Sénégal neex na

Here I am. I’m back again after several months of silence. In true Senegalese fashion, I have prolonged my last blog post because, well, things will happen as they happen – ndànk ndànk, inshallah. (Slowly, God willing)

My readjustment to American living is going smoother than I anticipated – but I’ve realized that readjustment into life aux États-Unis (in the United States) isn’t something that I can say will end on any certain day. I am constantly the product of all the people I met and all the experiences I had while in Senegal and I will perpetually reflect upon them.

Senegal seems like a vivid yet distant dream. If I think too much about it, I simply become sad. My friends and family in Dakar & Thiès hold the utmost importance in my heart. With the recent end of Ramadan, I wondered how my family would be celebrating. I miss Wolof and still find myself stating simple Wolof phrases in my head (neex na, like the title of this blog post, essentially means “it’s good”). And every àjuma (Friday) I imagine the beautiful, tailor-made clothing that every Senegalese person, without fail, must be wearing.

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Sama yaay et moi (or “my mom and I”)

I learned so much in Senegal and by far, the most important experience that I have taken away from my time there was being a part of a minority for the first time in my life. In every way possible – race, gender, religion – I was different. This has reframed my perception of what it means to be a minority in the United States. In the wake of  Trump’s advances towards the presidency, the Orlando shooting and Black Lives Matter’s increased visibility, it hurts my heart so much to think about how my Senegalese friends and families identify with groups that are so marginalized in the United States. In Senegal, I was moved every day to see the unity that racial and religious identity could bring to such a beautiful, tolerant and peaceful country.

Senegal has a small Catholic following and both religions coexist with respect and tolerance. Racial unity is also hugely important. One interaction in particular that underlined this was when I noticed that the current president of the United States – Barack Obama – has a huge following in Senegal. There was a cardboard cutout of him at my school and as I talked with more people about him, it became clear that everyone loved him. When I asked a close family friend about this, he succinctly explained to me how important it is that the United States – the wealthiest nation in the world, but also a nation with such a violent record towards black people – can elect a black leader. But here in the United States, I am distraught to see the xenophobic sentiments expressed towards people who are black, Muslim or both when they attempt to unify in the US.

Senegal also put in perspective for me how the United States mainly lives in a bubble. When I first arrived in Senegal, I was amazed by the extent to which my Senegalese family and friends were informed on global politics. They told me that they felt it was their responsibility to be so informed about the world in which which they’re living – which was novel because I feel that in the United States, we’re largely ignorant to politics occurring outside our borders (I am guilty and a part of this myself). Furthermore, I was surprised by the stereotype that my Senegalese and other European friends (Belgian, French) had of American people. It was not uncommon, after people met me, for them to ask if I was 1) a Trump supporter or 2) owned a gun. Please let that sink in. We are still a part of this planet and that is the image of our country that we broadcast to the rest of this world.

When I first arrived in Senegal, I was an outsider looking in. But Senegal is the country of teranga (hospitality) – everywhere I went in Senegal, I found people who treated me with the utmost consideration and generosity. Senegal shifted my idea of what community means. It taught me the importance of loving thy neighbor – regardless of how much they may differ from you. I remember, earlier in the semester, thinking about how amazing it is that Senegal & Minnesota actually exist on the same planet – a mere 6 hour plane ride between them. Living in Senegal for only a semester greatly affected my perception of communities, minorities, traditions, religions, information and the list goes on. All I could think during my final moments in that beautiful country was “There’s no way I’m not coming back here. Senegal neex na, for sure.”

