Monday, November 30, 2009


Every year, around the time Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, the world’s Muslims celebrate Tabaski.

I’m not talking about the hot sauce of a similar name, though you’ll soon find out Tabaski can be equally tough on the senses of a novice.

The main feature of Tabaski is that each male head of a Muslim household is required to slaughter a ram, a nod to the Old Testament story of Abraham who demonstrated total faith in God by nearly plunging his knife into his own son.

“It is extremely important to find the means to get a sheep before Tabaski,” a local friend of mine named Sonko told me. “It is either a sheep or your first born male child,” he said half-jokingly.

In the days leading up to Tabaski, the Muslims of Dakar are in a bit of a frenzy. Lots of deals are taking place – people borrowing against future wages to buy a good ram, family members shipping in well-fed sheep in from grassier Mauritania and Mali , people taking their animals down to the beach for a good cleaning in the sea before the big day. I even saw a man in a Toyota Corolla chauffeuring a sheep, standing awkwardly in the back seat, down the highway.

On the morning of Tabaski, the first call to prayer wafts through the windows before sunrise. Muslims put on their finest clothes. Colourful dresses and headscarves for the women, and long shiny tunics for the men called booboos. At about 9am, everyone goes to the mosque for an hour of formal prayer, largely centered on lessons in compassion, laying the groundwork for the day and year ahead.

Tabaski is about faith and generosity,” said another Muslim friend. “The compassion is not just for people – Muslims, Christians, black, white – but also for animals. It sounds strange on a day when we must slaughter sheep. But we believe, because it is killed on a sacred day, that it is going to paradise. We also ensure that we kill it quickly and humanely, which is something that we can not ensure when we go to the restaurant for a burger or a steak.”

After prayers, around 10am, is the slaughter. I don’t need to describe it in too much detail, but I can tell you that the next few hours of the day are intense. Things happen on the streets of Dakar that U.S. law would restrict to a federally licensed facility.

Allasane is host to my brother Rob and I for the late morning events. Walking around the corner to his family’s abode – a maze of alleyways and modest rooms in downtown Dakar -- I see young men and women hard at work chopping, cutting and cleaning. Fresh sheep hides are drying in the sun, a pail of intestines is being sorted for sausage skins. Bigger chunks of the animal are being brought inside for food preparation. The head rests on the sidewalk. Nothing is wasted.

I see Allasane and he offers me his forearm to shake instead of his gore-stained hand.

“It gives me and my family great pleasure that you have come,” he says with a genuine smile. “Please come eat, we have already started grilling one of the sheep.”

He brings us into his room, furnished with a few photos, a mattress and a single plastic chair. The three of us sit on the floor and chat a bit, the sounds of the kitchen just outside and the smoke from the earliest cuts to be grilled. A woman comes in with a large metal bowl with cooked meat, onions and potatoes and sets it between us. We wash our hands in a bowl of water and then dig in, no utensils, no napkins.

The mutton is tough, but tasty. And of course, fresh. There’s something indescribably good about food – veggies, meat, whatever – that hasn’t had its vitality sucked out of it through weeks in a deep freeze. Rob’s eyes are watering a bit from the smoke, but we’re both holding up quite well to this new experience. My only serious misstep is to accidentally grab a slice of an organ that looked at first to be lean meat. I slip it back into the bowl when no one is looking.

After not too long, we graciously say our thank yous to Allasane and his family. They keep asking us to stay, offering us more food, smiling and chatting. But the socializing and the big meal have filled us up. We drive off feeling pretty happy, impressed by their warmth, impressed by the food.

I realize then that Tabaski isn’t so different from Thanksgiving after all. I wonder, though. Do their sheep meet our turkeys when they make it to paradise?

Friday, November 27, 2009


Ouseiyno is a master carpenter who’s own workshop is falling apart. The jumble of tin and splinters lies hidden down an alleyway in central Dakar, infused with sand and the barnyard sounds of chickens and goats.

