I’m going to be turning 23 in a few days and then I’m off to Senegal again! I feel somewhat insane for going back and yet also completely relieved at the prospect of once again floating along in the land of jaam. I’ll get a chance to visit the lovely places I missed out on while I was slaving away on my research paper and dance my jaay fondé off.
It’ll probably be the best time ever and I’m super excited [and nervous]!
Only a week left to craft // collage // sew // make jewelry til I must pack my bags and head on out for a much-needed adventure! Mbéguéééé
So leaving Senegal was really weird, as I expected it would be. And I made this list about a month before leaving to remind myself of my anxieties about going home/leaving my home for the last 8 months.
Things I will miss about Senegal:
Markets, really cheap stuff, lack of commercial or heavily advertised holidays, ataaya, beautiful beaches, super chill work expectations, beautiful fabric, chéré, mafé, yaasa poulet, sow, crème, speaking French and Wolof, palm trees, Mama Kenjoo, Koumba, Thiat, and Bouba, challenging myself everyday, going out dancing until the sunrise, getting into clubs for free cuz of toubabness, cheap taxis at any hour, island parties, friendly, open people
Things I will be happy to leave behind:
My toubab identity (being a whitey), aggressive language, lack of fibrous veggies, the heat (!), hap hazard, disorganized, and slow transportation, super conservative gender roles, wearing long skirts and pants all the time, family life (lack of independence), strict Muslim society, animal fat & weird parts, JUMBO/ADJA/MAGI (MSG), crowded bus rides, getting hassled constantly, taxis honking constantly, people staring constantly, Obama obsession, ignorance bred by poverty, Africanisms, bad hygiene (spitting, pissing in public, snot rockets, etc), rude people, lengthy greetings
Things I miss about home:
Biking, driving, good live music, good tap beer, happy hour, laughing, movie theaters, apartment searching, real good spliffs, my friends, BILL!, lake swimming, park picnics, burn rides, thrift stores, privacy, hamburgers, kale & garlic & chèvre omelettes, air-conditioned stores & cars, freedom,kitchens with appropriate cooking supplies, knowing what’s going on, listening to GOOD music, sidewalks, green grass, my sewing machine, farmer’s markets, liberal politics, QUALITY
Things I may not ready for again:
Winter… fast-paced American life, the idea that if you take a break, you’re lazy (not true), the pretentious Minneapolis music scene, hipster wardrobes, getting a job and working my ass off to the point of exhaustion again, paying rent, getting back into my old habits, Republicans, stupid people, fat people, brainwashing via television and the overwhelming amount of advertisements, feeling inhuman, internet obsession, pressure, materialism, shopping malls, competition, sports/sports fans, mono-lingual society, AMERI-POWER, starting over in a sense.
My time abroad has definitely been shaped by the location, i.e. Senegal. I couldn’t have had the same type of experience in a European country and I’m really glad I got through it. Needless to say, that will not be my last time in Senegal and it definitely won’t be my last time in a “third world,” “under developed” country. There’s so much life to be lived outside of the USA/Europe and so many beautiful/wonderful people to meet!!
I suggest to those who are in Amurrica: work your ass off, take advantage of the fair work standards and [somewhat] liveable wages, then spend your money traveling in a different country. A 401K, pension plan, or corporate investments will probably be used by the government to pay off debts to China anyway… Plus, your hard-earned money will last a lot longer if you’re kickin’ it on a beach in South America, India, or Africa rather than at a resort in Europe or Mexico. The most expensive part is the plane ticket (check Kayak.com regularly for the best prices).
Most people are nice to those who are open, want to learn and who are trying to expand their horizons. Learn local languages before their forgotten! Understand another religion even if you think you don’t agree with it! Buy handmade clothing and jewelry from the people who make it [cuz they need the money more than the mall does, plus you’ll have a story to tell].Travel will change you in the best way possible.
<3 peace and happiness. most importantly, keep it real weird.
I suppose it’s time for an update since it’s my last day in Dakar for a month and Internet access is rare in Koumpentoum.
The MSID folks dropped my off at my new home in Koumpentoum last Tuesday and I had no problems readjusting. My family is really awesome, I have a nice big room (with electricity woo hoo!), and it’s not far from the high school where I’m doing my internship.
So to make it easier, here’s a lil description of the family:
Almamie: The man of the house, but he’s more like a host brother than a host dad because he’s pretty young. He works for the Department of water and forests (Zone des Eaux et Forets) and his office is conveniently right next to the house. He’s very welcoming, intelligent, and we’ve already had some great conversations about the state of Senegal. He says he’ll take me along on a work excursion to visit some forests sometime before I leave, which sounds fantastic.
Adama: Almamie’s wife. A total bombshell (she’s got that 1920’s look; smokey eyes, gap tooth, strong cheekbones) and she’s super sweet. She works as a caterer, making hors d’oeuvres for meetings and other events. She describes herself as reserved, saying it takes her a while to open up to new people. We had a conversation about the poverty, dating, and hair grease the night before I left Dakar and I really appreciate her input. She’s pretty wise and gave me some valuable advice about avoiding mystical complications in the village (because apparently, there are some mystically powerful habitants in Koumpentoum and she warned me against accepting invitations to eat at their houses or accepting gifts from them, because they might want to meddle in my life via mystical powers).
Boubacar (Bouba): Almamie and Adama’s three-year-old rugrat. He’s a total troublemaker and spends most of his time whining or crashing his tricycle around in the courtyard. He finally will shake my hand and respond when I say hello; at first, he just frowned and looked down defiantly. He’s super stubborn and spoiled, but really cute as most Senegalese children are.
Xady (the X is a throaty “ha” sound): Adama’s 19-year-old cousin. As soon as I got to the house on Tuesday, I offered to help her cook lunch. I cut some onions like a total newb and spoke in broken Wolof, since Xady doesn’t speak very much French (she had to quit school when she was 15 because she got sick). She has a boyfriend named Malick who is very cute and whom she loves very, very much (she’s always talking about him, it’s adorable). She has been trying to set me up with her friend Ibrahima and when I tell her I’m not interested, she says that she’s mad at me and that I have to date him… Hopefully it’s all just a joke, cuz I’m really not interested. Anyway, Xady and I spend a lot of time together; it’s really nice to have a sister my own age.
Koumba: Xady’s good friend and roommate (? I’m still a bit unsure about this part). She works as a secretary at the mayor’s office, so she speaks French and helps me communicate with Xady at times when neither of know what the other is trying to say.
Anièce: The maid. She doesn’t speak a lick of French but she’s really sweet and has a cute potbelly. We don’t talk too much because my Wolof isn’t good enough, but she laughs when I say stupid things or dance around.
Adama (number two): The guardian of the house (which isn’t a house, but a collection of concrete buildings with a half-dirt, half-concrete courtyard in the middle). He’s got a nice, round potbelly and reminds me of my uncle Chris. He’s always telling me I need to learn Pulaar and get married… I just tell him tomorrow we’ll learn Pulaar and that I’m too young to get married, that I don’t want a husband. And he laughs and laughs and laughs. He’s my favorite… Plus, he makes some damn good ataaya.
Badji: A 30-year-old driver who hangs out at the house everyday. I’m not too sure where he lives but he’s cool. We have short conversations in Wolof over cigarettes.
Assane and Papa: Teenage brothers who moved to Koumpentoum from Payar to go to high school. They spend their time in front of the TV watching cartoons, riding bikes around town, or playing with Bouba.
