the Senegalese experience|experiment

24 June, 2010

last(ing) impressions

I've realized that there are many things that I've left out of this blog, the majority of them things I promised to get to later. The reality is this: there is no way to encapsulate what I've experienced in mere words, at least not without a multitude of them. There's lots to talk about, still, with outlines sketched in my head and interesting titles picked out-- "transportation," "salutations," and "it's hard out here for a toubab." (I'm sure you can understand why that one's different.) Although I may never write these blog posts-- though I'd like to-- I'm sure I'll always have the basis for them in my head, floating around.

The object of this post is to give you some memories of mine, some souvenirs of Senegal. that didn't quite fit in anywhere else, but which I cherished all the same. I've changed quite a bit since I first landed in Dakar, watching the flashing lights of the ugly city arise from the ocean, fighting off Senegalese men for my luggage and praying that my French would be enough. If nothing else, my perceptions of the city have changed, as I descended into it instead of watching it from above. Windswept beaches and the boys who carve their track into the sand to make the rounds, round and round; barefoot soccer (seen, not played), kicking dirt into the still air; trash burning on the sidewalks, if there were sidewalks;

that moment of anticipation, eyes closed and face raised, clasping a sweet green mango; yassa poulet and mafe and cieb/ceeb/thieb, thiakry and ngalax; cafe touba (ak meew, bes bu nekk) and Gueye Gueye crackers; the strange shapes my mouth makes in Wolof that morph, gradually, into familiar patterns;

cold showers and hot rooms at midnight (no power-- third time this week); sun on my face as I lie face-up in the Atlantic Ocean; dirt on my feet, between my toes, as I pound the ground desperately trying to find the Senegalese beat; alhamdoulilah.

This was my life in Senegal, and remnants of it are with me now, and will be for a long time-- even though the obvious touches of power outages and sand sidewalks are gone. I thought about calling this post "conclusions," but I'm reluctant to say that this, really, is the end. If nothing else, the taste of the Casamance mangoes my papa brought back (US mangoes just can't compare) will always stay on my tongue. Let's leave the story open-ended, and shake left-handed. Ba beneen yoon, inch'allah.

22 May, 2010

misconceptions: senegal vs. "africa"

This issue has been brewing in my mind for several months now. People tend to group all the countries in Africa into one lump-- the idea of Africa!: the land of lions, AIDS, and starving children surrounded by flies [see this humorous article for how to write about Africa]. While these things do exist in various parts of Africa, they cannot be made into sweeping generalizations about the entire continent. After all, Africa is pretty huge, and no am0unt of land that big is ever uniform.

My biggest problem with lumping Senegal into one big reference to "Africa" is that there is so much more to the individual country than our stereotypes realize. They have crazy, wonderful dances, their djembe rhythms are unique, and they eat foods with interesting titles. Senegal has its own president, officials, rules, and Constitution. Whether we acknowledge the individuality of Senegal or not, the fact is that it exists as an independent entity. For that matter, within Senegal there are numerous different ethnicities, all of whom have their own cultures, languages, and codes. The attempt to group all of these complicated entities into one beast known as Africa seems counter-productive. Unfortunately, the NGOs and government agencies who plead for us to "give now, and save the children" are not looking at the entire picture; not even close.

Sadly, Senegalese people are contributing to the lumping of Senegal into the idea of Africa, as well. Many times, I heard discussions of "the future of Africa," "Africa and globalization," and other hot topics, when really these people meant to discuss Senegal. People talk about the unification of Africa into one country (which would look something like the European Union, perhaps), though whether that's in the near future is another topic for another time. Still, at this time, Senegal has its own history and culture, and should focus on itself. Many educated Senegalese people-- my Gender professor, for example-- continuously refer to problems of Africa. I really don't see how that can help, when the needs and problems of different countries vary, depending on all kinds of factors.

I offer no solution to this problem, only the hope that more people will realize in the future that Africa really can't be melted into one stereotypical entity. It's only by discussing and discovering individual countries that we'll learn more about the continent.

18 May, 2010


Now that I've been home for a few days, I'd like to reflect a little bit on what I've been feeling and experiencing, now that I'm back in the U.S. It's definitely weird being here, for obvious reasons-- mangoes are $1.49, wireless at my house is consistent and fast, I have air-conditioning-- but there's other reasons that don't seem as clear. I've been trying to write this entry several different times, but it's hard.

It's hard when, just as my book predicted, most people get bored after a little while, listening to all my stories and random facts about Senegalese culture, comparisons of Senegalese and American culture, all the things I learned about myself and other people. Even the most patient friend or family member gets tired after a while, because I have a lot to say after an entire semester and their ears can only handle so much.

It's hard because I'm so far from the culture I became comfortable with, without even realizing it-- appalled by the prices in the grocery store, unable to do anything about it because we don't bargain here and that's just how it is. I'm not the girl who they say broke down and wept in a restaurant (after all, there's no bargaining in restaurants), but I'm still at the point of exclaiming aloud when I see a horrifyingly high price in the store.

Another problem I foresee is that no one I know will have gone through an even remotely similar experience; no one I know is even interested in going to any part of Africa, ever. So there's no real outlet to share experiences, and languages-- I took 45 hours of Wolof! I thought about writing to the newspaper, since I may be the first person who studied in Africa (rather than doing missions there for various Christian sects) from Hillsdale. Still, it seems a small funnel for big ideas.

In any case, it's not a massive struggle to readjust; there are just small things to re-learn in various parts of my life, and I'm still trying to do that. I'll be continuing to write in my blog about my experience in Senegal.

13 May, 2010

preparation (ii)

As I prepare to leave Senegal, I think it's appropriate to write a basic list of things I'm doing to get ready, in parallel to the list I created on my way here. Looking back on those old entries is really interesting, because my mindset was quite different then. I didn't know what Senegal would be like, really. In spite of my multiple blog readings and Wikipedia research, I truly didn't know what I was in for, and it took the semester to figure it out.

That's one of the things I will have to prepare myself for. As I said to one of my fellow students yesterday, Facebook pictures and anecdotes won't really be able to put my friends and family in my shoes. They'd have to actually visit Senegal in order to understand what I mean, take in Dakar with all of their senses, along with their brain and emotions. Showing them my pictures and telling them my stories will give them some idea of what I've been doing the past four months, but... it's mostly going to be on a superficial level. So I'd say one of the biggest things I have to prepare myself for is a lack of understanding (don't take this personally, everyone-- it's just how it is. And I'm sure you've experienced things where showing me pictures of it won't make me understand, either).

Another thing is that the United States are extremely different from Senegal in many ways. I've gotten used to buying fresh fruit on the street here on a daily basis, for about 40 or 50 cents per fruit. I've gotten used to buying a cup of Café Touba (with milk) for 30 cents. I've also enjoyed bargaining for everything-- clothing, jewelry, and taxi rides, to name a few-- and felt that, in general, I've gotten good prices. When I go back to the US, I'll have to accept whatever prices the shops set-- there won't be an opportunity to say "waañi ko" [lower it] and convince the shopkeeper that I should only pay $5 for this t-shirt, instead of $8. I like to think I've gotten pretty decent at bargaining, and going back to a country where you have to accept prices as they are will definitely be hard.

My packing and other semantics like selling my phone almost seem peripheral in comparison to the impending reverse culture shock. Still, they have to be done, whether I like it or not-- my 50-pound bags (hopefully not more than that, with all the things I've bought here) will have to be carefully loaded and carted out the door. I will have to sell my credit, or give it away. And, eventually, I will have to double-check my room and lock it for the last time. These things are important, too.

