Thursday, January 28, 2010

the WARC

I'm under a lot of umbrellas here in Senegal--that of Yale, Mt. Holyoke, The Institute de Francais pour Etudiants Etrangeres, and Universite Cheikh Anta Diop--but the most important among these is the WARC, the West African Research Center, here in the Fann Residence of Dakar.

The WARC is a crossroads for international students, university professors, and researchers from all over the world.  It's a collection of offices and classrooms, with a library and a little restaurant that serves lunch for about 1500 CFA (around $3.50).  It's a shady, peaceful little oasis, with green things growing and trash cans for dechets and wireless internet and clean bathrooms.  In short, a very soothing place.

And now, some pictures.

the big sign over the main entrance

the tiles leading to the main entrance--I don't know what the blue creature is.

the big tent under which we eat our meals--the brown block on the left is the kitchen

the computer lab at the WARC

My schedule of classes at the WARC and at the University, in case you're interested:
Tuesday, 9 - 12 l'Histoire d'Islam au Senegal / 15 - 17 Wolof Language
Wednesday, 9 - 12 Genre et Developpement
Thursday, 9 - 12 Traduction Anglais, 13 - 15 Wolof Language
Friday, 9 - 12 Histoire de la Senegambie

Next week, Dakar empties.  Many of the residents will make their way to Touba, a city of religious significance for the Muslims of the Mouride brotherhood in Senegal.  It's a huge migration--there and back--over the course of 3 or 4 days.  Several students here are going, and are preparing by borrowing clothes (must be fully-covered, boubou-style) and by promising to look out for pick-pockets and drink lots of water. I have decided not to go...I'd rather see the city empty, and maybe even go to Magic Land, the only theme park here in Dakar, where there will hopefully be no lines for the rides.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"now you are a real third world child"

The title of this post is a quote from my oldest host brother.  He made this remark after I had lugged up water from the downstairs tap in order to bathe in the upstairs shower (there's not enough water pressure, and there hasn't been for a few days, now).  I suppose I feel a little proud.

my three best friends in Dakar - all in the Mt. Holyoke program - on our way to the Mermoz Beach

Now, to continue with my lists of things, here's one that I've been thinking about for a long time: Things You Will Not See in Dakar.

  • Traffic lights, stop signs, crosswalks.  Cars and buses move by their own laws here, and pedestrians have to cross the street with determination and projected nonchalance.  There are roundabouts, which have signs, and sometimes a sign warning about horse-and-buggy drivers, but that's about it.  Also, few streetlamps except on the highways, and so it gets very dark at night in most neighborhoods.  You can see the stars.
  • Trash cans or recycling bins.  Even if there were bins, there's no one around to collect all the trash that this city produces.  Sometimes there are street sweepers, who tidy up the gutters, and sometimes the government decides to bulldoze lampposts and storefronts to widen the road (like what's recently been happening on Rue Cheikh Anta Diop), but other that that, there's little organized effort to be seen.
  • Cyclists.  This goes along with the lack of signs and street markings and the pollution.  You just wouldn't want to be out there on a bike.  Sometimes, I see one or two, often not wearing helmets.  Crazy.
  • Chain stores.  At least, none of the chain stores you would recognize.  There's MyShop, and La Gondole, and Casino (very French), and City Sport.  And beyond that, things are pretty independently-owned.
  • Sunhats.  Most people don't wear 'em.
  • Toilet paper.  The Senegalese don't use it.  Instead, they have a system of washing--with a bucket of water and a cup by the toilet for that purpose.  Most of us foreign kids end up buying our own paper.
This list eventually will be followed by Things You Do See (a Lot of) in Dakar.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ile de Goree (accents not included)

On Friday, the last day of our orientation, we visited Ile de Goree.  It's an island off the coast of Dakar where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic.  It is most famous for its Maison des Esclaves, a house built to house slaves on the cold, dirty first floor and slavetraders on the second, nicely-appointed floor.  The island is all of 300 meters wide and 900 long.  No cars, and many flowers.  It's been designated a UNESCO historical site and therefore hasn't been touched in years, leaving the beautiful colors of the houses to fade into even more stunning glory.  And here are the pictures.

a statue celebrating the liberation of slaves

the feet of a fellow study abroad student in the famous doorway that opens out onto the water, 
where in the past there would have been a bridge to ships waiting for their human cargo

