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:

Sunday, March 14, 2010


I'm going to try to do two things at once: write a blog entry and write my first (gasp!) paper of the semester for my class, Genre et Developpement.  You can imagine which task I will find more enjoyable.

About a week ago at this time, my fellow study abroad students and I had arrived at our hotel in Toubakouta, an small Senegalese town located south and inland from Dakar.  We had spent the day on the bus, crawling through traffic jams (when leaving Dakar), flying over some paved highways, and then bouncing over some red dirt roads.  We had stopped for lunch in Sokone, the hometown of the director of the WARC, Professor Sene.  We were fed by the women of the town (and Prof. Sene's family).  It was some of the best ceeb u jen (fish and rice) ever.  Ever.  It was hot outside, but nonetheless, after eating, we danced.

Friends sipping on juice after they made a valiant effort to ingest the mountain of ceeb u jen.
We ate around big communal plates, sitting on the ground, Senegalese-style.

Dancing with the village women at Sokone

Looking across the green and bee-filled pool at our hotel/campement in Toubakouta.
The bees were by the pool in order to drink the water.  Really.

That night after dinner, we piled into the bus again and drove to a performance--a presentation "folklorique," the schedule said--and it featured more singing, dancing, and drumming.  There was a man who walked on glass (real glass, no magic here) and emerged uninjured; and a man who swallowed fire (again, real fire).  These final two bits of entertainment were a little difficult to watch, knowing that there was no fancy trick behind the act and no hospital for many miles.

Crazy nighttime dancing!  
Also: not enough light for my camera to take photos!

After that, we were really exhausted, and went to bed.  The next morning, we got up early to an amazing spread of breakfast.  The main highlights were the real coffee and the bread that wasn't made mostly of air.  And strawberry jam.

And then we went on our way to the village, Keur Moussa Seny, where we arrived without calling ahead because, as one of our leaders explained, then they would start dancing and drumming to welcome us and lunch would happen only very very late.  Lunch happened late anyway, but that's okay.

Me with my host mother and her daughter.  Baby Ibrahima is on her back.
My host mother was the second wife of the man who headed my family compound.
The one-room hut that I slept in that night is in the background.

I helped to pluck and cut the chicken, and sliced some onions, but otherwise I wasn't invited to help out much around the house.  I suppose I don't really have the skills, anyway--can't balance huge buckets of water on my head, for instance.  We had yassa poulet (chicken with onion sauce) for lunch, and for dinner, and I more than I have ever consumed before in my life (I was pressured to eat, but it was also very tasty).  I was nearly sick that night, but somehow, I made it.  We also had ataaya and papaya, both prepared by my host father.  There was an extraordinary level of generosity.  My family was also fascinated by the bottle of maple syrup I gave them--the older, French-speaking son had to translate for my explaining that it was sugar that came from trees.

Twilight at the mosque in the center of town.  The stars that night were brilliant.

The next day we got up early and piled into the bus again, saying awkward but grateful Wolof goodbyes to our host families.  We ate breakfast again at the hotel before taking off to see the mangroves.  It was a long drive, and a long boat ride in the hot sun, and though we were admiring the view, we felt about as flat as the landscape.

boarding the pirogues that we would sit in for a very long time that day

Puttering through the mangroves

Awesome island made of shucked oyster shells, piled up by humans over the centuries

And then we got back to the hotel, napped intensively, ate dinner--and then got back in the bus to go to a lutte (wrestling match).  We were very, very tired, but the young men battling in the ring had plenty of energy.

this lutte was supposedly a regional championship, but we didn't stick around for the 1am finale

And since it wasn't far, we walked back under the stars and few street lamps and then fell into bed.  The next day (Monday, if you've been following along), we began the long drive home--back through Sokone, with lunch in Kaolack, and then through Mbour and Rufisque.  We arrived in Dakar around 6pm--early enough that I could walk home--and I was quite happy to be reunited with my Dakar family.

A view of huts along the highway from the bus window

And now I have to go back to writing my paper.  One page down, 3 more to go.

(If you want to read about the kind of soul-searching cross-cultural thoughts that a visit to a real, rural African village inspires, you should check out this excellent ruminating post by Colleen Schneider, a fellow study abroad student.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

food thoughts

Coming up: a trip to Toubacouta, which will include a day/night spent with a host family in a village called Keur Moussa Sèny; a stopover for lunch in the towns of Sokone and Kaolack; a lesson in djembe drumming; and a wrestling match (une lutte traditionelle).  We leave at 8am tomorrow and return around 5pm on Monday.  Also coming up: Mom’s visit to Senegal!  I’m in the process of designing an itinerary, which will include a trip to Saint Louis and Ile de Gorée.  It should be fabulous.

