This, aside from being the most satisfying phrase we learned in our “survival Wolof” crash courses, pretty adequately sums up how I’m feeling about my first week in Senegal. “Really? Yes, really!” Everything is new and exciting and fascinating and unexpected (with a nice dose of expected too, actually). In many ways, I still feel like I’m a tourist about to leave at any moment, but it also seems like ages ago that I navigated my luggage through Chicago Midway to fly here. I already feel different and somewhat distant from that wide-eyed, untraveled girl. My eyes are still wide, though — they get wider every day as I take in more color and contradiction than I ever have before.
I’m finally sitting down to blog in my room after our sortie to downtown Dakar. The condensation from my ever-present face-sweat is making my glasses fog up, and I can hear my host Papa talking in Wolof with some neighbors while the smells of our simmering dinner (which we probably won’t eat until past 10pm — have I mentioned “time” has a completely different meaning here?) waft from the courtyard outside my window. To be honest, it’s really hard to find the motivation to write when, first of all, there’s so much todo, and second of all, I’m ridiculously tired, constantly. I’ve decided to try alternating chronological update-like posts with more “themed” posts, so something will be posted once a week. No guarantees, especially once classes start on Monday, but I know it’ll be good for me too to be able to look back and remember exactly what I’ve been up to.
So. What have I been up to? After a sleepless-but-not-unpleasant flight on South African Airways from Washington Dulles, I landed in Dakar on Sunday morning (August 18) at 6am local time along with fourteen other CIEE students. (Some of us had congregated in the airport, awkwardly scoping out college-age people carrying lots of luggage and looking Senegal-bound.) My first glimpse of Dakar from the plane, softly shining in the pitch black, resulted in such excitement on my part that my seat mate, a businesswoman on her way to Johannesburg, laughed blearily. Customs in the airport was anticlimactic, and the sun was just beginning to rise as we crowded into a bus and sped past horse-drawn carriages, fruit sellers, buildings in various states of completion, and billboards both Western and uniquely African. We settled into our hotel where we’d be staying for the next several days of orientation — it was called La Citronelle, and it included pretty murals, lumpy mattresses on the floor, helpful concierges who tried to teach us bits of Wolof, and wifi.
That first day, as we fought off drowsiness to overcome our jet-lag, a bunch of us walked to Mermoz Beach (which, we later found out from the program staff, is not really a good beach to frequent for a variety of reasons). We climbed down jagged rocks to reach the Atlantic Ocean, where we witnessed a man washing a herd of goats one by one, grabbing them by the legs and scrubbing in the waves. That was probably the highlight of my day. We also saw lots of people (that is, men) working out, doing crunches and pushups in the sand.
We ate our meals on the rooftop terrace the CIEE Study Center, which is across a busy street from the hotel. The Study Center, which we share with another institution, includes classrooms, a computer lab, a library, a student lounge, and the rooftop cafeteria. The view from the terrace is awesome. I really enjoyed having the days of orientation to get to know other students and ease into Senegalese cuisine (which is amazing) up on that roof. Orientation included things like security information, medical and safety rules, language placement tests, survival Wolof, and course registration.
On Tuesday, as part of orientation, we went to the Baobab Center for cultural learning. We talked about concepts like teranga (hospitality), mbokk (family), and djinne (part of spirituality). I’ll probably write more extensively about each of these topics in the future, because they’re super interesting, so look out for that! Since moving in with my host family, I’ve been really happy to have some of the knowledge from the Baobab Center. The best part of that day, though, was our first meal “around the bowl.” Senegalese eating deserves multiple entries, but I’ll just say that ceebujën, the Senegalese national dish of fish and rice, is SO GOOD. And we eat with our hands and sit in a circle on the floor. The Baobab Center also let us try lots of traditional drinks, including bissap (hibiscus), mango juice, guava juice, baobab juice (ahhhh! my favorite!), and ataaya, which is a very strong tea drunk from a little shot glass and brewed three times. Waaw, cë dëgg-dëgg!
Wednesday afternoon, we moved in with our host families. The amount of nervousness I felt as I stood outside the hotel, watching families come one by one to single out their student from the group, was comparable to that which I used to experience before timed math tests in Mrs. Bradford’s second-grade class. Finally, my name was called, and I approached my host sister, repeating all the extensive Wolof greetings we’d learned in my head. But before I could get beyond “Salaamaalekum,” Aida said “Nice to meet you!” in English.
She’s a doll. She’s eighteen, beautiful and modern, and speaks French, Wolof, English, and Spanish. I kept responding to my host family in French all that evening even when they spoke English to me, and by now we’ve established an awesome codeswitching mélange wherein all involved can practice. That first night was intimidating, though. I chatted with Aida for a while and discovered that I’m the twelfth American girl they’ve hosted (“in a long line of governesses…” definitely came to mind). The girl they had this past spring, in particular, is a living legacy — she and Aida got so close they swore to be in each other’s weddings, so I have a lot to live up to. At one point, two of Aida’s friends from school stopped by, and I sat there in awe, my linguistic-nerd-mind on overload from the magnificent blend of languages that they were using.
We ate rice around the bowl that night, and my anxiety about all of the many possible mealtime faux pas was quelled. Because my host family is awesome. I’ll write more in the future about them, but basically it’s Papa, who’s retired; Maman Matou, who works as a banker; Pá Ibou, the oldest son who’s also a banker; Tanor, who’s about my age and going to school for English and business; Aida; and Mohammed, who’s twelve and currently one of my favorite people on the planet. The maid, Binta, also eats meals with the family, and I spent a good part of the first night watching her and Mohammed play Ludo, a board game that to me seemed extremely complicated.
In the days since move-in, we’ve had a few various orientation activities, but I’ve also been able to spend time with my host family a lot. Wait ’til I tell you about Senegalese television. I’ve gone on walks to buy bread, I’ve failed miserably when trying to learn some dance moves from Aida, I’ve shown them all my pictures of my family (and received lots of commentary), I’ve had conversations about religion and sports and gender and globalization, I’ve survived the most dehydrating running experience ever with two other CIEE kids on La Corniche, and I’ve spied on the neighbors’ rooftop sheep with Mohammed by climbing a wall on the terrace of our house. Our trip to downtown Dakar today (with other CIEE students) was very fun and interesting, and I can’t wait to explore the dynamics of African urbanism and democracy and environmental issues and development in my classes. I also found out about my internship, which is with the Centre de Guidance Infantile Familiale (CEGID), an organization that works to provide psychological counseling and support for street children and victims of sexual abuse in Dakar’s suburbs. I am so excited to be working with kids, but I know this internship will be very emotionally draining (and probably physically exhausting too, since it’ll be almost 20 hours a week).
I can’t wait to give more updates, but for now I feel that the socially-appropriate amount of time I can spend alone in my room is drawing to an end. I’m still on the lookout for postcards and stamps, but rest assured that those will be sent soon. Dakarois marketplaces are sooo fascinatingly overwhelming. In sum: traveling was great, the people on my program are great, orientation was great, my host family is great, and overcoming challenges (like the toilet that simply would not flush on my first morning in my house, which I fixed after much panicky guessing by standing on the rim to dump buckets of water, filled by the sink, into the big container above the seat) has been really great. I miss everyone, but this adventure is just so dang interesting. À toute à l’heure!