Juggling practical and altruistic needs will definitely be a challenge. In my last few days in Dakar, I'm hoping that I can get everything done and still have time to enjoy these moments with my friends (and family, if they're willing-- though in a way it's easier to leave since they usually aren't). I've really enjoyed making memories in Senegal, and now it's time to go home.

[P.S. I think I appear a little less overwhelmed than I actually am, particularly if you're reading other people's blogs, and seeing their intense reflections on their time here, and how hard it will be to leave. You can definitely ask me in person about my experience, and I'll tell you that these days are getting more and more difficult. But this is just who I am. I really hate goodbyes.]

05 May, 2010


I'm currently procrastinating on a paper for my Islam au Sénégal course, so I feel that this is an appropriate time to bring up the topic of religion in Senegal. An oft-cited statistic on religion here is that the country is around 94% Muslim, 5% Christian [Roman Catholic] and 1% native religions. So, while Senegal is overwhelmingly Muslim, they still manage to incorporate the Catholic population without too much (public) conflict, as represented by their motto "Une people, un but, une foi" [One people, one goal, one faith].

I live with a Christian family, which mostly translates to lots of crosses, chalices and a picture of Mother Theresa in the dining room. The main active concession to Catholicism I see, however, is my 18-year-old host sister crossing herself before she eats. From what I've witnessed over the course of my time here, Christians aren't particularly vocal about their faith.

On the other hand, Islam is omni-present (if not omni-benevolent-- I had to move from my first host house because we were right next to the mosque, and the call to prayer began at 5AM). The five prayers throughout the day begin early in the morning, and end around 8 at night. Anywhere you go in Dakar, you will hear the mosque speakers blaring; in the street during prayer time, you will pass multiple people on their prayer mats, pressing their noses multiple times against the ground. And of course, inch'allah (if Allah wills it) and alhamdoulilah (praise be to Allah) are a regular, non-ironic part of Senegalese conversation.

Something you may have noticed about the statistic I gave above is that there is no room for agnosticism or atheism or even humanism in those percentages-- the religious population adds up to 100%. Being non-religious myself, it's occasionally awkward when people ask me the question, "Tu crois quoi alors?" [So what do you believe?] On the occasions when I've responded, "Je suis aucun religion" [I don't follow any religion], I receive awkward silence, or an attempt at conversion. Not wanting any of these things, I've occasionally stated that I'm Protestant-- which is, while not common in Senegal, at least the first step: belief in a higher deity.

Religion for Senegalese people seems, to me, to be a lot like breathing-- it's a vital part of life, though you don't necessarily think about it that often. Several members of my host family, for example, state that they're non-practicing believers. And that, for them, seems to be enough.

29 April, 2010

in commemoration

Well, I was going to write something about another cultural topic, but as it turns out, one came right to my door-- literally. Very early yesterday morning, as I was preparing to think about opening my eyes to get ready for the day, I heard loud wailing coming from down the street. It went on for about 15 straight minutes, with people joining in along the way. There was quite a commotion for a while, but I couldn't figure out what was going on.

Some time later, as I was preparing to walk out the door, my host dad stopped me in the hallway. "The neighbor died," he said, taking my arm and leading me to the door. "Go give your condolences." Not really sure what to do, I stepped through the flock of staring women onto the doorstep across the way, and entered a quiet house. I wasn't sure what to say, so I murmured "mes condoléances" to the red-eyed people sitting around the room, and shook their hands. When I came back, my host dad told me that the man who died had had a heart attack in Thiès, though he'd grown up in the very house where the funeral was taking place, had attended university and medical school and Dakar, and proceeded to become a successful doctor in the area. Then he said "bonne journée," and sent me on my way.

Since then, the mourning period has been very public. To get in and out of my house I've had to walk through dozens of people waiting to talk to the family of the deceased; right outside my window, a griot sang what I have to assume were praises of the dead man, in Wolof. As I entered the street this morning, I found that I had to pass through a tent of hundreds of seated women and men, listening to a man on the microphone speak (again, I have to assume the topic was the deceased). Everyone was dressed in their Sunday/Friday best.

What I've learned from this, peripherally, is that death is much more public in Senegal. All the neighbors and all the friends and all the bare acquaintances come from everyone to give their condolences, to give money to the family. The wailing and the singing for hours to honor the dead seems strange to someone who has only ever attended quiet funerals where the spouses and family try to choke back their tears, and services attended mostly by close friends and family.

I don't actually know the details of funeral traditions in Senegal (since I'm pretty sure it would be rude to ask), but from what I've seen, they are much more public, to the point where a white girl who's never met the guy is required to go and shake the hands of the family. This seems to me another example of the emphasis on community here.

27 April, 2010

destination: St. Louis

[Just in case you didn't know, you can click on any of my pictures to make them a lot bigger.]

For our final group excursion of the semester, we took a visit to St. Louis, the historic colonial base of the French, about four hours north of Dakar. There was a lot of beautiful colonial architecture (my camera broke, so I only have pictures due to Carlee; thank you!) and some outrageous tourist-y shops (I saw a French woman purchase a shirt for 12,000 Fcfa, so I guess now I understand why they start so high-- because they can often get away with it). Overall, it was an interesting trip, though I felt like such a tourist the whole time, although I managed not to get too ripped-off.
Basically, our tour consisted of a horse-cart roundtrip of the colonial island, featuring bad jokes by the guide which really aren't translatable. For example:
: What is the most common tree in a cemetery?
A: The orangier, because you have to ranger les os [collect the bones].
Among other highlights, we crossed the rickety old bridge, which is currently being reconstructed, piece by piece, a few feet away:
: Why is it called the Faidherbe Bridge?
A: Because it's fait d'herbe [made of grass].

We also saw the fish market, which smelled absolutely gross, but gave way to the beautiful ocean, where I stood for as long as possible before diving back into the overwhelming, fly-ridden piles of fish (not literally-- that would be disgusting).

I have to admit, one of my favorite parts of visiting St. Louis was the fact that the hotel had hot showers... It was a wonderful dream. I don't know if you're aware of this, but my house has cold water only (as is normal in a Senegalese household-- I don't know anyone in the program who has hot water), and so I hadn't had a hot shower in several months. So, being able to stand under the high-pressure hot water for 10 or 15 minutes was heavenly.
Our second day in St. Louis, we visited the bird sanctuary, which was full of pelicans, who apparently hunt in packs. They get around a fish and then dive together. It's kind of fascinating-- they're like the hyenas of the water, or something like that.

Last but not least, we discovered the true Senegalese club experience. We arrived around midnight-- not really sure why, since even I know that clubs don't get lively until a few hours after that-- and, sure enough, there was absolutely no one there except our group. Around 1 or 1:30, people started arriving and getting jiggy on the dance floor. Interestingly, we were some of the few girls who weren't watching ourselves in the mirror. Most of the Senegalese girls were gazing at themselves in the mirrors around the edge of the dance floor, and checking their own booties out. It was kind of hilarious.

That concluded the St. Louis trip. I'm glad that I was able to at least see St. Louis, if not truly experience and explore it. St. Louis is quite different from Dakar, in a lot of ways, from my brief encounter with it-- primarily because it was the capital during colonial times, and thus has quite a bit of French colonial architecture that I haven't noticed in Dakar. Of course, I'd have to visit St. Louis more extensively to really get a feel for it, but that will have to wait until a different trip.

