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.)

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