Thursday, June 3, 2010

FIN (for now)

I've got to wrap this up, but it's hard.  Hard because I haven't really "finished" with Dakar or Senegal or Africa, hard because I don't know how I can improve upon the blogged goodbyes that have come before me.  I'll quote one post and link to the other, because I think these two say it as well as I could ever hope to.

This is Mairéad O'Grady's final post, "You say goodbye, I say hello."  It makes for a beautiful bookend, especially knowing that she will be going back to Senegal shortly to stay with the Tourés--the extended Senegalese family that we share.

And this is the entirety of Ryan Brown's post, "Goodbye to All That":
to Dakar, to dust, to Wolof, to rice and fish, to sheep living (and dying) on my roof, to marriage proposals, to malaria medicine, to car rapides, to bargaining for cab rides, to my race affording me celebrity status, to fabrics covered in dollar signs or Obama faces or portraits of the baby jesus, to five times daily calls to prayer, to mountains of trash, to the Atlantic crashing up against the sides of the city, to babies named Mohammed, to perpetual summer, to fish dumplings, to men in T-shirts bearing english slogans they couldn’t read (“Michigan State University presents…The Vagina Monologues”), to speaking French every day, to pretending to understand French every day, to Allison and Shannon and Bobby, to Africa time, to holidays that depend on the moon, to all of that and to a thousand others rattling through my head just beyond reach. Goodbye.
As for my own "goodbye"?  I don't feel quite so poetic.  I feel very vulnerable writing about it, even thinking about it.  I've never been that good at keeping in touch.  I worry about the potential permanence of my leaving, about what we call "life courses."  What if I don't ever make it back, like Mame Diarra (Mairéad's Senegalese name), to see the Tourés again?

Professor Sène and Papa at l'école Fanaicha

I am somewhat comforted when Ousmane assures me that I cannot forget "mon deuxième pays," my second country, and of course, I can never forget my second family, my Senegalese family.  Papa Touré saw to that--before I left, he gave me a letter addressed to my parents that I would have to read for them (it was in French).  The letter was both generous and somewhat formal in tone; he wrote that I would have to return with my husband and child(ren) to see them again, because I had been "incontestably" adopted, and that they would keep me in their prayers, hoping that le Bon Dieu would grant me success in my future career.  This final sentiment dovetails with the wonders and worries of my senior year: what will my future career be?

I guess that means that there is no way for me to give a fitting conclusion.  Life doesn't offer itself to us in chapters.  And blogs, I've realized, don't resume themselves like books.

So I move forward, from Danville to Dakar and back again, to New York, to New Haven, and then to where?  To what?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

if you want to study abroad

I hope that the adventures I've described here, in combination with the blogs of my fellow study abroad ladies, have inspired you (some of you, reading along) to consider doing a semester in Dakar.  That's great.  Do it.

However, there are lots of programs to choose from.  I'm going to do a brief run-down of the options I encountered and offer my completely biased opinion on most of them.  Links to the home-pages are provided, where I could find them.
  • Mount Holyoke Spring Semester in Dakar [my program!].  You stay with a home-stay.  You stay for 4 - 5 months.  You are taken on 2 - 3 awesome field trips, but otherwise, you stay in Dakar.  You take 5 - 6 classes, which are very easy, except the final projects sneak up on you.  You are told that you can take classes at University Cheikh Anta Diop, which is kind of true, but you end up taking all of your classes at the WARC (West African Research Center) and a few at IFÉÉ (Institute de Français pour étudiants étrangèrs).  WARC is also the home-base for the Wells College, Michigan State, and Minnesota University programs.  [Strangely, I could not find the Mt. Holyoke page on Dakar; here's an article instead.]
  • Wells College in Dakar.  Also, I think, a spring semester program.  You stay with a home-stay.  You stay for 4 months.  You are taken on 2 - 3 awesome field trips, but otherwise, you stay in Dakar.  Similar academically to Mount Holyoke; Wells, Mt. H., and Michigan study abroad students take all of their classes together at the WARC.
  • Michigan State in Dakar.  Also, I think, a spring semester deal.  You stay with a home-stay.  You stay for 4 - 5 months.  You are taken on 2 - 3 awesome field trips, but otherwise, you stay in Dakar.  Similar academically to Mount Holyoke; Wells, Mt. H., and Michigan study abroad students take all of their classes together at the WARC.
  • MSID Senegal.  You can come for the fall or for the spring or stay for the whole year.  You stay with a home-stay, both in Dakar and in a more rural internship placement.  The MSID students who were at the WARC in the spring took classes separately, like an intensive Wolof Language course, for 6 weeks.  Then they left for Spring Break, and then they were placed in smaller cities and villages for a 4 - 5 week internship.  The MSID students who were at the WARC for the year were rarely in Dakar but instead working and researching in their internships.
  • Suffolk University in Dakar.  Though the campus was right next to my house, I only visited once or twice.  I don't know much at all about the program, but it seems terrific: a great way to meet students from all over Africa, not just Americans.  You still stay with home-stays and still get 2 -3 awesome field trips.  Check out the link.
  • CIEE in Dakar.  Also a program that I know nothing about, but looks cool.
If I were to do it all again...well, I had such a good time, I can't really say I'd do anything different.  Michigan, Wells, and Mt. Holyoke all give similar preparation and education.  The MSID program seems to give you a deeper insight into rural Senegalese village life, and the Suffolk program puts you in contact with a more diverse student body, and you still get home-stays and field trips.  We few at the WARC could have used some more Senegalese friends, as well as a better sense of the country as a whole--though getting to know Dakar really well was fun.

Now, for something completely different: ART in DAKAR for the bi-annual DAKART Festival.  We didn't get to see as much of it as we liked, but Kelli and Carlee and I checked out La Manege while doing some downtown shopping.  I had already seen this particular installation with Dian, Logan, and Frankie (a big opening), but it was nice to see it again, without the crowds.

Two goats, painted with black splotches, as part of an art installation at Galérie la Manege

Interior of Galérie la Manege, which is run by the French Cultural Institute

...and if I haven't convinced you yet that you should come to Dakar, let me add that going to study in Dakar was probably the best decision I've ever taken a really long time making.  I knew it was something I should do, and then it became something I wanted to do, and then I finally did it--studying abroad in Senegal, that is.  My cluelessness at the start was defeated by my curiosity, which saw me through most of the semester.  And it felt good.