19 April, 2010


… not to be confused with indigestion, which I surprisingly haven’t experienced much, given the combination of my sensitive stomach with all sorts of ridiculous things—fish balls, for example, may top the list. As you may have guessed, this entry is all about the things I ingest—what I eat (and drink) in Senegal. Let the tastiness begin!

Breakfast is an extremely airy baguette, sometimes with confiture or butter spread on top. Lately, I’ve been getting sick of the uniquely bad Dakar bread (everywhere else I’ve been, it’s wholesome and hearty), and I’ve been rebelling by buying fruit on the way to school or pain au lait (“milk bread” in French—sweet and delicious) on the weekends. It comes fresh at precisely noon. I stroll down to the boutique (small store that stocks anything you might need: 50-cent scissors or laundry detergent or cheese) and pay 125F cfa, or about 25 American cents, for the heavenly pain au lait experience.

The fruit is plentiful, and omnipresent. You can stroll down any street, and be guaranteed to find a fruit vendor before long (not to mention the option to buy oranges and bananas through the sept-places window as you wait for it to fill up). For varying prices—20 cents for a banana, 40 cents for an orange, 50 cents for a grapefruit—you can purchase bountiful amounts of fresh fruit, to any student’s delight.

When I arrive at WARC, I go to the boutique on the corner to chit-chat with Adama, who serves me a steaming cup of Kafé Touba ak meew (Wolof for “Touba Coffee with milk”). Café Touba is a uniquely Senegalese drink with a very Senegalese name—Touba is where the grand marabout [Senegalese religious leader] lives; Magal is the yearly celebration during which thousands of Senegalese Muslims flock to Touba to pay their respects.

Another Senegalese drink is ataaya, which is really an excuse for a three-hour discussion. Ataaya is Senegalese tea: Chinese tea, mint, and sugar to taste. To properly make it, you have to pass a little liquid from glass to glass for at least twenty minutes (conversing all the while), until the foam reaches at least halfway up the glass. It’s usual to have three rounds, each of which lasts anywhere from half an hour to an hour. It’s easy to spend several hours on a quiet afternoon drinking a bit of liquid out of these tiny glasses, just enjoying other people’s company.

Main meals at my house are usually pretty modern—fries or rice, meat or fish, eaten with forks, on plates, at a table. However, there’s the occasional Senegalese dish, of which there are three main types: yassa [onion sauce], mafé [groundnut sauce]; and ceeb u jenn.

Ceeb u jenn (literally “rice with fish” in Wolof) is the national dish, with a multitude of “correct spellings.” I first mentioned ceeb (cieb, theb…) a few months ago—it was one of the first meals I ate while in Senegal. The slightly spiced rice, along with some vegetables of varying density, is very delicious. My main problem is that somehow, I always end up with fish bones in my teeth, with the occasional piece of sharp cartilage sliding down my throat. Meanwhile, my Senegalese family manages to pick the fish clean sans problème. I guess it’s an art that I have yet to master. (Of course, my hate-hate relationship with fish doesn’t help.)

To end on a sweet note, I’ll discuss dessert—which is generally fresh fruit, at my house. Additionally, many vendors sell cookies of all sorts, including Biskrem with a sort of chocolate-y filling, as well as butter cookies and small round crackers that taste like less imaginative animal crackers for 50F cfa—about 9 cents. There is also thiakry (vanilla yogurt with cereal-type couscous bits), which I eat occasionally for dessert or breakfast. It’s one of the best gastronomic ways I can think of to start, or end, the day.

09 April, 2010


I’m generally inspired to write this sort of blog post after I’ve been sitting in the dark for half an hour, wondering when the power’s going to come back on. Of course, that’s exactly when I’m unable to write the post, so it keeps not being written until I force myself to do it when the lights are on and the cool fan is gently oscillating around my room, and everything seems wonderful. So here I go.

From what I gather, there’s one evil electricity company in Senegal, and their power source is limited (Is it petrol? Sunshine? Childrens’ tears? I can’t remember, sorry). Consequently, there are frequent power outages in various zones around the city; my host father tells me that their limited power means that they have to turn off the lights in certain areas in order to give light to other areas. As a result of all this, power outages are par for the course, in my average week.

These power outages vary… a lot. They may happen only once in a week, or twice in a day (though generally I can count on at least once a week, usually more). They may last for five hours (yes, really) or only three minutes (which has only happened to me once, sadly). They may occur in the morning, the afternoon, or at night. A mere few days ago, I was mid-shower when the power went out, and I was left standing there, wondering whether I should risk shaving in the darkness.

I can only remember three, maybe four times in my American life when the power has gone out. They were all pretty momentous occasions, particularly when I was younger. I always loved to carry the candle all around the house, and see everyone’s’ faces glowing by candlelight. However, here, power outages are an everyday occurrence—and a nuisance. Particularly given Dakar’s heat and sea humidity, the worst part of an outage is fact that the fan powers down. When there’s no such thing as central air conditioning, I have to rely on those three whirling blades. And what happens when the blades stop whirling? I sweat, that’s what. I sweat a lot.

Having the power go out has its upside, however. The constant blaring of the television ten feet away [the dining room is also the living room] dies away, and we’re left with no choice but to talk to each other. I secretly enjoy the times when the power goes out during dinner, because it means I’ll be able to joke and talk a little more without worrying whether I’m interrupting an important plot point on the Italian soap opera my mother is watching so intently.

Really, electricity is such an integral part of everyday life that you don’t really know how important it is until the electricity gets shut off. It’s this kind of event that shows me how much I take for granted in the United States (along with hot water, every day), and how glad I am to have those things and be able to take them for granted. Senegal’s electricity system really sheds some light on my life here… until the power goes off again, of course.

02 April, 2010

the statue question

I thought I'd give you guys a peek into a hot issue in Dakar: the statue. The first question you may have about the statue is this: What statue are you talking about? Well, around here, begin discussing "le statue" and everyone will know you're talking about the "Statue de la Renaissance de l'Afrique," a big hulking thing on a tall hill that can be seen from almost anywhere in Dakar, and has a broader scope in regard to the debate it's undergoing. [ETA: Apparently the official inauguration is today! I picked a great day to blog about this.]

Of course, any discussion about the statue will generally lead to the opinion that it was a waste of money, and that no one asked them if they wanted the statue. Interestingly, Senegal considers itself a democratic state. However, everyone I've asked about the statue has said there was no vote-- the president simply decided to spend the peoples' money on a large piece of stone. What's more, he's taking a solid 35% of the profits for himself, claiming "intellectual property" rights for the design of the statue. Now, while (like any smart politician) Wade has vaguely promised to give the money to hospitals and orphanages, most sane people have wondered why he didn't just re-route the money directly to those hospitals and orphanages, instead of having himself as a middle-man. I'm suspicious, as well.

The statue cost $27,000,000. That's... a lot of money that could go to, let's see: a better (or existent) trash system, fixing roads, projects working with handicapped people, or just people in general-- giving them back the exorbitant amounts that Wade stole to make... a statue, with a pointing baby. It's a tragedy to think about, in my opinion, and I've met only two people in this whole city that thought otherwise. These people say that it's a testament to Africa's future, and will bring in money for Senegal. But somehow I think most would rather have the money that was taken from them then hypothetical money in the future. I think the picture below (during the statue's construction) really frames the wastefulness of the statue:

These piles of trash are normal around Dakar; while there are people to take away the trash, there aren't nearly as many as there should be, and so generally people end up tossing their trash wherever they are at the time. (More on pollution later.)

