Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, June 30

My First Catholic Party

When I first landed in this sandbox, I was told that every Catholic is of Sereer ethnic group, but not every Sereer is Catholic… apparently this isn’t always true. I went to my first organized Catholic party last Sunday, and before you start groaning hear me out because it was a hell of a good time. To celebrate the end of a successful school year, the various ethnicities of the Mboro Catholic population put on a cultural soiree of food, dance, and dress.

We kicked off the party with a solid 2.5 hours of Catholic mass. For me this is a time to sit quietly, not be bothered, catch up on French Bible lingo, and think about other things during the Wolof bits. Hands down, the best part is the music. Think: fun loud southern Baptist choir with African drum beats and an undecipherable language. These people would probably beat them out in a Glee competition, though, because I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s impossible to remember your troubles or feel anything other than calm resolve for the week ahead after hearing them sing. Even the obviously sad songs are somehow inspiring. I can’t help but stare, but everyone else seems to take it for granted as I’m continually the only person parched from a mouth hanging wide open.

The second best part is the fashion show. The women dress in their best outfits with shawls and head wraps, heels, and purses all perfectly pressed and coordinating. During the communion procession, one can’t help but be mesmerized by the beautiful cloths parading by in styles never before seen, rendering the whole experience akin to Project Runway- Mboro Edition. Same goes for the men, sans accessories of course. One is considered luckier even still to behold a vision of the Virgin Mary; who makes frequent fabric appearances, with and without her son, and in various settings.

But this day was a lucky occasion, as many of the women dressed in the same fabric, albeit different dress styles, in honor of their designated ethnic group. This is normal party protocol. A few women from the group will head to Dakar to be the first to buy a newly printed style of cloth. And they buy as much of it as possible, if not the whole minting, in order to fabricate their coordinated ensembles. By my count, there were at least 4 different groups represented at this party.

After mass, the congregation gathered in the neighboring court yard for what can best be described as the African version of a Sunday picnic. The pews were brought out from the chapel to rest under the trees joined by plastic chairs, a few speakers, and a make shift wooden bar. Yes, a bar. You could walk up to it and order a beer, a bottle of wine, or a bottle of palm wine (which is rapidly fermenting sweet wine). All this can be found at the same price quoted at the local hole in the wall corner boutique, which goes to say it’s cheaper than any other restaurant/ bar in Mboro. The director of the accompanying Catholic elementary school, at which I frequently teach English, bought me my first ice cold Gazelle.

Interestingly enough, the whole party sat in separated sections; the young kids under one tree, the teenagers another. The women sat in fabric coordinated circles on one side of the bar, while the men sat on the other. Although I initially sat with a group of women, I was eventually called to the men’s circle because, as I was told, it was quite obvious that none of the women knew me and all my friends were the male teachers of the school anyway. Oh well, it tends to go that way in most of my experiences because 1) the men’s circle is an unofficial place of elevated status, 2) I’m white and therefore inherently prone to do bizarre things, and 3) I drink more than ½ a beer in a sitting. It probably didn’t help that I wasn’t wearing a coordinated outfit. Maybe next time…

We waited for lunch, served in traditional Senegalese style of large round plates of heaping food where everyone gets a spoon. In honor of the cultural celebration each ethnic group made a few plates of their traditional meals. My group was served a Sereer dish of tiny flakes of fish mixed into mashed beans porridge-style with hot sauce and limes on the side. Not knowing it was fish filled, I took a huge bite. And then promptly threw it up. A very kind gentlemen sitting next to me immediately got up and went in search of another plate. When he returned with a small plate of rice covered in sweet milk sauce, I couldn’t help but smile… it’s my favorite dish in Senegal. And this version was sprinkled with colorful fruit syrups adding to the splendor. Diolla and Manike were the only other ethnic groups I caught the names of… but the other ethnic dishes served were manioc leaf sauce over rice, fish and dumplings with tomato sauce, and a new twist on baked beans with ground beef.

After lunch, we continued drinking in our segregated circles, until it was time to dance! Each group of women was given the opportunity to play a grouping of their songs and show off their traditional dances. Either all the dances were basically the same, with the appearance of knee shaking, arm flinging gyration in conga line formation, or I wasn’t sober. I promised my friends that the minute an American song came on I would teach everyone how I dance… but the opportunity never presented itself. A shame.

As the heat dissipated, the afternoon turned to twilight, and the beers ran out… people started to stumble home. A hefty amount of pictures were taken, and I hope to post them soon. I had a great time, and mentioned so to my new friends when they all called to make sure I’d gotten home ok- a jester so Dad-esque it reminded me of my own. At which point, it had occurred to me that the company I kept represented men who were all within a few years of my own Dad’s age. And while I look forward to grilling and boating with Dad back home, I’m also anticipating the next excuse to gather here in Mboro.

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