I don't want to say that study abroad, and Africa in particular, is a "life changing" experience.  That's a little too romantic.  I can't promise epiphanies.  Plus, your life is always changing.  

But I am a different (better?) person with different (bigger?) dreams, now that I have gone and returned (and will go again).  If you don't want to go to Senegal, at least consider the African continent.  If you don't want to go to Africa, at least still consider studying abroad.  I left Yale, probably the best educational institution in the world, for an entire semester, and I don't regret it.  Neither will you.

Monday, May 24, 2010

(re)adjustment, continued

[NOTE: I began this post yesterday, a Sunday.]

Dad's making spaghetti for dinner.  I sit fresh from a (hot) shower in my room, at home in Vermont, on my laptop with wireless internet, looking out onto the garden and the bushy green rhubarb, and listening to the washing machine whirling away downstairs.  Dakar is almost unimaginable...almost.

Dad with the green watering can,
the afternoon that I got back from the airport

Sundays are always tired days in Dakar.  Saturday night is for staying out late, and Sunday morning is for sleeping in.  Aysha and Fana get up and take (bucket) showers in their separate bathrooms around noon; Ousmane and Djim might well keep snoozing until lunch, around 2 or 2:30 in the sunny courtyard.  Then back to nap some more, watch TV, talk on Skype, drink ataaya, maybe go to the beach to do "fitness."  Dinner every other week is ngalax, which requires no real cooking.

Never had I ever appreciated Sunday as a day of rest until I experienced it in Dakar.  There's no one out in the streets.  Some stores don't open, though the downtown is still doing business.  Nothing could be considered demanding, pressing, or urgent on a Sunday.

Packing my suitcase to come home

I keep one clock on Dakar time: 4 hours ahead.  Jet-lag hasn't really gotten to me yet.

I've already gotten several phone calls: from Ousmane, from Nassouri (former guardian), and from Mamadou (a fruit-seller at the end of the road my house is on).  I'm incredibly complimented that they have made the effort.  Phone calls to the States are expensive, and all they seem to want during our brief conversations is to hear that I'm home safely and to make sure everything is going fine ("ça va?").  Keeping in contact will be both a joy and a responsibility.  I'm frustrated that my cell phone plan doesn't include international service, so I'll be looking for more ways to use Skype--both to call cell phones and to use through my cell phone.  I have these connections, and now I begin the work of maintaining them.

View from the plane, sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean

I haven't really tried to explain the experience yet to anyone.  I've been shy--not reaching out to contact my friends the way I should.  I just got back from "Africa."  How to describe it?  That's really the purpose of this blog: to distill my thoughts and to serve as an introduction to the whole idea of studying abroad, "Africa," and even "America."  The best I can do is to encourage everyone who has the ability to go, and for a period longer than a vacation...and then, go back.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

impossible cookies

I've now been home for about 24 hours.  The air smells really good here.  I'm working hard to not accept everything here as normal, working hard to keep the familiar strange, the strange familiar.

Things I Have Done in the Last 48 Hours that Would Have Been Impossible/Unimaginable in Daily Dakar Life
  • had Dunkin' Donuts coffee, in a big cup
  • used American money
  • used a pay phone
  • got in a car and rode on roads that had lines, speed limits, stop signs, and traffic signals
  • ate a peanut-butter (crunchy) and jelly (apricot) sandwich on whole wheat bread...and ate pork (a meat not eaten by Muslims) roast for dinner, with rhubarb pie for dessert; french toast with maple syrup for breakfast; pasta with asparagus pesto for lunch; crackers with cheddar cheese; fig newton cookies; pasta with scallops and goat cheese for dinner.  More food-related things: drank tap water, had a glass of wine (also not done by devout Muslims), used a microwave, ate on a separate plate
  • wore denim shorts above the knee, in public
  • threw my clothes in the laundry machine, and then in the dryer
  • slept on a mattress
  • turned on the faucet and expected there to be water
  • listened to NPR
I am also amazed by how many shades of green there are in this part of the world.  And how everyone here has a car.  And how early we eat our meals--lunch at 12 noon instead of 2:30, dinner at 6:30 instead of 9:30.  Eating on separate plates feels downright hostile.  I haven't yet showered--I'll do that tonight--in order to keep a bit of Dakar dirt on my body.

As I unpacked, I thought: "Is this all I brought back?"  Even with so many heavy bags, I just didn't feel it was enough.  I could not, did not, bring all of Senegal back; I cannot, will not live a Senegalese life here.  But I am not yet ready to resume my old one, in the old way.  I want to keep sharing--my food, my time.  I want time and money to be spent, not saved.  I want my days to be full as they were in Dakar...nothing really to do but find someone to do nothing with.  And I wasn't exaggerating when I told my family in Dakar that I was used to having 200 people to greet every day, and that I would soon only have 2, my mom and dad.  It is hard to go suddenly from talking with every member of my family every day to being restricted to Facebook and Skype.  My cell phone has no international plan.

And it is lonely, even as I already have friends who have reached out to talk with me, meet up and catch up.  I do want to see them, and in the way Senegalese people meet and welcome friends and visitors into their easily.  You don't "go out of your way" to do something for someone in Senegal; it's as if you exist in order to do that for that other person, and therefore, doing it doesn't disturb your life's course.  If you're eating, you invite everyone within hearing to eat with you (and no one ever says "no," but "merci, bon appetit" as a way to refuse).  If you're making tea, it's your responsibility to know how many people are near in order to prepare enough.  You live your life in constant accommodation of others.

More thoughts on all this later.  Now it's time for pictures, food-related.

Incredible diversity of cookies and biscuits.  Some candy thrown in.

Biting into a Biskrem cookie.  Yum.

Chocopain and Nescafe on the breakfast table at home

The egg rolls (called "nems") served at our going-away party at WARC.
Eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf, then dipped in sweet or spicy sauce.

Fataya, also from the WARC party.  Also yummy.