I’m really happy in Koumpentoum. The town is super small, but there’s a daily market, two dance clubs (although they are rarely open), and I can take a short walk or a ride on the back of a moto to get to the high school. So far, everyone at the high school has been really open and welcoming, inviting me to drink ataaya or hang out. And last Wednesday, the English club had a conference on MLK Jr’s dream and how Obama has made this dream a reality. Most of the professors were really proud that Obama is black and the president of the USA, but I tried to describe the political sentiments at the time and how Obama was obviously the best choice, that people didn’t just vote for him because he was black. Almost everyone expressed themselves in English that was extremely comprehendible and the points made were very interesting. One of the most intriguing points made was brought up by a French teacher, Mr. Ly, who said that true equality has yet to be reached and that the dream has not yet been realized. He also said some encouraging words about Africa’s development and how it shouldn’t be the toubab’s job to develop Africa, but that African people should have an interest in their own development (he mentioned black power, which was quite relevant and a necessary point to be made). He also pointed out how I was the only white girl at the conference, which I was grateful for because I felt like the white elephant in the room for most of the time and this eased some of the tension (at least on my part).
The internship itself is a bit disorganized, as I expected, but eventually, I’ll start helping out in the classrooms and getting acquainted with things. I was thinking for the research paper that I was going to research the education system in Tambacounda (the region that Koumpentoum is in), but I think I will change my focus to the inherent link between health and education, since I’ve heard from quite a few young Senegalese people that they quite school due to various illnesses. I think I’ll be able to find an interesting angle to further explore this topic and get some meaty interviews to top it all off.
Currently, I’m in Dakar, and as I said, it’s my last day before moving back out to Koumpentoum for a month. I came back on Saturday to hang out with some friends and welcome the new semester students, who arrived on Monday. It was a pretty incredible feeling to talk to kids who just got here from the US and share experiences. I got flashbacks to how overwhelmed and lost I felt when I first got here and I’m so happy that I’m well adjusted now. I can hold a conversation in Wolof, bargain to get the price I want at the markets, and dance like a Senegalese girl (YOUZA! GWANA! RIZGIT CHIZGIT!). I really love it here and meeting newbabs made me even more aware of this.
My love for Senegal has deepened even just over this weekend. I have discovered some dudes who are musicians and they’re super chill. We had a jam session last night, singing Bob Marley on a roof while one of the guys made ataaya. After that, we headed over to a club to listen and dance to some Mbalax (one of the guys, Bouba, plays keyboard in the band). They were so good! We danced til 4am… Typical.
Now I prepare to pack my bags to change locations and settle in once again at my new home with my new family. I will miss certain things about Dakar, but overall, the calm, quiet, and laid-back lifestyle of Koumpentoum is really attractive to me. I love dancing until daybreak, but it’ll be nice to get a good night’s sleep and to spend time cooking with my family.
Oh also, New Year’s Resolution completely broken… But this one is my age and doesn’t care about marriage just yet. Plus, I’m leaving him in Dakar so I can do my research with a clear head. Haha J
Ok folks, that’s all for now. If I can get internet in Koumpentoum, I’ll try to write again. If not, I’ll update in a month.
Ba benneen yonn, inch’allah! (Until next time, god willing)
AKA Mariama Ka (Pulaar name given by family in Payar)
AKA Dien Diun Diatta (Djola name given by family in Dakar)
AKA Aida Ndiaye (Serer name name given by family in Sokone)
So, Senegalaisement, I couldn’t post my last entry before I left Dakar because there was a power outage and the internet that I steal from the neighbors doesn’t work without electricity. And this power outage took place right as I was trying to pack my bags, so I ended up running around my room with my cell phone in my mouth (there’s a flashlight built into it… they’re prepared for times like these), trying to see where I was going and get things ready so I could head out on the 10pm bus.
Despite one dispute between our bus driver and another who passed us in a rude fashion, which resulted in everyone except me and a few others getting off of the bus to join the argument outside next to the highway, everything worked out fine and I got to Koumpentoum at 4:30am. I arrived at the door into the courtyard of my house and realized that I was locked out. I tried to call Xady and Adama but neither number worked. I tried knocking, but since it’s not a door into a room, but the courtyard, and everyone who was sleeping was tucked away in their separate rooms, no one heard me. So I decided to go around the property and look for a weak spot in the fence made of wooden slats. I found an opening; all I had to do was climb over some barbed wire. With some grace and agility, I managed to get over and walk through the small dry grass field to the courtyard. I consider myself lucky… It would have been such bad luck to be locked out at 4:30am with no choice but to wait until the family woke up.
I’ve been in Koumpentoum for about two weeks and already it feels like two months… The pace of life is so slow here; there’s not much to do besides cook, eat, sleep, and repeat. There are certainly some folks who work, but the majority of the people in the town spend their time sitting around, making tea, chatting, etc. I’m enjoying the downtime but I realize that this could be detrimental to my American work ethic when I return to the states… I’m not sure how much of a shock it’ll be to integrate back into the American workforce, and after seeing how relaxed life in Senegal is, I’m not sure if I want to reintegrate.
That being said, I’m really excited to be in a place that I understand, where I’m not stared at when I walk down the street, where I can have a conversation with someone that I fully understand (linguistically, at least), and where I have the freedom to be myself, honestly and completely. In Koumpentoum, it’s much more apparent how important social roles are. Greeting everyone in a room is required; if you forget someone, they think you’re mad or impolite. And, in general, people will comment on your clothing choice, your hair, your weight; anything related to your physical appearance is up for grabs in conversation. It’s nice when the family tells me that I look pretty, but other days they’ll tell me that I’ve gained weight… It’s pretty random, and I’d rather they didn’t say anything at all.
I’ve had more time while I’ve been here to hang out with people and try to have conversations, but since there aren’t many people who speak French, the conversations don’t end up going very far… I try to learn some new vocabulary, but the issues I’d like to discuss are so much more complex than I’m able to communicate in Wolof. So I usually try to joke around in Wolof, which wins a positive response and I can fool people into thinking that I understand more than I do (heh heh). The key phrases are, “Danga dof (You’re crazy),” “Danga sigh-sigh (You’re a bandit),” “Danga caf-kat (You’re a joker),” or “Danga fennkat (You’re a liar).” Usually after halfway understanding what was said, I pull out one of these phrases, which makes people laugh, and I slyly slink away, laughing along with them. I reach out my hand to wave and say, “Ok, maangi dem. Ba benneen yonn (Ok I’m going, until next time). It works like a charm every time. I suppose I shouldn’t just pretend to understand what’s going on, but it’s better than getting frustrated every time and saying, “Degguma (I don’t understand).”
So yesterday was my 22nd birthday and it was certainly the strangest birthday I’ve experienced thus far. It’s quite common here that people don’t know their birthdays or how old they are exactly, so I kind of figured that my birthday wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I woke up expecting to get my laundry done (which would have been awesome), but due to some miscommunication between my host family and the MSID directors, my family thought that I was going to do all of my laundry myself, instead of giving it to the laundry lady like everyone else in the family does… I tried to explain that the money given to the family for room and board is supposed to include laundry, but Adama said I should try to discuss prices with the laundry lady… I decided against that route, considering the woman doesn’t speak French and I didn’t feel up to early-morning confusions in Wolof. I guess I’ll wait until next Wednesday and try again.
I went to assist a class at the high school and the lesson went well, as expected. The students have a hard time understanding my accent, but in time they’ll get it. All of the teachers tell me that it’s because I’m American, but I am positive that the students would have an even harder time if I were British… When I told people it was my birthday, they wished me lots of good health, happiness, wealth, and a good husband to give me lots of children (of course…haha). After the lesson, on my walk home,I searched out some Bissap juice and found the best thing yet—It’s a frozen mint juice and this little old lady sells it for 5 cents. I invited a new friend named Miki, a volunteer from Japan, over for lunch with the family. She speaks English fluently and I really appreciated the camaraderie. I made ataaya after lunch and we talked about Senegalese culture. Apparently she’s been here for almost two years, which is admirable. After ataaya, we watched Avatar on TV until the power went out and then she went home.
