Monday, December 23, 2013

December in a Nutshell

Here are some recent political and current events that were happening in Guinea Bissau in December:

As of Decemebr 7th TAP airlines has stopped their direct flight into Guinea Bissau due to a security breach in Lisbon. The Guinean transportation Minister falsified Guinean documents and Visas for some 70+ Syrians, allowing them to enter Lisbon
More of the story can be read here:

This completely shuts down air traffic into Bissau and makes transportation to and from Bissau even more difficult. Since the Coup in 2012, Cape Verdes airlines stopped running flights to Bissau. Now TAP, which had the only direct flight from Bissau to Europe, is also shut down. Air Senegal has taken over TAP airlines flights into Bissau, so all flights in and out of Bissau stop in Senegal. However, they are also are in the process of declaring bankruptcy! This extra traffic might be good for them. The alternative route many people are using is the 4 hour car ride north to Zuguinchor, in the south of Senegal and taking the Ferry (14 hour ride) from there to Dakar where they can catch flights direct into Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America.  

From December 16th- 20th  there was a general strike across all public services due to the government  debt owed to public service workers. That meant everything was shut down! For four days there was no traffic on the roads, all public service offices were closed, many restaurants were shut down, the usually populated and lively markets were deserted, and banks and other institutions were closed. Literally all forms of commerce and daily activity were brought to a stunning halt! The only activity you would find around town were police officers patrolling the streets to make sure that the Taxis and toca-tocas weren’t on the road. They were supposed to be supporting the strikers, but lots of folks saw this as an opportunity to make a few extra bucks sense people where still trying to get around.

This is so incredibly stunting for the economy. Everything was at a stand still. No one was making money, so no one was spending money. And this happens frequently! Never had I experienced it for 4 days in a row, but one day strikes are as common, if not more common than sighting the full moon


This is entrance to the immigration building on Day 2 of the strike. The note on the door reads as follows:

General Strike
December 16th - 20th 

"The non-payment of public workers salaries 
  is a violation of human rights"

On a lighter note:

My mom, brother and sister will be coming to Bissau for the holidays!! I am super excited and can’t wait for them to get here. It has been over a year since I have seen them. They will be staying for 3 weeks and so we are busy trying to find activities to do even though the month of December is pretty quiet. The Holiday plan is looking very similar to last year: Christmas Eve at my Aunt’s house, Christmas day at my Cousin’s house, and New years will be with the hommies!  Happy Holidays  Everyone!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hair Culture

With my 24th birthday and my one-year anniversary in Guinea-Bissau falling in the same week, I decided I wanted to do something to commemorate the occasions. For most of my life I’ve had mid-shoulder length curly hair, and during my last year of college I was feeling like I should do a drastic cut.  This seemed like the opportune moment to make that a reality.

In Guinea Bissau, women switch their hairstyles as often as once a week to once every 3 months! By switch their hairstyles I mean rotating between wigs, fake hair extensions, human hair extensions, and an infinitesimal variety of braid styles.
This is a multi-million dollar industry, mind you, so this is no small deal. And if time is money, then the amount of TIME spent doing hair is probably equivalent to the industries profits.  Some women have multiple boyfriends  just to make sure that they have funding for their hair purchases. It’s that serious!
It was only after the second or third month living here that I began picking up on the fact the majority of women’s hair are hair extensions. With all the other stimulating and new experiences, noticing the culture around women’s hair care was far from my mind.   But as the novelty of my surrounding began to wear, I began to notice that it was impossible to walk past 10 houses without one of them having a women or child getting their hair done!

Hilha is exceptional at braiding hair, and would dedicatee most of her Sundays to doing hair for female friends and family (for free!!).  Occasionally I’d sit with her and ‘help’. Fortunately for me, all that required me to do was complete the braid she had already started. It was simple, easy, and just at my level of hair styling competency.

She often offered to do my hair, but I always prided myself on having s hair styling regimen under 5 minutes, and the 2 to 3 hours it took to braid my hair seem more unattractive then having my hair done

No one believed my hair was real, which ironically was the same situation in the US. Most people assumed it was some kind of human hair extension because that’s what everyone else was wearing. In several situations, after I explained that my hair was actually growing out of my head, the immediate reaction was to ask for my hair if I cut ever cut it! 

I found this hilarious, out of my own ignorance of course. Why would they want my hair??  I mentioned that the hair business is a multi-million dollar industry, but what I didn’t know was that women (with the financial means) were ordering human hair from brazil and Portugal for as much as 1,000 USD!!! And my hair would be the same quality, minus the price!

I cut my hair unannounced, so when several neighbors and friends saw me they refrained from commenting on the hair I had left on my head and asked instead where the hair I cut was!