I do feel, being here amongst all that made up my life before, as if I'm waking up from a Dakar dream.  Because four months is both long enough to live naturally, and short enough to not compare to all the years I spent not in Dakar, I have to reconcile the two.  As do all of us study abroad students.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


America, land where...
...restrooms all have toilet paper. registers all have change (I just bought 2 Granny Smith apples in the Washington, Dulles airport with a 20 dollar bill, and the lady called me "sweetie" after I did).
...time is money.  (This is something that Dian remarked on, noticing that in Senegal, this urgent mindset of productivity doesn't exist.  I was joking with my dad when I said that "in Senegal, nobody has money, so they just spend time"--which I now think is truer than anything I've yet put into words about the Senegalese approach to time and timelessness.)

America, land of... machines, bagels, and breakfast sandwiches.
...recycling bins and custodians.
...endless airports with trains and elevators and moving walkways--moving walkways.

In our "re-entry" session, where we learned how to deal with reverse culture shock (I feel like I'm doing pretty well), they warned us not to judge too quickly.  I can't help it--I think American English sounds ugly.  And American people look pretty ugly, too, compared to the slow-moving elegance of the Senegalese.  But I'll try to restrain myself from further criticism.  I board my flight to Burlington soon, landing around 2pm in the beautiful Green Mountain State.  It is so cold here in Washington, DC that I can hardly imagine 50 degrees and rain in Vermont.

Aysha and me at the Mermoz beach, last Sunday in Senegal, swimming and making ataaya

Saying goodbye.  Before I left, I spent the afternoon at home, making tea for all my study abroad friends who came over.  We talked and sipped and munched, marveling at the idea of going home.  Everyone left slowly--Dian and the Wells girls had already taken off on Friday; Kelli and Carlee leave today/tomorrow; the rest of the gang heads home around the 30th of May, staying on to travel and really soak up Senegal.  After tea was dinner, vermicelli and yassa and yapp (viande/beef), which I had requested as my last meal.  Then Ousmane helped me move my monstrously heavy bags downstairs and into the car (the new car, which Maman recently bought for Papa).

I said goodbye to Maman, Papa, Tidiane, Djim, Fatou & Fatou (the maids), Tonton (uncle visiting from Paris), Tata (aunt visiting, who had also been sent out earlier by Maman to buy fabric, a table cloth, and binbins for me as last-minutes was hard to fit them all).  I could hardly speak French.  I cried until Fana corrected me: "Why are you crying?  We'll still be here...we have Facebook, and Skype!  Don't cry."  That helped.  And even Ousmane was trying to be cheerful for me, saying that I was only leaving for Saint Louis for the weekend, and I would be back in 2 or 3 days.  Elisa came over, and we piled into the car: Ousmane driving; Fana in the front; me, Elisa, and Aysha in the back.  We played music and danced about a bit.  Elisa held my hand.  At the airport, I checked my bags; I joked with the security agent that I was bringing all of Dakar back with me, and he laughed and said "il faut nous laisser quelquechose" - "got to leave us something."  And then I had to hug everybody.  I was fine until I turned back to go into the airport, and I started crying.  One of the security guards noticed and asked whether I was leaving my husband in Dakar.  Everyone was happy to hear me speak Wolof--last time for a long time, I'm afraid.

I would have been all alone in the airport except Michael was leaving for Paris (he'll come back to Dakar before he goes home to the States), and I was incredibly grateful to see him so I could stop dwelling on how miserable I was after saying goodbye to Aysha, Fana, Elisa, and Ousmane.  But then I boarded alone for the 9-hour flight, and just kept thinking.

The morning sky on Goree, day of the Dekkendo Peace Conference

And now I'm here.  Although my time in Senegal has come to a close, there will be many more posts to come on this blog, because it's about the whole thing...the whole deal...the whole experience.  Re-entry and re-integration.  Just please keep reading.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

first lasts

To bookend my post of first firsts, I'd like to make note of my first lasts from the past few days.

  • Last time working out at Gym Olympique on la Corniche Ouest.  Said goodbye to one of the friendly coaches there who knew me.  My other friends who I had met there weren't around on a Saturday morning, sadly.
  • Last time doing my laundry by hand on the roof.  (Actually, I tend to think that I will do this again before Tuesday.)
  • Last class at the WARC, a final History presentation and lecture last Tuesday.  And my last assignment, my final paper for History, which I emailed to my professor on Friday.
The scary part is knowing that there are other lasts that I haven't realized yet, because I can't know whether they will happen again before I leave.  Was it my last time at Marche Sandaga yesterday?  Was it my last time at that beautiful beach on Corniche Est the day before, the evening when the Wells College group of girls flew home?  Who knows.

Now to cover the events this past week: Wednesday afternoon we had a "re-entry" session at WARC where we were prepared for some symptoms of reverse culture shock.  Unfortunately, there's no way to be immune, so we just listened and learned that we would learn how to cope.  And then we had a little party, which featured mountains of fataya (fried dumplings), nems (egg rolls), and cake, as well as all the bouye and bissap juice you could ever drink.  After filling our bellies, we then took photos, because we had all dressed up, Senegalese-style.

Everybody's booty looks good in a pagne (?) skirt.

Then, that night, a group of us who had signed up to participate in a peace conference hopped on a bus to go to a concert of big Senegalese stars who would be singing for peace, tolerance, and understanding.  We didn't understand most of the words, but we danced.

One of the big stars, Tete ("tee-tee"), on the stage and on the screen.

We were there at the big stadium Leopold Sedar Senghor (named after Senegal's first president) until midnight, and went home on the bus, and then got up around 6am to get to the Embarcadere de Goree and to the conference location on the island.  While we were all happy to get a backstage pass to the concert and a free ticket to Goree, but general agreement was that this was a huge waste of money that could be better spent on more practical initiatives than the obnoxiously vague and optimistic goals of our meeting.  We were also exhausted, and this might have contributed to our crankiness.  Then we shopped and took the ferry back to Dakar.  I went to bed at 9pm for the first time in a very long time, and it felt wonderful.

Today I'm off to the Mermoz beach to make ataaya and do "fitness."  I'll be enjoying the sea and the company of my family and friends.  I'm also slowly packing.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

senegal sugar content

The other day, I ran out of muesli.  So, for breakfast, I ate a white spongey baguette with perfumed honey and had a mug of Nescafe (2 spoonfuls instant coffee, 1 spoonful powdered milk, 3 sugar cubes).  Later, Carlee and I shared some candy hearts as we wrote our papers.  At lunch, we had stir-fried rice with some beef, onion sauce, and shreds of carrots and tomatoes.  We went on to make ataaya--about 250 grams of sugar involved in that process--and munched on some cookies.  Then 2 mangoes.  And dinner was ngalax, the peanutty sugar-bouye-millet mix.