Opponents also say that the statue is idolatrous according to the Koran, which says that statues must not be made in the shape of a man. Additionally, the woman's legs are entirely bare, which is also sacrilegious. That seems very curious to me-- the main controversy seems to surround the money Wade spent on the statue, rather than the fact that he's going against the sacred text. In a city where the public transportation is often painted with "Alhamdoulilah" and "Talibe," it's interesting that there isn't more protest on the side of the Muslims.

In any case, there's been a lot of press about the statue, since its completion a few months ago (we arrived shortly after). Almost every newspaper runs a story about it all the time, and today a panel discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the statue. (It was in Wolof, and I didn't understand most of it, but my host mother was sighing and shaking her head.) It's certainly something to think about, if only as a representation of the deep corruption of democratic values by Senegal's president.

31 March, 2010

destination: Lompoule

Well, last weekend I went out to the desert to ride camels and ride the sand dunes. My camera lens subsequently got sand in it, and so I don't have pictures of the event. However, I will upload them once I clear out my camera with compressed air, inch allah. So, in the meantime, use your imaaaagination! [Throughout the post are pictures I borrowed from a friend whose camera worked. Thanks, Alex!]

We [Emily, Colleen, Alex and I] took off relatively early from Dakar to make sure we didn't hit traffic. We were originally going to take a sept-places, but we got re-routed to a mini-bus, which I can add to my official list of Senegalese transportation that I have experienced. It was not bad at all, and was a step up from my previous transportation experience, where I had my head turned at a 75-degree angle during the entire 2-hour trip.

Anyway, we arrived at Kebemer, disembarking to greet our usual number [10 to 15] of fans, wanting to know where we were going-- oh, Lompoule? 2,000... too much? how much will you pay?-- and all hoping to take us there. We had been planning to take a taxi-brousse to Lompoule, but when I told a man that we would take him up on his offer to drive us there for the same price as the bush taxi, he accepted. Hey, joking down the price never hurts!

When we arrived in Lompoule village, we were greeted by the usual vendors hoping to sell us cheap bracelets at outrageous prices and the 4x4 that would be taking us to the camp, alhamdoulilah. We hopped on the 4x4 and enjoyed the slightly-too-speedy ride into the cool sand dunes. Upon our arrival, I was intensely amazed by all of the beautiful white sand. There was… a lot of it. We left our stuff in our tents (seen below—cozy!) and climbed the very, very steep sand hill:

As you can see, I had some difficulties. After finally arriving at the top, we marveled at the awesomeness of it all, and took a few jumping pictures:

(photo credit: me)

Soon after, they told us that the main attraction was still to come: the camels awaited! We dashed to a nearby hill, where the camels eyed us warily as we prepared to mount. I myself was eying the camel warily, realizing that this was probably a huge mistake and I might fall to my death from the ten feet of air the hump would give me. Still, despite my misgivings, I mounted the camel’s hump, leaving Alex to get into the birth-giving seat.

The camel took us up and down several dunes for a ride that lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. And believe me, that was quite long enough—for several days afterwards, I again sought the softest seats available. I’m not sure what it is about my friends that makes them so attracted to such painful experiences, but there you have it.

After the camel ride, we had dinner and dancing. Tragically, the thirty other people in the encampment were tourists, and didn’t realize what Senegalese dancing is all about (despite Alex’s accurate impression of a Senegalese woman who dashes onto the dance floor, dances furiously for twenty seconds, then runs away); so it wasn’t as fun as it could have been. Also, I tried using the djembe beat that I learned in Toubakouta, but everyone stared at me and the band didn’t join in, so it was just awkward. So much for that life lesson!

All in all, it was a great experience, but I definitely never need to ever ride a camel again. I think that if I need to make a trek through the desert, I’ll rent a completely non-green humvee and just zoom right over the sand dunes. But… really, I needed that experience to complete myself. So here’s to you and your very long legs, Mr. Camel!

21 March, 2010

family complications

Most people who know me realize that I'm not the type of person to get homesick. My parents encouraged me to go across the country and across the world by plane, by myself, from a young age-- my first solo trip was when I was 12, when I went to Baltimore for two weeks. Since then, I've been to Canada, Mexico, and Germany for varying amounts of time, the last two being entirely out of my linguistic and cultural comfort zone.

With this as context, I want to say that one of my greatest difficulties in Senegal so far is how lonely I feel, how isolated from everything I know and understand. You might be surprised to hear that this isn't because I'm in a developing country, or because I'm an ocean and some land away from people who care about me. In fact, the crippling culture shock that I was meant to feel here (according to Survival Kit to Overseas Living, as well as my college advisor) never came-- unless you count my cynicism and depression, which are the status quo-- in spite of ongoing frustrations due to persistent taxi honking and staring due to the reputation of whiteness that precedes me.

In fact, the main reason for my loneliness is that I don't feel at all accepted in my family. "My family"-- these words bring to mind a smiling, somewhat-balding father who loves puns and bad jokes, a courageous and kind mother with bright eyes something like mine, and a gigantic brother who seems like a jock but plans to major in creative writing. These things are family. When I made arrangements to come to Dakar for a study abroad program, my hope was to find a family who would make me feel truly at home, make me look forward to crossing their threshold as if I were with my own flesh and blood.

Unfortunately, this hasn't happened. I had to switch families (for several reasons, primarily because of the sound of the mosque right near the house at 5 in the morning) a few weeks into my stay, and the dynamic changed completely. My new maman is nothing like my own mother, and there seems to be no way to become friendly with her. One of my friends planned to come over last week and stay for dinner (as we had a large project to work on), but I was told that the food had already been made, and there wasn't enough. Not only was there plenty left afterward, but I was appalled and embarrassed at the total lack of Senegalese taranga (hospitality) shown by my family.

There have been other incidents that reveal to me I'm doing something wrong-- however, I haven't gotten a hint to what that something might be, and I'm left in the dark with the vague suspicion that I should change my behavior in some way. In the meantime, I eat my dinner in silence, thank my mother and sister when they make meals, and head upstairs for a lonely connection to my computer.

I don't mean to sound like I'm not enjoying my time here. I am, immensely. This world is beautiful, and crazy, and ridiculous, and sometimes the most hilarious thing I've ever thought about in my life. But today, I was reading the blog of someone who came here through another program last semester, and she talked constantly about how amazing her host family was, and how she cried (and they cried) when she finally left for the States. There will hardly be such a tearful farewell here.

I just wanted to post this to get it out of my system-- I've been feeling so sad and angry about my familial situation for a while now, and it's hard to think about how much happier I could be if I just had a family that wanted me (not the money my program is paying them) here. I'm trying not to count down the days until my return, but at the moment, it feels like that's the only way to keep from having a total breakdown.

12 March, 2010

destination: Toubakouta

Last weekend, we took an all-expenses [and it really was expensive. The hotel, with limited air-conditioning and shampoo packets provided, along with the true luxury of real coffee, had an exorbitant price]-paid four-day weekend to a village down the coast from Dakar: Toubakouta. While in Toubakouta, we stayed for 24 hours in a nearby village, watched a man roll around in glass shards without getting cut, and learned to play the djembe. Curious? Read on!

