played checkers and engaged in promiscuous activity.  Fortunately, I was unaware of most of the prostitution occurring in the village, though the unnaturally light-colored skin (caused by chemical skin lightening creams) and heavy amounts of make-up on many of the women alerted me of their presence.  And, since men far outnumber the women, the men even engaged in tasks outside their gender norm; I noticed men cooking, washing clothes, and cleaning.  I was also interested to note that French was fairly common among many of the people; with such a high amount of foreigners, local languages were not shared by all present, and French was often the first language utilized among strangers and even amongst friends from different localities.

              Aided by Falaye and his friend, I was able to collect my first few water and soil samples.  I collected soil samples along a transect from a hut where mercury is burned toward the river.  We were also aided by a man from Burkina Faso, who took soil samples for us from the bush where cyanide is used after the mercury processing.  My project is officially on its way!

(I apologize for the lack of pictures.  My connection is too slow now, but hopefully I'll be able to post some when I head back to Dakar.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Huh, Toubab degge na Wolof?

              Every region of Senegal is drastically different from the rest – in terms of geography, culture, agriculture, etc.  Dakar, on the coast (and containing the most westerly point on the African continent) has the highest density of people, a variety of Senegalese ethnic groups as well as non-Senegalese immigrants, and also a mild climate.  When I was there earlier this week, I even wore a sweater at night, though that was partially to acclimate myself for the hotter temperatures I knew I would soon endure.  Kaolack, where I lived in the Peace Corps, is located toward the center of the country and on the border with the Gambia.  It is dominated by the Wolof culture, with some Sereer and Mandinka peppered in the mix.  Kaolack is hot, known to have a lot of flies, has a fairly barren landscape, but is still capable of hosting fruit trees (mostly mango and cashew-which produces a fruit before the nut ripens).  The eastern part of the Kaolack region (Fatick) is also home to enormous biodiversity in the mangrove swamps, which supports a fishing industry.  Further east is Tambacounda, where I have spent the past 2 days with Falaye, who will be working with me to collect samples.  Tambacounda is more barren than Kaolack, home to a variety of cultures (Wolof, Mandinka, Bambara, Pulaar), contains the largest banana farms in Senegal, and also boasts the country’s national park (where one of my friends once spotted a lion from the national highway that runs through it).  Kedougou, where I’ll be headed for my research, is in the far southeast of the country (about a 13 hour car-ride from Dakar, if the car doesn’t malfunction on the way).  Kedougou is one of the most culturally diverse regions of Senegal, with Pulaar, Mandinka, Bambara, Jaxanke, Jalinke, Malinke, and Bassari cultures; the latter is an animist society that has maintained much of its culture, compared to the others that have adopted Islam to replace many aspects of their traditional religion (though some animist traditions do still persist in all of the Senegalese cultures).  Kedougou is the “mountainous” region, home to primates (and the Jane Goodale Institute that studies them), boasts large amounts of heavily forested land, waterfalls, supports avocados in addition to other fruit trees (mango, cashew, soursop, sweetsop), and of course contains a large deposit of gold ore – the purpose of my trip to Senegal.  Moving back toward the coast of Senegal from Kedougou (along the southern strip below the Gambia) is Kolda and Ziguinchor, both of which are forested, contain may fruit trees (and pineapple), support large amounts of tourism, and are home to Pulaar, Sereer, Mankine, Bambara, and Djola cultures.  In the very north of the country is St. Louis and Matam; these regions are in the Sahel (the strip of land directly below the Sahara) and are known for their extremely hot temperatures, conservative culture (people are generally more religious in this region – in terms of respecting all 5 Muslim prayer times, skirts reaching to the ankles, and women more likely to wear hijabs, etc.), dominant Pulaar culture, and predominance of cow herding over agricultural farming.
              Though I lived in Senegal for 2 years and traveled to 10 of the 14 regions, the majority of my knowledge of culture is derived from the village I lived in.  There, Wolof are boisterous, loud, sassy, and continuously joking with each other.  There is rarely a silent moment in a compound: animals (goats, sheep, chickens, cows, horses, ducks, dogs, and cats) wander across the shared open space or through huts, babies cry, children scream and play, adults yell at each other or their children.  Their yelling is just part of who they are; nothing is done quietly, and harsh-sounding tones of voice often contain completely docile messages.  People are constantly visiting each other’s compounds to greet them, stop and talk, help with any chores currently being conducted, share local gossip, and ask favors of each other.  If I entered someone’s compound to visit, I would be constantly entertained by all the goings-on.  Interestingly, I am learning that not all Wolof are the same.  I’ve been staying with Falaye’s family in Tambacounda for the past 2 days and have visited with many of his friends.  They are a mix of several cultures, though of course I can only communicate with those that speak Wolof.  I have found that Tambacounda Wolof are much milder than those in the Kaolack region.  Conversations contain lowered voices, children quietly entertain themselves without much screaming or squealing, and jokes are less physical.  To make a comparison, in my village, often people would visit a compound, pick up the bucket into which a girl was cracking open peanuts, and pretend to run away the bucket, while simultaneously pushing away anyone who tried to stop them and insulting the girl’s cooking or the family’s peanut harvest.  This was all done in jest, with no ill-intentions and lots of laughing and joking from both parties.  But here, jokes are merely spoken, such as comments about last names, carry on for less than a minute, and then the conversation continues.  But, what prevails here and in all regions where I’ve spent time, is the look of surprise followed by the comment “Huh, Toubab degge na Wolof?” (Huh, the foreigner understands Wolof) whenever I open my mouth to speak.