His furniture is magnificent and his confidence is startling.
“This bed will be around long after you and your wife are dead,” he tells me with a genuine smile.

I’m smiling too. You don’t get this kind of service at IKEA.

Despite Ouseiyno’s obvious public relations challenges, he finds a great deal of work in a city where a third of people are unemployed. He makes beds, tables, and chairs for transients like Kelly and me, but he also has contracts with some of the biggest commercial developments in town. When you can’t reach him on his cellphone, it is usually because he can’t hear the ring tone over the scream of power tools at the new shopping complex he’s helping put together in the Plateau.

He’s interesting in other ways as well.

“I’m going to Lingue for Tabaski, to be with my wife,” he says. Lingue is a several-hour drive to the interior, and Tabaski is a Muslim religious day (Nov. 28) in which every head of a household must slaughter a goat.

“You should come to Lingue some time. There is a woman there – how do you say – who is taken by the devil. She sits under a large Baobab tree and can turn into a serpent or a cat.”

I tell him a trip like that sounds absolutely fascinating. I also tell him I don’t believe in sorcery.

“If you come, you will believe.”

“OK, cool,” I say, feeling a bit like we’ve slipped into a new dimension.

A few awkward seconds go by.

“So when do you think the curtain rods will be done?” I asked.

(As soon as our shipping container arrives, we will be able to download pictures of the gorgeous custom made bed and two matching tables for $700 US. It is stunning.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mafe (West African meat in peanut sauce)

Mafé is a famous and popular West African dish, particularly in Senegal, Gambia, Mali and the Ivory Coast. It is a stew with meat simmered in a sauce thickened with ground peanuts and has a wonderful sweet-salty flavor. Mafé is known by many names, including groundnut stew, mafe, maffé, maffe, sauce d'arachide, sauce z'ara, tigadèguèna and tigadene.

Rich has discovered this tasty specialty, as well as my friend Annette, who can't seem to get enough with it. It can be made with chicken, beef, or lamb. Variations are also listed below.

Mafe (6 to 8 servings)

Oil -- 2 tablespoons
Stewing beef, cut into cubes -- 2 pounds (or chicken or lamb)
Onion, minced -- 1
Garlic, minced -- 3-6 cloves
Ginger (optional), minced -- 1 tablespoon
Tomato paste -- 2 tablespoons
Tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped -- 2 cups
Water or stock -- 1-2 cups
Natural, unsalted peanut butter -- 1 cup
Salt and pepper -- to taste

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high flame. Add the meat and sauté until lightly browned on all sides, 5-6 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.

Add the onion to the oil in the pot and sauté until translucent, 3-4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ginger and sauté another 1-2 minutes.

Return the meat to the pot, stir in the tomato paste and cook for about 1 minute. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 8-10 minutes to reduce the volume of the tomatoes.

Add enough water or stock to loosen the dish to a stewlike consistency. Simmer for another 10 minutes.

Stir in the peanut butter, salt and pepper and simmer for another 40 minutes, or until the meat is tender and oil rises to the surface of the dish. Add water as necessary to keep the dish stewlike.

Adjust seasoning and serve over rice or couscous.

Use chicken, lamb, or beef.
**When you add the water or stock, stir in some vegetables such as cabbage, yams, squash, okra, eggplant, potatoes, peppers or carrots if you like. Vegetarian versions are made with only vegetables.
Some recipes call for cooking the peanut butter with the tomato paste, before adding the chopped tomatoes.

What's Two Days, Anwway?

Yesterday I found out that when I checked in to the hospital, my due date had been incorrectly tracked. I lost two days. Now this may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but I know that those of you that have been on strict bed rest can sympathize with what I am feeling.

When I found out I would be 27 weeks today, rather than last Monday, I lost it. I sobbed for about an hour, which I'm sure had nothing to do with being constantly scared, medicated, overtired, or worried. Two days feels like two years, when you are desperately counting the days to get to at least 28. Every morning I wake up, I sigh relief that I made it through the night, and as soon as possible, I cross off another day on my calendar. Two days felt like defeat.

