the Senegalese experience|experiment

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.