Hilha’s mom had been the most persistent, so I brought her the small black plastic bag with my hair in it. I wondered how she planned on organizing all the loose strands because as you can imagine, it was just a big hairball in a bag.  She insisted she was going to wash it and have Hilha put it in.  ‘’I’ll believe it when I see it,” I thought to my self.

Then one morning on my way to buy bread for breakfast I saw hilhas mom in a toca- toca driving past me. With her upper body out of the sliding glass window she called my name and yelled out the window,” Look! I put in your hair!” And there were my curls sitting on her head as if they were her own. 

I was shocked!! She really put my hair on her head! I’m not sure how I can describe how it feels to see your hair on someone else’s head.  As I walked home my thoughts took a strange turn. – It was my hair! SO my sweat, and oils are all in it. And now its on someone else’s head.  It’s like giving someone your fingernails so they can put it on their nail. And that’s kind of gross ( to me, its possible this is done in some places of the world- who knows?!) --  This was the beginning of my short lived moral dilemma.  But by the time I got home I was just glad my hair lived to serve another purpose instead of getting thrown away.

Later that evening I stopped by her house to get a closer look…. with my camera.
Tia M’boby had the biggest smile as she showed off how well it turned out.  After her photo shoot she went on to ask me for more hair because the hair I brought her wasn’t enough! I pointed to the 5 inches of hair on top of my head as I explained that I that wasn’t going to be able to help her much with that.

But M’boby was really happy about her new hair. She said she could wear it for 3 months, take it out, wash it, style it again and wear it for another 3 months.  And the best part was that it was free!

I had come to understand this hair culture for what it was, but explaining it to my co-workers brought about some interesting topics. They come from a place where women have lush, thick, black hair that they grow down below their waist. It is their pride and joy.  So they could not comprehend why on earth almost every woman was wearing fake hair (and in some cases it really did look fake) when they obviously had their own hair.  It became routine for them to point at any woman who passed us and try and figure out what kind of their they were wearing, which always then led to the question: why??

Sunday, November 24, 2013

One year in Guinea- Bissau: Thought and reflections

I arrived in Guinea- Bissau on November 24th at 1 am, 10 days after I turned 23 in 2012.  That is exactly one year ago today.

I remember waking up the morning after I arrived and feeling like how it must feel to hatch from an egg.  I felt so strange, the sun was so bright, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying and the kids in the house stared at me inquisitively.  

It makes me laugh to remember those first couple of days.  It took me a few days to adjust to the humidity and that fact that everyone was black!  I didn’t know anyone, so my friends became the 5 and 8 year old kids living at my Aunt’s house who spoke to me in rapid fire Creole.  My step dad was very paranoid about the security in the country (and for good reason) and would not let me walk around after dark by my self. I spent so much of those first couple months reading, exercising, taking naps, and trying to explore what seemed like a barren city.

But after a couple of months, living in Bissau went from feeling like I landed on Mars to feeling like I knew it like the back of my hand. It’s a small place, so it’s easy to catch on. I also had some great Creole teachers.

In the year I’ve been here there has been a lot of struggles, frustrations and disappointments. I’ve probably cried more in my time here than I have my entire 4 years in college. I could easily say it’s been the most difficult time in my life. But even with all that in mind, coming to Bissau is absolutely the best decision I could have made.  

I’ve always believed that you have something to learn from any place you go, and any person you meet. Some lessons that these people and places bring vary in depth, importance, and relevance.

By far the most important thing I’ve gained from my time here has been learning about who I am and where I’m from. The sense of knowing ones history is so powerful. I feel like I found answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.  Layer that with all things I’ve learned about my self during my ups and downs. It’s has changed how I see the world and it has changed how I see my self.  

I knew very little about Guinea Bissau, my family, and the political situation of the country before I arrived.  But now I can say with confidence what it means to be Fula (although I can’t speak the language), What it means to be Bissau-Guinean, and what it means to be from West Africa (I have been blessed with the opportunity to visit other countries in the region). I can put faces to names of family members and understand completely when my dad speaks about the little village he was born in. 

Having lived here for this long feels like a major accomplishment. And I am proud of my self for having lasted this long.  It has not been easy! But I didn’t want to come here and get a superficial experience. I wanted to live the Guinean life, I wanted to feels what it means to be Guinean. *

            *And no matter how long I live here, I can never truly know. I’m considered white here- imagine that!  And there are certain privileges that come with having fair skin and an American passport.  

So on to another day, another month…… another year?  I doubt I can last that long, but as the days pass we will see what the future has in store.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dany Boy and Little Paris

This fine fellow here is my friend Daniel, but he goes by Dany, aka Dany Boy.  Surprisingly he is quite the model as you can see. Lol

Without going into too much detail, I met Dany back in December.  He was a friend of a friend here in Bissau. After the1st 20 minutes of meeting him I decided I didn’t like him. He knows why. But after a while I came to understand that I had caught him on a bad day and I found that he is actually a nice guy and super funny and we became good friends. 