Later that afternoon, I went to the market to find flour, sugar, butter, and eggs to make a cake (thanks mom for the recipe!). The only thing I didn’t know how to translate or find was baking powder, but I figured I’d do without it and add bananas instead. That kind of worked, although the cake was really dense due to lack of baking powder. Oh well, it was pretty delicious.
The power was out for a couple of hours, so I took a nap, and when I woke up, it was still out, so I sat down in the living room with Adama, who was eating grilled cow liver and onions from the Dibiterie (lil shacks that grill however much meat you want with onions and sauce, it’s delicious). She offered some to me as a birthday present and we a conversation based on some of my recent thoughts about culture and life (you know me, always too contemplative… stuck in my own head). It was good to get some thoughts out into the open and to hear what Adama had to say. She intimidates the shit out of me, but deep down, I’m pretty sure she has a good soul.
Later that night, the power came back on and I danced around in the living room with Xady and Koumba. It was a little forced, and the music playing over the stereo mixed with the sound of the television, but I appreciated the gesture… It was the closest thing I would get to a party on the night of my birthday.
I got way too nostalgic yesterday and was missing everyone at home (and in Spain & Thailand) a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot a lot, but the kind gestures made by my host family here in Koumpentoum made up for it. Nothing will compare to how fun an American birthday is, but I didn’t expect a lot yesterday so I wasn’t disappointed. And I got one gift (!) from Koumba. She gave me a necklace with a really cool elephant head/tusk thing. She had said that she’d get me a birthday present but I definitely didn’t take her seriously.
Anyway, now I’m 22, still in Africa, and still don’t understand exactly what’s going on here everyday, but it’s getting better, I suppose. I still feel like Dakar is my first home and I miss life there. I keep telling myself that my time in Koumpentoum is a sacrifice that needs to be made to fully enjoy the life I’ve been given and I’m sure the significance of this experience will not be fully realized until long after.
Since being in Koumpentoum, I’ve had a lot of time to myself to think about development. I’m beginning to wonder why I had such an idealistic view of African development. I’m starting to become rather cynical about it all because I wonder at what point Africans will take the development of their country into their own hands and really start to initiate change. Is problem-solving a value developed in the Occident? For example, if a system isn’t working, why not brainstorm to find a better solution? Is the answer to this question simply based on the fact that the country is poor? And besides that, can’t the poor do something to initiate change if necessary?
There are tons of NGO’s, Peace Corps volunteers, and various other do-gooders trying to help, change, grow, and in general, experience a different life. And I understand that there is a lot of money that comes from these organizations, mainly based in Europe and the US… I guess it’s my idealistic side that keeps thinking that the money could actually be making a difference instead of sitting in the pockets of already wealthy African politicians. When a country is suffering in poverty, with an extreme lack of resources, how can the president sit in his air-conditioned office and spend his money without consequence? Why isn’t he doing more? Where do his interests lie? There are numerous towns in Senegal without high schools, hospitals, pharmacies, water, or electricity, and yet Abdoulaye Wade continues to develop Dakar, the Western-most capital city. The population of Dakar is already at two million people and growing because almost all of the country’s resources can be found in Dakar. When will Wade start investing in his country, not just his city?
When I first got to Senegal, I thought that I could do something to better the lives of those who live here. I had this naïve illusion of power, that with my know-how and American work ethic, I could really “get the job done” here in Africa. Boy, was I wrong and for so many reasons. First of all, that ideology is completely backwards. There are so many beautiful and important aspects of Senegalese culture that get lost in the competitive fight for modernity and American society. People like living in Senegal (duh) and there are many who have travelled to Europe and prefer staying and working here, in their own country. Also, I found after arriving that my idealistic vision of a better Senegal was based on completely American ideas and has already been attempted by French colonizers, which certainly wasn’t very successful considering all that remains of the French are some buildings, some street signs, and a language that has taken a back seat to Wolof (and deservedly so).
I am sure that even after I return to the US I won’t have any answers. I will not know how to improve the lives of the families in villages with no running water or how to solve the problem of poverty in the rural regions of Senegal. What this experience has given me is another perspective and another way of viewing life. Those who live in the villages do not complain about going to the well everyday because most of them have never lived with running water. And my host sister doesn’t complain about cooking for four hours everyday over charcoal because she has the time do so. No one complains about bucket showers or lack of vegetables because that’s just how it is. It’s hard to complain about what you don’t have when you only have a little. That’s essentially what I’ve figured out since being here… People are grateful for what they have and make the most out of it.
During my time here, I’ve realized that the Allegory of the Cave is a fitting philosophy for why things aren’t progressing as fast as they could be. Essentially, in Allegory of the Cave, there is a guy in a cave strapped to a chair facing the wall. The only source of light comes from the doorway behind him, which he cannot see. The light coming in through the doorway casts a shadow on the wall in front of him, which he perceives as his reality since he can’t see anything else. He simply cannot conceptualize anything else besides what he sees on the wall; anything outside the boundary of his reality is inconceivable. I have applied this philosophy loosely to Senegal on many occasions. Take, for instance, the disorganization at the high school in Koumpentoum. If there has never before been a standard of organization set at the school, it will not magically appear out of nowhere. The stacks and stacks of random papers on the principal’s desk is not only a sign of lack of resources (there’s no money for filing cabinets), but also an indicator of how business is run at the high school. Time is not money here in Senegal and it’s not uncommon for the principal to spend close to 30 minutes shuffling through his stacks looking for a specific document that got lost in the mess.
The other side of this Allegory of the Cave applied to Senegal is that I’m experiencing it at the same time. When I first got here, I was completely amazed by the amount of trash all over the city and the rest of Senegal. There is a real lack of waste management here, which hadn’t even crossed my mind as a problem that exists in a developing country. And the lack of toilets, running water, an efficient sewer system, traffic regulations, and the overall lack of infrastructure really took me by surprise. I have a greater appreciation for the things I left behind in the US and I’m sure that when life gets back to “normal” (what is normal, anyway??), I will be feeling just as weird as I did when I got here. How can life be so hard for millions of people in one place and so easy for people in another? As you flush your toilets, take your 30-minute showers, throw your clothes into a washing machine, and stack your dishes in a dishwasher, think of the infrastructures in place that allow you to live so easily. Give thanks for running water, electricity that never goes out, and the money to pay for these services. As you walk to school, get on a city bus (and it’s on time and you have a seat to sit in), fill up your gas tank and take your car to work, take the light rail, or hop on a bike, give thanks that there are paved sidewalks to walk on, efficient public transportation systems that you can rely on, paved roads with no potholes, and general respect for cyclists. I know I’ll be bowing down and kissing the sweet earth when I get home, praising the almighty for giving me a life on the greener side of the grass.
All that being said, I do like Senegal. I appreciate Senegalese solidarity, the importance of family, and the slower pace of life. Everyday, after lunch, I have about two and a half hours to hang out with the family, take a nap, watch the Brazilian soap opera, or drink ataaya. This is “la sieste” and it is awesome. No one works between noon and 3pm or 4pm. And it’s true that Senegal is a very poor country, but most people are pretty happy… “Amul soucis” as the Senegalese Rastafarians say—No worries.
Honestly, as frustrating as it can be living here sometimes due to cultural differences, at least there are no frats, McDonalds’, or Wal-Marts, and hardly any binge drinking, drug abuse, or violence. Africa may seem backwards sometimes, but there are some good old family values here and it’s a shame that America has thrown them out in exchange for a fast-paced, disconnected, modern life.
I admit, I have a lot to catch up on…. With the end of the first semester, some venturing out into the rural nether regions of Senegal, and the hectic holidays in Dakar, I haven’t had a lot of time to really reflect. Anyway, I’ll try to blurt out the recent happenings, which have been equal parts strange and exciting.