Bintou Seck Lives in Thiès, Senegal

Senegal 101: Greetings

Greetings are so incredibly important to Senegalese culture. Anytime you enter a room, it’s common courtesy to make your way around the room, shake the hand of each person and exchange a salutation. Earlier in my stay here, I thought it seemed redundant to greet each individual person every time you enter a room, but in retrospect, I’ve realized that the role of greetings in Senegalese culture actually just reinforce cultural values! There’s a huge emphasis here on the preservation of the group, the creation of a harmonious community, and showing the utmost respect to your elders and peers. Here’s a breakdown of the typical Senegalese greeting, which I hear and exchange approximately a million times per day:

Person 1: Ça va? (How’s it going? – French)

Person 2: Ça va. Nanga deff? (It’s going. How are you doing? – French then Wolof)

Person 1: Mangi fii rekk. (I’m here only. – Wolof)

Person 2: Alhamdulillah. Yangi ci jamm? (Thank God. Are you in peace? – Arabic then Wolof)

Person 1: Waaw, mangi ci jamm. (Yes, I am in peace. – Wolof)

Person 2: Alhamdulillah. Ba beneen yoon! (Thank god. Until next time! – Arabic then Wolof)

Person 1: Waaw, ba beneen yoon, inshallah. (Yes, until next time, God willing. – Wolof then Arabic)

It is completely reasonable and realistic for me to exchange a greeting like that with pretty much everyone I interact with – my host mom, my coworkers, a random person at the market – anything goes as long as you exchange a nice greeting. And it definitely does not have to follow the order I described above – it could be any combination of questions, responses, and alhamdulillahs. Also check out the fact that Senegalese greetings typically involves 3 languages! Refer to my earlier blog post on languages in Senegal to learn about the beautiful mélanges of languages in this country.

Alright so since my last blog post, I have begun the second portion of my study abroad program: the internship phase. This second part of the semester lasts 6 weeks, and I’ve already been living here for just over 4 weeks. After the internship phase concludes in just about two weeks, I’ll return to Dakar for one last week to live with my original host family and have one last chance to soak up the goodness of the city. It is unreal to me that in less than 3 weeks, I’ll be leaving Senegal for good. I’m certainly someone who becomes easily attached to places, and I have felt this intense attachment at its full extent in Senegal.

Back to life as it is right now though – for the internship, I have moved to Thiès, Senegal. Thiès is about an hour east of Dakar by car (that rhymes which is fun) so I was able to go back to Dakar this past weekend to visit my first host family and friends who are still there. Thiès is also the second largest city in Senegal, so there’s still a bit of hustle and bustle here, but I’m nostalgic for the cerulean sea, constant noise, and feelings I felt while living in Senegal’s scenic capital earlier this semester. My life in Thiès is significantly lower-key than my former life in Dakar – I spend most of my time at my internship or at my house. It’s not that I don’t want to go explore the city, and I’m sure there are a myriad of activities going on at any given time and place, but I don’t know many people here outside of my family and coworkers so it’s been hard to branch out. I also live in a very quiet neighborhood, so when I take the bus home at the end of the day, I often will stay there for the rest of the evening, bonding with my host family. But in the big picture, moving to Thiès has certainly been worth it because I love love love my internship – I don’t think I could have been placed with an organization that’s better aligned with my interests. Agrecol Afrique (where I’m interning) is an NGO that’s been around about 20 years, working to promote organic agriculture in rural Senegal. They have partnered with farms in villages around the country to create networks of farmers that can use their harvests both to feed their families and to sell at their local markets. The result has been sustainably increased food security, as well as the improvement in the quality of Senegal’s fragile, drought-prone lands. I think locally and autonomously produced organic agriculture could really do good things for the future of the Senegalese food system but I could probably dedicate a whole other blog post to that – maybe I will – to be continued on that note I guess.