Goree is probably the cleanest place in Dakar, 
thanks to a hired team of boys who sweep the island clean every morning

sand artist, at the castle on Goree, at work in his bunker-studio

a view of Dakar through an old archway

Lest you get too pretty a picture, I should also add that Ile de Goree has many sellers (vendeurs) who are pushy about their wares.  "My sister," they say, "come into my shop.  I give you a good price."  And they want you to look, and then to buy.  The attention is so intense that it can interfere with any enjoyment of the place, or relating naturally to the people there.  Because white means wealth, toubabs are always a target for offers and scams.  For instance, when I walk to school, taxis beep at me, just to check whether I want a ride. This wouldn't be so bad except that every third car on the road is a taxi here.  We're starting to learn how to tune it out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

difference, lots of it

In our crash-course on culture, and over the course of the past week (I've been here for a week, now!), I've learned some neat stuff--mainly, Senegal is different.  Here are some of the aspects of Dakar/Senegalese living that I have found the most fascinating, and occasionally, the most stressful.

  • "Ici, on partage tout, ou presque."  Here, we share everything, or almost--this is a direct quote from our orientation, and without a doubt, it describes life Senegal.  When I had a tiny piece of chocolate to share with my host sister, Aicha, and she had friends over, she took it and bit off a tiny piece, then handed it to her next friend, who took a bit, and handed the last bit to another friend.  And then when you take off your shoes--as you often do, which is polite when entering a carpeted space--there's nothing preventing someone else from borrowing them for a bit.  This is what happened this Sunday, at the wedding reception that I went to with my host sister, Fana.  When we were ready to leave, I couldn't find my flip-flops; after I had remarked upon the worrying disappearance of my shoes to Fana, who asked around, they suddenly reappeared, warm from having been worn on someone else's feet.  One pair is as good as another, it seems.  Dinners out of the big, round, communal dish, eaten with spoons in the right hand, are also part of this sharing.
  • Watching TV.  You think we're addicted to TV in America?  You have not observed the intense manner in which the Senegalese watch TV.  It seems to be the only past-time here, books being expensive or hard to come by.  Plus, if your first language is a language that nobody really writes in, like Wolof, then what would you have to read?  In any case, I've already seen a Cinderella, the Lion King, the Polar Express, and Harry Potter in French.  It's 'Arry Potter.  And there's no gender discrimination in terms of TV-watching, either--women watch soccer, men watch soaps.  And that seems to be mostly what's on.
  • Tea.  It is a process.  Over the weekend, Ousmane, my host brother, has been teaching me how tp boil, froth, and mix the China Black, obscene amounts of sugar, and mint for the best taste.  It comes in 3 stages--the first is bitter (la morte), the second is sweeter (la vie), and the third is tooth-achingly sweet (l'amour).
  • Running.  It's the Senegalese way to fitness.  You see lots of men of all ages (rarely women) trotting along La Corniche in the early morning or late evening hours.  And on the beach, starting after 5pm, you see young men playing soccer, doing push-ups (pomps), and crunches.  And wrestling.  The water is considered almost too cold for swimming right now, but it feels great after a hot day.
  • Greeting everyone.  I thought that this was an overstatement during our orientation, but it's not.  If you come into a room, you shake hands with everyone.  You ask "ca va?" or "nanga deff?" and you make sure to know everything about everyone's family, too.  The very respectful girls do a little dip when they shake the hand of an older person.  If you're going down the street, you greet everyone.  Rapid-fire questions in Wolof go back and forth.  As it was explained to us, it's part of recognizing the other person's humanity.  In a place so crowded, so busy, and with so little, that makes sense--especially when combined with the ethic of sharing.  
  • Phone cards and instant coffee (Nescafe).  Everyone is trying to sell you something.  Especially if you are white (toubab).  Orange and Tigo phone cards--prepaid, not plans as in the US--are for sale everywhere by young men on the side of the road who wave their wares at you as you pass by.  And there's no real coffee, only Nescafe, which replays commericals over and over on the local stations.  The commercials have a jingle, too, which goes: "T-t-t-TURN IT UP!"  Weird when English comes on the screen, but I've gotten so used to the mix of languages--French, English, Wolof--that it's hard to know what language I was told something in.  I'm still very conscious of the language that I speak, of course.
  • Flashy dressing.  This weekend, I went to a wedding reception with my host sister, Fana.  Although I couldn't do much but sit and watch everyone else talk in Wolof, it was certainly a visually stunning experience.  Senegalese women are completely unapologetic in their love of eye-candy.  Anything that shines, sparkles, or glitters, they will wear it.  Embroidery on their sleeves, satin high-heels, rhinestones on the neck of their dresses, gold rings and earrings--it's all there in abundance.  Heavy eye make-up, too.  Colorful clothes, too--hot pink, lime green, bright orange, flame red.  I felt very under-dressed, but also too sick to worry about it.  I was concentrating on not throwing up.
It's very hard to imagine the snow in Vermont right now.  Had a brief attack of homesickness last night and this morning when I wasn't feeling well (indigestions--urgh), but feeling much more chipper now.  Physical sickness leads easily to emotional sickness, I find.