Making ataaya.  Pouring in the sugar--a shot glass and a half for each stage of tea-making.

Why relate all this?  To try and communicate how much sugar gets eaten in Senegal.  In short, it's SO MUCH SUGAR.  And so many carbs--white rice, white bread, white pasta.  And so few vegetables.

The lack of fruits and veggies in the standard Senegalese diet is pretty baffling to most of us American students, because there is a bounty of fresh produce sold from tiny stands every corner here.  Yet veggies only make a minor appearance in ceeb u jen, the Senegalese national dish of fish and rice...more like rice, fish, and one (1) carrot, one (1) eggplant, one (1) manioc root, and one (1) head of cabbage, all of rather modest size.  And as for fruit, any kind of fruit, it's a dessert item.  Yet everywhere there are apples, bananas, pears, mangoes, cantaloupe, avocados...and they're cheap!  Affordable!  So, why can't we have a salad?

Because culinary stuff is cultural, of course.  Balsamic vinaigrette is not part of what most Senegalese people know how to make and what most Senegalese people want to eat (even with that snooty French influence).  And the Senegalese have already gone through one national cuisine shift, from millet- and sorgum-based dishes to rice-based, which happened around the time of colonization--from 16th - 19th centuries, when everything gets messed up in Africa.  The French tried to get their federation of colonies (Afrique Occidentale Francaise) to produce cash-crops, not food-crops, radically changing the subsistence farming that had been practiced before that point, and thus changing the eating habits of their indigenous "subjects."  And things have gotten trickier from there; these days, Senegal is excruciatingly dependent on imports of rice, sugar, and gas.  To address this national vulnerability, President Abdoulaye Wade has announced an (overly?) ambitious plan for Senegal to grow its own food.  I wish him, and Senegal, luck.

And now, for some characteristically Senegalese dishes.  I don't know how to make any of them...yet?

  • Ceeb u jen / thieboudienne (that's Wolof / French).  Already described it above.  It comes in "rouge" (red), where the rice has been cooked with tomatoes, and "blanc" (white), where the rice is...not cooked with tomatoes.
  • Soup u candia.  Gumbo-style gooey sauce made with okra and palm oil.  Served on top of white rice with fishy items and sometimes with beef.  The only Senegalese dish I really can't eat.
  • Couscous.  Not the Moroccan kind, but the Senegalese version, made with finely-ground millet.  Many people don't like it, saying that the dry, sandy texture is too much to be endured, no matter how good the sauce that covers it.  Usually made with beef, not fish.
  • Yassa.  Thick onion sauce, made with lemon and mustard.  Delicious.  Served with fish, chicken, and beef.  The onions that I eat in yassa probably constitute 80% of the veggies that I have eaten during these 4 months in Senegal.
  • Mafe (pronounced maff-ay).  Thick peanut sauce, with palm oil.  Served on top of white rice, with some chunks of potatoes and carrots.  Heavy, but oh-so-satisfying.
But, back to sugar.  My host mother is a diabetic, and diabetes is a huge problem here; the daily diet of sweetness is the most obvious reason.  My host sister has a toothache, and probably a cavity, but she's afraid of the dentist like the rest of us.  And who knows about dental insurance, anyway?

Sometime soon, I will document the incredible diversity of cookies that I've had in Senegal that don't exist in the States.  Stay tuned.

One week.  This is all going too fast.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

making memories

There's something poetic about having only a few days left to distill Dakar in my mind and memories.  However, I also have final projects, which interfere with my last-minute impressionism.

Nonetheless, last night was a memory-maker.  After school, I caught a cab with my friend Dian to go to la Pointe des Almadies, a rocky outcropping at the northwest end of Dakar, where a group of shacks and restaurants compete to serve all sorts of seafood.  (La Pointe is also the closest I can get to the States while still being in Senegal.)  Together we polished off an immense order of oysters, mussels, and "coques" (some other in-shell creature), right there on the water.  Over the course of our meal, several vendors came to tempt us with leather boxes and wooden sculpture, but we bought only bin-bins, the waist beads that women here wear to be sexually irresistible to their men.  The sun sank as we talked and piled up the shells.

We then hopped back in a cab, where we tried to convince our taximan Cheikh that "jigeen ak jigeen" (woman and woman) marriages were just fine.  He said it wasn't "normal" and it wasn't good for "la sante" (health), and called us both "saay-saay" (roughly, "playboy" or "flirt").  Later, he said that he wanted to marry me.  Dian and I knew we weren't getting anywhere with this conversation, so we just laughed.

We arrived an a packed art opening at Galerie La Manege (Dian knew one of the artists), where we wandered until we found the wine and our friends, Frankie and Logan.  The four of us perused the art and joked about buying it for our (imaginary) multiple million-dollar mansions.  It was an artsy, monied, and mixed-race crowd gathered there; the people were as much fun to look at as the art.  We left together--Dian, Frankie, and Logan went to an Indian restaurant to celebrate the birthday of another friend, Michael; and I went home to sleep.  Now I'm up early this morning, researching sharia law in West Africa, and procrastinating by writing this blog post.

Dama kontaans / Je suis contente / I'm content and happy.

Ten days left.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

my family

I've kept my host family out of my blog posts for a while now, but because they have been so fundamental to my happiness here in Dakar, I feel it wouldn't be fair not to dedicate a post to them, describing how great they are.  This probably violates lots of privacy ethics.  I'm sorry.

When I first arrived, I was tired, jittery, and incredibly nervous.  Aysha greeted me at the door--I remember thinking that she was so pretty--and led me in to talk with Maman Toure (me with my stuttering French, her with eternal patience).  Maman gave me my Senegalese name (it's Daba, by the way) and told me that I was welcome, and that I should consider this house to be my house.  I think it was Ousmane who carried my incredibly heavy bag up to my room, and then it was Fana showed me my closet, my bathroom, and my bed.  In about an hour, I had moved in, but only technically.  I became a part of the family over the next few months: eating dinner in the courtyard, watching TV in the salon, doing laundry on the terrace.  I now know how to unlock the door and where to leave my laundry and what it sounds like when Fatou is setting out the table and plastic chairs for dinner (I listen for that).  I'm tuned into the people, and the house that is now my home.  On the endless weekend afternoons, my favorite thing to do is to make tea for them all--carrying it around to all the rooms, collecting the glasses, and getting their smiles when they know that, yes, it was me who made it this time.  After growing up as an (almost) only child, it's a strange miracle to have so many siblings in my house.