You also may have noticed that the title of this blog post is Bintou Seck Lives in Thiès, Senegal – wait, who is Bintou Seck? Well, that’s my name now – I’m applying to change it for good once I get back to the United States. Just kidding. A professor of mine from earlier this semester gave me the name Bintou (I asked if it meant something but he said no, that it was just a very traditional African name) and Thiès host family’s last name is Seck so I am now Bintou Seck. The Seck family is a lot different from my Dakar host family, but they’re good nonetheless – at the house, it’s me, my sister Fatim (we’re about the same age), my brother Anis (he’s 16), and my mom. I have a second brother, but I rarely see him because he works and goes out a lot. I also found out ~1 week after staying with this family that my mom is actually a second wife – indeed, polygamy is very much a thing in Senegal and I did not anticipate being a host daughter in a polygamous family, but it’s been perfectly normal and fine. My dad works at an NGO in Dakar, and has another wife and family in St. Louis, Senegal. I’ve seen him twice now, on the weekends that he has come to visit. I’m clearly not going to be advocating polygamy anytime soon, but you could say it’s been genuinely full cultural immersion living with a polygamous host family. In Thiès, I’ve also been spending a lot more time alone, reading, writing, internalizing and reflecting – and whenever I feel a sense of urgency, like there’s simply more I could be doing with all my free time, I remind myself that in almost no time at all, I will be back in the United States and working full time. I feel blessed by this opportunity to take life in so slowly – to live so deliberately, to greet each person individually, to drink delicious Senegalese tea and to accept that the act of doing nothing is still doing something. It’s been very meditative.

Here’s the link to Agrecol Afrique’s website – I really dig what they’re doing for agricultural development in rural Senegal:

www.agrecolafrique.com

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Taken outside the Agrecol Afrique office in Thiès, Senegal

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The road outside my new host family’s house

 

Spring Break Excursion in The Gambia

Hello again! If you’re a student reading this, I hope you’re enjoying (or have enjoyed) your spring break. And if you’re not a student, I still hope you’re having a swell week. I just returned from my spring break trip to The Gambia about a week ago, so I figured that warranted a new blog post. Before I left Senegal for this trip, I’d mentioned to a good amount of people that I would soon be traveling to The Gambia and every single person I talked to (I’m not kidding, every person) told me (and I quote) “Why travel between Senegal and The Gambia? It’s the same thing!” And I just have one thing to say now that I have been in both countries: it is most definitely not the same thing. Now, in an attempt to describe my weeklong excursion in Gambia, I am going to break this down into a venn-diagram-ish comparison situation. Senegal & Gambia: What do they have in common? What’s different? Stay tuned.

Same

Geography – In the past, Senegal and The Gambia were actually politically unified, making up one country, Senegambia. They had a relatively peaceful division, due to post-colonial political and economic differences. The Gambia is now a tiny country literally located inside of Senegal.

Religion – Islam is a hugely important cultural factor that unifies populations in both Senegal and The Gambia. And while there is still evidence of some Catholic population in Senegal, there is only a very small Christian following in The Gambia, as 95% of its population is Muslim and the nation self-identifies as an Islamic Republic (the only two other Islamic Republics in the world are Iran and Afghanistan). In both countries, Islam is so beautifully harmonious and unifying – of course, similarly to Christianity, there are different denominations, but you can still feel that beautiful spirituality all around.

National languages – So The Gambia’s national language is actually Mandinka, while Senegal’s is Wolof, but almost everyone in The Gambia still speaks Wolof. (and in both countries, people may additionally speak an array of other languages, like Pulaar, Serrer, Fulani, or Diola). Also, Gambians speak Wolof with a very different accent from Senegalese Wolof, so whenever my friends and I attempted to speak Wolof in The Gambia, people immediately knew we hadn’t learned Wolof there.

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Photo I managed to snap at Serrekunda Market in The Gambia

Different

Forms of Government – This is a pretty significant difference between Senegal and The Gambia, one that should not be understated. Senegal functions as a slow-moving, but emerging democracy, in which people hold pretty polarized opinions regarding The Gambia’s dictatorship. Some people I have talked with about The Gambia’s president (who is, in reality, a dictator – he claims to be the country’s president, but has been re-elected for the past 21 years in unsound elections) say that his leadership was actually the best hope for developing the country – under his rule, resources have been centralized and relative autonomy established, but other say it has been at the cost of having a bad record of human rights violations. I thought this was a really interesting point of contention, because if it’s the best hope at quickly developing a nations’ economy and getting people on their feet and working, could a dictatorship really be a valid form of governance? Or is the risk of violating individual rights too high? I’m leaning towards the latter, but others say that it was a necessary accompaniment to The Gambia’s development.

