What the Holidays Mean for Me, a Chef Who Left Oakland for Senegal

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Monifa Dayo left Oakland—and her popular supper club get-togethers in the city—before the 2020 election.
Monifa Dayo left Oakland—and her popular supper club get-togethers in the city—before the 2020 election.  (Fox Nakai)

Monifa Dayo is a chef and author who recently left Oakland for Senegal due to the United States’ racism and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, she shares her plans for the holidays, away from the Bay Area that she’d made her home.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are hard for me. Allow me to give you some context.

Currently, I live in the capital city of Dakar. I moved to Senegal several weeks ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. I was under duress. COVID-19 was in its first phase, blazing largely through the Black and Latinx community. Statistics persisted showing an acutely disproportionate illustration of how, once again, Black people bear the brunt of national degradation due to white tyranny. I've never been able to dismiss this factuality as happenstance or coincidence.

The anxiety and upset I experienced during this time due to the blatant dehumanization of Black people perpetuated by American hypocrisy was paramount. The efforts made to carry on about my business became more and more dreadful, and caused a series of health problems that affected my fertility, mental health and physical well-being. Essentially, this country was killing me. I was facing a near-nervous breakdown and, even deeper than that, I was embodying the same energy that my life’s work seeks to extinguish in the world. I was bitter, angry, and most importantly I was hurt. I was in dire need of reconnecting to my center, so radical self-care was the recipe for my resurrection. Such precious time with myself lent the opportunity to understand that at the heart of my disdain was the culture of America, and its systems of oppression and racism. Within six weeks of my revelation, I was on Sénégalais land.

So I find myself here in Dakar during the American holiday months and a global pandemic. Every aspect of my life has shifted, so I’ll explain first what that shift looks like for me here.

For the first time in years, Monifa Dayo won't spend this holiday season in Oakland, but rather, in Dakar.
For the first time in years, Monifa Dayo won't spend this holiday season in Oakland, but rather, in Dakar. (Courtesy Monifa Dayo)

Senegal finds itself at the top of a global ranking in its response to COVID-19. As a result, cases are low and the death toll is miniscule, considering the density of the country. One can attribute this success largely to the government’s early response and firm actions rooted in science-based information, prompt and reliable testing, a clear and detailed plan of action and consistent national messaging to its constituents. Yet as I’m constantly reminded, this virus exists and still very much affects the people of Senegal.

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I live in an economically modest neighborhood where the idea of America likens itself to an iconic dream sold through Hollywood movies. The concept of being here in Dakar during Christmas and not the perceived money pot of America is baffling for some of my friends. As I speak French, I find difficulties in expressing detailed matters of the heart, so I simply state that I do not like America and I find more happiness here. People never ask me about Thanksgiving, as it’s strictly an American festivity, but Christmas has global appeal.

When I analyze the premise of Thanksgiving, I’m constantly wondering why we celebrate the start of the genocide of an indigenous people on their own native land. This brainwashing of Thanksgiving has embedded itself into the lifestyles of Black Americans and non-Black Americans alike. I actually understand why. A fundamental emotion all humans experience is this desire to be in community, to be loved and to love. Thanksgiving offers a resolve to these essential feelings of gratitude, generosity, family and feasting, even if such festive roots are cursory or delusional.

A scene from one of Monifa Dayo's supper clubs in Oakland.
A scene from one of Monifa Dayo's supper clubs in Oakland. (Fox Nakai)

The dominant religion in Senegal is Islam, though there are those who identify with Christianity as well. (The coolest part of Christmas here is that Santa Claus is Black.) I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Christmas. Most years I end up stewing with sadness in my Oakland apartment alone, wishing I had someone to share a moment with. Although one year, as a child, I recall waking up on Christmas morning with my siblings to find brand new bikes waiting for us all. To this day that memory serves as a respite from life’s inevitable tribulations.

In my apartment building here in Dakar, my friend and landlord (she is American and her husband is Sénégalais) is excited to wrap gifts for her children and embody an American-style expression of Christmas. I wish I could get into it, but honestly, I just want to make really good food, sit on my balcony and ponder my life.

As a chef, I’m placed in an interesting situation regarding the holidays. There is an assumption that I revel in this moment all year—rubbing my hands together and salivating about all of the business to come my way. But that’s not true for me. Being a food industry professional, all I want to do is shop at open air markets, bask in the glory of seasonal produce, adopt new and creative ways of expressing said produce and share elaborate or modest meals with friends and family. But I am here in Senegal, and not afforded that luxury.

Monifa Dayo.
Monifa Dayo. (Courtesy Monifa Dayo)

What I will do instead to celebrate the holidays, considering COVID-19 restrictions and my geographic location, is this: I will be grateful for all that I am so privileged to have. I, too, live a modest life, yet I maintain two homes on two different continents, I am healthy and I am gainfully employed. My family is all COVID-free, and we are expecting a new addition to the family this New Year. I will buy small gifts for the children in my life here; I can’t help it, and I love them dearly. I will cook something special for myself, maybe lamb or a family favorite, Soupa Kanja (okra soup), with all of the seafood I can find.

My heart is quite heavy as I write, weeping tears of liberated sorrow. Whichever course of holiday action I take, I’m confident it will never resemble the life once experienced without the constraints of social distancing and the geographic distance Africa presents. I will attempt to Facetime with my father and my dear friends. COVID-19 exacerbated the symptoms of the racist society America is founded on, and I’m grateful for such unmasking while acknowledging there is so much more heartache ahead.

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The pandemic has placed a dagger into the heart of the community, causing us to go deeper and forge a new expression of who we are and what honestly matters to us most. May these moments never be in vain.