My sisters: Aysha and Fana

Me and my sisters talk about guys and about shopping and about all those differences between America and Senegal.  We watch TV together and eat dinner together and sometimes I pull some mbalax moves to make them laugh.  They invite me to come to the store, to go on a walk with them--just for the company, and just to get me out of the house and into the wider Dakar world.  Aysha is dramatic and bubbly; Fana, an excellent storyteller and a hard worker.  (And I have two other sisters, Adji and "Mama," professional who have married and moved out to their husbands' homes.)

My brothers: Ousmane, Tidiane, Djim

Me and my brothers talk about Obama and Senegalese politics.  We make tea and eat dinner together.  They are all busy, ambitious, and accomplished--working at the school, or in computer networking.  They will live together in the house after they are married (not anytime soon, it seems); the unfinished third floor will become their apartments.

Maman Toure, wearing the shawl Mom gave to her

Maman has raised seven children to adulthood, earned her Master's, traveled to France, and started her own school.  Now she welcomes American students into her home, saying that all children in the world are really the children of all the mothers in the world.  


Papa has worked as a minister in the Senegalese government and has visited more placed in the United States than I have.  He's retired, but still welcomes friends and former dignitaries into the house to discuss current events and to do research.  He likes his tea very light (the third boil), with plenty of mint, and with diabetic sugar.

Okay, sorry for the brief post, but I've really got to get back to work.  I have two major research papers due next week and a Peace Conference that I have been chosen to go to on May 12 - 13.  Classes end the 14th, and I get a few days to sit on the beach and drink tea before I board a plane headed back to the States.  Leaving behind one family for another gives one all kinds of sweet and sad feelings, but I'll have to deal with those in my diary before I even hope to present them in a blog post.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Viviane Ndour "Champion"

And this is Viviane Ndour, Youssou Ndour's sister, another pop star.  This is her version of "Champion."  Like most of the popular songs that I know here in Senegal, it's been playing on the radio for months.  Probably since I got here.  Yep.

some days / senegalese super-etoiles

Some days are harder than others.  Recently, however, I've had several difficult days in a row.  Not that anything "bad" has happened to me, but I seem to lack the combination of patience and curiosity that buoyed me these past few months, and without it, I'm just sad and filled with thoughts of home.

At this point in the semester, I have the ability to go anywhere, to do whatever I choose: I can bargain in Wolof, I know how the car rapides work, I know what to expect in a market.  I have the confidence and comfort level, but I just plain don't have the energy, the desire, to get out and do something very new.  This malaise is hard to admit, especially knowing that I have less than a month here, and I ought to be taking advantage of everything, racing around to cover all that I might not have done or seen or tasted.

There's also the problem of not being able to do anything alone.  Go to the market alone and get mobbed by vendors, and without a friend to consult with, you might buy something at too expensive a price.  Go to the bar or restaurant alone and you might get approached by a young man--even your waiter--who will want to know your name and where you live and why you don't have a boyfriend.  Go to the beach and you will be approached by more young men, or maybe trampled by soccer players.  We're advised not to take a taxi or car rapide alone at night, because you can't guarantee that you'll make it out with all the contents your purse.  And if you want to venture further, to Toubab Dialo or Ile des Madeleines, you'll probably be approached by more men and daunted by the expense of travel.  And to walk around the city--well, it's just hot.

All this, in short, makes me miss home--or even France, where this past summer I wandered around the cities of Toulouse and Paris without feeling harassed or in danger in any way.  And I'm not alone in feeling a little depaysee (again, shameful lack of accents); other students are finding themselves in the same situation.  What to do?  What to do?

For lack of a "cure," here's something fun: Senegalese music videos.  This is Youssou Ndour, probably the biggest Senegalese pop star ever, and maybe the most famous African singer alive today.  Read about his political power here.  This is the video of his hit "Salagne Salagne."

But, really, life is good here.  I have fantastic friends and a fabulous family.  (Upcoming blog post: how wonderful my host family in Dakar is.)  I am very, very lucky.  That's why feeling this way is inexcusable, even inexplicable.  But it should be getting better, a little better, all the time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

t-minus four weeks

Four weeks.  I'm actually not sure what this countdown "means," only I can't help thinking about it.  Here's what it might mean:

Only for more weeks until...

...I will return to being unremarkable when I walk down the street.  I won't get hit on or honked at with even half the frequency I've gotten used to here in Dakar.  I will no longer be a "superstar," as Ousmane describes it, and I will no longer have "all eyes on you" (another Ousmane phrase).

...I will no longer be able to go outside and immediately find all kinds of street food within a few steps.  Like cafe touba, toasted corn, jaff (peanuts), fresh fruit and veggies, cookies, and thiakry.

...I will return to a land that serves coffee in big cups, not little plastic ones.

...I will no longer watch the "PUB" (publicite) announcements swirling across the TV screen every 20 minutes, before and after every advertisement.  I will be able to watch movies--and watch them in English.

...I will return to drinking tea with milk and honey in the mornings, and not Nescafe.  I will eat whole-wheat bread.  (So many other dietary changes...)

...I will no longer eat dinner outdoors, in the courtyard, around a big communal plate with a fluctuating number of my brothers and sisters; no longer hear their jokes and stories.  I will no longer hear Wolof spoken regularly, for that matter.

...I will return to where everything is green.

...I will no longer have warm, sunshine-y weather, all the time.  I will no longer have to take malaria pills, either.

In front of the Bay Fall fabric for sale in Saint Louis

I write all of this so that you might understand how conflicted I feel about returning to the States, to home.  To help with this understanding, you should consider reading some of the myriad impressions of my fellow study abroad students.  I've included links to their funny and fabulously-detailed blogs below.