Official languages – In the same sense that Senegal was colonized by the French, and French is taught in the nation’s public schools, The Gambia was colonized by the British (which confuses me because proximity-wise they are literally the same country), alas, English is The Gambia’s official language. The Gambia’s leader, however, is gradually phasing English instruction out of the nation’s schools, in an attempt to distance The Gambia from its colonial past.

Currency – Senegal is a part of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (along with Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Niger, Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Togo) and uses the West African CFA France as currency (or Cfa for short). The Gambia uses its own issued currency, the dalasi. The dalasi is currently weaker than the Cfa, which was nice.

Markets – I was surprised by this, but yes, there are tons of differences between the main markets in Senegal and The Gambia. Going to the market in Senegal is a feat, with people relentlessly hassling you, following you, and asking you to marry them. Markets in Senegal also tend to be claustrophobic, which only exacerbates the aforementioned stressors. Nonetheless, I’m still capable of and really enjoy going to markets in Senegal, but I will say market-going in The Gambia was significantly easier. During the week that my friends and I were there, we went to two markets, the country’s largest in Serrekunda, as well as a smaller market in the capital, Banjul. Both had way more space than Senegalese markets, making it feasible to navigate the maze that West African markets are. Also, less people harassed us which was ideal. LikeI could probably count on one hand the number of people who gave us a bad time, which is pretty novel considering we were a group of 5 young, white women.

Transit – Yeah I’m not really sure what the deal is here but I noticed that a lot of Gambians bike to get around. I’m not sure if people just had more access to bikes or less access to cars, or maybe cars are more expensive there… I don’t have an explanation for any correlations there. Another note on transportation is that in general, the streets of The Gambia are significantly cleaner and more orderly  (drivers follow speed limits, stay in their lanes, people wear seat belts (that’s a first?), etc) than in Senegal. I would guess that this is a result of the stricter government presence (harsher consequences associated with driving offenses).

In general, I had a very nice and relaxing week-long break in The Gambia. My friends and I scored a great deal with the hotel we found – we managed to stay for at this really well-kept, quiet hotel run by a Belgian couple, for only ~$10USD/night each. It was a little off the beaten path, but suited our needs perfectly. Since my return from The Gambia, the second portion of the MSID program has begun, which means I’ve moved to Thiés, Senegal (the country’s second-largest city, just about an hour by car east of Dakar) and I’m currently interning at this super cool NGO called Agrecol Afrique. I’ll be sure to include more of a discussion regarding this move in my next post! If you stuck it out til this point, thanks so much for reading.

Ba beneen yoon!

(Until next time in Wolof)

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The sun sets on a beach in Bijilo, the resort town near which my friends and I stayed.

Languages

 

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This photo was taken at an agricultural cooperative that is run by a group of women in rural Senegal, not far from Toubacouta. The smaller text on the sign is in Wolof, and says “Cultivate your field well, it’s the best enterprise”

The other day, I met a really interesting woman. I was standing in line with a friend at a farmer’s market (!) in Dakar, and the woman behind us was speaking French to her friend. Then, she communicated with a Senegalese person in Wolof – pretty normal. But I was surprised when she turned to my friend and I, and started a conversation in perfectly fluent, American-accented English. After we inquired how she came to speak all these languages, she told us that she’d been born in London to Senegalese parents (she can do the British-English accent too). She’s moved around some (she lived in New York City), and she’s now living in Dakar. It was ideal to talk with someone who understands these different countries’ languages and cultures so well, and it also got me thinking about the significance of language.

Language in itself is super subjective – it can include gestures, silence, singing, eye contact and, of course, verbal communication. Having lived in Senegal for over a month now, I have met so many people with such impressive language skills. It’s amazing that the majority of my communication with people in Dakar occurs in a language that is both of our second (and sometimes third or fourth) languages – French. The same way I was raised speaking English, most people who live in Dakar were raised speaking Wolof. They learned French (and sometimes a choice of English, Arab, or Spanish) in school, but almost only speak Wolof amongst each other. This mélange of languages has maintained Dakar’s West African atmosphere, but there is also still a clear French and Arabic presence in Senegal’s languages and culture. French, obviously because Senegal was colonized by France and was only recently granted independence in 1960. And Arabic because of geography and Islamic influence.