I'm also beginning to sort out my schedule, but what would have been my first class wasn't held today.  Classes at the Intstitute de Francais pour Etudiants Etrangeres were cancelled today due to student demonstrations.  This is pretty common, I guess.  Those crazy political college students.  So my first class begins tomorrow--Islam in Senegal, with Professor Abdoul Aziz Kebe.  There will be 15 weeks of classes--that's 15 weekends to do something fun.  I'm already making a list of things to do and to visit.  Goals are important things to have, after all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Maangi fi rek" - "I am here only"

In the computer lab at WARC (West African Research Center), and preparing to post my first photos.  This week has been an orientation--sight-seeing, travel, purchasing cellphones (portables), learning how to walk to school, first classes in Wolof, getting closer to my host family.  The phrase "you learn something new every day" seems pretty inadequate right now.

at la Phare, the Light House--the highest point in Dakar--and looking over the coast

"la monstrosite"--the enormous, controversial monument commissioned by A. Wade

the mountains of salt on the shores of Lac Rose

Our guides--two young female students, Adji and Awa--warned us that the sellers (vendeurs) can be very pushy there at the lake.  It didn't come as a surprise that there had been some incidents, as my dad kindly pointed out to me.

I have a phone number now, too.  It's cheapest if people in the US call me.  And the time difference is 5 hours.  I think.  But I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

first firsts

My first day in Dakar was a day of many other firsts.

  1. First time seeing African cows: they have long horns and humps, and they come in many colors.  They also blocked the road--but since this also happens with Holsteins in Danville, I don't consider a cow traffic jam a first.
  2. First time eating communal-style around a bowl, with the right hand only.  (The left is for "intimate" activities.)  This meal was followed by a second, same style.  It will take a little while to make eating with my hands elegant.
  3. First time drinking bissap juice (from a hibiscus flower).  It's bright purple, and very sweet.
  4. First 6 - 7 hour crash course on culture.  All in French, and some (very good) English.  Our French is terrible.
  5. First visit to fishing beach, with many long wooden boats painted white, green, red, and black, on the shore or bobbing in the surf, many men aboard.  Big fish market all down the beach.  Fish heads in the sand, hoof-prints of horses everywhere.
  6. First visit to the house of Ousmane Sembene, the famous Senegalese film-maker.  It's not a museum, just a locked-up house.
  7. First shower.  This only counts as a first because it will probably my last shower with hot water for a long time.
Tomorrow, we see more of Dakar and meet our host families.  I don't know what to feel--I'm too tired--but I am hopeful.

Friday, January 8, 2010


This afternoon.  Below is a picture of all that I will be taking with me for five months: my purse, my backpack, and my enormous gray rolling suitcase that feels like it's filled with lead instead of presents, clothes, and a mini-pharmacy.

And so the adventure begins.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

fourth finger of the left hand

I've bought a ring.  A fake ring.

No, a real ring, but a fake wedding ring.  It's sterling silver and pretty substantial--thick.  This ploy was recommended to me by someone who said that telling inquiring men that I had a boyfriend wouldn't deter them, and so I ought to wear a ring.  (This reminds me of a Nigerian New Haven taxi driver who asked whether I had any "part-time" boyfriends.  No, I replied, only full-time.)

Although getting proposed to could be fun--after all, how many times does a girl get asked to marry somebody?--I hope that this might make for less awkwardness.  It does feel funny to wear it, though.  I'm not the traditional marriage type, but I liked to think that it would be a special day when I would put something on that finger

I also want to include a link to another young woman's blog: Ryan Brown, who goes to Duke, and who studied abroad in Dakar this past semester.  She's been helping me pack.  She's also hilarious, and you should read her stuff.