We started off at 8 in the morning from WARC, our backpacks on the roof and warm pastries in our hands. The bus was packed. After several hours, we arrived at the small village where the WARC director was born, and feasted on cieb u ginaar, a traditional dish in Senegal. Afterwards, we went outside to dance to the sound of makeshift drums (bowls, buckets, or other household items), which is something villages apparently do to welcome and send off guests. It’s always a good time—we did it several times over the weekend, and I like to think I got the rhythm down. Slow, slow, slow, slow, QUICK QUICK QUICK QUICK MY THIGHS ARE DYING QUICK QUICK QUICK QUICK!

After arriving in Toubakouta, we settled into our hotel rooms. Later in the evening, we went to a festival of drums, dancing, and feats of amazing magic that I still have no idea how they were done. For example, there was a symbolic depiction of something that I didn’t catch, featuring a man who rolled around in glass. To make sure we knew that it was glass, he took a glass bottle and chopped it up with a hammer, then proceeded to lie in the pile. To top things off, he put his head in it. It was pretty grotesque to watch, but somehow he emerged without scratches. Next up was a guy who breathed fire. Fire is always fun to watch! After a little bit of awkwardly dancing in front of hundreds of people, I retreated to the darkness of my room to prepare for the next morning, when we would be having a “real village experience.”

Once we arrived in the village, I was placed with a family. I realized within the first minute or so that there would be a huge communication problem… the family spoke nothing but Wolof. I was expected to pull out my rudimentary 20 hours of Wolof (and plenty of sign language) to get my point across. Something special I did was pluck the feathers of a freshly-dead chicken to prepare it for dinner… that was a good time! I just closed my eyes and tried not to think too hard about it. (Considering I’m a proud meat-eater, I have an extremely weak stomach when it comes to gazing at the food I’m about to eat.)

I survived the day, somehow, and managed to stumble around on the dance floor like a… chicken… with its head cut off… once again. (That image seems a little inappropriate now that I’ve actually seen a chicken with its head cut off.)

The last thing I’ll talk about was the dancing and drumming we did the next day. The Music & Dance class was finally beginning, and we were all invited to attend. We learned a basic rhythm on the drum. Although my hands turned red, I didn’t stop—primarily because the teacher made an extremely misogynistic remark about how “some rhythms are just for men, since women don’t have the endurance to play the djembe.” That was pretty annoying, so of course I had to show the endurance that does, in fact, exist within my womanly soul.

So, that was my weekend in brief. I put up photos on Facebook, which you can see here.

01 March, 2010


Hi, everyone! A big apology-shout-out to my dad, because it took me so long to write this entry and in fact it’s been so long that the entry is hardly relevant anymore. Still, though it may be stale, I think it’s a helpful topic for anyone considering going through the same process (viz. education in Senegal).

Let’s take a look at my journey to register for classes at Cheikh Anta Diop University (the big, government-funded university in Dakar). This journey, as I mentioned in a previous post, was very arduous. In fact, I had to give up the idea of attending university classes completely, although I had been looking forward to them since around this time last year, when I first discovered Wells’ program to Dakar.

In the course catalogue that was originally sent to me, I saw many exciting classes, and a few that would help me fulfill some requirements at my own school (for example, Advanced French Grammar, where we’d get to do a research project on things like the effect of colonization on standardized French. How nerdy-cool is that?). However, when I arrived, I discovered that most of the classes advertised in the catalogue and online were university classes. What the program administrators didn’t tell me is that they highly discourage taking classes through the university, due primarily to frequent student strikes (which carry over from the colonizer)—usually concerning money in some form—and the fact that the US semester doesn’t link up easily to the French system.

I was extremely crushed to realize that it would not be as easy as I had thought to take all these cool sociology and French classes. Still, I was determined to try. So I took out the university course catalog, wrote down some times and places, and set off for the university to try my hand at “Sociology of Work.” As this was a UCAD class, I had expected to have to stand, or even to peek in through the window. However, when I entered Salle 3 at the prescribed time, the room was stark empty! There was absolutely no one in there. This is how it went down [roughly translated]:
  • CLAIRE: Hi, I’m here for “Sociology of Work,” but there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the room. Can you help me figure out where it might be?
  • RANDOM PROFESSOR: Hm… I don’t think the professor has come to that class once during this entire year. It doesn’t exist, in fact.
Okay, that’s a definite setback—a non-existent class! After hearing that, I was discouraged, particularly since I didn’t have much extra room in my schedule for any of the other classes listed in the sociology department. I ended up not taking any classes at the university, since none of the staff at the research center seemed to be willing to go out of their way to help me figure out the process.

Long story short, I’m pretty sad that my course schedule was limited to WARC classes. While many of my classes are satisfying, educational, and topics I wouldn’t get at Hillsdale—History of Islam and Wolof are my top two—it would have been nice to know beforehand that my options would be so severely restricted.

Speaking of registration in general terms, it seemed to be a very casual process even at WARC, considering that these classes are (hopefully) going on my official transcript. Basically, we all just had to write down the classes we wanted to take. When we needed to make an edit, we simply took a dark pen and scribbled out the necessary lines (as I did a few weeks in, with French-English translation). A far cry from the nerve-wracking professor’s-signature-obtaining and registrar-visiting to which I surrender at Hillsdale.

Now you know all about registration (or at least a little bit)! If there are other topics you are interested in hearing about, just let me know.

26 February, 2010

destination: Joal

So I went for a weekend with my Wells buddies to Joal-Fadiouth, which is where the first president of Senegal [Leopold Sedar Senghor] was born and raised. I could talk more about it, but Colleen created a beautiful, intelligent and succinct post all about what we did last Saturday and Sunday.

You can see it here (the only difference between us is that she gave in to the pressure to buy some African carved elephants-- I did not. everyone in the village hated me as I pulled away on the horse cart).

I would like to point out that one of the most excruciating parts of the trip was the sept-places. Not only were our heads much, much closer to the ceiling than we would have liked, but my knees were pressed up against the seat in front of me, and as we hit Monday-morning traffic, my left knee started in with some extremely intense pain. So, that was fun. Transportation in Senegal is such a unique experience, and I'll definitely have to write some blog entries on that.

I leave you with one of my favorite pictures from the Joal trip.We decided to take a horse cart to the "biggest baobab in Senegal" (I think?) and... it was special. I felt like I was going to die at least seven times. Plus, for several days afterward, I sought the softest chair in the room (although that usually entails looking for the wood that seems to be the most pliable). Still, it was a unique experience, and made for some fantastic photos.

19 February, 2010

birthday celebrations

As some of you may know, my 21st birthday was February 17th. Having my birthday in Senegal was a great experience, even though the drinking age here is 18, and therefore it wasn't as culturally significant as it would have been in the US. It was a great day, so I thought I'd share what I did, and what other people did, for my birthday.

My adventure began the night before (the 16th) at around 11PM. I took a taxi up to Colleen's house. As soon as I arrived, they placed a cheesy green hat on my head. Apparently, it's going to be a tradition-- I'm the first to wear it, followed by Maudlyn, Emily, and finally Colleen.

We then walked to New Africa, a nearby bar which was listed in the Lonely Planet guide as being packed with salsa dancers and good drinks. When we arrived, however, the place was totally deserted. (I expected as much-- after all, it was a week night, and while people party until the mid-morning on weekends, the streets are essentially empty on weeknights after 9.) However, we found a corner table and ordered non-alcoholic drinks (Fanta Cocktail for me), and settled in to wait for midnight.

