Four days into my Study Abroad Experience, I have learned about 10 words in wolof (the lingua franca of Senegal – ironically, it’s not French), the importance of sharing and greetings in Senegalese culture, and the names of maybe 70% of the kids in my program. I have learned that French won’t get me nearly as far in this country as I thought it would, that after living out of a suitcase for three days its easier to find things if you don’t try to keep them organized than if you do, and that my insecurities don’t seem to be any better or any worse for the change of continent.
But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, I still don’t feel like I’ve seen the “true” Senegal. Even what I have seen is so full of contrasting images that I almost don’t know what to make of it. During orientation, we’ve all been staying in La Citronelle, which is an extremely nice hotel across the street from our Study Center. La Citronelle has wi-fi, American-style bathrooms, and air conditioning in all of its rooms. It’s located in Mermoz, which is an upscale area of Dakar. After four days, I can now recognize Mermoz as a “nice” area — it might not be the equivalent of Chicago’s North Shore or The Loop, but I think it compares favorably with Wicker Park. Unlike in the US, a nice neighborhood in Dakar means that you see a lot of taxis and personal cars (or 4WDs, which stands for “4 Wheel Drives”), the children that aren’t beggars are dressed nicely and are typically on their way to or from school, and many of the hotels and shops on the main roads can afford a security guard. Even in this nice area, you find rubble littering the sidewalks without any sign of construction going on, paved roads intersecting ones made of sand, and 6-year-old beggar boys rattling tomato cans for change.
However, perhaps the biggest giveaway of the fact that this is a nice neighborhood is that almost everyone speaks French here, and many people know enough English to communicate with tourists. In this country, you speak English or French only if you’ve been to school, and there are plenty of families that can’t afford to send their kids to school because everyone in the family has to work in order to make ends meet. The upshot is, there are poor people in this country and in this city who simply don’t speak French. While I knew that learning wolof would be an important part of my process of cultural assimilation, I didn’t realize that coming to this country as a French-speaker would limit my ability to communicate solely to the wealthy and well-educated. It never before occurred to me how strong an indication of socio-economic class language is, and it’s making me seriously consider how possible social mobility is in a country where you need to be well-educated in order to speak the official language.
Anywho, the upshot is I know that I still feel like I’m living in the American bubble. I’m in an area that has most of the amenities of home, where I can choose to speak either French or English and get by fine. I spend most of my time with my fellow American students and with the staff of CIEE, all of whom speak excellent English (although some of them deny it). While I’m looking forward very much to joining my host family tomorrow, I’m also somewhat apprehensive about moving from Senegal Land into real Senegal.
Orientation has been very well-organized and very informative. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing I’ve learned is the importance of greetings in Senegalese culture. Every time you enter a room or building, you have to greet everyone inside. You greet everyone you pass on the street. You greet everyone in a group, not just the people you know. Not only that, but greetings can take minutes to be said. It starts with “Salaamalekum,” the equivalent of “Bonjour” in French. Next you ask, “Nanga def?” – How are you. After that you ask, “Nanga yendoo?” – how was your day. Then it’s, “Ana waa ker gi?” – How’s the family. Then, “Say yaram jam?” – How’s your health. Far from actually answering these questions, the response to almost all of them is “jamm rekk,” which means “peace only.” I think it says a lot about the differences between American and Senegalese culture that Americans would typically choose to respond to any or all of these questions with an abrupt “fine,” but the Senegalese respond by saying that they are in peace.
My orientation group spent today at the Baobab Center, which is a center for inter-cultural exchange right here in Mermoz. We were given a crash course on Senegalese values (of which sharing and family are at the top of the list), and then learned how to eat a traditional Senegalese meal. This was seriously cool. Traditionally, a Senegalese meal consists of rice, fish, and veggies that you eat out of a single communal bowl. You eat only with your right hand, which means that you need to break apart the chunks of meat and vegetables at the center of the bowl and roll your food up into bite sized balls using only one hand. All us girls were given two yards of fabric to wrap around our waists, because it’s impolite to bear your ankles while you’re eating. The food was delicious, and it was super fun to learn to eat in a brand new way, but this experience more than any other brought home to me the fact that I am an infant when it comes to navigating Senegalese culture. Senegalese four and five year olds can eat more neatly than I can I’m sure, not to mention communicate better and make far fewer faux pas. I go to my host family tomorrow, and I’m sure I will have a ton to report once I do. For now – good night!