I pulled myself together with the help of a nurse, who helped me see some sort of clarity. She reminded me that I am doing well, am still pregnant, and even though two days may feel like forever, it's really not in the whole scheme of things.

You know you've been at a hospital too long when you have worn through your hospital ID bracelet, you know all the names of all the nurses, CNA's, custodial staff, and start to make conversation with the cafeteria crew when you call in your meal order. Yes too long, but I am so lucky to be here.

Yes, this has been a very long haul, but I am grateful for each day that I am here and still pregnant.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

2-1 Habs

Hockey is not a big sport in Africa for obvious reasons. But still, people here like their sports and in the sea of jerseys on the streets of Dakar and Nairobi, I’ve spotted three quite nice NHL knock-offs. One was a shabby looking Bruins rag. The other two were the brilliant blue, white and red of the Canadiens. Not a bad showing for the Habs. Lets hope it is an good omen for the season.

If you’ve read this far, you may also be interested to know that I’ve located an African hockey rink – perhaps the only one on the continent. It is in the Paneri hotel near the Nairobi airport, just a few hundred meters from a wildlife reserve jam packed with giraffes and zebras. I was told the ice is of good quality and that teams sometimes play there. The only problem, which produces some odd outcomes during matches, is that the corners of the rink are square.

Potty Time

And here is my guy practicing for the big day...

Monday, November 23, 2009

27 Weeks

Today I am 27 weeks. I have been laying flat for almost 5 weeks now. Some days are very difficult, others are a bit easier to take. Every other day has had some sort of drama regarding contractions, etc.... But, I am a very lucky woman. I am still here, and still pregnant. Every day increases the survival rate of these two boys. I have to hang in there; I have no choice.

28 weeks is the next goal, then 30, then 32. I can do this. I can do this.

Thank you dear friends for all of your well wishes, thoughts, and prayers. I love you all so much. Your encouragement gets me through each day.


N'Gor Right

About 45 years ago, two Californians and a film crew flew to Dakar and introduced surfing to West Africa . The first spot they tried was a right wave breaking along the edge of N’Gor Island, visible from their room at the Hotel Meridien on Dakar ’s mainland. The fishermen in their trademark Senegalese boats paddled to the channel to watch the never-before-seen spectacle. The moment, immortalized in the classic surf film Endless Summer, is widely believed to have kicked off the new age of modern surf travel.

After six weeks in Dakar , I finally made it out to N’Gor with my surfboard yesterday. Instead of paddling, as my Californian predecessors had done, there are now 30-foot motorized pirogues ferrying tourists to and fro between the island and the peninsula nearly for free. There are also a handful of smaller, slightly more expensive boats catering specifically to surfer travelers that will drop you off right in the channel next to the wave.

I picked the giant pirogue, which, after a surprisingly smooth ride, dropped me off on a quiet beach lined with palms and a couple of quaint restaurants commanding an incredible view of the bay and the northern edge of Dakar . The streets are narrow, cobble and sand alleyways between stone buildings with flowering vines. A five minute walk through the very pleasant maze brings you past private homes, seaside restaurants and a guesthouse before placing you on a low wall stretching toward the inside of the N’Gor reef.

The water is clear and turquoise like the Caribbean . The waves crash as white as bone over the reef, wrapping for a hundred yards around the point. This is a very small day for N’Gor, the locals tell me, but the swells are well overhead, and the surfers look like small black dots as they drop in. I try to imagine what it must have been like for the first surfers on this point in 1964 – big waves, unknown land, gawking fishermen, huge long boards without leashes.

The boys from Endless Summer got some great waves, but didn’t stay long due to a pressing round-the-world itinerary. But they clearly made a lasting impression. Here in West Africa – not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you mention ‘surfing’ – the water is filled with their legacy.

