the Senegalese experience|experiment

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.