On my walk to school this morning, I started making another list.  (This is a good thing to do when walking for 40 minutes.)  The latest list: Tasty Things in Dakar.

  • Yassa – thick sauce of slow-cooked onions with lemon, served on rice or pasta with some kind of meat.
  • Café Touba / ak mew – the spiced coffee served in tiny plastic cups, which you can order with powdered milk (“ak mew”).
  • Bouye – sweet, thick juice from the fruit (called “monkey bread,” or pain de singe) of the baobab.  Best yet has been at La Palace, where they serve it without ice cubes and without watering it down.  Pictures below.

  • “Fondé” – I don’t actually know what is in this kind of warm pudding.  My host sister made it for me and it was delicious.
  • Thiakry – yogurt and millet, mixed together.  Sold in packaged plastic cups in stores or in plastic bags off the street.
  • Blood oranges, mangos, bananas – so much good fresh fruit.
  • Brochette – the beef here is excellent, and kebab-like sticks of cooked meat are delicious.
  • Jaff – sweetened or salty peanuts, sold in tiny plastic bags at the side of the road.
  • Biscuten – a kind of cookie--coconut-flavored with chocolate-filling--that comes in black packages of 4.
  • Ataaya – sweet black tea and mint, served in three increasingly-sugary stages. 

drinking bouye at La Palace

Monday, March 1, 2010

"bonjour, je t'aime" - hello, I love you

So, it got hot for a little while, but now it's back to the usual windy, sunny weather in Dakar.  I worry about the weather in May, and the temperatures further inland, where we will be traveling this weekend--a field trip to Toubacouta (not to be confused with Tambacounda).  I'll tell you more about that later.  Here's Toubacouta/Toubakouta on the map:

And here's what this post is about: dating in Dakar.  Not about me dating, specifically, but in general--how we young American women have experienced Senegalese romance.

It usually starts like this: you're at the beach, or maybe at the boutique, and somebody greets you, asks you "nanga deff?" / "how are you?" and then "yaangi nos?" / "you having fun?" and then you say, yes, you're having fun, you're a student, you've tried ceeb-u-jen, you think Senegal is "neex na" / "good, tasty, nice."  Then he gets down to business.  Do you have a boyfriend?  Do you have a husband?  This is the crucial point on the conversation where you decide whether or not to lie in order to escape the following: he says that you're beautiful and asks for your number, your email--or wait, he'll just give you his.  Things escalate quickly: you're nice, you're pretty, you're perfect, you're the best of friends, you're his girlfriend.  Really.  In the space of one conversation.  It's overwhelming, to say the least, and the attention is incessant.  Many guys just don't get the hint, often forcing me and my friends to be uncomfortably distant and rude.

And so I talked with my host brother about it, who explained it in this way: "I love you"--or, "je t'aime"--is a way to begin a relationship, not something that a relationship arrives at.  And if a guy wants you to be his girlfriend after talking for 10 minutes, it's because he doesn't want to seem insincere.  For anything to happen between a guy and a girl here in Senegal--for him to visit you at home, say--it needs to be official.  As in, officially boyfriend and girlfriend (or "copine").

I remember learning about cultural "frames" in an anthropology class at Yale and thinking that they were interesting.  Now, I know that they are real.  It's like looking into mirrors that don't seem to reflect the world right-side up.  You can't fathom others' reasons and motivations for acting in such a way, because it's counter to the social norms that you know and practice.  Disorienting.

It's not that Senegalese men don't know how dating works in the States--my host brother also gave a very good description of that--but they just don't realize how off-putting it is for an American girl to hear those words ("i love you, will you be my girlfriend?").  And my host brother acknowledged that there are men with no jobs and not much to look forward to, and so to marry an American girl would be nice...but then what about those who ask you if you have a husband as a matter of course, just to check?  What's with that?

Sometimes, it's sweet.  I can feel very attractive, all the time.  Sometimes, though, I just get frustrated.  Why, I want to ask, do you think you can stop me on the street?  Get in my way, bother me, talk to me, or even just stare?  I want you to leave me alone, let me and my friends walk in peace.  I don't want to be forced to have to say I have no time, I have a husband, I have to go, bye now.

Whew.  Let me take a break with a pretty picture of us sharing pictures:

at the restaurant, La Phare

Anyway.  Some cross-cultural relationships do work here.  Young women at the WARC do have Senegalese boyfriends who are wonderful and help show them around the city.  Last year, I think, one of the girls got married and stayed here.  And there's a lot of love to go around in this country.  It's a good place.  A great place.  But a sometimes a difficult place to be a young single white woman.

(For a highly insightful and similarly frustrated take on this same theme, read this post by Emily Matthews, a fellow student abroad student and a clever blogger.)