Thursday, December 31, 2009

what (not) to wear in Dakar

I'm packing.  Here's a picture:

This is a difficult process.  Trips to the pharmacy aside--to pick up obscene amounts of pads, tampons, and malaria medication--I still have to journey back and forth to my closet, trying to guess what is acceptable dress in Dakar.  Here's what I know so far:
  1. Low neck-lines are inappropriate; same for short skirts.  All dresses/skirts should go below the knee.  This is tricky, because it gets hot in Dakar.  It's supposed to be 60 - 80 degrees F while I'm there, and I can't wear shorts or tank-tops.
  2. Men and women care a great deal about their appearance, especially in public.  All the casual American styles I own--plain t-shirts, slightly frayed jeans, cracking sneakers--are really not up to snuff. 
  3. Students at the university dress up for class.  What "dress up" means, I'm not sure, so I'm taking a few collared shirts that I haven't worn since high school.
  4. Young people wear western clothes.  Young, urban women wear pants.  This is good news, though I still intend to take advantage of cheap cloth and clothing prices to get some traditional outfits tailored to me.
  5. When exercising, shorts are fine.  This I learned from writing to another young woman--a runner--who's currently studying abroad in Dakar.  I had nightmares of heatstroke while running in pants.
  6. When clubbing, anything goes.  Outfits get much more daring at night.  I don't feel very daring, though, and so I'm not taking anything that would be too revealing.  (What, I wonder, would they think of the clothes Yalies wear to the Screw?  On Halloween?  To Toad's?)
As a toubab (a white person), I'm going to stand out no matter what, so I've got to find a balance between comfortable and conforming.  In short, I have no idea what to bring.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

homestay assignment

I've just received notice from Joanne Picard, the Dean of International Studies at Mount Holyoke and the one of the supreme coordinators of this program, about my homestay.  I will be living with Famille Touré, headed by Papa, a retired government worker, and Maman, the director of a boarding school.  They have seven children, five of whom live with them--Tidiane (34), who works as a consultant, and his wife, Mberi; Ousmane (29), who works at the boarding school; Djim (27) who works in computer technology; Fana (23) who's a student and Aicha (20) who is also a student.  (This is terrific.  They can help me with my French and Wolof homework, and maybe I can help them with their English work.)  They all live together in Mermoz, a wealthy neighborhood in Dakar (check out the map of the city below).  The description of Famille Touré that Ms. Picard provided says that they are all "very kind and used to host American students."

I will be the baby of the family!  Most of the other homestay families also have adult children, and experience with foreign students.  Several have maids that take care of the house.  Mermoz is, as I said, one of Dakar's wealthiest neighborhoods.

I should also add that it is commonplace--perfectly normal--for children to live with their parents until they get married.  In the case of young men, they often live with their parents until they have enough money to marry, because they must be able to afford a bridewealth (money paid to the family of the bride, in order to compensate for the loss of a daughter--or, if you're more cynical, to buy her).

Earlier today, a friend of the family called, named Anne.  Anne is an older woman--bright, kind, and curious.  She was very excited for me and the opportunities that young people get to have "these days," but she was a little worried that I might be staying in a thatched hut.  I explained that Dakar is one of the most Westernized cities in one of the most Westernized countries in Africa--as well as being thoroughly cosmopolitan, tolerant, and hospitable--and that I would be staying with an upper-middle class family.  Anne was relieved.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

win a trip to Africa

 To my fellow university students--there's a contest out there that you should consider entering.  Win a trip to Africa and blog with New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof.  While you're traveling, make a detour to visit me in Sénégal.  Nick can come, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

you never know who you're gonna meet

As I was walking out of the Holiday Arts Bazaar with Mr. Kelly, we passed one of the artists in the show--a painter, carrying a large canvas.  I was telling Mr. Kelly that I would be studying abroad in Sénégal and that I would be taking a class in Wolof.  The painter paused on the steps, turned, and said, "That's my language!"

He put down his painting and we shook hands.  His name is Moussa Gueye, and he explained that he was from Mauritania, but had family in Dakar.  I said I was excited about going and mentioned the New York Times article about the music scene there.  Did I know any artists, he asked.  No, I said, and he then handed me his business card--"Before you leave," he said, I had to contact him, and "I will give you some materials."  If I had any questions about Wolof or French, he would be happy to answer them.  We parted and as I walked Mr. Kelly to the corner, he remarked: "You never know who you're gonna meet."

Gueye has much more to him, I discovered.  He's a refugee, an asylee, an architect, a New Haven resident, and now an artist-in-residence at a nearby art gallery.  Maybe, just maybe, I'll get out to see him before I leave.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

t-minus one month

My flight takes off on January 8th.  This means that I have 10 more days at Yale, 18 more days at home, and approximately 140 days to spend in Sénégal before I return at the end of May.  These are useless numbers, though; counting the days doesn't actually tell me anything about the future, except that it's both short and long, soon and far away.

As I think about the 8-hour flight that awaits me, it's reassuring to note that South African Airways is one of the safest and most reputable of Africa's airlines, so my plane probably won't go tumbling into the Atlantic.  Whew.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

relationship advice for la jeune américaine

The Mount Holyoke Handbook on studying abroad in Dakar contains this helpful little paragraph (emphasis mine):

You will likely find Sénégalese people to be, on the whole, friendly, and previous program participants report that it is not unusual for Sénégalese students to seek out American students.  Look for opportunities to get involved in university clubs and activities, which is an excellent way to meet people who share your interests.  Also be aware, however, that some people may see you as a potential ticket to the U.S. (proposals of marriage are not uncommon!), so use care in evaluating your relationships with people.

I had not yet considered the possibility of being fending off marriage proposals while abroad--too concerned, perhaps, with passports, pickpockets, and making une bétise en français.  This kind of "evaluating" much more serious than what goes on in "He's Just Not That Into You."  Now properly warned, I will have to wonder each time I meet a kind Sénégalese man: Does he like me, or is he just saying that?  Does he just want a study-buddy, or something more?  And: does he want me to marry him and take him back to home to Vermont?  

Maybe if I explain about mud season, before I take him "pour meilleur ou pour le pire," he will lose interest.