Theibu Dien, a traditional Senegalese dish
When I was trying to buy my ticket to Dakar I had 2 options: Bissau to Morocco with a 10 hour lay over, then a connecting flight to Mauritania or a flight to Dakar with an over night stay and then a connecting flight the following day to Mauritania.  I was so tempted to go to Morocco, because it is one of the countries I really want to visit, but a 10 hour layover wouldn’t have left time to do much of anything.  Dakar also happened to be a cheaper flight, so the only problem was that I needed to find a place to stay over night while in Dakar. Dany happened to be in Dakar finishing his Masters, so when I asked f I could crash at his place over night going to and from Mauritania he said I was more then welcome.

After the first day in Dakar I realized one day on the way back was not going to be enough, so I moved my ticket to give me 3 days instead.  Dakar is not called ‘little paris’ for no reason!  And while in Mauritania I also learned that I have a lot of family in Dakar, so I needed to take the opportunity to see them while I was there. 
My Unce Idressa and Family

My Aunty Maryama's children

Once back in Dakar we planned the 3 days military style. Dany drew a map of Dakar on the white board and drew symbols for all must see tourist locations.  Then he turned to me and asked,   “What are your priorities?”

There was so little time and so much to do!! Aside from visiting family I also had to do some much needed shopping (which with me is always very time consuming) and of course do some sight seeing!!

View of Gore Island
I was able to accomplish ALMOST everything on my to do list except go to the beach (there was just no time!) And had it not been for Dany there is no way it would have been possible.  

He helped me navigate Medina, a neighborhood in Dakar, so I could get to my uncles house.  From my uncles house I went to Pikine, where my 3 of my first cousins live whom I had never met.  They are the children of my dad’s sister Maryama who recently passed in 2010.

He took me to Gore island, a small island just a 20 min boat ride away from Dakar.  The Island is famous due to its tragic history of being one of the many slave ports where Africans were kept before they were shipped to the Americas. Such slave houses have been turned into museums and tourist attractions. The famous ‘door of no return’, where even Obama has had his photo taken,  is located in side the house of slaves which was the door Africans went through to embark the slave ships.  Despite its history, the Island its self is gorgeous!
The door of no return

Dany even put up a fight so I wouldn’t have to pay the inflated non-African citizen fee to go to the Island! (Although he lost the money I gave him to pay for the ticket [Did you get rid of those shorts yet??] which essentially tripled the price of the ticket hahaha… but it’s the thought that counts!)

We went to the highly controversial African Renaissance, constructed by the ex-president of Senegal Abdoulya Wade as a symbol that “African people and nations shall overcome the current challenges confronting the continent and achieve cultural, scientific, and economic renewal." (source)  

The controversy is over the image of the statue. Senegal is a 80 percent muslim country, in which modesty is a pillar of the religion. The Image as you can see, if of half clothed men and women, the womens breast even being out in the open.

He held my bags while I shopped, gave me advice on shoe colors, and argued prices for me when my French and bartering skills were lacking. 
The African Renaissance Statue 

Did I mention he picked me up at the airport after midnight twice?! And on the way to Dakar from Mauritania the flight was delayed by almost 2 hours and I had no way to tell him, so I arrived at the airport to find he had waited the entire time.

 And all the while he put up with my criticisms, complaints, frustrations, and fatigue ( Hey, I’m only human!).  If those are not the characteristics of an incredible human being, then I don’t know what are!

I absolutely loved Dakar, but I know that it wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing of an experience if he hadn’t been a part of it. I have been truly blessed with his friendship.

So Dany, this post is dedicated to you as a symbol of my appreciation for kindness and hospitality you showed me in Dakar.  Thank you, Obrigada, e Merci Beacoup. 

Message to the Youth

To the youth of Africa
And of the diaspora
If one day your steps lead you
to the foot of this monument
Think about all that we have sacrificed
Our Liberty and our lives
For the Renaissance of Africa

-Abdoulaye Wade

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reunion with Pop's in Noakchott, Mauritania

Go figure the pilot from the night before in Bissau was the pilot for my flight to Noakchott, the capital of Mauritania. I was happy to see him, but from the look of  fatigue on his face I questioned whether he had gotten some sleep since the time I had seen him the day before.

My dad's apartment building
I arrived in Mauritania at 3 am (sorry Baba). I came packed with all the culturally appropriate clothing: long skits, scarves, long sleeve shirts, but when it was time to get ready to go to the airport, I couldn’t bring myself to change into them.  So while I sat in the airport in jeans and a tee-shirt, I immediately regretted not having dressed a little more conservatively.  I was getting A LOT of strange looks. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t naked! Someone at the airport gave my dad a call and said, “ There is an American girl here waiting for you.” Ahahaha  He told me this after he picked me up.

