Thursday, May 27, 2010

if you want to study abroad

I hope that the adventures I've described here, in combination with the blogs of my fellow study abroad ladies, have inspired you (some of you, reading along) to consider doing a semester in Dakar.  That's great.  Do it.

However, there are lots of programs to choose from.  I'm going to do a brief run-down of the options I encountered and offer my completely biased opinion on most of them.  Links to the home-pages are provided, where I could find them.
  • Mount Holyoke Spring Semester in Dakar [my program!].  You stay with a home-stay.  You stay for 4 - 5 months.  You are taken on 2 - 3 awesome field trips, but otherwise, you stay in Dakar.  You take 5 - 6 classes, which are very easy, except the final projects sneak up on you.  You are told that you can take classes at University Cheikh Anta Diop, which is kind of true, but you end up taking all of your classes at the WARC (West African Research Center) and a few at IFÉÉ (Institute de Français pour étudiants étrangèrs).  WARC is also the home-base for the Wells College, Michigan State, and Minnesota University programs.  [Strangely, I could not find the Mt. Holyoke page on Dakar; here's an article instead.]
  • Wells College in Dakar.  Also, I think, a spring semester program.  You stay with a home-stay.  You stay for 4 months.  You are taken on 2 - 3 awesome field trips, but otherwise, you stay in Dakar.  Similar academically to Mount Holyoke; Wells, Mt. H., and Michigan study abroad students take all of their classes together at the WARC.
  • Michigan State in Dakar.  Also, I think, a spring semester deal.  You stay with a home-stay.  You stay for 4 - 5 months.  You are taken on 2 - 3 awesome field trips, but otherwise, you stay in Dakar.  Similar academically to Mount Holyoke; Wells, Mt. H., and Michigan study abroad students take all of their classes together at the WARC.
  • MSID Senegal.  You can come for the fall or for the spring or stay for the whole year.  You stay with a home-stay, both in Dakar and in a more rural internship placement.  The MSID students who were at the WARC in the spring took classes separately, like an intensive Wolof Language course, for 6 weeks.  Then they left for Spring Break, and then they were placed in smaller cities and villages for a 4 - 5 week internship.  The MSID students who were at the WARC for the year were rarely in Dakar but instead working and researching in their internships.
  • Suffolk University in Dakar.  Though the campus was right next to my house, I only visited once or twice.  I don't know much at all about the program, but it seems terrific: a great way to meet students from all over Africa, not just Americans.  You still stay with home-stays and still get 2 -3 awesome field trips.  Check out the link.
  • CIEE in Dakar.  Also a program that I know nothing about, but looks cool.
If I were to do it all again...well, I had such a good time, I can't really say I'd do anything different.  Michigan, Wells, and Mt. Holyoke all give similar preparation and education.  The MSID program seems to give you a deeper insight into rural Senegalese village life, and the Suffolk program puts you in contact with a more diverse student body, and you still get home-stays and field trips.  We few at the WARC could have used some more Senegalese friends, as well as a better sense of the country as a whole--though getting to know Dakar really well was fun.

Now, for something completely different: ART in DAKAR for the bi-annual DAKART Festival.  We didn't get to see as much of it as we liked, but Kelli and Carlee and I checked out La Manege while doing some downtown shopping.  I had already seen this particular installation with Dian, Logan, and Frankie (a big opening), but it was nice to see it again, without the crowds.

Two goats, painted with black splotches, as part of an art installation at Galérie la Manege

Interior of Galérie la Manege, which is run by the French Cultural Institute

...and if I haven't convinced you yet that you should come to Dakar, let me add that going to study in Dakar was probably the best decision I've ever taken a really long time making.  I knew it was something I should do, and then it became something I wanted to do, and then I finally did it--studying abroad in Senegal, that is.  My cluelessness at the start was defeated by my curiosity, which saw me through most of the semester.  And it felt good.

I don't want to say that study abroad, and Africa in particular, is a "life changing" experience.  That's a little too romantic.  I can't promise epiphanies.  Plus, your life is always changing.  

But I am a different (better?) person with different (bigger?) dreams, now that I have gone and returned (and will go again).  If you don't want to go to Senegal, at least consider the African continent.  If you don't want to go to Africa, at least still consider studying abroad.  I left Yale, probably the best educational institution in the world, for an entire semester, and I don't regret it.  Neither will you.

Monday, May 24, 2010

(re)adjustment, continued

[NOTE: I began this post yesterday, a Sunday.]

Dad's making spaghetti for dinner.  I sit fresh from a (hot) shower in my room, at home in Vermont, on my laptop with wireless internet, looking out onto the garden and the bushy green rhubarb, and listening to the washing machine whirling away downstairs.  Dakar is almost unimaginable...almost.

Dad with the green watering can,
the afternoon that I got back from the airport

Sundays are always tired days in Dakar.  Saturday night is for staying out late, and Sunday morning is for sleeping in.  Aysha and Fana get up and take (bucket) showers in their separate bathrooms around noon; Ousmane and Djim might well keep snoozing until lunch, around 2 or 2:30 in the sunny courtyard.  Then back to nap some more, watch TV, talk on Skype, drink ataaya, maybe go to the beach to do "fitness."  Dinner every other week is ngalax, which requires no real cooking.

Never had I ever appreciated Sunday as a day of rest until I experienced it in Dakar.  There's no one out in the streets.  Some stores don't open, though the downtown is still doing business.  Nothing could be considered demanding, pressing, or urgent on a Sunday.

Packing my suitcase to come home

I keep one clock on Dakar time: 4 hours ahead.  Jet-lag hasn't really gotten to me yet.

I've already gotten several phone calls: from Ousmane, from Nassouri (former guardian), and from Mamadou (a fruit-seller at the end of the road my house is on).  I'm incredibly complimented that they have made the effort.  Phone calls to the States are expensive, and all they seem to want during our brief conversations is to hear that I'm home safely and to make sure everything is going fine ("ça va?").  Keeping in contact will be both a joy and a responsibility.  I'm frustrated that my cell phone plan doesn't include international service, so I'll be looking for more ways to use Skype--both to call cell phones and to use through my cell phone.  I have these connections, and now I begin the work of maintaining them.

View from the plane, sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean

I haven't really tried to explain the experience yet to anyone.  I've been shy--not reaching out to contact my friends the way I should.  I just got back from "Africa."  How to describe it?  That's really the purpose of this blog: to distill my thoughts and to serve as an introduction to the whole idea of studying abroad, "Africa," and even "America."  The best I can do is to encourage everyone who has the ability to go, and for a period longer than a vacation...and then, go back.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

impossible cookies

I've now been home for about 24 hours.  The air smells really good here.  I'm working hard to not accept everything here as normal, working hard to keep the familiar strange, the strange familiar.

Things I Have Done in the Last 48 Hours that Would Have Been Impossible/Unimaginable in Daily Dakar Life
  • had Dunkin' Donuts coffee, in a big cup
  • used American money
  • used a pay phone
  • got in a car and rode on roads that had lines, speed limits, stop signs, and traffic signals
  • ate a peanut-butter (crunchy) and jelly (apricot) sandwich on whole wheat bread...and ate pork (a meat not eaten by Muslims) roast for dinner, with rhubarb pie for dessert; french toast with maple syrup for breakfast; pasta with asparagus pesto for lunch; crackers with cheddar cheese; fig newton cookies; pasta with scallops and goat cheese for dinner.  More food-related things: drank tap water, had a glass of wine (also not done by devout Muslims), used a microwave, ate on a separate plate
  • wore denim shorts above the knee, in public
  • threw my clothes in the laundry machine, and then in the dryer
  • slept on a mattress
  • turned on the faucet and expected there to be water
  • listened to NPR
I am also amazed by how many shades of green there are in this part of the world.  And how everyone here has a car.  And how early we eat our meals--lunch at 12 noon instead of 2:30, dinner at 6:30 instead of 9:30.  Eating on separate plates feels downright hostile.  I haven't yet showered--I'll do that tonight--in order to keep a bit of Dakar dirt on my body.

As I unpacked, I thought: "Is this all I brought back?"  Even with so many heavy bags, I just didn't feel it was enough.  I could not, did not, bring all of Senegal back; I cannot, will not live a Senegalese life here.  But I am not yet ready to resume my old one, in the old way.  I want to keep sharing--my food, my time.  I want time and money to be spent, not saved.  I want my days to be full as they were in Dakar...nothing really to do but find someone to do nothing with.  And I wasn't exaggerating when I told my family in Dakar that I was used to having 200 people to greet every day, and that I would soon only have 2, my mom and dad.  It is hard to go suddenly from talking with every member of my family every day to being restricted to Facebook and Skype.  My cell phone has no international plan.

And it is lonely, even as I already have friends who have reached out to talk with me, meet up and catch up.  I do want to see them, and in the way Senegalese people meet and welcome friends and visitors into their easily.  You don't "go out of your way" to do something for someone in Senegal; it's as if you exist in order to do that for that other person, and therefore, doing it doesn't disturb your life's course.  If you're eating, you invite everyone within hearing to eat with you (and no one ever says "no," but "merci, bon appetit" as a way to refuse).  If you're making tea, it's your responsibility to know how many people are near in order to prepare enough.  You live your life in constant accommodation of others.

More thoughts on all this later.  Now it's time for pictures, food-related.

Incredible diversity of cookies and biscuits.  Some candy thrown in.

Biting into a Biskrem cookie.  Yum.

Chocopain and Nescafe on the breakfast table at home

The egg rolls (called "nems") served at our going-away party at WARC.
Eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf, then dipped in sweet or spicy sauce.

Fataya, also from the WARC party.  Also yummy.

I do feel, being here amongst all that made up my life before, as if I'm waking up from a Dakar dream.  Because four months is both long enough to live naturally, and short enough to not compare to all the years I spent not in Dakar, I have to reconcile the two.  As do all of us study abroad students.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


America, land where...
...restrooms all have toilet paper. registers all have change (I just bought 2 Granny Smith apples in the Washington, Dulles airport with a 20 dollar bill, and the lady called me "sweetie" after I did).
...time is money.  (This is something that Dian remarked on, noticing that in Senegal, this urgent mindset of productivity doesn't exist.  I was joking with my dad when I said that "in Senegal, nobody has money, so they just spend time"--which I now think is truer than anything I've yet put into words about the Senegalese approach to time and timelessness.)

America, land of... machines, bagels, and breakfast sandwiches.
...recycling bins and custodians.
...endless airports with trains and elevators and moving walkways--moving walkways.

In our "re-entry" session, where we learned how to deal with reverse culture shock (I feel like I'm doing pretty well), they warned us not to judge too quickly.  I can't help it--I think American English sounds ugly.  And American people look pretty ugly, too, compared to the slow-moving elegance of the Senegalese.  But I'll try to restrain myself from further criticism.  I board my flight to Burlington soon, landing around 2pm in the beautiful Green Mountain State.  It is so cold here in Washington, DC that I can hardly imagine 50 degrees and rain in Vermont.

Aysha and me at the Mermoz beach, last Sunday in Senegal, swimming and making ataaya

Saying goodbye.  Before I left, I spent the afternoon at home, making tea for all my study abroad friends who came over.  We talked and sipped and munched, marveling at the idea of going home.  Everyone left slowly--Dian and the Wells girls had already taken off on Friday; Kelli and Carlee leave today/tomorrow; the rest of the gang heads home around the 30th of May, staying on to travel and really soak up Senegal.  After tea was dinner, vermicelli and yassa and yapp (viande/beef), which I had requested as my last meal.  Then Ousmane helped me move my monstrously heavy bags downstairs and into the car (the new car, which Maman recently bought for Papa).

I said goodbye to Maman, Papa, Tidiane, Djim, Fatou & Fatou (the maids), Tonton (uncle visiting from Paris), Tata (aunt visiting, who had also been sent out earlier by Maman to buy fabric, a table cloth, and binbins for me as last-minutes was hard to fit them all).  I could hardly speak French.  I cried until Fana corrected me: "Why are you crying?  We'll still be here...we have Facebook, and Skype!  Don't cry."  That helped.  And even Ousmane was trying to be cheerful for me, saying that I was only leaving for Saint Louis for the weekend, and I would be back in 2 or 3 days.  Elisa came over, and we piled into the car: Ousmane driving; Fana in the front; me, Elisa, and Aysha in the back.  We played music and danced about a bit.  Elisa held my hand.  At the airport, I checked my bags; I joked with the security agent that I was bringing all of Dakar back with me, and he laughed and said "il faut nous laisser quelquechose" - "got to leave us something."  And then I had to hug everybody.  I was fine until I turned back to go into the airport, and I started crying.  One of the security guards noticed and asked whether I was leaving my husband in Dakar.  Everyone was happy to hear me speak Wolof--last time for a long time, I'm afraid.

I would have been all alone in the airport except Michael was leaving for Paris (he'll come back to Dakar before he goes home to the States), and I was incredibly grateful to see him so I could stop dwelling on how miserable I was after saying goodbye to Aysha, Fana, Elisa, and Ousmane.  But then I boarded alone for the 9-hour flight, and just kept thinking.

The morning sky on Goree, day of the Dekkendo Peace Conference

And now I'm here.  Although my time in Senegal has come to a close, there will be many more posts to come on this blog, because it's about the whole thing...the whole deal...the whole experience.  Re-entry and re-integration.  Just please keep reading.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

first lasts

To bookend my post of first firsts, I'd like to make note of my first lasts from the past few days.

  • Last time working out at Gym Olympique on la Corniche Ouest.  Said goodbye to one of the friendly coaches there who knew me.  My other friends who I had met there weren't around on a Saturday morning, sadly.
  • Last time doing my laundry by hand on the roof.  (Actually, I tend to think that I will do this again before Tuesday.)
  • Last class at the WARC, a final History presentation and lecture last Tuesday.  And my last assignment, my final paper for History, which I emailed to my professor on Friday.
The scary part is knowing that there are other lasts that I haven't realized yet, because I can't know whether they will happen again before I leave.  Was it my last time at Marche Sandaga yesterday?  Was it my last time at that beautiful beach on Corniche Est the day before, the evening when the Wells College group of girls flew home?  Who knows.

Now to cover the events this past week: Wednesday afternoon we had a "re-entry" session at WARC where we were prepared for some symptoms of reverse culture shock.  Unfortunately, there's no way to be immune, so we just listened and learned that we would learn how to cope.  And then we had a little party, which featured mountains of fataya (fried dumplings), nems (egg rolls), and cake, as well as all the bouye and bissap juice you could ever drink.  After filling our bellies, we then took photos, because we had all dressed up, Senegalese-style.

Everybody's booty looks good in a pagne (?) skirt.

Then, that night, a group of us who had signed up to participate in a peace conference hopped on a bus to go to a concert of big Senegalese stars who would be singing for peace, tolerance, and understanding.  We didn't understand most of the words, but we danced.

One of the big stars, Tete ("tee-tee"), on the stage and on the screen.

We were there at the big stadium Leopold Sedar Senghor (named after Senegal's first president) until midnight, and went home on the bus, and then got up around 6am to get to the Embarcadere de Goree and to the conference location on the island.  While we were all happy to get a backstage pass to the concert and a free ticket to Goree, but general agreement was that this was a huge waste of money that could be better spent on more practical initiatives than the obnoxiously vague and optimistic goals of our meeting.  We were also exhausted, and this might have contributed to our crankiness.  Then we shopped and took the ferry back to Dakar.  I went to bed at 9pm for the first time in a very long time, and it felt wonderful.

Today I'm off to the Mermoz beach to make ataaya and do "fitness."  I'll be enjoying the sea and the company of my family and friends.  I'm also slowly packing.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

senegal sugar content

The other day, I ran out of muesli.  So, for breakfast, I ate a white spongey baguette with perfumed honey and had a mug of Nescafe (2 spoonfuls instant coffee, 1 spoonful powdered milk, 3 sugar cubes).  Later, Carlee and I shared some candy hearts as we wrote our papers.  At lunch, we had stir-fried rice with some beef, onion sauce, and shreds of carrots and tomatoes.  We went on to make ataaya--about 250 grams of sugar involved in that process--and munched on some cookies.  Then 2 mangoes.  And dinner was ngalax, the peanutty sugar-bouye-millet mix.

Making ataaya.  Pouring in the sugar--a shot glass and a half for each stage of tea-making.

Why relate all this?  To try and communicate how much sugar gets eaten in Senegal.  In short, it's SO MUCH SUGAR.  And so many carbs--white rice, white bread, white pasta.  And so few vegetables.

The lack of fruits and veggies in the standard Senegalese diet is pretty baffling to most of us American students, because there is a bounty of fresh produce sold from tiny stands every corner here.  Yet veggies only make a minor appearance in ceeb u jen, the Senegalese national dish of fish and rice...more like rice, fish, and one (1) carrot, one (1) eggplant, one (1) manioc root, and one (1) head of cabbage, all of rather modest size.  And as for fruit, any kind of fruit, it's a dessert item.  Yet everywhere there are apples, bananas, pears, mangoes, cantaloupe, avocados...and they're cheap!  Affordable!  So, why can't we have a salad?

Because culinary stuff is cultural, of course.  Balsamic vinaigrette is not part of what most Senegalese people know how to make and what most Senegalese people want to eat (even with that snooty French influence).  And the Senegalese have already gone through one national cuisine shift, from millet- and sorgum-based dishes to rice-based, which happened around the time of colonization--from 16th - 19th centuries, when everything gets messed up in Africa.  The French tried to get their federation of colonies (Afrique Occidentale Francaise) to produce cash-crops, not food-crops, radically changing the subsistence farming that had been practiced before that point, and thus changing the eating habits of their indigenous "subjects."  And things have gotten trickier from there; these days, Senegal is excruciatingly dependent on imports of rice, sugar, and gas.  To address this national vulnerability, President Abdoulaye Wade has announced an (overly?) ambitious plan for Senegal to grow its own food.  I wish him, and Senegal, luck.

And now, for some characteristically Senegalese dishes.  I don't know how to make any of them...yet?

  • Ceeb u jen / thieboudienne (that's Wolof / French).  Already described it above.  It comes in "rouge" (red), where the rice has been cooked with tomatoes, and "blanc" (white), where the rice is...not cooked with tomatoes.
  • Soup u candia.  Gumbo-style gooey sauce made with okra and palm oil.  Served on top of white rice with fishy items and sometimes with beef.  The only Senegalese dish I really can't eat.
  • Couscous.  Not the Moroccan kind, but the Senegalese version, made with finely-ground millet.  Many people don't like it, saying that the dry, sandy texture is too much to be endured, no matter how good the sauce that covers it.  Usually made with beef, not fish.
  • Yassa.  Thick onion sauce, made with lemon and mustard.  Delicious.  Served with fish, chicken, and beef.  The onions that I eat in yassa probably constitute 80% of the veggies that I have eaten during these 4 months in Senegal.
  • Mafe (pronounced maff-ay).  Thick peanut sauce, with palm oil.  Served on top of white rice, with some chunks of potatoes and carrots.  Heavy, but oh-so-satisfying.
But, back to sugar.  My host mother is a diabetic, and diabetes is a huge problem here; the daily diet of sweetness is the most obvious reason.  My host sister has a toothache, and probably a cavity, but she's afraid of the dentist like the rest of us.  And who knows about dental insurance, anyway?

Sometime soon, I will document the incredible diversity of cookies that I've had in Senegal that don't exist in the States.  Stay tuned.

One week.  This is all going too fast.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

making memories

There's something poetic about having only a few days left to distill Dakar in my mind and memories.  However, I also have final projects, which interfere with my last-minute impressionism.

Nonetheless, last night was a memory-maker.  After school, I caught a cab with my friend Dian to go to la Pointe des Almadies, a rocky outcropping at the northwest end of Dakar, where a group of shacks and restaurants compete to serve all sorts of seafood.  (La Pointe is also the closest I can get to the States while still being in Senegal.)  Together we polished off an immense order of oysters, mussels, and "coques" (some other in-shell creature), right there on the water.  Over the course of our meal, several vendors came to tempt us with leather boxes and wooden sculpture, but we bought only bin-bins, the waist beads that women here wear to be sexually irresistible to their men.  The sun sank as we talked and piled up the shells.

We then hopped back in a cab, where we tried to convince our taximan Cheikh that "jigeen ak jigeen" (woman and woman) marriages were just fine.  He said it wasn't "normal" and it wasn't good for "la sante" (health), and called us both "saay-saay" (roughly, "playboy" or "flirt").  Later, he said that he wanted to marry me.  Dian and I knew we weren't getting anywhere with this conversation, so we just laughed.

We arrived an a packed art opening at Galerie La Manege (Dian knew one of the artists), where we wandered until we found the wine and our friends, Frankie and Logan.  The four of us perused the art and joked about buying it for our (imaginary) multiple million-dollar mansions.  It was an artsy, monied, and mixed-race crowd gathered there; the people were as much fun to look at as the art.  We left together--Dian, Frankie, and Logan went to an Indian restaurant to celebrate the birthday of another friend, Michael; and I went home to sleep.  Now I'm up early this morning, researching sharia law in West Africa, and procrastinating by writing this blog post.

Dama kontaans / Je suis contente / I'm content and happy.

Ten days left.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

my family

I've kept my host family out of my blog posts for a while now, but because they have been so fundamental to my happiness here in Dakar, I feel it wouldn't be fair not to dedicate a post to them, describing how great they are.  This probably violates lots of privacy ethics.  I'm sorry.

When I first arrived, I was tired, jittery, and incredibly nervous.  Aysha greeted me at the door--I remember thinking that she was so pretty--and led me in to talk with Maman Toure (me with my stuttering French, her with eternal patience).  Maman gave me my Senegalese name (it's Daba, by the way) and told me that I was welcome, and that I should consider this house to be my house.  I think it was Ousmane who carried my incredibly heavy bag up to my room, and then it was Fana showed me my closet, my bathroom, and my bed.  In about an hour, I had moved in, but only technically.  I became a part of the family over the next few months: eating dinner in the courtyard, watching TV in the salon, doing laundry on the terrace.  I now know how to unlock the door and where to leave my laundry and what it sounds like when Fatou is setting out the table and plastic chairs for dinner (I listen for that).  I'm tuned into the people, and the house that is now my home.  On the endless weekend afternoons, my favorite thing to do is to make tea for them all--carrying it around to all the rooms, collecting the glasses, and getting their smiles when they know that, yes, it was me who made it this time.  After growing up as an (almost) only child, it's a strange miracle to have so many siblings in my house.

My sisters: Aysha and Fana

Me and my sisters talk about guys and about shopping and about all those differences between America and Senegal.  We watch TV together and eat dinner together and sometimes I pull some mbalax moves to make them laugh.  They invite me to come to the store, to go on a walk with them--just for the company, and just to get me out of the house and into the wider Dakar world.  Aysha is dramatic and bubbly; Fana, an excellent storyteller and a hard worker.  (And I have two other sisters, Adji and "Mama," professional who have married and moved out to their husbands' homes.)

My brothers: Ousmane, Tidiane, Djim

Me and my brothers talk about Obama and Senegalese politics.  We make tea and eat dinner together.  They are all busy, ambitious, and accomplished--working at the school, or in computer networking.  They will live together in the house after they are married (not anytime soon, it seems); the unfinished third floor will become their apartments.

Maman Toure, wearing the shawl Mom gave to her

Maman has raised seven children to adulthood, earned her Master's, traveled to France, and started her own school.  Now she welcomes American students into her home, saying that all children in the world are really the children of all the mothers in the world.  


Papa has worked as a minister in the Senegalese government and has visited more placed in the United States than I have.  He's retired, but still welcomes friends and former dignitaries into the house to discuss current events and to do research.  He likes his tea very light (the third boil), with plenty of mint, and with diabetic sugar.

Okay, sorry for the brief post, but I've really got to get back to work.  I have two major research papers due next week and a Peace Conference that I have been chosen to go to on May 12 - 13.  Classes end the 14th, and I get a few days to sit on the beach and drink tea before I board a plane headed back to the States.  Leaving behind one family for another gives one all kinds of sweet and sad feelings, but I'll have to deal with those in my diary before I even hope to present them in a blog post.