the Senegalese experience|experiment

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.