My internship at the College de la Cathedrale ended on December 6th and the staff at the school took me by surprise with a small goodbye party and some Senegalese gifts (including some jewelry and a traditional dress that looks more like a nightgown and is five sizes too big… but it’s the thought that counts). The week that followed included wrap-up classes at WARC, discussions with the rest of the MSID students about their internships and a 20-page research paper that I miraculously finished in a week’s time. It was a strange ending to the semester since all but three of the students have left Senegal and are now basking in the beauty of fitting in and understanding life again, for the most part. Mostly, I’m happy to be staying in Senegal for the next four months. There are certainly moments of “Oh god, what the hell am I doing here anyway?!? Why did I leave everything at home behind just to be lost and questioning my life in a foreign country?” and there’s always that fear that life at home will be drastically different when I return, which is most likely not going to happen, but nostalgia combined with fear is a powerful thing.
I find myself confused a lot… And I’m almost positive that it’s not just because of cultural understandings. I am starting to understand Wolof more and more, meaning I can pick up on the subject of conversations, but I still can’t really figure out the true meaning or the context. And French is certainly not a problem for me and I’ve gotten over most of my snobbery about it, accepting the fact that I will not speak it perfectly when I leave, but at least my vocabulary will have expanded a bit and I’ll feel more comfortable speaking. I suppose what I don’t understand is Senegalese culture in general… I get that social connections are very important in this society, but it amazes me that middle-aged woman can sit around talking about God knows what (literally, I have no idea what they’re saying in Wolof most of the time) from 6am until midnight every single day. I have no idea how they have so much to talk about! Private time to think, read, listen to music, draw, reflect, write, recharge one’s so-called batteries simply doesn’t exist here and I find myself at a loss. My family thinks I’m ignoring them when I “hide out” in my room… It’s really not that, I just value alone time.
My status as a toubab is also extremely tiring. Either I get stereotyped as snobby, rich, or a symbol of the American dream… I don’t really have an identity here besides the color of my skin. And I try to explain myself, I try to make friends, I really strive to change how I am viewed, but it makes no difference. Guys here see me as a sex symbol and girls see me as a threat because of it. I want to remain hopeful that there are some level-headed, open-minded Senegalese people out there who actually value friendship and don’t just look at American girls as potential marriages partners/freedom passes into the US, but I’m not sure where to find them.
Lately, I’ve been missing intellectual conversations with men without them asking if I have a husband, telling me I’m pretty, or asking for my phone number. It would be nice to discuss politics, art, music, life, really anything without being hit on constantly, or without the guy eyeing me as if he were imagining me naked. It’s tiring, frustrating, and after the millionth time, not at all flattering. Also, after having been in two short-lived relationships (testing the Senegalese waters, so to speak), I can better understand the mentality of guys here and how downright controlling they can be. I have never felt more like a piece of expensive property than I do here and I really hate it.
I made a New Year’s Resolution to stay boyfriend-free for the rest of my time here in Senegal and I’m gonna stick to it. It was an interesting experiment to try a cross-cultural relationship, but after having seen how marriage-centric the guys are here, always talking about having babies and getting hitched, I’m gonna cling to my youth like a pair of panty hose to a polyester skirt. VIVE LA JEUNESSE!
All of these observations are based on countless experiences I have had over the last three weeks. The first week after semester ended, I went to visit my then-boyfriend in a village called Payer located in Central Senegal. I was so nervous on the way there because it was the first time I would be travelling by myself and I had to take an overnight bus, but in Senegalese fashion, people were nice and all too willing to talk to me. I had some good conversations in Wolof with a random dude dude who taught me some new vocabulary and made friends with a three-year old girl who slept on my lap for the 6-hour ride because her mother had her hands full with a newborn baby. Just one more example of the toubab stereotype: we all love kids…. Obviously. I got to the nearest town outside of Payar a little too early, around 4:30am and nothing was open nor were there any buses ready to go to Payar, so I chilled with some bus drivers around a tiny fire while they smoked cigarettes and rolled joints that they smoked to themselves. I impressed them for a while with my Wolof language skills but after about two hours, I was so sleep-deprived, I could feel my brain slowing down and Wolof getting harder and harder to understand and speak. They ungraciously got bitter when I didn’t understand their rapid-fire questions. In these cases, I’d just shrug and say, “Xamuma” (meaning I don’t know), which worked quite well; they’d either quickly leave me alone or they’d keep talking and I’d repeat myself, looking more confused.
I was surprised at how different people looked only six hours outside of Dakar. Lots of men were wearing turbans, there were certainly a lot more Arabs, women’s mouths were dyed black, and they wore much more traditional jewelry. I hopped on the back of a pick-up truck able to carry about six people but packed with ten to the next town called Kouthiaba. There was a guy sitting next to me with a tape deck with some sort of beautiful Arabic music coming out of it in bended tones due to the quality of the tape, which added a familiar element to a foreign tune. Some of the other passengers tried talking to me but most of them spoke Pulaar, not Wolof…
Once we arrived in Kouthiaba, an old man helped me with my bags and led me to a truck filled with rice, which he said I could take to Payar. I paid two bucks and hopped in the front next to the driver, a quiet guy who smoked cigarettes the entire way to Payar and another big, burly man, full of marital advice. We listened to some Senegalese music, which is really growing on me, and one of the guys translated it for me in broken French. Essentially, it was about marriage. Dude started talking about his two wives and I asked him if he loved one of them more than the other. He explained that he loved them both the same, but since the first was an arranged marriage and he chose the second one himself, he preferred the second one. Plus, he said, the second one is better in bed. This man talked about love and sex in the same breath and no matter how many Senegalese men try to convince me that they believe in true love, they are surely still carnal beings and attraction still holds some sort of value. Anyway, I gracefully avoided the almost-too-personal questions that the guy asked me and soon I was in Payar.
The week I spent there was very peaceful. There’s no running water; they have two wells on both sides of the village. There’s no electricity, just the light of the moon and flashlights to guide the way. There’s no high school, just an elementary school and a middle school to teach children how to speak French and a bit of English. If the kids want to go to high school, they must move to the nearest town, which is thirty miles away, which means that most kids do not receive a high school education. Also, almost no one in the village speaks French, so many students have trouble with their homework as no one in their family can help them. I remember being frustrated when I was younger because my mom isn’t a mathematician or a scientist, since I always had trouble with math and science, but that doesn’t even closely compare to the difficulties of Senegalese children in the villages. They really have to fend for themselves if they want to get an education.
I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only white people to have ever set foot in the small village of Payar. In total, I terrified eight children because of my skin color. Countless men stared and stared and stared at me, meaning as the walked past me, their gaze didn’t waver once; they definitely could’ve tripped on something with their eyes fixed so steadily on me. Little kids looked at me like I was an alien and giggled when I looked back at them. Women seemed to love me and would yell my new name, “Mariama!” and some Pulaar greetings that I still don’t really understand. Groups of students would come to the property I was staying at and curiously try to see what I was up to and then run away when I noticed them. I thought it was pretty funny; at least I didn’t get called toubab as much as I do in Dakar and people are more curious about me, instead of writing me off according to some sort of stereotype they’ve come up with about toubabs. It’s definitely true that people in the villages are more open and inviting.
It was certainly a surprise getting back to Dakar, after spending six days with a bunch of goats, sheep, chickens, a horse, a beautiful, humble, welcoming family in a place with no flashing lights or corporate influence whatsoever. I was completely shell-shocked on the way into Dakar, getting stuck in the most hectic traffic I’ve ever been in, seeing bars, clubs, and fast food places (McDonald’s et al do not exist here, alhamdoulilah, but there are places called “Fast Food” that offer burgers with a fried egg, cheese, and French fries on top, chwarma, which is like a Senegalese gyro also with French fries wrapped up inside, pizza, et cetera), and just the general busy vibe of Dakar threw me off.
