Five Things that Didn’t Make Sense Before I Came to Senegal

Hello everybody! Whew, this week has been rough school-wise. It was more-or-less my midterms week, but it seems like it came up on me faster than normal. Also, as of yesterday, I am officially half-way through my Dakar Adventure! It’s a bittersweet feeling. It’s nice to reflect on how far I’ve come in just two short months, but it also brings to light how much I have left to do while I’m here, and I’m beginning to realize that I’m never going to be able to fit everything in that I wanted to. And now on to… the five things that didn’t make sense before I came to Senegal.

1. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Believe it or not, this lamest-of-all-jokes is actually pretty funny… if you’ve lived for any length of time in a place that has both a lot of roads and a lot of chickens. Since coming to Senegal I have seen more livestock-related traffic jams than I would have believed possible just three short months ago. And for the most part, the livestock-related traffic jams are justified. That herd of cattle is going somewhere, man; those goats have a place to be. Chickens, on the other hand… Every time I am in a moving vehicle and find my way inexplicably barred by a gaggle of beady-eyed poulets, I find myself thinking angrily, “Why do these freaking chickens always step out into the middle of the street for no reason,” – and then I remember the reason. To get to the other side, of course.

2. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

To be perfectly honest, this gem from Poor Richard’s Almanac has always puzzled me. Surely there are things with more nutritional value out there than one apple – the saying would make more sense if it read “Two oranges a day keep the doctor away,” or “A serving of spinach a day keeps the doctor away.” But the fact of the matter is modern-day, privileged Americans live in a nutritional paradise the likes of which Benjamin Franklin could never have even dreamed. In suburban America, it would be virtually impossible to cut fruits and vegetables entirely out of your diet. Even fussy children probably get a good three servings in a day between fruit juices and ingenious snack foods like Ants-on-a-Log. But in Senegal, you can go days without eating a fruit or vegetable without even noticing. This actually happened to me, and Benjamin Franklin is vindicated: the sixth straight fruit-and-veggie-less day, I came down with the nastiest cold I’ve ever had in my life. It took me about two days to figure out why the cold was so awful – but as soon as I realized that my poor diet had something to do with it and began eating oranges and apples again, my cold went away as if by magic.

3. Why the United States is still leading the world in higher education when our primary and secondary education system is deteriorating.

It seems that every time the education debate comes up in American politics, someone raises the point that, while our primary and secondary education system has certainly lost ground in the past decades, our higher education system still leads the world. After coming to Senegal, I’m beginning to realize that our exemplary system of colleges and universities has less to do with an underlying American commitment to quality education and more to do with the fact that America is hyper-developed: Not only is there consistent electricity (a feat Senegal has not yet achieved), but there’s consistent internet access, things like printers and copiers are easily accessible, and ancient documents can be kept climate-controlled or put on the internet and preserved forever. A few weeks ago, CIEE took us to University Cheikh Anta Diop’s research library. As a student of West African History, this place was a treasure trove. In the back rooms, this library has a copy of every issue of the Senegalese national newspaper – and before that, the French Colonial newspaper – ever published and the original copies of all of France’s colonial documents, some of which have never yet been pawed through by eager historians. As a girl who grew up going to her local public library each week, this place made me want to cry. Because of frequent power cuts and the cost of internet access, this library is still using a paper card catalogue. Because they had a problem with people stealing books, now all books are reference only. And the thing that really broke my heart is that all of those precious documents, a treasure trove of historical information, are in varying states of decay – not because the Senegalese don’t value education or historical preservation, but simply because they don’t have the resources for a modern library.

4. Why foot washing in the Bible is a Thing

It’s probably safe to say that feet get gross and smelly in every country, but a place as hot and sandy as Dakar takes it to the next level. The black flats that I brought with me are now a fetching shade of chalky grey even though I wash them every Sunday (in fact, I recently told a friend that they were ‘black’ flats, and her response was, “Really?”), and I’ve learned to put my feet up on my bed only after I take showers to prevent my sheet from turning into a sand dune. Even though I’ve been complaining about how filthy my shoes and feet get here for two solid months now, it’s only fairly recently that I realized I suddenly understood why there are so many parables in the Bible about foot-washing. After having emptied small mountains of sand from my shoes and attempting and failing to keep my toes and toenails from getting stained grey-brown from the sand, the story about the prostitute who washes Jesus’ feet with her own tears and hair becomes a lot more graphic… and a lot more powerful.

5. Why washboards make sense

Of all the slightly antiquated housekeeping tools, the washboard was always the one I had the hardest time wrapping my head around. Let’s be honest: the only things that a washboard really resembles are a wooden slatted shutter or a cheese grater, and when washing clothes you’re neither trying to shut the window on them nor grate them into submission. Yet for all its incomprehensibility, the washboard is also surprisingly ubiquitous. Of the classic Disney movies, I know it makes an appearance in both Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid, and I believe you can catch glimpses of it in Mulan, Tarzan, and possibly Cinderella. For all I know, we might have one in some dark closet in my house in the States. And after coming to Senegal, I finally understand why. While our host families are responsible for washing our clothes or getting them washed, we wash our own underwear. For the first month or so I would just wash my underwear with my body soap while I was in the shower, but recently I’ve started doing it with actual detergent in a bucket each Sunday. Once the clothes are soapy, it takes a huge amount of water and effort to get the soap out, and a rough surface with slats for the water to drain would be the perfect thing to make the job easier. Fortunately, the novelty of realizing that my hands are a washing machine has not yet worn off, so I still find this weekly ritual to be a lot of fun – plus, fighting the temptation to make washing machine sounds with my mouth as I wash my clothes leaves me with little time left over to pine for a washboard.

I chose these five things both because they stood out to me, and with an eye to entertain. But on a deeper level, being in Dakar has made me realize how much of my American culture has deeper roots to be found in Africa. I think that all too often, white Americans like myself fall into the trap of thinking that their heritage is just a continuation of the European heritage of our forebears. When in reality, in particular in the Southern and Midwestern regions of the United States, a lot of our culture was imported from Africa. The Midwestern custom of wishing people that you pass on the street a good morning was common here long before Europeans even realized that there was an American continent. And I’m very much mistaken if Southern hospitality doesn’t have, at its roots, the Senegalese value of Teranga. Just something interesting I’ve been reflecting on for the past couple of days :).

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