Once the special hour arrived, I ordered a drink from the alcoholic menu called the "Zombi." Unfortunately, it tasted appropriately undead. Still, we had a good time taking photos featuring the drink, with the backdrop of the bar's glittering lights.

After the photo-op, a joking comment I had made a few hours previously came true ("Wouldn't it be interesting if you could stick candles in some beignets and use them as a cake?"):

I had a beignet cake! A beignet is kind of like a doughnut hole, but deep-fried. Needless to say, it was amazingly delightful (though it would probably give my mom a heart attack and, if I eat enough of these things, will probably give me a heart attack as well).

The bar started closing up soon after midnight, so we resolved to come back another time (when there'd be actual dancing), and went back to Colleen's house, where we (okay, I) finished off the beignets. We all went home, and tried to get a few hours of sleep before class in the morning.

Later in the day, I received a pleasant surprise-- yet another cake! The director of WARC (and, incidentally, my African Literature teacher) had remembered my birthday, and had bought a cake from Les Ambassades in commemoration. The cake read "Joyeux Anniversaire, Claire" and had a rose. It was beautiful. A few other friends had also remembered my birthday, and bought me Frosties! It's the little things that count.

When I went home in the evening, my family and I ate our regular dinner (including fish, because they're Catholic, and it was Ash Wednesday)-- everyone was there, because they knew it was a special day for me. Then they sang "Happy Birthday" first in English, which was endearing and hilarious, then "Joyeux Anniversaire" in French, and then my dad sang what apparently is the Jola birthday song, in Jola-- a language no one else in the family speaks. It was beautiful, and awesome.

Thus ends the saga of my birthday, an event which I will not forget. It featured American, French and Senegalese culture, music and food, and I loved it a lot. So many people contributed to its awesomeness. I'm grateful for friendship, in all its goofy and lovely ways.

15 February, 2010


So my dad invited me to go to a traditional wrestling match [lutte traditionelle] on Valentine's Day, and since wrestling is much more representative of my love life (and also it was a great cultural opportunity, of course) than the lovey-dovey stuff, I decided to go. Reflecting on that three-hour period of my life, I really don't know what to think. It was totally nuts, and totally indescribable. So instead of trying to ramble on about what, exactly, traditional wrestling looks like, I give you a video:

I don't know about you guys, but this is what I saw: large men with large thighs in very tiny, colorful diapers, bitch-slapping each other until they find an opportunity to suddenly hurl the other man to the ground. Yeah, I thought you saw that, too. Anyway, it was a pretty amazing experience. There were about four thousand people, all packed into this tiny sand arena. The reason I had such a good view was because I was sitting in the sand about two feet away from some of the fighters. Pretty exciting.

Towards the end, about a third of the people in my section got up and stormed away. I couldn't figure out why, until I got upgraded to an actual seat by my dad, who told me that they were outraged at the arbitration-- apparently the referees weren't very good. I thought it was kind of weird that they would leave right before the semi-finals, but I guess when you're angry, you just can't sit still for one more second. And when the final bout did occur, it wasn't as intense as I thought it would be. It kind of just...
... ended.

10 February, 2010

first-month evaluation

First of all...
please go here to see some photos from my first month here [you can see a preview of the Dakar awesomeness in the photo below, which is a view from the tallest hill on Gorée Island].

This album includes primarily my first week of "orientation" around Dakar: Gorée Island, some random beaches, Pink Lake, the White House... and more! Also, if you have requests for pictures of things, you can write them on my wall or here. Now, onto the enumeration of the month from January 10th to February 10th in Dakar, Senegal.

  • Cries of “toubab” in the street: 12 or so, each one less cute than the one before. My new reply—“Tudd uma Toubab” (my name is not White Person).
  • Mosquito bites: 25. Pretty good, considering how much mosquitoes love my blood, and that my family won’t buy a mosquito net, and that I’ve been eating a lot of bananas recently.
  • Honk-happy taxi drivers: Uncountable. They usually honk at me even when it’s fairly obvious I don’t want a taxi (viz. when I’m at the bus stop… true story). Yes, this is still bothering me a month after my arrival. (More on that later.)
  • People wanting my money: Also innumerable, thanks to beggars, vendors, traders, and people who decide spontaneously that they’re going to hold out their hand and see if I’ll put something in it. Heck, why not?
  • English classes taught: 2, in my entire life. It’s really awkward when the entire class hinges on the students being willing to talk…
  • Things I paid way too much for: 4 that I’m aware of, but probably more. Someone usually tells me I got ripped off after I’m done making the transaction. Curse my pale face!
  • Times native speakers have laughed at, with, or next to me for my attempts to speak Wolof: 50 (conservative estimate).
  • Cups of real coffee drunken (Drinked? Drank? Drunk? Curse English.): 0… I really miss my daily hazelnut latte. They only have insta-coffee here. On the other hand, there is Café Touba ak Meew—a delicious infusion of caffeine, unidentifiable spices, and powdered milk.
  • Cold showers: 29. 105 to go, or more. Apparently, it’s normal to take three showers a day during the hot season in Senegal.
  • How much I’ll miss cold showers when I go back, on a scale from 1 to 10: 0, 0, 0. Don’t talk to me about “refreshing” and “invigorating.”

… and this is just the first month.
Stay tuned!

04 February, 2010

questions [with answers]

So Rachael [yet another shout-out; she's a faithful, and vocal, reader-- other people can have shoutouts if they write to me] had several questions, and I thought they were so poignant that I should answer them publicly; at least some of them which I have substantial answers to (sorry for the dangling prepositions) If anyone else has pressing questions based on previous entries (or on ones that follow), this is the place to ask them.

Q. Have you found a sincere [non-money-grubbing] husband candidate?

A. Guys are actually really... insincere, at least towards white women. They often make creepy kissing noises and say "Je t'aime" [I love you] when, in fact, they don't even know your name. It's definitely difficult to separate the wheat from the really annoying. In general, you have to ignore guys completely, tune them out. I felt really bad the other night when I had left something in the supermarket, and a guy chased me down the street to give it back. But it's difficult to tell when someone is trying to sell you something, versus when he's trying to return something that belongs to you. It's quite unfortunate.
So, long story short: no. However, it's not impossible-- one out of three girls who came here with the Wells College last year got married during her time in Senegal (four and a half months). Guess it was a speedy courtship.

Q. How tough are the unwritten laws of clothing?
A. It's actually really hard to tell. The Senegalese are really tactful, and I get stared at all the time for being white, so it's hard to tell exactly why they're staring at me. In general, the rules about modesty are strange. You can literally not being wearing a bra, and have your cleavage significantly showing, and yet that will not be considered immodest. On the other hand, skirts shorter than the knee are pretty risque. So fashions here primarily include long skirts and sleeveless shirts, on hot days. Frankly, I'm not that into Senegalese fashion, but it's definitely a sight to see.

Q. Do you, or do you not, miss dessert?
A. Yes. A lot. On the other hand, if I can exercise self-control, I can get eight buttery cookies on the street for 100F cfa [about 25 cents]. Still, it's not quite the same. I'll be glad to come back to the dessert culture.

Q. Does it bother you that your food was recently alive, or do you like the closeness to the earth?
A. Actually, it's kind of cool that the food is completely fresh, with no horrifying factory chemicals or ethical reasons to become a vegetarian. The chicken that lived in the backyard a few hours ago is now sitting on my plate. Ultimately, it's pretty comforting (as long as I don't have to watch). And yes, in some poetic and beautiful and perhaps overly eager way, it brings me closer to the earth and to the culture of Senegal.
Mostly the things I eat don't really resemble the animals they used to be-- they even fry fish. When the fish is au naturel, it's slightly creepy because the eyes keep staring sadly back at me. But I don't like fish that much to begin with, so I don't feel very guilty.