Soon enough, though, I got back into the full swing of things. I have been able to take advantage of the little time I have left in Dakar and have gone out to see some concerts as part of the Black Arts and Music Festival that ended on the 31st of December. I got to see Fat Joe and one of the most famous Senegalese rappers named Matador—rapping in Wolof is so much more intense than in English. I made some new Senegalese friends who are closer to my age than the guys I have been meeting, but I’m pretty sure they’re all interested in something more than friendship…
On the 20th, my mom came to visit, which was a big refresher and a really great escape from the cultural confusion that I face everyday that I’m here. We took it pretty easy since I wanted to give her a true taste of what life is like here and honestly, I don’t do a whole lot each day, besides walk around, go to the beach, eat lunch at friends’ houses, and hang with the family. It was awesome seeing the relationship between my host mom and my real mom. They got along so well, as I suspected they would… It’s like they’re kindred souls.
For the last part of mom’s visit, we stayed at a fancy hotel called the Meridien in the rich neighborhood of Dakar. It was beautiful and such a drastic difference from the rest of my experience here in Senegal. I am almost positive, the culture shock awaiting me upon my return to the US will not be nearly as bad as I’m expecting… Getting a hot shower after four months of cold bucket showers was GLORIOUS. And lying out in the sun next to a pool without people staring at me or asking me questions or trying to get my phone number or selling me things was such a relief. Plus people were pretty nice; I met a musician from Brooklyn who was here for the festival, a flight attendant from Nigeria, and a Cuban trombone player.
Plus, sometime during our stay at this luxury hotel, I opened the door into the secret of exploiting my age, race, and gender to get free entry and drinks at clubs. This secret was unlocked on a Monday night when one of my American friends named Hallie and I decided we were going to go out. We put on our finest and headed down to the hotel’s nightclub, which was in no way, shape, or form happenin’. So we talked to the bouncer, told him we were dissatisfied and that we expected more from a prestigious hotel such as the Meridien and he said, “Ok, wait for another hour, after that, I’ll get you into Le Nirvana for free.” Hallie and I had already planned on going there so we were completely down. Sure enough, the plan worked, and our new friend, Billy the bouncer got us into one of Dakar’s trendiest clubs for free. We saw a live show performed by Salam Diallo, one of Senegal’s most famous singers, and danced up front. Once we grew tired of dancing, we talked to some more people and once again stated our dissatisfaction with the fact that there was no DJ and no room to dance. So the guy we were talking to said he could bring us over to a nearby club called Duplex, get us in for free, and get us free drinks too. Off we went, to club numero dos, and we essentially got people dancing. Even though most of the people dancing on the dance floor just look at themselves in the mirror, mesmerized by their own dance moves, it was still quite the feat. After a while, we grew hungry and decided to get hamburgers at the Fast Food down the street. At this point, it was 6am and guys were following after us, wondering why we were leaving… We pretty much ran away and in the process, I almost ignored Salam Diallo himself, who had recognized me from the concert since I was the only white person in the crowd besides Hallie and was dancing up front. I apologized and we hugged (!) and he, of course, in perfect Senegalese fashion, asked for my phone number. Awesome. Although I’ve heard that Salam Diallo has lots of children from many different women… He hasn’t called me thus far, so no worries on that front.
Hallie and I ordered our hamburgers and sat down, hoping to find some peace. We got rid of the last of the dudes who was following us around, but Hallie noticed the two big tables of Senegalese girls were staring at us relentlessly. So I turned around from where I was sitting and waved at both groups, saying, “Bonsoir, ca va!” trying to kill them with kindness, as they say, hoping to appear equal parts sober, friendly, yet as intimidating as they are. To my surprise, one of the groups of girls waved Hallie and I over to sit with them. So we did and it turned out that they were on vacation from Paris. We discussed the differences and how much more fun Senegal is than France, which is certainly true. We exchanged numbers and might possibly hang out, which, if it happens, will be the first time I’ll have hung out with a Senegalese girl.
Hallie and I got back to the hotel around 7am, feeling tired and worn out, of course, but also completely aware of how beautifully the night worked out and how much we finagled an almost free night out.
Surely, that night ranks as one of the best thus far in my history of going out. And it’s all too easy to play the part of a nice, American girl, all dressed up to go out, and exploit boys to get into clubs for free, but I don’t plan on doing it again since the first time it’s innocent… If you do it again using the same contacts, the guys start expecting something from you. It could get a little dangerous. And frankly, that’s not why I came here, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience and I had a great time.
On New Year’s Eve, my family had a party. We danced in the courtyard and ate delicious food and at the stroke of midnight, I ran up to the roof to see the fireworks that were going off all over the city. It was an incredible sight. There was no ball drop, no countdown, just fireworks everywhere. I went out later that night, but it didn’t quite compare to Monday night.
It’s almost time to move out of Dakar; yes I have made up my mind to move to a small town to get a different taste of Senegal and to breathe cleaner air for the next four months. Plus, my research is based on the Senegalese education system and there’s no better way to gain a better perspective on the realities here than to work in a public school outside of Dakar, since I worked in a private school in Dakar. This way, I can compare not only the statistics but my experiences as well.
Of course, I’m apprehensive, but am hopeful that the experience will teach me a lot, especially if I sternly reject any boy who tells me that I’m the love of his life or that he wants to marry me. It’ll be a much more meaningful experience to be single rather than spending the rest of my time here attached to some sort of condescending control freak who acts like a romantic fool but is most likely using me for the promise of privilege behind my nationality. Plus, I only understand a fraction of what is communicated; anytime people don’t want me to understand, they speak in Wolof. Trust, needless to say, is an issue here. I’m glad I tried it out, for every experience provides a new lesson to learn from… Therefore, lesson learned: I will not be dating any more Senegalese men.
And to all of you American friends out there, I sincerely, truly, honestly, completely miss you with all of my heart. I can’t wait to soak up the rest of my Senegal experience and head on to literally greener pastures.
Love love love and Happy New Year from DKR.
My only possible excuses for not writing are that I’ve been busy and that I’ve been collecting observations so my long overdue post would be well worth it.
Towards the end of October, I started my internship at an Orphanage in a busy neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown Dakar. It was pretty simple work; show up at 7:30am, grab one of the 40 babies from his crib, feed him, change his diaper, grab another baby, and repeat until all babies are fed. After that, grab a baby and head to the bathing room. Bathe, lotion, and clothe baby, put him back in crib. Grab another baby and repeat until all babies are bathed. Then grab a baby and bring him to the playroom…. After two hours of slobbery, boogery babies clawing, scratching, biting, and climbing all over you, place the babies back in their cribs and start the feeding process again. At first, I was charmed by the babies’ toothless smiles and their incessant need to be held, but after a while, I realized how useless I was at the orphanage… The women who run the place are Spanish (toubabs), and the women who work everyday with the infants are Senegalese and most of them speak hardly any French. So I wasn’t really speaking during my 5-hour shift, just shuffling around, picking up babies, and trying to act like I knew what I was doing AKA not get in the Senegalese women’s way. Plus, I was one of many toubabs who came to the orphanage to “do my part,” merely making googly eyes with the babies since none of them can talk yet and feeding them whatever mush the orphanage provided… In short, I felt pretty useless. I mean, I know how to take care of babies and that’s not the reason why I came all the way to Senegal. I imagined an internship where I could use my intellect and improve my French, which brings me to my next point…
I’m now working at a private Catholic middle school in downtown Dakar called La Collège de la Cathédrale. I’m assisting the English teacher, Mr. Tavarez, with his classes Monday through Thursday and on Fridays I conduct research independently (i.e. conduct interviews in Dakar or travel to villages as a comparative study). I can say without any doubt that I absolutely love my internship. The students are interested, engaged, and rather advanced for middle schoolers… I was quite impressed on the first day of class when the English class of 13-16 year olds was discussing civil unrest and students were raising their hands with examples in English. I also got to take over for Tavarez last Wednesday when he went to a funeral… Meaning I got the opportunity to teach a room full of 50 students in English and French about the American education system and share other random factoids. I really enjoy teaching so far and I totally remember what it was like to be in a boring class with a teacher who had no clue how to be kid anymore. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever lost that child-like curiosity and I can miraculously keep the students’ attention spans quite easily. Plus, participation is SO important in a language class and there are five or ten of the same students who raise their hands to answer every question. Without a doubt, those kids are smart, but what about the 40-45 others who aren’t raising their hands? So I make it a point to call on students who are in the back of class or those who seem to slide by without saying a word. It’s been funny so far; the students all laugh if I call on the class clown or the guy sleeping in the back… Plus, pronunciation of certain words has been challenging for the students, and even Tavarez, so I’ve been helping a lot with that… Although my American accent is subpar; it would be ideal if I had an English accent because they learn British English. Needless to say, I kind of feel like a mutt, speaking a lesser language and to that I say “Bullocks to you, bloody pretentious French teaching system”. To help with pronunciation (especially with the “th” sound, which is constantly pronounced “zze”), I’ve had to look like a fool on numerous occasions, showing all of the students how to put their tongue between their teeth and make the right sound and making sure that I see everyone doing it so we can make the sound together. God teaching is so fun!!
