The African Chronicles: Men

Casablanca, Morocco
November 17-19, 2010

We just arrived in Morocco. I noticed the stares of the sea of Arab men from the airplane. I also was annoyed at the man who was treating the plane like his living room and blasting music at 3:30 am in the morning just in the seat in front of me. I abused my power as a foreigner from a country that believes in equality of the sexes and gave him that “look”: a stare that says, “Hello….yes, other people are on the plane too. Your tehno-rap will have to wait.” Mostly, men travel to and from Morocco. And it seems mostly men drink tea in cafes, all day long as well, and men only exercise at the track in the morning. I’ve never been more aware of my gender, and the fact that my hair is showing. I even tied a scarf over my head to be less distracting, but my R.E.I. pants are a dead-give-away.

Besides the overflow of males and the strange feeling that I’m never quite sure as a woman if it’s appropriate that I do certain things, or participate in certain spaces, I love Casablanca. Well, what I mean to say is I love the food: fresh crepes, warm pastries, creamy butter, shawarmas, hummus, olives, and couscous.

They just celebrated Tabaski (or so called in West Africa), a Muslim holiday equivalent to the magnitude of Christians’ Christmas. Almost every household slaughters one sheep or ram which symbolizes the story of Abraham and how his son Isaac was saved by the sacrifice of a ram. The city actually smells because of the number of sheep that are killed for the family feasts. Unfortunately, we did not have family close enough to participate in the festivities…we were all very sad to miss out on some great local food.

Africa, what a place of diversity, west, then east, and now north. Morocco is a funny blend of Arab, French, and African, but they don’t call themselves Africans. They say, “I would love to visit Africa someday” or “This is my African friend.” There is a strange form of separatism and elitism. I kinda want to pull out a map to clarify the continent, and they often make the same mistake that I used to which was to use the word “Africa” like it is a country instead of a continent. No, Morocco is not like Senegal, and they are both vastly different from Kenya.

But, we all make mistakes and our assumptions of people and places always need re-educating. I’m learning the immense value of exposure and how little I understood about countries throughout Africa. As I understand more of their ways here I hope they will be forgiving of a fierce American woman.

We’ll be traveling to Meknes tomorrow by train where we will start a dance workshop on Monday. More to come!


New Pics from Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi National Park

Local wildlife..and yes, PETA, animals do get the right of way here!”

I saw something moving in the grass…and yes, we saw a lion!”

A little closer, just about ten feet close!

Surprisingly shy and beautiful when they run

Cute and fuzzy until you feed them and then they swarm like bees. Oops.

Female Crocodile trying to cool off despite the hot sun.

Another type of jungle: Nairobi traffic, one hour for every five blocks.

The African Chronicles: Oasis

Nairobi, Kenya
October 7 – October 17

On all of my international travels I always seem to find an oasis. In China, it was Hong Kong, in Russia it was St. Petersburg, and I still have yet to find one in Mongolia. In Africa, it is Nairobi, Kenya. I always have more culture shock coming back to more developed areas than traveling to under-developed areas. And I feel uncomfortable with those terms, developed and under-developed. I think when people say developed their talking about money. It’s something that I’ve learned a lot about recently. The issues of power, race, colonization, are loaded with complexities and layered politics, but inherently most of it comes down to money. So does Kenya have more money? Well, there is no middle-class, just the rich and poor, but their roads are paved, and they have an equivalent of a Walmart, oh and McDonald’s. Funny, how McDonald’s seems to be the marker that determines if an area is developed.

Along with development came the radio advertisements that frenzied over the latest diet fad and how to chart your BMI to determine the quickest path to weight loss which seemed to promise love, happiness, and beauty. And yet, I was thrilled when I learned the hotel had a fitness center and I could eat fresh vegetables again…cough…hypocrite…cough.

