I’m so sorry I haven’t been more in touch! While staying at a hotel with the rest of the program in the neighborhood of Mermoz last week, I’ve been getting to know people in my program and getting accustomed to Dakar before living on my own with my host family. Orientation was a crazy week and I wanted to be able to look back on the whole thing before writing about it. I’m now moved in with my host family, but before I tell you about them, I’ll recap orientation.
The first thing you notice in Dakar is that it is under construction. Huge concrete skeletons of buildings are around every corner and the entire main road that goes to the university, called Rue Cheikh Anta Diop, is being expanded to add an extra lane down each side. This means walking along the very edge of the road as taxis and car rapides (huge, colorful vans packed with people that will take you anywhere for basically 50 cents) zoom by while dodging the rubble and construction equipment along the way. What people keep saying is that Dakar is a very safe city where violent crimes are extremely rare, but if there’s anything to watch out for it’s the traffic! There are no pedestrian rights here and no traffic lights so it’s all in the timing when crossing the street.
Me and a fellow CIEE student on a car rapide
While people here are extremely warm and friendly, as a foreigner, I’ve also had to learn how to deal with a variety of different types of people I encounter on my way to the university. While in New York City you have to hail a taxi, in Dakar, they hail you! While walking with a group of people along the side of the road, every free taxi beeps while passing, and sometimes they’ll even slow down and yell out “taxi?”. Basically you just have to shake your head and they move on.
There are also several eager phone card sellers that hang out on a corner where they relentlessly all try to win your business by doling out very generous compliments about your appearance. You pretty much have to learn to say “ba beneen yoon” (basically “next time”) and keep walking. Same goes for the young boys who go around begging with tin cans. While begging has its origins in Islamic culture, where it was reserved for the elderly in need, the physically handicapped, and young school children within a small community, it now is often transformed as a way for Koranic teachers to extract money from their pupils, who are often not fed or are beaten if they don’t return with enough money. It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in every day, but what some people do is give them food, so I might do that instead at some point.
Another very noticeable aspect of Dakar is the frequent power cuts. For the past two years, Dakar has grown so much that its electricity demand is higher than the capacity of its power plants. To conserve energy and prevent total meltdown, entire neighborhoods get their power cut periodically throughout the day. They’re always unexpected and they usually happen whenever you happen to want a nice warm shower… There have been several protests about the electricity cuts (including the one that the airport on the night of my arrival) and they have become a big political issue for President Wade, who has lost a lot of popularity in the past years and is up for reelection in 2012.
I hope after that description of Dakar you don’t think it’s an awful place because I really do love it here! It takes getting accustomed to, but once you get over these differences, you begin to enjoy other things.
Suffolk is a beautiful campus, painted in baby blue and cream paint with a cute outdoor quad area that gets wifi. Classrooms even have air conditioning, although it hasn’t been too hot yet, maybe a high in the mid 70’s and lows in the low 60’s.
The university is a satellite campus for Suffolk University in Boston, and around 90 students from all over West Africa attend for two years before travelling to Boston to finish their degree. It’s been really interesting talking to the students here because the majority aren’t from Senegal, so are visiting like us. Many are from Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, and the Gambia.
During orientation, I took a French placement test and registered for my courses. I’ll be taking Wolof, French, Public Health, and an internship for credit, for which I’ll meet in a class once a week for lectures about field studies or specific topics related to our internships, and every Friday I’ll work at the organization I sign up with. I saw more about classes after they begin next week!
Wolof class is SO much fun! During orientation we had two crash survival Wolof courses and all the teachers are awesome. They also teach Wolof/French/other languages indigenous to Senegal to other study abroad programs like SIT and to the Peace Corp, so they basically have language teaching down pat. Wolof also is so logical that it’s easy to learn, plus all the spelling is phonetic since it’s an oral language.
Salaamaalekum (sort of sounds like saul-lom-mawl-lay-koom) literally means “peace be with you” in Arabic, and it’s how you greet everybody here, regardless of their religion. Its response is maalekum salaam, which means “may peace be with you”. I think these types of greetings really reflect the supportiveness and sense of community in this culture. Another example is sa yaram jámm?, which literally means “is your body at peace?”, but is their “how are you”. The response is then jámm rekk, alxamdulilaay (“jam (like jamba juice) wreck all-HUM-do-lee-lie”), which means “peace only, thank god”!
I can’t wait to be able to have entire conversations with my host family in Wolof. It’s such an important part of social interactions here that the faster I learn, the better relationships I will develop with people here.
The food is great! Most meals include rice or couscous with a large portion of chicken, goat, lamb, or fish with cooked vegetables in sauce. Breakfast feels more French, usually a baguette with cheese or nutella plus the ubiquitous Nèscafé, which I must say is growing on me! Nèscafé is sold everywhere here in little wheeled kiosks, which give out drinks in little plastic cups that end up squished and scattered on the roads. Markets on the side of the road also have really delicious fruits like bananas, oranges, and clementines, and when they’re in season in a few months there will be mangoes.
Ceebu jën (chay-boo-jen) is the national dish of Senegal. I got to try it for the first time here during orientation at a place called the Baobab Center, where foreigners planning to work or study in Senegal come to learn about basic Senegalese values and customs. Ceebu jën is rice and fish in either a red tomato sauce or just white with a variety of other vegetables. It is really good, but I’m afraid that by the end of the program I’m going to be REALLY sick of it! I’ve never eaten so much fish in my life!
Traditionally, the Senegalese eat from a communal bowl on the floor and use their right hands to eat. What I’m most worried about with food is that I’m a lefty, and eating with your left hand here is very insulting because it’s considered unclean for reasons related to the fact that toilet paper just isn’t something people use here (enough said…). I’ve been practicing eating with my right hand, but it’s still very awkward, especially when handling whole fish with lots of bones!
My neighborhood, Sacre Coeur III, is really nice and I live close to several other CIEE students. It’s also pretty close to Suffolk so that while I do receive a travel stipend, I’m planning on taking the 20-minute walk with other CIEE students every day.
My host family is great. They’ve had 8 CIEE students before me so pretty much have the hosting an American student role down pat! I can literally talk to my host dad for hours. His name’s Papa Jo, he’s an 81-year-old retired civil servant, uses a walker to get around, and spends most of his days watching tv or talking with visitors. He’s patient with my French even though he knows English, and since my host mother is away, he runs the household. When he was a civil servant, he travelled all over the world to talk to other governments and the World Bank to get funding for educational projects. He’s traveled all over Europe, the US, Japan, Brazil, and several other West African countries, so he’s full of stories!
My host mother is named Fatou and is a businesswoman who grows rice near the town of St. Louis several hours north of Dakar along the coast. She sells the rice back here in Dakar. This means she’s gone for extended amounts of time, and I’m not sure exactly when she’s coming back so that I can meet her! I also live with Fatou's son named Maguette and Thiane (“Chanay”), the daughter of one my host mother’s friends. Maguette lived in Paris, but he just recently moved back for an undetermined amount of time. Thiane is 21 years old and goes to a finance and business university. The maid comes to do the cleaning and cooking every day. Maids are very common here and most households even just moderately well off have one.
While I was excited to “eat around the bowl” in traditional Senegalese style, I was slightly relieved to see we were eating in the living room with trays! My first day, we ate fish and hand-cut French fries with a fresh salad while watching an Indian soap opera. They love watching tv, particularly Indian or various South American soap operas dubbed in French. I think I’ll also be spending a lot of time with some of their neighbors who have a lot of children my age and are hosting another CIEE student.
Well, that’s it for now! I’ll try and post a little more often from now on, but I don't get internet at home so I'll have to do it all at school or at other people's houses.
Oh! By the way, the title of this post is a Senegalese proverb that basically means you aren’t going to accomplish anything in a rush. People here never seem to be in a hurry. They take the time to do things like greet people, stopping in the road to talk. I'm trying to adhere more to this proverb while I'm here and get used to the slower pace of life here. It also sounds really cool in Wolof, but I haven't learned enough to say that yet!