Monday, January 31, 2011

Roots of the Baobab

Just as most African languages have no written record, so African folk tales have been orally passed down through generations of storytelling. The Baobab has many fables surrounding its roots. Both literal and figurative roots, that is. I was regaled with this lovely little tale, and fell in love with its moral...

The mighty Baobab tree was known from the beginning of time as the most beautiful tree in the world. She was created with long, beautiful roots and colorful budding flowers. As she grew older, she became stronger and taller, and produced irresistibly bittersweet fruit. The fruit of the Baobab, Bui, was not only delicious, but aided in health and healing the sick. The Baobab tree was adored by all who saw her, and because of this she became conceited and arrogant. Her vanity led to bragging and soon she began to make fun of the other, less beautiful trees. "I am more lovely and more important than you!" She would sing, "I live longer and provide better fruit for the humans!" This teasing made other trees sad and insecure, and soon they stopped blooming or making fruit. It was time that Mother Nature intervene. "You must stop being so arrogant," Mother Nature told the beautiful Baobab, "You should be compassionate to the other plants and animals. I will give you three chances to change your behavior before a punishment must be given." However, the boasting and taunting did not stop, even after three warnings. Mother Nature was forced to punish the mighty Baobab by turning her upside down! From that day forward, every living creature in Africa learned the value of being humble and empathetic toward others. You can visit Africa and see the upside down tree with her roots in the air. And when you do, remember Mother Nature's lesson of humility!

Wo soxla bind apropro kam ndaxar ke

"You should write about the inside of trees"

A subject I know about from only two short experiences, yet still a subject I treasure.

Easily one of the most incredible pieces of West African landscape, the great Baobab tree has been revered, researched, and written about for centuries. Countless tales have been passed down through the generations about the origins and many uses of the baobab. In Senegal I experienced first hand the breathtaking view of the largest trees I had ever seen. But even beyond the delicious and unique taste of its fruit, and the heavenly cool drink it makes, was the incredible experience of actually getting inside a baobab tree.

After kayaking through the serene mangroves of Palmarin, our tour guide Pierre leads us to a small island where he shows us the "surprise" part of our adventure. We mount a hill made of coquillage (clam shells), where the people of that land had been piling them for centuries... though no one quite knows why. Here Pierre sets forth (in French, so I really only pick up 1/3 of the narrative) a little story of the three Baobabs in front of us. It is a classic tale of a male who left his wife for a younger, thinner... tree. We approach the poor female baobab who'd been left alone, only to find a hole in her trunk! A hole I assume is only large enough for small animals to climb through. It seems I was wrong.

As those of us new to Palmarin look on with nervous smiles and glances of disbelief - Pierre begins to climb INSIDE the Baobab tree!! It's our turn next, and one by one we shimmy our way into the enormous trunk (which has a record of holding 11 people at one time)! "Why is there a hole in the tree to begin with?" I wonder aloud. Chris takes over the narration...

A griot, or djeli, is a West African historian who delivers their information by poem or song. They worked as wandering musicians, singing praises of the kings and gods, delivering history to the people of the land and preserving ancient tales. The Serer believed that because the Griots were not farmers, burying them in the ground would contaminate the land. It is for this reason that many griots buried their dead in the hollow area of a baobab trunk. I look down, and under my bare feet I feel a rough mixture of clam shell and sand that is most assuredly an ancient Serer burial ground. Cool. As I stand in wonder at the history, I let my imagination wander into the art of it all. I close my eyes and hear old songs being chanted as women cook the clams over a crackling fire. I hear the beat of traditional tam tams as children dance and play with one another. I smell the familiar scent of salty sea air and... Nescafe? I open my eyes to see Pierre's perfect white-toothed smile and a precariously balanced white teacup full of (oh so very) sweet coffee. Thanking him (in French!), I accept my warm drink (which is only welcome in the cool shade of the baobab belly) and begin to sip. "I love my life," I exclaim, just loudly enough to elicit a laugh from Chris, who is undoubtedly exhausted of hearing this phrase.

Climbing out is a bit less daunting than climbing in - and as we depart for home I marvel in the majesty of the great tree, and the beauty of the experience I've just shared with (what were once) complete strangers. I really truly love my life.

Pierre makes it look easy!

My turn!

Cafe avec nos amis dans le baobab!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

ordinary miracles (2010)

I sit contentedly following an afternoon full of giggles and wine and cheese and bread and I think, "this is the ideal way to spend the last day of this year." With full bellies and light heads, Chris and I lay in our beds talking nonsense and happily giving in to the inevitable afternoon nap that begins to weigh down our eyelids. I'm in Saint-Louis, Senegal, listening to the hustle and bustle of a street filled with travelers, children, and shop-keepers departing early for holiday celebrations. The salty wind blows in through our blue shutters and quietly rustles the sheer white mosquito nets as I recall all of the difficulties of the past 12 months. Though I speak some of my thoughts, I dwell on little, my potential wallowing interrupted by Chris's ever-amusing narrative. Through the ups and downs of the previous 365 days, I have found so much peace and joy, enough to show me:

Our lives are magic... there is always reason to celebrate. Throughout 2010 a million wonderful, special, extraordinary things happened. It was a tough year, with many lessons learned. I count these lessons among the blessings! Some of the biggest:

*In January I celebrated being alive for a quarter century.
*In February I celebrated Janet's 20th anniversary at FLCT.
*In March I celebrated the birth of my brother's first child, while also mourning the loss of a friend and FLCT family member.
*In April I mourned the loss of a long and special relationship, while also celebrating the gain of a new and life-changing friend. (And I fell in love with snakes :)
*In May I celebrated my heritage on an astounding trip to Israel, book-ended by incredible visits to Philly and NYC with beautiful friends.
*In June I celebrated being cast in Shipwrecked! One of the most challenging artistic experiences of my career! (not to mention the start of summer 2010)
*In July I celebrated my dear friend Eric's amazing talents by performing as Cloony the Clown in "Sidewalk," his original musical.
*In August I celebrated the start of my final semester of college.
*In September I celebrated the birthdays of both my mother and my mentor/mamacita cheetah :)
*In October I celebrated halloween in Lakeland as a volunteer at the Florida Theatre Conference.
*In November I celebrated my final Theatre in the Park as Vice President of Alpha Psi Omega.
*In December I celebrated the receipt of my Bachelor's Degree and made an unforgettable journey to Senegal, West Africa.

The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate. - Oprah

Monday, January 3, 2011

it's all relative

Walking through Chris's neighborhood I see a young girl in a sweet pink dress and pretty little braids making her way home from school. The street she walks on is made of dirt, a now familiar orange sand that creeps up to the doors of the houses. The building in front of which our girl is walking is partially built, with a front walk of broken tiles and rubble, wet cement and stray rebar. This is the type of image the CCF broadcasts on television to evoke pity and solicit money. And I admit, from my couch it's a pretty pitiful sight. But our little friend is happy. As are the great majority of people I pass in Senegal each day. What a misconception - the grand suffering of every African child. Citizens of Senegal might be poor, but they aren't walking around miserable. Life is simple. Pictures of children holding broken pieces of bread, surrounded by flies don't necessarily indicate poor quality of life. There are really just a lot of flies in Africa.

getting there

Popenguine. Ankith and Kelsy's village - by night - stunning. I hear the waves crashing, see the beautiful white surf meet the soft, tan sand as crabs scatter in all directions. My friends sip Bailey's as I, drunk on contentment, get higher off of the killer drumbeats Toby is sharing with us on the Djembe. Getting here was almost as interesting as being here...

Public transport is variable - generally simple and always cheap, but there are a few times a girl might wish she'd forked over the extra mil or two instead of sitting in the back of a taxi with chickens tied down and clucking in the back seat. I'm just saying. The "gare" or garage is where sept places and diagndiayes (vans) wait to be filled before trasporting passengers to other cities. This is the place that can never be explained without photographs, but also the last place I felt comfortable photographing. As our taxi pulled in we were immediately approached by vendors knocking on the car doors, sticking their goods and their hands and their heads in our car windows, offering bananas and toys and tissues and... raw eggs? On stepping out of the car the sellers became even more abitious, and add on top of that a multitude of drivers trying to usher you to their car... oh yeah... and it's all in french. or wolof. of some unintelligible combination of the two. Chris handled all the talking and I soon settled in, realizing that simply ignoring the vendors was the best way to say 'no thank you.' Pile on a bunch of Talibe kids, lots of travelers, and more flies than I knew existed - and you have maybe 1/10 of an idea of my first garage experience. was great.

blank canvas

I sit on a terrace, berated by flies, craving caffeine, with promises of music and art and the village for christmas and no real concept of what the next two weeks will be like. im ready for anything, prepared for nothing... and i feel awfully like a blank canvas. unsure. full of potential, but also - nothing. and white.

very, very white.


"We're together." I keep hearing these words, whether in the city or the village or on a bus. "We're together."

In Wolof, the language most widely spoken in Senegal, there is no response to "Thank you" that's equivalent to our English "you're welcome." What's said is "Nokubokk" which means, "we're together." In Serer (the language spoken in Palmarin) the answer is "In nderoo" which translates to, "we're together." And even though in French one could say "De rien," I most commonly heard "On est ensemble"... we're together.

Instead of taking immediate and selfish credit when thanked for something, the Senegalese seem to refuse the recognition and instead honor their responsibility to look out for and help their fellow man. It's this type of togetherness that I found most beautiful in the village of Palmarin.

Chris's Peace Corps site for two years, Palmarin sits on the west coast of Senegal and boasts majestic baobab trees, flourishing mangroves, and hundreds of types of colorful, magnificent birds. Palmarin is divided into 5 small sections, and Diohonor (pronounced JoHoNor) sits fourth in that count. This is the village that I called home for a short 5 days which seemed to last a lifetime. I felt immediately at home as small children began to play hide and seek with me, laughing as I ducked behind corners and shrieking when I emerged. They didn't care that I can't speak Serer or used the wrong verb tense in French. Giggling is universal. And besides, We're together.

(i take no blame for the misspelling of every wolof and serer word i use. there's no real right way. im just making it all up :)