Q. Have the mosquitoes mercilessly devoured what small sections of your flesh they have access to?
A. Actually, my new house is almost totally devoid of mosquitoes. I've gotten a few bites (probably on my way to or from the house), but insect repellent before bed is all I've needed. It's extremely nice, and somewhat unexpected. (Also unexpected: multiple fly bites. Who knew they were also hungry for my blood?)

Well, that ends the Thursday edition of Q&A. Hope you've found it extremely helpful, while covering wide and varied subject matter.

02 February, 2010

my actions

I've been feeling pretty guilty about not having blogged in a while. While I've been thinking about possible topics that end in "ion," I haven't actually done anything about them. However, I've finally been spurred to action by a topic which Emily [the other, previously unmentioned friend in the Wells program; see her blog here] recently used.

I'm going to talk to you all about my daily activities, in the hopes that you can picture what I'm doing, although of course it's hard to really picture Dakar if you haven't been here-- the piles of trash, honking taxis and eager street vendors really contribute to the scene. But more on that later.

I begin my morning Monday through Friday around 7:30, since my walk to WARC is about 35 minutes long (at a pretty good pace). I never thought I'd be able to adapt to this, since my bed has always been within 100 yards of my classes since 3rd grade. Still, I've managed, somehow.

My classes this semester [all in French, bien sûr] are as follows. One thing you should know about these classes is that, unlike at the typical university, they meet only once a week, for three solid hours. Needless to say, this can be a heavy weight for me, as a typical university student (with, apparently, a 65-minute attention span). Unfortunately, all of these classes are with other foreigners, because the enrollment process at the university was too much even for someone as ambitious and eager to take part as me.
  1. Islam in Senegal: History and Sociology [Tuesday morning]
  2. Wolof [the local language, which I'm straining to learn as it will make me feel much less excluded at the dinner table] [Tuesday and Thursday afternoon]
  3. Gender and Development [Wednesday morning]
  4. African Literature [Wednesday afternoon]
  5. French-English Translation [Thursday morning]
You may notice that I have a four-day weekend, which is weird. However, I've gotten an internship with the EREV [Earth Rights Eco-Village] Institute, and I'll be going there all day on Mondays and Fridays to do... stuff. Among other things: teaching English to the staff (um, stay tuned on how I'll be doing that without a curriculum), editing text in French and English, updating the blog, working on the website, helping with (or at least observing) student research projects... and on. It seems like it's going to be a great experience, and I think I'll learn a lot. Now all I need is a stronger stomach, for the half-hour bus ride from Baobab to Yoff during which I'm generally standing. (Those buses really need more seats.)

In the evenings, generally starting around 7, I'm at home, pottering around. My family watches TV very intently, which can be difficult for someone who (though admittedly addicted to Hulu) doesn't watch very much TV. In fact, learning to enjoy Italian/Spanish/Indian soap operas will probably be the best way to endear myself to my family.

We eat dinner around 9:00 (still watching TV, as it's in the same room); it generally consists of fish or meat, fries or rice, and salad. Apparently they don't do "helpings" here, as I'm the only one who goes back for seconds. (Most family members just seem to take huge first helpings, then gradually move through that, rather than taking two smaller helpings, as I prefer to do.) After dinner, I go up to my room and get ready for bed, as I'll have to be up and walking at 8AM.

Apparently (according to Emily the expert), long entries are boring, so I'll just finish with this: my weekends are also boring. My family appears to be the only one in all of Dakar that doesn't have wi-fi in their homes. Guess I'll have to figure out some other way of connecting. (Hint, hint, to people reading this.)

19 January, 2010


(Thanks to Colleen, one of the other girls in my program, for the title. By the way, if you want to have a quick and amazing summary of Dakar, go to this entry in her blog.)

I just wanted to talk briefly about something very cultural in this country. As indicated in the title, it will be the discussion of toilet matters. Specifically, the use of toilet paper is something which is very Western. In Senegal, people use a combination of 1) their left hand [which is, culturally, why you never eat or give gifts with your left hand. poor left-handed Colleen must become ambidextrous] and 2) a bucket of water, in order to clean their buttocks.

For this reason, going to the bathroom is always an adventure. Every time, I must remember to bring my toilet paper with me, or I will be stuck dealing with the African tradition. Frankly, it's an adventure unto itself, and may be one of the leading causes of culture shock. It's very interesting to me that this hygienic tradition has led to the cultural tradition of never doing important things with your left hand.

So, I thought you might be interested to hear how I'm dealing with culture shock, in this as well as other issues. The answer is... quite well, actually. As long as I keep my toilet paper handy.

13 January, 2010


As previewed in the last entry, I met my family on Sunday. There is Maman, who is a trader (according to the information I received), and Aziz, who is my host brother. They are both very nice, and around the dinner table there is always an intriguing mix of English, French and Wolof. Aziz wants to practice his English, while I've wanted to use French-- and I started my Wolof lessons yesterday, so I want to practice that too. Hopefully, we'll all get better at these various languages by speaking them over the course of the semester.

My house is in a neighborhood that's quite far away from the research center (where I will be taking some of my classes, to be determined tomorrow); it's about a one-hour fairly-brisk walk from there to here. Aziz will be showing us how to use the bus and the transport commun on Saturday, but until then we'll be getting quite a lot of exercise to and from home.

In any case, I'm working on soaking in as much local culture as possible. Traffic here is... interesting, to say the least. I don't think I'd ever want to drive a car in Senegal. Just as I'm pretty positive people have to get trained from a very young age to balance eggs on their head (and we're talking 10 or 12 cartons with no problem), I think they also have to start learning to drive at age 10. It's a very strange experience, where cars and buses essentially have to bully their way into traffic, and pedestrians are just expected to get out of the way. If I'm going to die here, it will probably be by taxi, bus, car, or possibly horse cart.

I've decided that the easiest way to share a few things about my experience is to create a list. The following are things that bug me, but are an integral part of the culture:

- The appel, or Muslim call to prayer, which occurs throughout the day but most annoyingly at 5AM, often continuing until 7AM. As a result, I'm extremely fatigued. However, as Senegal is 90% Muslim (and also due to where my house is relative to the mosque), it's difficult to escape.

- Being stared at, talked about, begged at and sold things to by shocked Senegalese people. Because of the association of the Western world with lots of cash, it's natural for vendors to flock to me with random carvings, pictures, T-shirts and other touristy things. I decided to learn the Wolof phrase "am uma xaalis. Etudiante Laa." ["I have no money. I am a student."] in order to stave off the sellers. I suspect it won't work too well, but one can always try.

That's all for now. We have our second Wolof class in about half an hour. If anyone wants to hear my wondrous Wolof renditions of phrases such as "how are you" and "my name is Claire," feel free to drop me a line.

09 January, 2010

first impressions

There are five steps to culture shock: vacation, depression, denial, anger, and escape. They say that the vacation stage lasts a few weeks before you're plunged into depression, but I'm not so sure-- looking at Dakar was pretty depressing in many ways. Strangely, though, the depressing stuff was juxtaposed with the beautiful stuff. For example, the beach covered in trash and dead fish juxtaposed against the purity of the ocean beyond.