In no particular order:

We're all sorting through our experiences here in this simultaneously public and personal medium.  For me, it's been a strange process of self-discovery through self-presentation.  And, of course, to remember--but I keep a separate diary for that.  I hope to present Senegal to you, but present it with my personal "slant"--the way Emily Dickinson says to tell the truth.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Originally, when I named this blog "Danville to Dakar," I was going for the alliteration only.  That, and the idea was a catchy one--young woman from small-town Vermont goes to big-city Senegal.  Cool, right?  But over the course of the semester (over 3 months, now), I've come to have a deeper understanding of my own choice of title.  I alluded to it in my post about Things that I Day-Dream About, but I didn't properly explain it there, and so I'll try to do so here.

When I say that "these ideas and images flash vividly through my mind," I mean it.  Sometimes, it's like a living dream: I'll be sitting in class, paying half-attention (the lectures are 3 hours long, remember), and then, suddenly, I'll remember what it feels like to be standing on the deck at home in the evening looking out at the mountains.  Or walking up Eastern Avenue in Saint Johnsbury.  Or taking AP Exams at the Academy in May.  Or...any number of random sensations, almost all connected to Vermont (rarely Yale or New Haven, I'm afraid).  Some are based in a specific memory, some not.  Most have to do with summer--I think because I feel like I'm living in such a summer-like environment here, though it's hardly spring in Senegal.

I've really been steeped in Vermont.  Will I get the same feelings about Dakar after I've returned?  Will I, like Ousmane Sembene, think of "O pays mon beau peuple"?  

The title of Sembene's book returns to me often.  Though I hate to generalize in this way, I do find that the Senegalese are, in general, a very beautiful people.  Not always in the physical way, but the whole "aesthetic"--the effect of a thickly-patterned skirt clinging to the narrow hips of a young woman, walking steadily but slowly in skittering flip-flops, balancing water on her head; or the older men sitting in the sidewalk shade of a tree on low stools, waiting for the ataaya heating in a tiny blue kettle settled on the coals nearby.

Of course, there's an American "aesthetic," too, which I think about in a curious, wondering way, like a fantasy land.  I know places exist where everything is clean (too clean?), up-to-date, and well-lit.  I've seen them.  Places like malls, or certain restaurants and glamorous homes.  Places in America.  More on this contrast later.  

We took a horse-drawn carriage (caleche) tour of Saint Louis.
This is the intrepid horse who pulled one of the three carriages, and the Pont Faidherbe.

Now, a brief update: I returned yesterday afternoon from a trip to Saint Louis with WARC--a much more comfortable ride in an air-conditioned bus--and I was so tired I went to bed at 9, after ataaya and ngalax.  Today, I've been shopping with Ousmane in the Colobane market, and now we're waiting for lunch. It's hot and sunny.  I have no classes today (Monday), and none tomorrow, because Wolof is finished and there's been a cancellation of my Islam class, and I've begun (slowly) to research my final History paper.  All is well.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

kalaas u wolof, jeex na (wolof class is finished)

This past Thursday was the final Wolof class for me and the rest of the Wells/Mount Holyoke gang.  It represents the first “last” of my time here in Dakar, and that makes me prematurely nostalgic.  I remember our very first session, when our bright-eyed and boubou-clad professor, Sidy Guèye, explained the nicknames he had received while teaching Peace Corps trainees: his students called him Skinny Sidy, and Q-Tip.  They weren’t being mean, exactly—he is really, really skinny (“sew” in Wolof).  

I can safely say that we all loved him immediately, and he was equally in love with our group of eight eager young women.  We laughed, we asked questions, we pursued the tiniest points of grammar and pushed him to explain more and more complicated things (we were learning “very HIGH Wolof,” he would say, shaking his head at our precociousness).  He never got to finish any of his lesson plans with us. 

He is surely the best language teacher I’ve ever had, and one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen “work” a classroom.  I’m not so sure whether I know enough Wolof to have a conversation about anything except where I’m from, or how expensive something is (crucial while bargaining), but Wolof’s usefulness really lies in how happy Senegalese people become when they realize I can speak even a few words of Senegal’s almost-national native tongue.  Everybody lights up: “Yow, degg nga Wolof?”  You, you understand Wolof?  “Waaw, tuuti rekk.”  Yes, I respond, only a little.

Our class - photo credit to Emily Matthews

Here are some cool things about Wolof that have fascinated me over the course of the semester. (Even if you never come to Senegal, it’s neat to know how other languages organize thought and least, I think so.) This summary will serve a double purpose of introducing you to Wolof and helping me study for my final exam (an oral exam) on Tuesday afternoon.

Wolof officially has two verb tenses: accompli and inaccompli (or "happened" and "not yet happened"). There are, of course, many other ways that the necessary nuances of tenses are expressed ("happening," "used to happen," "has happened," "will happen," "might happen"), but they all fall into these two fundamental categories. Wolof also has two types of verbs: active (external, doing things) and passive (internal, feeling things). Verbs are not conjugated, though sometimes suffixes are added to manipulate their tense and meaning. Instead of conjugating verbs, you conjugate pronouns--that is, there's something like 16 different categories of pronouns that will reflect the tense of the verb. Let me make the value of this grammatical aspect clear: there are no irregular verbs to memorize. Incredible. I'd much rather memorize all of Wolof's pronouns than all of quirky endings of random French verbs. Of course, no language is "logical," except maybe Esperanto, but for me, this is as good as it gets.

Before I make it sound too good, Wolof also has its tricky moments. The word “the,” for instance, is technically different for almost every noun—though, luckily for us at such a basic level of communication, all the “thes” can be replaced by one word, “bi” (or “yi,” if it’s a plural). Also, the word “very” is technically different for every adjective it is describing, but this, too, can be replaced by one “very,” “lool.” And on that note, all adjectives are really verbs—that is, there is no word that means “red,” but instead a word that means “to be red.” Get it?

And Wolof is the most fun, for me, when it gets to describing extremes. If you want to say dinner was REALLY tasty, you say: “neex na LOOOOOOOOL” and just draw out the sound. And if you’re describing a very pretty woman, she’s a “jigeen bu rafet-a-rafet-a-rafet,” saying “pretty” over and over again in a long chain. And so on—extending or repeating or doing whatever you’re linguistically allowed to do in order to express your enthusiasm.

