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.