Of Families and Slave Forts

Hokay, it’s been a long time since my last post. To give a brief recap of my movements since the last time I posted…

I moved in with my host family on Friday. They are a relatively modern (read: nuclear) Catholic family. My host father is a sales representative for LG – he works long hours 6 days a week, but the few brief moments I’ve spent in his company he’s struck me as being very nice. My host mom doesn’t work, so I’ve seen a lot of her. She’s somewhat stern, but very kind. I have 4 host siblings. My big brother is 23, and is about to start his last year of University – he’s an accounting major. I have a sister who’s roughly my age, about to start her second year of University, and is an international economics major. I have a 12 year old brother who plays a ton of soccer and is really popular. And a 5 year old host brother who’s adorable, but a handful.

My extended host family lives in the house just behind ours. My grand-mother owns the house, and several of her daughters, my aunts, live there with her. One of my aunts has an adorable two year old daughter named, whose in my house a lot because my sister loves children so much. Perhaps my proudest moment so far on this program was the night that Alimatou decided that she was no longer scared of me and deigned to sit on my lap and give me high-fives (this was possibly facilitated by the fact that I miraculously remembered how to say “high-five” in wolof).

I really like my host family – I don’t think I could have ended up in a better family had I chosen them myself. So far I’ve found that they suit my lifestyle quite well. They are quiet and shy (all excepting the 5-year-old), go to bed relatively early (clubs here don’t open until 2 am, so some kids my age don’t go to bed until 6 am or so), and encourage me to go out and do things with my friends.

However, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m grievously imposing on them. The house that I live in is small. It contains three rooms, one of which is my bedroom, plus a bathroom and a kitchen. The fact that I get my own bedroom with a real bed when all four of my host siblings sleep on a foam mattress placed on the floor of the living room each night bothers me. What bothers me almost more is that I’m this family’s ninth student – which means that for the last four and a half years, my family has given up 33% of their home to host a student. I simply don’t understand what makes hosting an American student worth it to my host family, when they have to give up so much to keep one. Heck, I don’t think I’m worth this. And I certainly don’t think you’d find many people in the states willing to give up as much for the privilege of caring for an extra child for four months.

As a point of fact, the host families do get reimbursed for the money that they spend feeding us and paying for the electricity and water that we use. But it’s not like we pay rent or anything.

Anywho, moving on to what all I’ve been up to. Korite, the Senegalese name for Eid-al-Fitr, the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan, was really fun! I was a little worried that, since I live with a catholic family, I would end up doing nothing all day… but the Senegalese aren’t lying when they boast that they’re the prime example of Muslim-Christian understanding. Every few minutes we had Muslim neighbors stopping by to drop off food and socialize with us. And then, at around noon, I went over to a neighbor’s house, who hosts one of my classmates, and helped them prepare and eat lunch. That evening, my host mama dressed me up in a traditional boubou and sent me out to do the rounds with my friends who live with Muslim families. It was fun, but it was also a really chill, family-oriented holiday. No giant parties, no dancing in the streets, just a lot of eating and drinking soda and dropping in on neighbors.

This past weekend was pretty exciting. As a program, we went to the Senegal vs. Congo soccer game. This was the game that determined whether or not Senegal would play in the Cup of Africa next year. This was an awesome experience, none the least because Senegal won 3-0. It was my first experience attending a professional sports game, and I was a little overwhelmed by how much energy people brought to the match. There was screaming and shouting, which I expected, and flares and fires and people jumping onto the field from the stands, which I didn’t. Also, apparently I ended up on the televised coverage of the match during one of the “fan close-up” moments. How embarrassing!

On Sunday we spent the day on Goree Island – beautiful place, horrible history. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, this island is the location of the Maison d’Esclaves, a slave fort that remained in operation for over 300 years. La Maison d’Esclaves houses the infamous, green Door of No Return, now a world-wide symbol of the dehumanization and brutality of the transatlantic slave trade. It was a strange juxtaposition, seeing the beautiful island with its picturesque sandy beaches and turquoise waters surrounding such a horrifying symbol of the destructive power of man. Another troubling dimension to our Goree Excursion: the Maison d’Esclaves museum – in fact, all museums on Goree Island, as far as I could tell – are paid for by European governments. In some sense, this is as it should be. The transatlantic slave trade was perpetrated by Europeans, so the financial burden should be on European governments to document and lay bare the horrors of that era. But in another way, it shows that the European presence in West Africa never really left. Even now, Senegal isn’t free to present her own version of her history. All in all, though, the visit to Goree was wonderful. It felt really good to go to a tourist site and, for a few hours, shed the responsibility of cultural assimilation.

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