Now that I've started you in media res, let's go back to the beginning. In the twenty minutes before we touched down in Dakar, there was nothing but darkness. Suddenly, in the last two minutes, as the plane was descending, the city burst into my vision, filled with lights starting at the edge of the ocean. The actual skyline of Dakar isn't particularly impressive, but the effect of a sudden city where there was nothing but water before is pretty powerful.

Once we landed, I was about ready to crash. However, the people in charge of the Senegalese end of the program hadn't showed up when we were done obtaining our luggage (and following the program director like, as someone pointed out, a row of ducklings), so there was a long several minutes waiting outside the airport. This wouldn't be bad in and of itself-- the weather was excellent, in spite of the humidity-- but there were vultures in the area waiting to eat the ducklings alive.

Men welcoming me to Dakar, telling me to enjoy myself (which I realized after the director said "No, no. Follow me, everyone." was an attempt to weasel his way into my good graces, so that I would then take his vehicle or possibly just give him money); men simply whining that they had no food, and thus needed my money; about twenty people in all pushing themselves in our faces, trying to get us to shed money. At one point, I dropped one of my fifty-pound suitcases, and immediately one of the vultures went to pick it up. As I was attempting to grab it, a different vulture grabbed my other bag, and gravitated with the group towards the parking lot. They, too, insisted on holding onto my bag until I gave them money, since they had no jobs.

I'd like to point out, however, that we had no local currency, as we had just disembarked from the plane! So, slowly-repeated statements of "Je n'ai pas d'argent" [I don't have money] were absolutely legitimate. Still, if that hadn't been precisely truthful, I still would have stuck with it. Finally, I wrestled one bag from the vulture, and the director got the other one with a sharp cry of "Chef, laissez-le!" and we were on our way.

This sort of beggar-ism, and attempts to do easy work for easy money (i.e. carrying my bags approximately 20 feet when I easily could have handled them myself), really makes me angry and sad at the same time. These men looked perfectly fit and able to complete a job application and go into work five days a week, and yet they were avoiding any sort of social responsibility, and really (in my opinion) casting themselves as parasites. We saw even more of these types while walking through the sandy streets of Dakar. This is probably the thing I most dread about living in Senegal for a few months: having to tense myself every time I go into the street, to make sure I don't get pickpocketed, taken advantage of, begged for money, or any combination of the above. Additionally, I like to think the best of people-- but now, even this early in the game, I have to assume that friendly greetings (in English) from the men on the street are the roots of some scam. It's certainly a sad situation.

On an unrelated note, the food was pretty good. For lunch (right before we started an extremely long orientation process, which would have been more bearable if I hadn't been sitting on cold concrete), we had a dish with fish, rice and vegetables-- including some I'd never heard of-- called Thieboudienne (depicted on the left); it's the national dish of Senegal, so I feel we'll be eating it a lot. One of the most interesting experiences of the day was attempting to eat rice with my fingers. The trick is to roll the rice into a sticky ball, and then to shove it in your mouth. Most of my ball ended up on my hands, and apparently that's socially incorrect. I may end up losing a ton of weight simply due to social embarrassment! For dinner, we ate chicken and French fries, which were both very tasty. I had the feeling that the chicken had been alive a mere few hours earlier. It's okay, though-- I love chicken, and I'm sure I'll appreciate it in a land full of seafood.

As I mentioned earlier, the strange beauty of the ocean somewhat surpasses the smell and sight of rotting fish on the beach. We saw it first from another, less obstructed angle (pictured right).

A few other snapshots of the day:
1. Receiving lovely Senegalese skirts from Adji, to start us off properly; dressing up in them.
2. Learning the Senegalese dance style from Waly, then having a strangely entertaining (only when I wasn't in the middle, being observed by everyone) dance party. Believe me, I wish I had gotten it on videotape.
3. Having "toubab!" [white person] shouted at me by a young child as I walked down the beach with the group, just as the guidebook told me it would happen. I'd been kind of waiting to have toubab shouted at me... and finally my dream came true.

Well, that's all for now. I hope you've enjoyed this latest installment of my trip. It's been a long day, and I'm planning to go to bed now-- technically, aside from an hour-long nap between activities, I've been up for at least 30 hours.

Coming up:
- meeting the host family (yay!)
- tour of the city

03 January, 2010


At the request of a friend (you know who you are-- you'd better be reading this!), I'm making another post pre-Senegal. This time, I'll be talking about my preparations for Senegal, and the packing-- or lack thereof-- that I've been doing.

To begin with, I had to get several shots or they wouldn't let me into the country: yellow fever, typhoid, and hepatitis A. Over the years, I've grown to loathe needles, but this was a sacrifice I had to make. If I hadn't gotten these shots, and held onto my carte jaune, or "yellow card" (on which are listed my immunizations), I would be held at the Dakar airport until I had received my shots.

Additionally, I did a lot of shopping, which is the fun part of all this. I went with my mom to Ross and purchased a few pairs of capris and a nice skirt (about calf-length, because Senegal is highly influenced by Muslim tradition and therefore anything above the knee is viewed as prostitute-like); I went with my dad to Target for an epic shopping trip, and then to REI to purchase some shoes and a money pouch (important because there are, apparently, quite a few pickpockets and muggers in Dakar who would be more than happy to take my money). Later, I went to Nordstrom with my mom to buy a dress (again, down to my ankles) and then to Walgreen's, where she helped me pick out some much-needed medications.

Ah, the medications. It looks like I'll be taking about seven pills every day, from the mundane (multi-vitamins, Vitamin C) to the life-or-death (malaria!). These pills are extremely important to my well-being while I'm in Africa, particularly since I have a delicate stomach, and the last time I was in a non-industrialized country [Mexico], I caught Hepatitis A. Not, I tell you, an experience I want to repeat.

Let's talk about the packing I've been doing. Today, I made a comprehensive list of everything I have to take, and took a long hard look at all the shopping bags in my room (approximately 12). I got out my big luggage, and dumped the old school stuff from my small luggage, and got to work. However, I didn't get very far, because one of my primary sources of taking-up-room is my laundry, which I haven't done for at least a week. So, my two bags are currently taking up prime sleeping space on my bed, while I sit here and blog.

Today, I started taking my malaria pill, because I have to start several days before I get to the country with the evil mosquitoes. So far, my stomach hasn't reacted too badly-- at least, relative to how it usually reacts. I think malaria is the concept I'm most concerned about, heading into the trip. I took a look at the Traveler's Guide that the travel clinic provided me with, and it has all sorts of interesting information about malaria, up to and including a diagram showing the mosquito piercing a human arm. It's delightful stuff, and just slightly concerning, given the symptoms. It's also very likely to happen to me: over the years, my blood has proven to be extremely juicy to mosquitoes. Once, at a church picnic which I was at for about two hours, I received 15 mosquito bites. And I've heard that African mosquitoes are particularly fond of toubab flesh (not really, but they're very voracious in general). I've been spoiled by the desert, where there are few mosquitoes to be found.

Finally, I'm trying to get to bed earlier, because in a few short days, I will have jumped seven hours forward. On Friday-- the traveling day-- I'm planning to wake up around 5AM, so that I can fall asleep on the ride to Dakar at 6 in the evening. The ideal would be to sleep from start to finish, but I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen. Still, I can make my best effort to avoid jet lag.

That's all I have for now. I hope I've satisfied your mosquito-like appetite for blog posts on my trip to Dakar (Rachael). If anyone has comments or questions, I'd be happy to answer them. I welcome the interactive style of blogging.