Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Senegalese Louma

For the average volunteer living and working in Senegal, louma day was a mixed blessing.  On one hand it meant a break from the daily routine of village life, and on the other it meant one day less to get done the work one already felt there wasn’t enough time to do.

Louma is the French spelling of the word used to identify the weekly market of Senegalese culture.  These are daylong events that draw people—buyers and sellers alike— from all over within respectable distance of the louma town.  The men in charge of the ndiaga ndiayes (privatized public transportation in the form of large vans that fit anywhere between 15-35 people inside and more on top) rearrange their routes on louma days to accommodate the masses wanting to travel to and from the louma town.  Others hitch up their donkeys and horses to rickety carts and plod back and forth all day long, transporting louma-goers along the dusty roads in a slower fashion.  As with the vendors in de La Pradelle’s Market Day in Provence, the sellers at the louma vary: there are those who have designated spots to sell their produce and clothes, and those who wander the aisles selling frozen radi (bissap juice); there are those who sell only at their local louma, and those who travel throughout the week to hit all the major loumas in the region.  And as with the market described by de La Pradelle in her book, the louma serves as a weekly event, a change in the course of daily life that all Senegalese villagers embrace.  Not everyone can go to the louma but at least one family member attends each week, and part of their responsibility is to bring home a piece of the louma experience for the rest of the household: a bag of village beignets the kids, or a watermelon to go with the afternoon tea, or just a new tame (sifter used in the preparation of millet) for the women in the compound to share amongst themselves.  The significance of this weekly market meant that those us trying to schedule community meetings, seedling out-planting parties, gardening demonstrations, farmer field days, or other activities were required to block out louma days as having standing conflicts.  It was a tradition that trumped any benefit our extension work might bring to those with whom we worked, and while initially most volunteers ranted about the irritation of having to plan around louma days and the strain it put on project timelines, eventually we learned to embrace the louma as an opportunity to partake in this tradition of Senegalese culture and use it as an integration tool.  My friend Angelica struggled in her day to day interactions with the people in her village: her host dad was controlling and not particularly well-liked within the village society so it was difficult for Angelica to maintain autonomy in her work choices and cultivate relationships with those in the village who did not see eye to eye with her host father.  The nearest louma took place every Sunday in a road town about seven kilometers from Angelica’s host site, and nearly everyone from Angelica’s village traveled by horse cart to the louma at some point during the day.  Angelica was a city girl at heart, and once she discovered the crowded, bustling atmosphere of the louma, she knew she’d found a cure for her homesickness.  She took to going every Sunday, sometimes with her host father and sometimes without, and her repeated presence at the louma opened up opportunities for her she otherwise never would have had.  On the occasions I accompanied her to the louma, I noticed that Angelica was like a different person.  She moved assuredly through the maze of stalls selling baguette-like loaves of thick chewy village bread, plastic beaded necklaces, woven baskets of kola nuts, squashes the size of a large man’s head, re-used plastic bottles filled with vegetable and palm oils, and second-hand clothing.  She spoke Wolof with a confidence she lacked in the village, and she sassed back freely with merchants who teased her about her pale skin and Asian characteristics when otherwise she would have leaped down their throats at having ignorantly labeled her Japanese as opposed to Chinese.  Angelica was a louma connoisseur, and she thrived in the environment, much like Rousseau in de La Pradelle’s study of the Carpentras market.  She knew how to play the game and perform like a native Senegalese.  She learned her role and she learned it well—so much so that people from her village were shocked when they observed Angelica in the louma setting.  Angelica liked it that way—it showed the others that she possessed a savvy of Senegalese culture and language she otherwise was unable to display.  But unlike the relationships de La Pradelle explores in her book, the relationships Angelica cultivated within the louma managed to transcend the marketplace.  She came to know people from other villages where her host father had been reluctant to let her visit.  She made work arrangements with them so she had a solid “excuse” to leave the confines of her host father’s compound and the village limits.  Whereas de La Pradelle has no examples of how social ties created within the market stretchy beyond the market constructs, Angelica’s experience proves the possibility exists.  Granted, most of the relationships were designated as strictly “Sunday louma friendships”…but not all.  There is the possibility that these relationships succeeded only because Angelica was already such an obvious outsider, but I do not have the knowledge of Senegalese relationships with each other as they may or may not have been nurtured through louma interaction, nor do I have the space here to explore such a concept.   I do, however, recognize this as a problematic element in my comparison of relationships within the louma with those described in de La Pradelle’s market and it certainly would be an interesting comparison to explore further.     

1 comment:

  1. I like your Peace Corps stories. I have been listening to Brianna's stories from Tanzania this year and it's interesting how different your experiences are. The control a host family has over the your social life is interesting. You mentioned a story earlier about your friend Paul being forbidden from associating with the griots even though drumming was his passion. I wonder if he could have arranged to drum in a different location like Angelica was able to do with the market. It seems like while she was almost forced to play a certain role in her village, she had the ability to really create a role for herself in the louma. Markets are powerful entities in a variety of ways, it seems.