I watch as a local surfer, a kid of about 18 from the village of N’Gor across the bay, paddles out beyond the pack to the peak,, clearly the alpha dog out here. Whitewater swirls all around him and the tip of a jagged rock dubbed ‘Mami’ protrudes a few feet away, sending chills down my spine. A set comes in on cue and he spins around, stroking into the steepest part of the wave and dropping down the face as it curls over him, his buddies from the village shouting encouragement in Wolof from the channel. This is pure joy, a gift perhaps from the good old USA .

A fisherman slows his boat to watch.

(Here’s some footage from the spot I found on Youtube: )

Thursday, November 12, 2009


A poem that a friend sent that I wanted to share...

'Live with intention.
Walk to the edge.
Listen hard.
Practice wellness.
Choose with no regret.
Continue to learn.
Appreciate your friends.
Do what you love.
Live as if this is all there is.'

-mary anne radmacher

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

3 Weeks

Today is my 3 week anniversary of being at Maine Med.

For 3 weeks, I have worried myself sick, watched endless hours of soap operas, been medicated to the point of seeing double, and have fought the boredom battle.

I have relied on my friends and family, even strangers, with their words of encouragement, home cooked meals, and positive spirit.

Without getting in to too much detail, I would like to share with you that my condition has been stable for 2 weeks now. The boys are measuring perfectly, and kicking up a storm. I am 25 weeks, which is quite early....but the first goal is to make it 28, then 32.

Because I am have been stable for 2 weeks now, I am starting to feel more positive and feel that the boys will make it. Despite the torture of bed rest, I will do this as long as possible. I admire the strength of any mother that has been put on long term bed rest, especially hospital bed rest. I suppose it is strength of being a mother that gets us through...

Thank you to all of you that have reached out. Your support means the world to us. I promise to return phone calls and emails once I am feeling a bit better.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Wow, really?"

"Only God knows what tomorrow will bring."

I'd seen that on a sign a few days earlier in a Dakar police station, but now, back in Maine, I was living its message. I was doing something I never thought I'd do... Something I would have bet hundreds of dollars I would never do.

I was driving to Walmart to buy the entire catalogue of episodes ever aired by Sex in the City. It was only when I got back to Kelly's hospital room that I realized I'd just effortlessly shattered two of my biggest hangups: going to Walmart for anything, and trafficking in terrible melodramatic sitcoms.

"Wow, really?" was Kelly's reaction when I delivered the gift I knew would help her through the next month or two of laying flat."You went to Walmart and bought Sex in the City? All by yourself?"

"Yes," I beamed.

It's amazing what love can do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


And a visit from the most adorable lion....

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Security Please

Despite my husband appearing to be 'mellow' and 'easy going', I've learned that he apparently likes to arrive in a room with a 'bang'!

After his long sleepless flight from Dakar, through JFK, and up to Portland, he arrived at the hospital looking as happy and wonderful as ever. However, after touching base with doctors and family, two things were on his mind: Pad Thai Takeout from Vientiane Market, and Geary's Hampshire Ale.

Rich stepped out to get take out, and also, the seasonal micro brew he had had been craving. He returned to the hospital, equipped with Pad Thai, dumplings, Vitamin C water, and of course, the seasonal ale. Immediately security instructed him to get rid of the beer, which he sadly returned to the trunk of the car for another time. You would think the saga would be over...

After he arrived to the room, the man at the security desk had called and alerted the uniformed secrity officer about the situation. Within minutes, he appeared in our room looking to confiscate any other alcohol, fully equipped with hand cuffs and gun.

I had never been so embarrassed. The nurse was in the room, my belly strapped to monitors, and my dear husband, trying to sort out this 'high school' alcohol raid.

In my drug induced state, I looked at the officer, belly and monitors exposed, and said, 'Listen, he just got off a plane from Africa. All he wants is to enjoy his pad thai with a beer. Is that too much to ask considering these circumstances?'

The officer left, but throughout the evening, word has spread among the floor that our room was searched for alcohol.

Is this what it's like to be a Valdmanis?