I still understand very little of conversations around the dinner table, but I don’t mind. The sound of it, spoken in the happy voices of the people I love, communicates a great deal nonetheless. Learning another language in another language (Wolof through French) has been an adventure, too—and the adventure continues, even if the class does not.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Mom's Senegal Adventure

Mom and I said "goodbye" last night.  Aysha, Fana, and Ousmane accompanied us to the airport and gave her big hugs before she (somewhat tearfully) went through the big "DEPARTURES" door.  Her plane should touch down in the States within the hour.  After 10 great days of being a guide and translator and tourist, I return to the routine of my Dakar life.  She has many more, and many prettier, photos than I do, and hopefully I can provide a link to them soon.

On the Ngor beach, waiting to take a pirogue across to the island, where we relaxed for the day

Rather than give a rundown of our itinerary (which was extensive), I'll give a brief summary.  Mom arrived at the Dakar airport with the heaviest of bags, which was filled with gifts for the whole family: pens, batteries, maple candy, chocolate, shawls, nail polish, jewelry...she was a regular Santa Claus.  (She's returning with a hefty number of presents as well, but I won't spoil the surprise.)  In spite of not being able to speak French or Wolof, she navigated downtown Dakar, a 4 hour ride to Saint Louis, and the attentions of countless taxis and even the vendeurs Ile de Goree.  She was brave and patient and flexible throughout it all.  I'm proud that she's my mother, and happy that I got to be the one to show her around.  

My family here, of course, was thrilled to see her and to host her.  Even with "language barriers," their kindness and generosity was clearly impressed upon her.  She saw a lot, and met many people, and received many gifts and email addresses along the way.  (Mothers are popular here.)  Now that she's been to Senegal, Papa told her that she must come back to see the babies of Aysha and Fana, inshallah (God willing).  

Dad missed her a lot, I know.  This is the longest they've been apart in their 21 years of marriage.  

I was happy to see more of this country with her.  Right now, I'm undecided about whether to change my flight, currently scheduled for May 31st.  I want to go home--I always do, wherever I am--but I also want to stay here with my friends and family in Dakar for as long as possible.  Now that I have a summer job, I have a deadline.  I want more time--more time to sit on the beach, time to make ataaya, time to talk with my friends.  Going back is certain, but when?  My days are numbered.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

here, home, and happiness

In all honesty, I'm a little nervous about my mother's upcoming visit.  It will be her first time in Africa, just as it has been for me.  What will she think of this place?  Of all those things that first struck me--the air pollution, the trash, the lack of street lamps at night--what will surprise her the most?  And after seeing it all, will she try to take me back home on the plane with her?

Because I want her to be comfortable, but it's impossible to shield her from the fact that the majority of taxis have no seatbelts and other details of "authentic" African life.

I've planned an extensive itinerary, but I'm also pretty sure we will not be following it to the letter.  That's how everything goes here.  Patience is not a virtue, but a necessity--especially in this city that gives you so many reasons not to hurry, not the least of which is the general nonchalance of the Senegalese people.  You walk slowly, you wait, you wonder--but you never worry.  Not in the way we do in the States, at least.  And my mother is a champion worrier.

And so Ousmane and I will meet her around 5am at the airport tomorrow, we'll come back to the house in Mermoz and nap, and then begin the day!  I probably won't post for a long time, since I'll want to be doing things with her, but when she returns home to the States and I return to school, I'll have many stories and photos to share.  And only a month and a half left in Senegal.  The time moves so, so fast.

Which reminds me of one more thing that I wanted to share.  It's another list, time time of Things at Home That I Day-Dream About. Here it is.

  • Driving home along quiet Vermont highways in May, with the windows rolled down and all the trees green and leafy.  The fresh air.
  • Clean feet.  Clean everything.
  • Riding my bike on the Danville backroads.
  • Eating a meal at a classic American diner that smells of coffee and serves breakfast all day long.
  • Whole wheat toast with apricot jam.  (And many more kinds of food, too: bagels with cream cheese, pesto pasta, salad with balsamic vinaigrette, grilled cheese with Cabot cheddar and goes on and on and on.)
  • Throwing all of my clothes in a laundry machine, adding detergent, and then waiting an hour before beautiful, clean-smelling clothes come out.
  • Seeing my family at the airport when I fly back to the States.
  • Reuniting with Calvin--somehow, somewhere in May, June, or July--and going to Lake Powell with him and his family.
  • Moving in to my sweet suite with Frances.
  • Seeing the garden.  Rhubarb especially.
It's not that I'm homesick--I'm not--but it's just that these ideas and images flash vividly through my mind while I'm here.  When people ask whether I could live and work in Senegal when I'm older, I have to admit--no, because where I'm from is too beautiful to leave forever.

Me, diving into Lake Willoughby.
Photo credit to my amazing mother.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

animal crackers

Mom arrives on Friday!  The weather has been strangely humid and hazy the past few days--not much direct sunlight--which has been both pleasant and strange.  Pleasant, because it's cooler; strange, because the weather actually changed, if only for a short while.

And now I re-cap Saturday's adventure with the Institute de Francais pour Etudiants Etrangers (pardon the horrendous lack of French accents).  Some fellow study abroad students and I went on a field trip to the Bandia Wildlife Reserve that cost 3000 CFA--an incredible deal, seeing as getting into the park alone would've cost us about 15000 if we did it independently--but we sweated so much over the course of the day that we wondered whether it was really worth it.

When we first arrived, we found a selection of camels available to ride, if you wanted to pay.
We just giggled and took pictures.

Then we entered the park.
 And, BAM, hyenas!  They were kept behind bars so they wouldn't eat the other animals.

The front of our car rapide with buffolo in the background scrub.

The 2-hour drive in the a car-rapide, which we also bounced through the park in, was brutally hot and uncomfortable.  Lunch was provided by IFEE, and it included 3 pieces of fruit, an epic sandwich, a cold soda and a cold water, which made up for much of the misery.

We got really close to the rhinos.

Really, really close.  It was probably pretty dangerous.

Monster baobab used to enclose deceased "casted" people who didn't work the earth
...and therefore didn't deserve to be buried in it.

Fellow study abroad student + Baobab = size comparison

Giraffes are beautiful.  Males have darker necks than females.
Also, they walk weirdly for quadrapeds: right front leg moves with right hind leg, left with left...

Tortoise tortoise tortoise

One crocodile...

...More crocodiles.  
You can't see them, but they can see you.