              Next stop, tomorrow, is Kedougou.  I’ll be in the city for 2 days meeting with government officials there to explain my research (any potentially related governmental branch needs to be aware of my work to ensure that no one feels slighted) and receive any formal authorization papers that are deemed “necessary.”  Then, I’ll finally be ready to travel to mining villages to begin collecting samples.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Maay ma xaalis bi

              Dakar is a typical African city, blending modernization and traditionalism.  A view from above shows a dense population; in fact, 2.5 million people (20% of the population) live in this metropolitan area.  In the downtown and surrounding area, the streets are well-paved, new buildings are constantly springing up, and restaurants abound.  People stroll the streets with iphones and androids in their hands, wearing jeans and other westernized clothes.  The two “peaks” in the city (called by the French name of “les mamelles”) each contain a large structure: one an enormous controversial statue of a couple holding a child and the other a light house.  From a quick, narrow glance, you can almost forget that you are in west Africa.
But a broader picture shows smaller roads paved with sand, many partially completed structures (as people begin the process of building new homes when they have money and slowly finish over time, afraid to wait until they can fully finance their homes less they spend the money or lend it to a friend or family member), and cows crossing in the middle of the street.  Sitting on a street bench, men and women approach you to sell clothes, mangos, sunglasses, live birds to release while making a wish, etc., or to offer to cut your toe nails or clean your shoes.  There are hundreds of street stalls selling bread with beans, spaghetti, and onions for breakfast; rice with fish and vegetables (coeb u jen), peanut butter sauce (maffe), and onions (yassa) for lunch; and couscous with bean sauce (cere ak bassine) for dinner.  You can identify these stalls by a wooden table, surrounded by wooden plank benches, and covered by colorful streets draped over wooden poles.  And people are constantly interacting with each other; it is rude to walk past anyone without a greeting, and conversations among strangers often result in a common acquaintance or jokes about last names (for example, Thiam is known for enjoying food, Diop for eating lots of beans which results in excess gas).  People are also always ready to help each other and to share.  My taxi driver this morning didn’t want the rest of his coffee.  He pulled over to the nearest person, rolled down the window, handed over the cup, and drove off.
And, a picture of Dakar (or any large town or city in Senegal) would not be complete without the image of the talibe.  These children are sent by their parents to study Koran under the tutelage of a master.  In theory, they are provided with food and shelter, learn the Koran, and learn humility by spending a few hours asking for money on the streets.  In reality, these children spend most of their time begging on the streets for food and money as they repeat “Maay ma xaalis bi” (offer me money), are not treated well by their masters, and learn very little.  They are mistreated by many of their Senegalese peers, learn no technical skills during their childhood, cannot remember the location of their home villages, and are unable to provide for themselves when they reach adulthood.  It is a system unsustainable outside of a small village and a well-intentioned master.

Like all cities, Dakar has its pros and its cons.  You can find anything you need in Dakar, if you ask the right people.  Every village child dreams of living in this city, and all the opportunities it affords.  There is a mix of old and new, affluent and poor, modern and traditional.  But, despite all of these contrasts, it remains a Senegalese city, rich with the vivacity of the culture and the openness of the people.

              Talibe in Dakar

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Am na sama benn xarit ki

              I didn’t expect to be back in Senegal so soon after leaving, and it’s surreal to be back here.  My “welcome” back to Senegalese culture began in the Casablanca airport.  As I wandered to find my gate, I immediately identified the location by Wolof being spoken all around me.  I took a seat, and the man beside me greeted me.  As the waiting area began to fill, people didn’t look for isolated seats to sit mindlessly on their computers or ipods; instead, they intentionally selected seats next to strangers and immediately initiated a conversation.  They were all Senegalese, and culture is the common grounds.  I listened to conversations about how Senegal will never progress, how hot Senegal is at this time, and how to cook the best maffe.  And, despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t stop listening and smiling.

              Nothing much has changed here, besides a few new buildings, street sculptures, and (of course) my perspective.  Today, as I traveled from government office to government office in the capital of Dakar in search of a permit to carry and collect soils, I was reminded of 2 important Senegalese lessons.  First, relax and take time as it comes; don’t rush.  Second, the country runs on relationships.  Fortunately, I was accompanied by a Senegalese friend who knows the system and knows the right people; as he continually repeated, “Am na sama benn xarit ki…” (I have a friend who…).  He had spent last night calling a long list of friends and acquaintances in variance positions to initiate meetings today either with them or with their friends and acquaintances.  We began this morning by meeting his friend at the Ministry of the Environment.  After sitting and catching up with her, she introduced us to a man, who then introduced us to another man, who suggested we speak to another man, who made a phone call to an official in the Kedougou office (where I will be collecting my samples) and determined that I wouldn’t need a permit.  Similar situations occurred at the other ministries I visited.  And so, through a list of contacts and meetings (all of which began with long conversations completely unrelated to my research), I eventually gained all the information I needed.  Had I proceeded to enter the various ministries myself, I would’ve been entangled in complexly structured office buildings, running from person to person without gaining much information.  But with patience, schmoozing, a push to remember all the Wolof I’ve forgotten, and a friend with contacts, I was able to accomplish everything (just in time for a delicious street lunch of coeb u jen – rice with fish and vegetables).

View from my hotel window