Fishermen at the Port de Peixe
It was CRAZY to see my dad after almost a year. He looked so happy, and younger! My Aunty was also in Noakchott, so it made for a nice reunion.

I spent 6 days in Mauritania, and I spent it unlike I’ve spent any other vacation. But then again, I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical vacation.  

My dad has a nice apartment just out side the capital. There was electricity 24/7, I took my first hot shower in almost a year, and ate home cooked meals (I’ve been eating out since September). I was completely blissing out on these simple pleasures.

My dad teaches by day and studies by night.  stays up until about 7 or 8am to study and eat breakfast and then sleeps until anywhere between 2 pm- 5pm the following day.

Musa, the go-to fish cleaner at Port de Peixe
In Bissau I’m up by 6 and in bed by 1030, so it was almost completely inverse to my schedule. In Mauritania I slept every night at 3 or 4 in the morning. We read a book together every night called Milestones, which is actually a banned book in most muslim countries. It is written by Seyid Qutb and is about how Islam has been influenced by modern culture. My Aunt and I would take turns reading and then stop and discuss what we read with my dad. I also read about sharia law, purification of the heart,  and other spiritually and islamically rich books. 

Aside from late night reading sessions, almost all of my time was spent talking and discussing and asking questions.  I had met and spent time with lots my dad’s family and I had gone all the way to the village where he was born,  and  now I could finally share my experiences with him get his perceptive and input on stories and histories I was told.

So in all honestly I wouldn’t say I saw too much of Mauritania because, as I mentioned, I spent most of my time picking my dad’s brain. I only went to downtown one time. But it was so much like Bissau that one time was enough. We went to the famous port where they catch and sell fish as well.  I went on a couple walks to the big market and around the town to see what there was to see.

Despite my limited explorations, I learned a lot about Mauritania via discussion with Mauritanians (In my broken French haha)! Here are some things I learned:


Effect of Rain, many places throughout the city look like these.
Mauritania is a desert, so there is almost no greenery or vegetation. Due to climate change, in the past 5 years Mauritania has received more rain then ever. There is no infrastructure set up to deal with the amount of rain they are receiving, so after just 2 days of rain, many neigborhoods were flooded. This means that people become stranded at home, there is limited transportation ( it is a city highly dependent on Taxi services), it damages houses and roads, and increases filth and odors due to lack of a public waste system. 


There is electricity but water is bought and sold from underground pumps that the government put in throughout the city.Health Care seemed to be the same as Bissau. There is a national hospital, but most people who have the means, resort to private clinics managed and funded by international NGO’s. There is a university and a medical school, an Olympic stadium.  And evidence of their booming industries are the many factories you find along the coast.


Typical streets just outside of Nouakchott
I don’t think I saw a police officer once. My dad said that because the country is 99% Muslim country there is a very low crime rate, so most police. I’m not convinced by this answer. From what I picked up, My aunt and dad tended to romanticized the conditions of life in Noakchott. Because If I’ve learned anything in Bissau,  its that just because you are Muslim doesn’t mean you are not human and apt to commit a crime.

Mauritanian culture was very much like Guinea Bissau in that women stay home and cook and raise the children. The food is similar and they also drink warga (strong green tea) . The only major difference was that the country is 99% Muslim, so the country functions in accordance to Islam. This means that most women wore head scarves and holidays are taken on fri and sat, not sat and Sunday, and etc..

There are however, 3 highly controversial social issues that Mauritania is facing.

The first is SLAVERY! While it was abolished in 1981, it only became illegal to have slaves in 2007!!  An astonishing 10-20% of the population of Mauritania is considered slaves!!

Due to the persistence of slavery in society, racism is incredibly high.  The division is between the ‘white’ moors and the black Africans.   

“Cotton describes the class and race structure of society in Mauritania. The ruling class is known as white Moors, who are descendents of the intermingling of two groups of people: the indigenous Berbers and the Arabs who moved into the territory centuries ago. Historically, the Arabs have always had slaves. Owning other people as property is evidently not a foreign or repulsive concept to them. While this may not be true for every white Moor, they generally look down on black Africans.”          

Lastly,  the force feeding of young girls, called leblouh, is cultural practice  which can be found mostly outside the capital city. Beauty standards in Mauritania are such that women are found more attractive and marriageable if they are heavy/fat. So Girls ages 7-12 are force-fed to make them get fat so that it will be easy for them to find a husband. The participation of girls in the education system is not prioritized, so the best hope for a girls success in the future is to find a good husband.

Here are some links to a video series which touches on some of these issues

Every country has its problems, some worse then others.  In my experience, Mauritanians are very kind people. I was disappointed I didn’t get to explore out side of the capital, where the desert scenery is beautiful from what I’ve seen in photos. But maybe one day I'll go back. 

Donkeys like to go to the beach too! 

Fish for Daaaaaaaaaaaayzzzzz