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.

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