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I took this photo while visiting a public school in rural Senegal. The back of the students’ shirts say “Je lis pour réussir, rêver, découvrir, apprendre, m’amuser” which translates in English to “I read to succeed, to dream, to discover, to learn, and to have fun”

It’s beautiful to be immersed in these different cultures without even leaving Dakar. People will often greet me by saying “Asalaam malekuum?” to which I reply, “Malekuum salaam” – that whole greeting is actually in Arabic. It means to ask someone if they have peace, to which you reply yes, that you have peace. French has also certainly influenced Wolof – in the midst of speaking Wolof, people will often insert French words if it’s the first in their mind, or when there is no Wolof word for what they are referencing. And as these languages mix and develop, new words are created – piis, for example, is a Wolof word that evolved from the French word tissu (or fabric). There’s also influence from European languages aside from French – for example, the word for soap (sabao) is the same in Portuguese and Wolof. Geography and culture have come together, with languages and words developing all the time in Dakar. And finally, some Wolof words illustrate certain values and traditions in West Africa. The most pertinent example of this is that the Wolof word for tree – garab – is also the same word as medicine. That’s because medicine can come from trees, and trees, like baobabs, traditionally symbolize life and healing.

While my linguistic horizons have expanded exponentially since coming to Senegal, I’m still experiencing a lot of language’s limitations. I’ve realized that in English, I often speak with nuanced phrases and slang that are central to my communication style – but it’s just not possible for me to translate these aspects of language into French. The way I communicate in English conveys a lot about my personality – but in French, my interactions are quite limited and I’m not advanced enough to hold conversations in which I feel I can truly convey my personality. It creates a bit of an identity crisis, because you get used to communicating with people in this relatively limited version of yourself. I have subsequently developed the utmost empathy anyone learning English (or any other language later in life) – it is not easy. Still, I’m really loving Senegal and my French and Wolof are improving all the time. And as I anticipate my upcoming spring break trip to Gambia, I’m looking forward to seeing how languages interact there. Gambia was colonized by the British, so in the same way in Senegalese people learn French in public school, Gambians learn English (and again, similarly to Senegal, most everyone speaks Wolof at home). Language is so intense and amazing. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the development of my French and Wolof language skills (or lackthereof), and will definitely publish a post on my time in Gambia.

À la prochaine! (Until next time!)

A Day in the Life

Foremost, I would like to apologize for having taken so long to publish my second blog post. Life has been really intense and incredible since I arrived in Senegal. I’m experiencing so many new sights, sounds, and smells, and for awhile, I was grappling with how I could possibly convey these new experiences in a blog post – but I think I’ve found a way. Now that I have lived in Dakar for almost a month, I have settled into a relatively structured routine. The following is a breakdown of what my daily life is like in Dakar, Senegal:

7:30am – “Baa”… “Cock-a-dooldle-doo!” I awaken – not to the sound of my alarm, but rather the sound of sheep and roosters communicating on my host family’s terrace. An indeterminate amount of sheep and roosters live down the hall from my room, and I’ve come to appreciate their presence at all times of the day. When I’m absorbed in reading something, or I start thinking of the US, I hear them and it’s almost a reminder that I’m here in Dakar and that this is happening. I gradually make my way downstairs to consume my petite-déjeuner (or breakfast), which is the same thing every morning: baguette with strawberry jam, cheese, and instant coffee.

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Les moutons

8:30am – Outside of my house in Mermoz (my neighborhood in Dakar), the sun is shining and the street is abuzz. I meet up with my friends, and we begin our journey to school. I walked to school in Minnesota for most of my K-12 education, but nothing compares to this walk. It’s already about 75° F and the air is filled with dust and the sound of taxis honking. Stray cats, dogs, and goats aimlessly wander through the side streets. Artists and political activists have beautifully tagged the sides of most buildings. The roads here are crazy – they’re overflowing with cars and cabs, and it’s like speed limits and lane markings don’t exist. After about a 2 mile walk down the main road, I’m at school.

