Danielle Paffard - General Teaching Projects in Senegal
Danielle is currently in Senegal on a four month teaching placement. Here she tells us about spending Christmas in Saint Louis.
'Writing about Christmas in St Louis is actually really hard, primarily because it doesn't really exist here! The majority of the population is Muslim and they are hugely more excited by the prospect of killing the biggest available sheep on an unspecified date in January (Tabaski) than trying to formulate - in the absence of chimneys - an alternative delivery mechanism for the fat toubab in red and white! The vagueness of the exact timing of their preferred 'fête' here may account for the fact that many of our Senegalese acquaintances didn't seem too sure of the exact date of Christmas.
Many people were getting very excited about December 24th and had to be corrected by Brits 'in the know'. Although in fairness the exact timing of Christmas does even confuse some retailers in England, who start getting ready in mid-September.
Christmas celebrations here seemed to revolve around a big night out on Christmas eve, which I assure you was a veritable nightmare for those waiting for Father Christmas and trying to save their energy for the 'big day'! The fact people here don't self inflict hangovers and generally take it pretty easy in the daytime anyway (even if they're not quite up for it, the sugar rush from multiple rounds of Senegalese tea soon gets them buzzing again) meant that avoiding a big night out was pretty impossible! Christmas has little religious significance for most people here but the Senegalese seem to have adopted the toubab attitude that this doesn't really matter. Any excuse! Some school students even decided to stage a strike and start their Christmas holidays early!
People do try to make a bit of Christmas effort. Various small plastic Christmas trees appeared in the market, among the rows of jelly shoes and football shirts, and tinsel was hastily suspended from railings. The Christmas lights on the Pont Faidherbe were actually pretty impressive (and are still up). The sole decorations at my host's house were a picture of a Christmas tree and four cards sent from home!
The little pictures of snowmen and snowballs looked very out of place. I understood why the Senegalese, who start wearing hats and jackets when it drops to 33°, would be very cautious of anything depicting such a terrifying substance. Our goat ate the Christmas cards anyway, so maybe that's why they don't really bother with them. Several presents from home didn't survive the Senegalese postal system and present-giving among volunteers was deemed unnecessary. However, I did receive a 'bonus' hour of internet time from a local cyber café - Christmas spirit is not dead!
Christmas dinner doesn't have the same special significance here either. Juliette's Christmas dinner was thieboudienne - the Senegalese national dish. Not a special meal for a special occasion, like turkey, but I suppose special in its own right. This meal is regarded as a national treasure and eaten with a frequency one would closely associate with obsession. Our Christmas dinner was special because it was the weirdest meal I've had here - and living with Madame Bawa has thrown up some surprises! The maid had the day off and Mme Bawa had been out, so we ate a combination of the previous weeks meals with aubergine and a fried egg on top.
Because of this fairly variable and sketchy nature of Christmas here, it is hard to summarise what it was like. Christmas here was really what you made of it. I had long ago decided that I wanted to spend Christmas on the beach. This started as a simple desire to be able to brag immensely about the heat and sunshine and make people at home jealous, but got embellished to incorporate a bit of Christmas spirit.
Thanks to the help of Nayeli, Diederik, a few other random toubabs and some Senegalese guys, I managed to spend Christmas morning playing games on the beach with 110 talibé (street) kids! After a certain amount of organisation and a few minor traumas, the event was a huge success and even got a mention on Senegalese radio. I'm not sure whether this was an indication of the level of appreciation for our efforts, or of the dubious quality of Senegalese radio, but never mind - I was happy.'