the Senegalese experience|experiment

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


  1. Ahhhh! Save the ducklings!!!

    Your photographs are fantastic! I hereby request more. :) *innocent smile because i know that will be a lot of work for you*

    Oh, Claire, a dream came true! That means a fairy was born somewhere, or got his wings, or something. Thank that kid for making the world a better place.

    Ich missen sie!!! *germlish*



  2. Well, I really should make a photo album of my trip thus far... not that I've actually used my camera since the first week. I guess it could be helpful... yeah...

    I'm getting kind of sick of the "toubab" stuff these days. It's mostly guys my age or older calling it, so it's not cute at all...

    Ich will in Deutsch sprechen! Ich werde ALLE vergessen!