Another really interesting aspect of being a teacher in this city is that the students recognize me on the street! Since starting my internship on October 8th, at least two students have come up to me at completely random times, “Miss Diatta! Bonjour!” *shake hands* “Bonjour…” (Me thinking who is this kid…. OH right, I’m Miss Diatta now, this kid is my student). It has hit me that I have a reputation. Anything I do in public could be witnessed by one of the 1500 students and since I’m the only white person at the entire school, everyone recognizes me. Honestly though, I can’t say that this fact bothers me. Not only do I have a real job here in Dakar, I feel more like an adult than I’ve ever felt.
The fact that everything is going well here in Dakar and for the most part within my family (despite an awkward break-up… Err I guess I understand why everyone says not to date your host cousin/brother… Lesson learned), means I’m going to be staying here for the second part of the semester. I really had to assess why it is that I came to Senegal and honestly, I came here to speak French and gain teaching experience. I think it’s courageous of those who move to the villages and live the simple life, but I just keep wondering how I could let go of the teaching opportunity I have right in front of me… I would be giving up what I have here for a rural Senegal mystery package—new family in a new town with a new internship. And really what worries me about moving is that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to teach even if I were placed in a school. Case and point: another student moved to a village and got placed in a school but has been working as a secretary for three weeks. So even though I’m staying in Dakar, I will take advantage of my three-day weekends to travel to villages and conduct interviews with various school directors to get a better sense of the education system throughout Senegal and the difficulties that come up in a developing country. I’m pumped.
One thing I haven’t mentioned at all is the fact that today, November 17th, is the Muslim holiday Tabaski, or the goat holiday. For the last month, goats have been multiplying throughout the city for people to purchase and keep at their homes. So let’s say you’re Muslim and you need to buy a goat… Where can you go? Well, look no further than the bus terminal, on the side of the highway, next to the market, in random patches of grass next to every gas station, or really anywhere in Dakar, you’ll find some goats. And with goats come poop… So if Dakar didn’t smell enough life a fart, it does now. In any case, the sound of goats has become very comforting to me. When I wake up in the morning, “BEGUÉÉÉ!!” is the first thing I hear. And there’s nothing cuter than seeing a couple baby goats running free down the street (this happened the other day and I thought they were dogs at first… But no, they were goats). Unfortunately, all of the goats will be killed and eaten today. I definitely have mixed feelings about all of this… I am a meat-eater but I don’t think I’ll be hanging out for any of the slaughtering that’s taking place today. I kind of feel like it’s a right of passage, as if I’m not worthy to eat the goat if I’m too much of a wimp to see it getting killed, but I can’t ignore that I’m a sensitive soul and I don’t think I’d take it lightly. Plus, one time I saw a newborn kitten meow its last meow in the street outside my bedroom window and I just about started crying. It was so precious and little and I witnessed its last breath of life, but I was helpless and unable to do anything to save it. Animal’s lives are treated so much differently here… I miss BILL (my fat cat at home that I’ve had since its first day of life).
It’s time for me to take my bucket shower and put on my newly made African dress to get ready for the big holiday. I’ll try to be a better blogger from now on.
So since my post yesterday was so blasée, I’ll point out some great things about Senegal/Dakar to even out the score…
1) I can take a taxi from one part of Dakar to the other part for under $4 (2000 FCFA). I can take a bus for ~$0.25 (150 FCFA). And a car rapide only costs ~$0.20 (100FCFA) but I usually only take those if I really don’t wanna spend the money or I don’t know the bus route because there’s always a guy hanging off the back, figuring out where people need to go and telling them where he’s headed… Also, car rapides are really beneficial if I want to feel closer to the people next to me, literally, they’re really cramped. The last time I took one home from school, there was no more space to sit and they’re too short to stand in, so I sat on an American friend’s lap and she was sitting on our other friend’s lap (tripled-up!). Also, everyone gets on buses at the back entrance, and there’s a guy sitting in a little cage who takes your coins, stamps a ticket with the date, and gives it to you. It’s real crazy getting on a bus; everyone is pushing and squeezing their way on to find a seat and pay first, and the people who end up without a seat end up falling all over each other cuz the roads are bumpy and, depending on the driver, it’s a quite turbulent ride. But it’s cheap and rather efficient, which means I get to school in half the time.
2) Bargaining is awesome. There are tons of items for sale and everything can be bargained down to a lower price. For example, the first time I went to the market, I saw a really pretty dress and asked how much it was. The guy said it was 9000 FCFA ($18), which is WAY too much to pay at the market for anything. The rule of thumb here is to divide whatever price the vendor suggests by 3. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this rule until after, so I said I wouldn’t pay more than 5000 FCFA ($10) for it. He protested, of course, so I walked out, and he chased me down the road, saying he would sell it to me for 5000 FCFA. Same thing happened when I bought a pair of shoes; I was able to bargain a pair of sandals from 6000 FCFA ($12) to 2000 FCFA ($4).
3) The beauty of buying fabric and going to a tailor: I bought some beautiful, traditional African fabric at the market and I went to the tailor last week with maman to get a dress made. I showed up with a design of what I wanted, he took my measurements, and said it would be finished in 5 days. I’m currently wearing the dress and it’s exactly how I imagined it, he did a fantastic job! And it only cost 10000 FCFA ($20) for the fabric and the work he did, plus I have fabric left over to make something else when I get home. I’m hoping to have enough money to be able to make MANY more dresses… If you want something made, I would suggest sending a letter with the design and your measurements and I’ll bring it back for you next summer (i.e. the future…).
4) My Senegalese family. They’re awesome. Enough said.
5) I’m going to start auditing classes at the university here in Dakar starting next semester and I’m really excited about that. Who knew I’d be so excited about acadmia?? Yay skewl!
6) Beaches and warm weather all year round. No ice, no wind chill, no snow, no blizzards, no boots, no slush, no mittens, no snow blowers, no parkas. And I can eat ice cream anytime without freezing to the core.