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Rue Aimé Césaire

9:00am – School is the West African Research Center (WARC). WARC already holds a very special place in my heart – on any given day, there are researchers, students, professors, public figures, etc passing through here. WARC is a place for knowledge to cultivate, for cultures to collaborate, and I love it so much. My classes are super interesting, too. My favorites are Wolof (Senegal’s native language, which I am slowly but surely learning) and International Development Theory. And the other day, I even met a woman who attended Cornell for her masters! She’s doing post-doc work in local governance now, and it was delightful to meet someone with ties to Cornell in Dakar.IMG_1390

Outside the West African Research Center

1:30pm – There’s a restaurant at WARC run by a small collective of women who work incredibly hard to make some of the most delicious (and inexpensive) meals I have ever consumed. Today for lunch, I ate ceebujën – a delicious traditional Senegalese dish that’s made with fresh fish, white rice, and spices. Life moves much slower in Senegal than in the United States, and lunch is a time to relax and socialize. I take this time to catch up with friends and drink ataaya, a wonderful Senegalese tea.

6:00pm – After school, I walk back to Mermoz. Every day, without fail, my neighbor, Laye, is seated on the porch, striking up a conversation with just about anyone who walks by. I’ll normally pull up a seat and chat with him until dinnertime – we have discussed everything from human rights to American music (he loves Pink Floyd). If I don’t go straight home, I make my way to any one of Dakar’s incredible beaches – Mamelles is my beach of choice. One day earlier this week, I went to the Sandaga Market after school, which was an experience to which I may need to devote an entire blog post. One thing is for sure – there is never a shortage of things to do in Dakar.

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Mamelles

8:00pm – I hear the last call to prayer of the day from the mosque right down the street. As I sit on my porch, I watch as men from around Mermoz make their way to pray.

9:00pm – Most nights, my family eats dinner around a large, communal dinner bowl. In lieu of eating utensils, we use pieces of baguette. The meal typically consists of meat or fish, and any combination of vegetables (cassava, lentils, potatoes, and green beans.)

10:00pm – To end the evening, I have settled into a routine of making and drinking ataaya with a member of my host family. Ataaya is extremely common here – it’s a sweet tea that is served in little mugs. It’s meant to facilitate social relationships and in my case, cultural exchanges. This is the perfect opportunity for me to practice my French, Wolof, and similarly to my friendship with Laye, we discuss anything and everything. After finishing ataaya and, if I’m lucky, some beignets (or pastries) I make my way upstairs to my room and fall deeply asleep to the sound of roosters and sheep conversing.

Same Sky

Hello! Bonjour! Na nga def!

That’s hello in English, French, and Wolof! First of all, I should say thanks so much for stumbling across my blog – I’m glad you’re taking the time to read this. My name is Olivia Hoffmann and I am a junior at Cornell University. This spring semester, I will be studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal. It’s true – tomorrow I am getting on a plane that will take me from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Dakar, Senegal (with a brief stop in Washington, D.C along the way). I opted to study abroad in Senegal because it is one of the only places in the world that allows me to apply aspects of both my major, International Agriculture and Rural Development, and my minor, French! French is the nation’s official language, but the majority of Senegalese people also speak Wolof. From January through May, I will be taking classes, completing an internship, and living with a host family in Senegal thanks to the University of Minnesota’s MSID program. I will try to write blog posts as often as I can so you can experience Senegal along with me!

As I pack up my life for the next four months, I can’t help worrying a bit about the future. Qualms regarding language barriers, culture shock, and homesickness float around my mind. But these concerns were alleviated (at least for the time being) when a friend recently reminded me of my favorite quote: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night” – Galileo. This was my senior quote when I graduated high school, and as I begin this new chapter of life, I believe in its truth more than ever. I’m as nervous as anyone would be getting on a plane to live in Western Africa for four months, but I’m also reminding myself that this new experience will be worth it. I’m a firm believer that the benefits of having new experiences almost always outweigh the costs. And remember no matter where you are in the world, you are always under the same stars.

Bon voyage,

Olivia

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Republique du Senegal – Un Peuple, Un But, Une Foi

Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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