the Senegalese experience|experiment

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.)