Sounds good doesn’t it? Why don’t ya’ll consider comin’ to visit? All you need are a handful of vaccinations, a good dose of malaria pills, and a $2000 plane ticket! Ha… Right, see you in the future Amurricah
Yesterday was such a weird day! I woke up in a sour mood and walking to school only made it worse. All the things about Dakar that get on my nerves are most apparent during the 50 minute walk to WARC; the constant honking taxis, the smell of poop & garbage, the suffocating exhaust fumes of the ‘78 Peugeot taxis, vendors on the side of the street who assume that everyone who passes needs whatever their selling & incessantly try to call you over to them, and the fact that there’s no right of way here for pedestrians, which means that I’ve had MANY close calls getting hit by a taxi turning as I’m crossing the street, or an SUV backing up as I’m passing behind it on the sidewalk (of which there are few, so walking on the street is common and is just as dangerous).
I started dreaming of home, the keyword : “dreaming,” as I focused on paved sidewalks, stoplights, hybrid cars, garbage cans, green grass, autumn leaves, wearing a sweater, being able to buy a Chipotle burrito (Mexican food is so rare here!), getting a cup of coffee, going to a movie theater, curling up under a blanket, Disney movies, etc etc etc… And I miss the most simple things like walking down the street or waiting at the bus stop without getting gawked at because I’m white. I’ve been homesick before, but not in this way… This is such a different feeling; it’s like a craving for things that are so far away and purely do not EXIST here. I guess this is what I signed up for when I chose a developing country, and for the most part, I’m very satisfied with my experience so far, but life here is hard and I’m just starting to feel the daily grind of the developing world.
Here are a few examples of what happens here that doesn’t happen in the US:
-Sunday there was a power outage from 5am until 6pm. And this isn’t rare. There are power outages all the time, due to the government “rationing” the electricity to save money… But some neighborhoods in Dakar now have more reliable power, which I learned is a result of a political strategy used by President Abdoulaye Wade to ensure that this neighborhood will vote for his son when elections come around, since they didn’t vote for him during the last election. Can anybody spell government corruption?
-Water shut-offs. Yep, sometimes we don’t have water… This doesn’t happen as often as the power outages, but it is still common and rather inconvenient.
-You are at a bar. You drink a beer that costs 1000 FCA (~$2). You give a 10,000 FCFA (~$20) bill to a waitress and ask if she has change. She says no. Not having appropriate change or being able to break bills is a problem almost everywhere here. There are very few shops that have lots of money in their till.
-People hissing at you to get your attention on the street. If you look around to see who’s doing it, they come up to you and try to sell you what they’ve got, and follow you until you tell them firmly that you’re not interested… It helps if you tell them in Wolof.
But, as I said in an earlier post, the bad things come with the good… And Senegal is a great place. The food is pretty tasty, although the selection isn’t very diverse, the people are friendly, if not too friendly, and the night life is hoppin’. I have had some frustrating times here as well as some amazing times and I’m always curious to see what happens next.
If anybody feels inclined to send some good old American stuffz over here to Senegal, I’d greatly appreciate and I can reciprocate with a letter, love, and a surprise ;)
I’ve been thinking lately that it wouldn’t be so hard to imagine myself living here in Dakar, Senegal. People are nice, the ocean is near, and there is a sincere sense of community here that does not exist to the same extent in the US. It’s bizarre because I don’t fit in here; I’m white in a black community, christian in a Muslim society, an American in Africa. Yet, there are certain aspects of life here in Senegal that I adore.
For instance, yesterday I walked home from the bus terminal as I do almost everyday after class. I passed by two young women sitting in front of their house. We made eye contact and I said “Salaam Maalekum.” They responded, and as I continued to walk-by, they yelled after me, “Kaay, vient, hey!, vient”… I looked back and they obviously wanted me to come back and hang out with them for a while. Usually, I have a radar going off telling me to be weary of strangers (and especially cuz guys on the street are always trying to flirt with toubabs), but since they were young and female, the radar didn’t go off and I figured it was totally chill to hang out with them for a bit. They pulled a chair over and asked me what I’m doing in Dakar, how long I’m staying, etc. They invited me to come back anytime on my walk home, actually they insisted that I do… And I most likely will.
Even though the unemployment rate is this country is incredibly high and life is very hard, for the most part people are happy… That is to say that most people are focused on enjoying the present moment instead of always preparing for the future. They take their time to converse and nurture human relationships… Without friends, who are we anyway?
But when I say that good things come with the bad, I mean to say that despite the overall positive vibes here, there are certainly things that need a lot of work. For example, the pollution is terrible and sustainability doesn’t exist here. Everyone litters because there aren’t really any trash cans on the street. No matter how much or how little I buy at a boutique, the guy behind the counter will give me a plastic bag. And this plastic bag will inevitably end up on the ground. Also, because of the rainy season right now, all the garbage, animal feces, and general grossness get washed away into the sewer system (which exists because we’re in the city… luckily), which ends up contaminating drinking water. There are also major problems with the economy, social services, health services, disease, the list goes on and on….
I certainly don’t feel very healthy living here (also because of the Senegalese diet, although my mom has started making me vegetables more often because I told her how much I love them), but I figure if more than half the World lives under conditions similar to ones I just mentioned, why shouldn’t I? Why should I feel privileged to live the extremely comfortable, padded American life? It’s too easy to ignore the rest of the World’s problems in the US; it’s too insulated. I really don’t mean to sound like life in Senegal is ideal… Cuz I’ve totally been dreaming of the day when I get to fly home and bike around on newly paved roads, buy a coffee at a cafe, and bask in the cool, summer breeze.
But I’ll surely miss being able to speak French, to see problems hands-on, to understand the consequences of my cushioned lifestyle, and what development really looks like for the rest of the World.
It’s about 8pm, 80 F, and I just heard Lady Gaga playing on someone’s cell phone outside my bedroom window… Sometimes, I don’t feel like I’m in Africa.
And maybe I’m not… I’ve heard from numerous people that Dakar is unlike the rest of Senegal because it’s so busy, modern, and heavily populated and that it would be a mistake if I choose to stay in Dakar for the internship portion of my time here (which is 6 months long for the academic yearers, compared to 6 weeks for the semesterers). They say that I will not truly understand development if I stay here, nor will I understand Senegal as a developing country. And while I came to Senegal to learn about development, my overall goal was to speak as much French as I possibly could and to learn Wolof. So with that in mind, I’m going to stay in Dakar. Besides, I love my family and I don’t want to pack up and move after only 6 weeks in this city. That is definitely not enough time to perfect my Wolof skills to bargain at the markets, and I still don’t completely know my way around the city. So it is decided… And I’ll either be placed in an internship in an orphanage working with babies or in a school, teaching children.
I really don’t think staying in Dakar will be a bad idea… There are still development issues, even in a fast-paced city like this one. Plus, the juxtaposition of Dakar compared to the rest of Senegal is a prime example of the difficulties of development… All of the country’s money and resources are kept in the capital, i.e. Dakar, while the rest of the country lives in extreme poverty with little to no infrastructure.
This doesn’t mean that Dakar is a luxurious city… Some things I have noticed about Dakar:
The trash: It takes keen observation skills to locate one of the very rare trash cans in the city, meaning that instead of seeking one out, people throw their trash on the streets. And when I say trash, I don’t just mean candy wrappers… On my walk to school, I could point out a myriad of objects; tires, old shoes, piles of rubble & brush, broken televisions, plastic bottles, animal manure, the list goes on and on. Littering is not kitsch here.
The streets/roads: There are almost no paved sidewalks… And the roads are mostly rubble and sand. Last night, coming back from the beach in a taxi, we almost got stuck three times in the middle of the road because the driver couldn’t stop in a sand pit….