A radio talk show discussed if it was appropriate for women to drink alcohol, and in public no matter. Now, I don’t drink, but I was intrigued by the cultural permission for men to continue in habits that the radio colored as “bad” and that women were expected to rise above and not “indulge”. I wondered what other practices fell into that category.

Along with that was the charming magazines that spotted the aisles in the grocery store, many of them focused on marriage, families and parenting. I love how the media reveals so quickly the values of a culture. I was a little embarrassed that we didn’t have a wider range of magazines in our check-out lines: it looks like the US loves celebrities, health, beauty, fashion, and gossip, and not to mention aliens from outer space – thank you National Enquirer.

We enjoyed our stay with Opiyo Okash, who is an extremely talented artist from Nairobi, Kenya, and has added significant contributions to dance throughout Africa. But, you would never know this about him. He gently takes about thirty minutes to negotiate with a taxi driver to take us to the GoDown Arts Center for 200 KES instead of 300 KES. He speaks quietly, listened well, and laughs easily. He is one of the most gentle and humble people I have ever met. Yet, his ideas of dance in Africa is what spurred this research project about Shifting Centers. He challenges many assumptions about “African” dance and what it means to be presented sometimes as on the periphery of civilization; as if there is a center stage and the west has dominated that space. A multi-centered body is always shifting through various points of importance and influence. He challenges definitions about cultural and traditional expectations we all have about places that are not our own. It made me think about my centers, my oases: God, husband, family, friends, arts, dance, self, creativity, goals, life balance, travel…I’m glad I can add Kenya to my growing list.

Danse L’Afrique Danse

Five days into an international dance festival and I feel speechless. I have never seen such dance; powerful, rhythmic, physical, and seeping with a history and culture of which I am still just on the fringe. The Danse L’Afrique Danse festival has the top choreographers from countries all over Africa competing for sponsorship and an all-inclusive tour throughout Africa and then onto Europe next year. The winners, who were announced today, received $5,000 euro to continue their work and support their emerging companies. Presenters from all over Europe and some from the US gather to watch upcoming artists perform their works for a chance at the big prize.

The work coming out of Africa is astonishing and I think can easily lead the contemporary dance field. The dancers here are not afraid of highly physical and risky movement. It is common for works to have fast, athletic, and daring choreography. Also, many of the works delve into issues of Africa identity, appropriation, gender issues, race and identity, as well as colonialism. For me the most riveting work comes from South Africa. Their history of aparteid and the barriers that region has overcome creates dance works that are very complex and contradicting.

One of my most favorite works was a piece choreographed and performed by Nelly. Her work explored the true story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan slave woman who at the age of 20 was taken from Cape Town to London and then on to Paris to be displayed naked in their streets and at their circuses like an animal her European audiences viewed her to be. Nelly’s work referenced Baartman’s story but also commented on the contemporary AFrican body and how the black body continues to be an export of exoticism and curiosity to mainly white audiences.

Even here at the festival it is interesting to see how much influence and power the French have over African work. About half of the panel and almost all of the presenters are either European or American. I can tell I’ve felt that their might be exploitation of talent and intellectual property for the African dancers and choreographers. After a short conversation with Olivier he said, “Here, the common phrase is: dance or die. We dance to survive, and because of that drive, we bleed, sweat, and break to dance.” From what I saw in terms of choreography, performance, technique, and expressivity, I believe him.

New Pics from Dakar, Senegal

A Gabian Group making the long trek from Dakar, Senegal to Mecca.

The common way to carry any item…I wish my neck was that strong!

Entrance to Goree; the island off of Dakar where slaves were held before they were shipped away to various countries.

A local sit-and-dine street vendor selling traditional Senegalese dishes.

The potable water, or drinkable water.

Colorful and bright public transportation. It usually costs about ten cents to get across the city in one of these.

Goree has many local artists and some of the most fascinating visual artists I’ve ever seen.

Beautiful Goree.

Locals wait in long lines to fill up fuel tanks for daily needs like cooking and boiling water.