Dancing to the tam-tam music in the village of Bandia.

After dancing in Bandia, where we were shaken down for money (politely), we began our a 2-hour ride back, which was minimally cooler.  We arrived in Dakar after dark.  It was a long, long day.

Dirty, dirty feet at the end of the day.
My host sister Aysha refused to hug me until I showered.

This might be my most picture-heavy post yet.  More words will come later, I think.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

a day in the life

What kind of blog is this, anyway?  For the most part, I've tried to keep it informative and not "involved," because I figure that Senegal is more interesting than I am.  I want anyone reading along to know Senegal, and not just my personal stories about being in Senegal.  Also, I keep most of the names of my family and friends out of my blog, because I haven't asked their permission to write publicly about them.  Maybe that's being too careful about privacy?  In any case, I keep a diary here for all things/thoughts too personal to post, so I won't forget it all.

But this entry is going to be different.  This is A Day in the Life--everything I do on a fairly regular basis, everything that constitutes my daily rhythm here in Dakar.  Enjoy.

7:30am - Alarm goes off on my sturdy African Nokia cell phone.  Often, I wake up before this moment.  I groggily get dressed and get my breakfast: muesli (which I buy for myself, rather than eat white bread and butter) with powdered milk, 1 malaria pill, 1 vitamin, and a mug of Nescafe.  I pack my backpack with my needed notebooks and gym clothes, fill my water bottle from the 10 litre jug of Kirene (like Dasani or Poland Springs, but in Senegal), and settle my sunglasses on my head for the walk to school.  On my way out, I usually see Nassouri, the young man from Burkina Faso who cleans the house and watches the front door (he's called a "boy," or a "guardian").  He's sweeping and mopping the salon as part of his morning routine.  We trade greetings (he's like me, learning Wolof and speaking mostly French), and then I'm out the door.

My bed in my room, plus my pajamas

8am - Walk to school.  Depending on how fast I'm going, this takes anywhere from 30 - 40 minutes...closer to 40, really.  What was the most stressful part of my day when I first started out in Dakar (was I going to get lost? was I going to get robbed? was I going to get hit by a car?) has now become one of the most relaxing--a good time to think.  I let my legs find a rhythm.  I try to stick to where the sidewalks are the most substantial and where the shade lies the thickest.  I'm almost always sweaty by the time I arrive at WARC (in time for my 9am classes), but so is everybody else who walks to school, and we all cool down together over the course of our 3-hour lectures.

What I see when walking into WARC--although this photo was taken late afternoon

9am - 12am - Class.  At the WARC, we usually have a break--a "pause"--around 10:30 to use the bathroom, use the computers, or buy coffee/snacks.  It's a good way to divide up the long lectures.  We often dawdle.

12am - 2pm - Class ends, and the quest for lunch begins.  There are many options for a cheap lunch within walking distance of the WARC: the choice of 2 Senegalese plates at the restaurant that's part of the Center, the man making omelet sandwiches in a shack down the street, everything you could want at the Parcours supermarket on la Corniche, chwarma at La Gondole/La Palace, and all the fruit, nuts, and bread you can buy from various vendors in Fann Residence.  The challenge is always to see how much you can get for how little money: a meal for 1500 CFA--around 3 dollars--feels expensive.

2pm - 3pm - Either the start of more classes, or chillin' in the computer lab.  Literally, chillin'--the room has great AC.

3pm - 6:30pm - Somewhere around this time, I walk to the Gym Olympique along la Corniche (you can check out my other post about that here) to work out.  I plug into my iPod, wave "bonjour" to the familiar faces there, and hop on the treadmill or bike.  It's always a very sweaty experience, but feels good nonetheless, and then I walk straight home in the cool late-afternoon breeze to shower.

7pm - 9:30pm - Shower, homework, and waiting for dinner.  I do some of my work in the salon, by the TV with my host sister Aysha, Nassouri, and the two maids in our house, Aissatou and Fatou.  I'm fading fast by about 9pm--hungry, tired, and confused by the French and Wolof programming--but dinner with the family is always good.  Fatou tells us "Kaay, nungi reer" - "Come on, we're eating" - and we gather around a big plate on a low table in the courtyard.  Even though I don't understand much of the talk in Wolof, I love to see everyone interacting and telling stories.  It's a good home, and I feel it's a great thing to keep children together in the family compound this way.

A picture of me in the courtyard taken by Mariam, the 5-year old daughter of my oldest host sister

10:30pm - Bed.  Mine is a very early bedtime in the Toure household, but I can't really help it.  I can't even speak French after a certain point in the evening, let alone Wolof.  I head upstairs, flop down on my bed, fall asleep, and start it all over again tomorrow.

Sometimes, on the weekends, we like go out dancing.  
Senegalese night life starts around 2am.  It feels like a marathon.

And I'm going through photos of this weekend's trip with IFEE to the Bandia Wildlife Reserve, so a post on that will soon be coming your way...and Mom arrives on Friday!  Ousmane and I will be picking her up from the airport at 5am.  Maybe I'll take a hint from Mame Diarra's blog and have my mother write a "guest entry," too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

some flora

Things roll merrily along here.  Here's a plant-themed post of some of the flora I've been seeing.  Good to find green things in this city.

First and foremost, there are palm trees.  Even more have been planted 
along the Corniche since I took this picture.

And then there are baobabs.  There are three in this picture.

And there are these prickly plants, like the ones in our garden at home in Dakar.

Kinda like a palm tree, but not.  Also, everywhere.


Pine-y kinds of shrubs like this grow into big trees.

Mangroves in the salty water of the Atlantic.
This one was taken near Toubakouta, not Dakar.

And now for something completely different:

The other day, I was along for the ride while my host brother Ousmane and host sister Mama ran errands (faire des cours) in Dakar. Ousmane's iPhone rang.  It was another American student (Senegalese name: Mame Dialla) who had stayed with the Toure family back in fall of 2008, and she's kept in touch, calling every month or so.  That afternoon in the car, after she spoke with Ousmane and Mama, the phone was handed to me--and we chatted about how wonderful the family was, how relatively eas our respective programs were while here in Dakar, and how excited she is to come back and visit.  She said that she felt very lucky to have her family, and I feel that they must have been very lucky to have HER.  She has her own blog, too--and her entries are fanastic.  Check it out: