The program that I did in Morocco, IES, recently visited Dakar with their summer program students and asked me to help them out during their week here. This is from the talk that I gave the students as an introduction to Dakar/Senegalese culture:
On the blog that I started in Morocco, which I didn’t really keep up with, I wrote a post listing the things I was proud of during my first week in Rabat, after orientation in Meknes, when things started to get more real. I was excited about moving in with my host family, finding a surf school to take lessons at, and learning how to get to and from school. This was especially exciting after the time that I got lost in the medina and I had to stand outside of it and call my host mom to come get me. And if you haven’t been lost in a medina, trust me, it’s nearly impossible to tell someone where you are when everything is kind of the same or it’s in Arabic. I also noted that I’d only been to the café five times that week, which was less than we were used to during orientation. But looking back, I don’t think I’ve even been to a café five times in Dakar in these five months. Here, at least in my neighborhood, you won’t find the same level of development. There are fewer cafes, bars, supermarkets, generally convenient things. But the culture isn’t so different. Where I expected the overlaps to bring familiarity, like the French colonial history or the majority Islam populations, I didn’t find it. I found it instead in the slowness of life, the time spent sitting around, drinking tea, appreciating the moment and the people around you more than the money you’re making from work or the constant desire to gain more.
I spent a week during the semester in a rural village in central Senegal, where there was no electricity and the only way to get there was a 30 minute horse and cart ride from the closest town. I stayed with a PeaceCorps volunteer in her hut in a larger family compound and lived an incredibly slow week. When my PeaceCorps volunteer told me the first day that she loves coming to Dakar because there you can pretend you’re not even in Senegal, I didn’t agree. I felt like living in Dakar was very much Senegal, with all of the difficulties and differences that come with that. After the week in the village, where we ate rice or a slightly different version of it for every meal, I realized that she was right. If you really want, you can find anything here – Indian restaurants, Thai massages, even the American grocery store, where you might spend all of your money but you will at least have some familiar faces in your snack cabinet. You can take the Dakar Dem Dekk, which we called the “nice bus”, that are more like the buses in America. You can go see cool concerts, and if you were dropped in the middle of the club at 3am, you wouldn’t know you were in a developing country. If you needed to, you could pretend you’re not in Senegal. But more often in practice, you’ll live like you are. You will take the normal bus, where you’ll be lucky to get a seat or lucky to be hanging out the door, but not lucky if you’re stuck inside. Honestly the worst part of my time in Dakar, the thing that gave me the most anxiety, was bus #3, which for some reasons is always so crowded that there’s no space to hold onto anything but no need to because there’s also no space to fall. You’ll go to four different corner stores to find the thing you want, and you’ll pay more than you should because you’re a foreigner. You’ll have these struggles, but you’ll have the great parts that come with Dakar and Senegal as well. On your walk to those four boutiques, you’ll run into three people you know. You’ll pick up a perfectly ripe mango, and you’ll bargain in the little Wolof you know.
When my Morocco program first approached me about helping them around Dakar, I realized that I didn’t really know Dakar very well, and still don’t. I became so content in my own neighborhood, drinking attaya under the Acoustic Tree and hanging out at the beach, that I actively didn’t explore Dakar. Instead, I offered my help through the connections that I have with people here. I may not have the ins and outs of Dakar down, but I have my family and friends. While that’s made my experience very different and much slower than in Morocco, it’s also made my time very meaningful.
Of course, I can’t generalize and outline one type of Senegalese person, but Senegalese people are usually sassy, and they love to joke around. Like Moroccans, they watch a lot of TV and they’re often late to planned events. They might not have completed university or even high school, but they’re not scared of getting into debates and arguing their opinions on anything, from religion to the economy to terrorism. What really struck me the most was the ease with which conversations turned into deeper discussions about the meaning of life or the measures of success or big topics like that. And it always came down to the basics of living in harmony with others. It was the importance of giving, the lack of importance of money, the emphasis on friends and family and on being content and à l’aise in all of our interactions with others and with what we have, and sharing even when it’s not a lot. You’ll see that even when 12 people get together to drink tea, they use two tea glasses. Unlike Morocco, where you can sit and spend hours drinking one drink, chitchatting and people watching, here you have to drink quickly and pass it to the next person and chitchat when it’s not your turn to drink. Another really cool instance of sharing is the religious holidays. I was here for Easter, and although Christians make up a small minority of the population, the holiday was felt throughout. Everyone was wishing everyone else a happy holiday. Christian families made their traditional Easter food, a peanut butter-yogurty thing called Ngalax, by the buckets and shared it with the whole neighborhood. I spent the day house-hopping and eating Ngalax with my American and Muslim Senegalese friends. And on Tabaski, known as Eid El-Kbir in Morocco, when the Muslim families eat their sheep they share generously with the Christian families. The generosity among Senegalese definitely extends to foreign visitors, and it’s no surprise that Senegal’s hospitality is pretty famous.
Senegal is known as the land of Teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality. And for me, it’s lived up to that name in every sense. I always joked that even if I forgot all of the Arabic I learned last semester in Morocco, I will never forget the word “Koolee” for “eat, eat”. The same thing applies here, where you will be fed until you burst. If you enter someone’s home within an hour or two of meal time, either before or after, they will insist that you stay to eat. Despite the fact that there’s not a lot of money here or a lot of jobs and opportunities, and they know that, Senegalese people are incredibly proud of their country and their culture and many would never want to leave. Rather, they want to share this with you, with visitors. Each person feels individually responsible for making the idea of Teranga a reality, whether that’s through inviting you to meals or to watch soccer games or taking you on a trip to see a piece of their city. Besides that I can give you some general descriptions that you can expect here: greetings are incredibly important. When you enter a room, it’s normal to go around and shake every person’s hand, exchanging a quick, how are you? How’s the family? How are your affairs? Peaceful alhamdulilah, before moving to the next person. If you want to ask someone a question, you must greet them first. There is a fascination with Toubabs, or foreigners. Kids may come up to you just to shake your hand and then run away. There are also lots of child beggars, just to warn you, that are students of the Islamic marabouts “learning a lesson about humility”. To them, it’s best to say “ba benoon yoon” and continue walking without giving money. Guys may call out to you on the street and a sadly high proportion of males you talk to will try to get your number or your hand in marriage, but it’s perfectly okay and easy enough to ignore them, pretend you’re married, or turn it into a joke and tell them they’re ugly or shut them down. Like I said earlier, people love to joke. So most importantly, don’t take anything too seriously or personally. At the internship that I did this semester, my favorite relationships were not with the people at my office or other interns that I worked with. What made my day each time was when I left the office and the security guards and I would joke around about how I should take them to America or leave my boyfriend for them. I got to practice my Wolof, laugh with them, and eventually was invited to each lunch with them and their family, which was really nice. As a foreigner, you will also be charged a higher price at the market. Try to bargain in French, and go for probably a third of the original price you’re given. You’ll see lots of unfinished buildings, political graffiti, and trash on the ground.
You’ll also see lots of brightly colored fabrics and maybe see women carrying baskets or buckets on their heads and babies on their backs tied on with a scarf. You’ll see shacks that claim to be modern restaurants, supported by wooden poles, and you’ll see women selling fried goods, which you should try and not pay more than 25 or 50 francs for. You’ll hear traditional Senegalese music with all of its weird drumming patterns and for me at least, it’s hard to hear the rhythm but it’s awesome to watch the dancers that do. Overall, you’ll see a mix of things that are both good and bad, some that are wonderful and some that might be hard to process or understand. I encourage you to remain open-minded and ask questions. It’s the best way to learn and you can even practice your French. So, with that, welcome to Dakar.