The striking similarity between the taxis, the flies, and the dragueurs (Senegalese men who incessantly flirt): They don’t get the hint! Every time a cab drives pass a toubab, or has ANY suspicion that the person walking MIGHT need a cab, even if they aren’t flagging it down, the taxi will honk… So on the walk to or from school, which takes about an hour, anywhere from 10 to 50 taxis will honk at me to signal they’re empty and can pick me up. It’s especially ridiculous when two taxis in a row both honk…. They really don’t get that white people are capable of walking without getting lost/relying on a cab. The flies here are just as bad. There are millions of them and they never go away no matter how much you swat at them… Which brings me to my next point about dragueurs… The Senegalese men here are very persistent. One day after school last week, I walked alone for the first time to the bus stop. I was my usual friendly self, saying hi to strangers and thinking nothing of it. As I passed this one guy without greeting him, he said “Ca va,” I replied, and he caught up with me and started chatting with me about various things. I didn’t mind the conversation, and he wasn’t creepy, but he really didn’t get the hint. He just hung out with me at the bus stop, gushing over how beautiful he thought I was and how he couldn’t believe I had only been in Dakar for a week because I seemed so experienced. I even told him I had a Senegalese boyfriend to shake him off but it didn’t work. Instead, he asked for my phone number so I could give him a chance. He insisted, I said no, so he gave me his… As if I’m gonna call him… Not that persistence on the verge of desperation isn’t attractive but he was going on 45 years old, at least. And that weekend at the beach, a similar thing happened, only the boys would approach in the water, ask all sorts of questions, and follow us even if we swam away. They’re not dangerous and if you’re very stern, they will leave you alone… But it is certainly annoying.
Animals/Lil beggar children: There are goats, chickens, bulls, horses, and sheep all over every neighborhood. Some of them walk around freely while others are herded, and most commonly, they are tied up on the side of the road. Aside from these farm animals, there are stray cats and dogs everywhere… And it’s really strange after a couple weeks of being here because the stray dogs and cats start to give the same impression as the children who beg on the street—if you avoid eye contact and refuse to give them anything, they won’t follow you. It’s really sad when compassion for the human condition is comprised because the human condition is so utterly apparent and common. Every time I take the bus to school, there are little kids in dirty, ragged clothes shaking coins in their hands, begging for whatever they can get. From what I have heard, some of the children who beg are ‘working’ for marabous, who they must give all of their money to at the end of the day…. It’s certainly a sad reality, but when it’s all around you every hour of everyday, what can you do? Giving a little beggar child 500 CFA ($1) wouldn’t necessarily do any good because there are always more children beg afterwards. If you give one child some money, do you give all of them money? I wish there was a government subsidized day care center where these kids could hang out and eat and not run around barefoot on the dirty streets of Dakar, but I suppose there are much bigger problems than this in Senegal and around the World.
At least once everyday, it suddenly hits me that I am not at home. I realize that the language I’m speaking is not English but French [& some Wolof], that I’m the only white person in the vicinity, and that everyone I know is far, far away. Yet, when I realize this, it doesn’t frighten me, like I thought it would before I left. I do not feel estranged from Senegalese society because almost everyone is friendly, open, and willing to have a conversation. If I greet someone on the street, “Salaam Maalekum,” they will greet me back, “Maalekum Salaam.” It’s a great feeling to be acknowledged in society! That is certainly one thing that has always confused me about American society… Why most people avoid eye contact and informal greetings. It’s not difficult to say hello!
I’m having difficulty deciding whether or not I want to stay in Dakar for the internship or if I want to go to a different city/moderately sized village. I’m a city girl at heart, so I know it would be unrealistic for me to spend the 6 month internship in a small village without running water or electricity [or internet!]… Plus, my family is pretty awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to staying with them. Nonetheless, I’m open to another experience, especially if I could stay with a Muslim family to better understand the importance of Islam within Senegalese society. I’ve been having lots of conversations with my sisters and cousins about Christianity and it seems as though religion is present in every part of the culture here. There aren’t really any atheists here and when I told my cousin that most of my friends don’t believe in God, he was SHOCKED! It’s just not like that here, and I kind of like it. People are more focused on the well being of the community over the individual, not to say that the individual isn’t important in Senegalese society, but people are less self-centered/ego-centric.
On a different note, walking to school has been nice: for the exercise, the view, getting to know the neighborhoods… But I have half a dozen blisters on each foot and today, to make it worse, I stepped on a thorn that went through my shoe and stabbed my big toe. Ouch… AND yesterday, I looked at my watch while walking on the sidewalk next to the ocean and I ran into a sign! Ha.
After a while, I’m sure being here will be a breeze. I have been contemplating the idea of teaching here and living here someday… The culture is really beautiful, and so are the beaches!! On verra (we will see en français).
I live with a Catholic family consisting of Mama and her two daughters, Léonie (27) and Julia (30). Their cousin, Pierre, is also staying with us and he has walked me to and from school the last couple of days. The family speaks French most of the time, which I am LOVING, and they are slowly teaching me Wolof, the most common language in Dakar, and Diolla, the family’s mother tongue from Gambia. I spend my time at home hanging out and talking with Léonie; we get along very well and she really does feel like a sister. It takes quite a while to cook lunch and dinner, and we mostly eat some form of meat (either beef, chicken, or fish), some form of carbohydrate (so far it’s been either rice, pasta, and last night it was mashed potatoes from a box), and some form of sauce (oil, onions, and something called jumbo which is similar to bouillon plus LOTS of MSG…mmmm).
The house is beautiful and I am certainly comfortable— I have practically a king-size bed and my own private bathroom. We have almost all of the same amenities as an American home minus Wifi, but that’s cool with me because I get to spend more time with the family.
Every morning, I wake up around 7am, eat breakfast, which has consisted of instant coffee with milk powder, a piece of baguette, and this morning I had two eggs (!)… Léonie asked me what I usually eat for breakfast and I said eggs, so they bought two dozen just for me! I certainly appreciate it since baguettes don’t really sustain my hunger for too long. After breakfast, I take the 50 minute walk to school in the HEAT. I don’t think I have ever been so sweaty in my entire life. But it’s all right because all of the other students are just as sweaty; we’re in the same boat here.
So far, I’m really liking Senegal. I get to practice my French skills and learn two new languages. It’s certainly different here and being white is interesting since 98% of the population is African— I stick out like a sore thumb. And I have been called toubab already! (Toubab is a name given to white people, i.e. foreigners. There are many possibilities as to where it comes from, 1) that is derived from the Arabic word ‘tabib’ meaning doctor) Also, when I was walking down the street at night with Léonie, we passed two women walking with their daughter and she looked at me, gasped, and backed away! Maybe she thought I was a ghost… This may have something to do with the fact that very few streets well-lit as there is a lack of street lamps.
Everyday is an adventure here! More to come soon…
It certainly was a shock to arrive in Senegal. I am used to the airport being in a sterile suburb, like Bloomington, MN, or Roissy, France… But the airport here is completely surrounded by the city. I was lucky to be met at the airport by one of MSID’s program directors, Adji, because there were lots of men gathering around me trying to persuade me to take their cab or exchange my money to CFA, shoving calculators in my face. It was chaos!
Things are certainly different here, the cab ride was proof of that. There are numerous buildings halfway constructed, just shells of what they will become. And people walking around everywhere you look. Goats and cows roam the streets freely with the residents, and young boys ride on wagons pulled by donkeys/mules. The roads are mostly dirt or gravel and there is trash everywhere you look.
I am currently staying at Résidence Atlantique, a hotel about 3 minutes away from the airport. This morning, I walked around the neighborhood with another girl in the MSID program, Emma, who studies at Indiana University. We ended up chatting with some older Senegalese men who were hanging out in front of a lot with a bunch of non-functioning cars (apparently, a couple of them were mechanics) and two make-shift shacks made of mostly sticks and rags. They taught us some Wolof phrases and gave us some tips on Senegalese life.
So far, even though I haven’t seen much of Dakar or met very many people, I am surprised. This neighborhood I am in includes a mix of beautiful, expensive houses, and empty lots filled with garbage. Even though the area and people seem very poor, they are all smiling and very friendly! And the women wear such beautiful, colorful dresses!
I think I’m going to love it here!