Snapshots

With unprecedented frequency, today I found myself wishing that I had a little camera hidden in my head that took a picture every time I blinked. Whoever said a picture’s worth a thousand words probably never considered the conspicuousness of whipping out a camera in the middle of Dakar’s HLM marketplace. For one, there’s simply not enough space. You can’t reach into your purse without elbowing a woman draped with necklaces for sale, or a man poised with a henna pen, or someone brewing coffee on a tiny stool, or a child rattling an empty can for money. But trying to take pictures would also be futile because as far as I know, no camera has sensors that can capture the smell of the goats next to the perfume shop or the feel of the rain falling through holes in the tarps or the vibrancy of the colors of the stalls upon stalls of fabric.

The idea I’d had for this post, before visiting the market this morning with my host sister Aida, was a vague description of “Senegalese visual culture” or something like that. I want to explore the living contradictions of Senegalese TV and advertising, how the people of this country-that-straddles-so-many-cultural-lines view themselves. But there’s really no such thing as a “visual culture” separate from “audible culture” or “smell-able culture” or “touchable culture.” You need all of your senses to observe and participate in this thing called culture.

Here’s an example. My host family likes watching TV. A lot. From what I’ve gathered from other American students’ experiences, this is very common. But Senegalese television is an entirely different phenomenon than American television. The channels are limited, so in a normal evening we toggle a lot. We watch the news in Wolof (including the “SenMeteo” weather segment, the looped classical music of which elicits plenty of host-sibling groans). We watch many overly-dramatic dubbed Mexican and Indian soap operas, and every so often an extremely low-budget Senegalese soap opera probably filmed with an iPhone. We watch a Muslim program that discusses excerpts from the Qur’an (and occasionally involves inspecting the genitalia of goats, as I discovered at an inopportune moment while sitting awkwardly in the middle of a Wolof shouting match between my host mother, my sister, and the maid, with nowhere to look but the livestock-penis-filled television). We watch a vicious singing competition for Senegalese kids. We watch a gossipy talk show that debates subjects like fidelity in polygamous marriages and how to avoid having evil jinne spirits cast upon oneself. We watch American, French, and African music videos filled with suggestive poses and explicit lyrics the likes of which my folksy self has never encountered.

We watch a lot of TV. But we don’t just watch it. No, quite a few more senses are involved. My host siblings know every word to every soap opera theme song, every music video, and every publicité jingle. (There are lots of these; every advertisement, whether for a magic cooking spice, a clothing store, or the lottery, has its own song.) And they jump up at each change in programming and dance and sing along, and now I’m starting to know all the words and do the same. Watching TV is participatory, see.

Buying things is a participatory action, too. Even walking down the street or eating a meal with the family involves sensing and haggling a bit. As I watched Aida barter over the fabric we had gone to the market to buy today (to make a traditional dress for me to wear to a family baptism tomorrow!), I was struck by how similar her strategy is to my strategy around the bowl at dinner time. You have to shoot far lower than the actual goal. If a merchant offers you something for 10 mille francs, for example, and you know you want to pay only 4 mille for it, you should immediately offer only 1 mille and negotiate your way to the bon prix. And you should say suur na (“I’m full”) far before you’re actually full, because you will be forced to say this a few times, with bites in between, until you are believed. Having figured out this delicate tactic early on, I can now enjoy mealtimes – and rest assured, the fantastic food here is definitely getting its own entry soon – without fearing either overeating or offense. My bartering skills are not so good…but a few more trips to HLM and I hope to be a pro.

Today, on my first trip, I allowed myself to focus my energy on taking it all in. I left the pro-bartering to Aida and took notes on her technique. It was just starting to drizzle when our taxi dropped us off at the edge of the market, which is a veritable maze of stalls and carts and boutiques spilling into each other and half-covered by tarps and metal. On our way there, I had fist-bumped a popular Senegalese boxing icon (whose name I forget, but who lives near our house, apparently, and who asked me questions in Wolof while Aida laughed at my very very basic responses). We had passed areas much poorer than Sacré Coeur 3, our neighborhood, and also areas much richer. The fifteen-minute cab ride itself had cost only mille franc, or about two US dollars.

I soon discovered that Aida is basically friends with everyone. We stopped by her friend the jeweler, who showed her some bracelets, which she rejected upon hearing the price. We waved to her friend the coffee-seller on our way to visit her friend who sells shoes. We didn’t buy anything from any of these friends, however, since we were on a mission. Dragging me by the hand, Aida pulled me à l’interieur du marché to rummage through fabric shop after fabric shop. I had to choose one fabric out of literally thousands. It was, to say the least, overwhelming, and I felt like I had completely lost my ability to form opinions. “C’est très jolie,” came out of my mouth on repeat. Eventually, I realized I had to be decisive and settled on a very African pattern in blue, pink, and brown. After whispering to Aida that this particular piece was the lucky bolt, I made myself scare, pretending to look at the neighboring purse stall while Aida haggled without the automatic price-augmenting factor of my toubab (white person) skin.

Emerging victorious with the fabric à bon prix, we decided to wait for a few minutes before leaving the shelter of the tarps, since the rain was coming down hard now. A generous fabric-seller woman (not the one from whom we’d purchased my fabric) let us share an extra stool of hers, so I found myself propped on the edge of a wooden crate in the middle of the very wet and very crowded market. Of course, we couldn’t sit there long without the men in the next stall asking us where we were from. They busted out some English phrases (“how’s it going?” “you are from California?”) and offered to be my husband in Wolof; having read the blogs of previous CIEE Dakar students and knowing that such marriage proposals are mostly all in good fun, I was ready with my response in French of “Okay! You’ll be my eleventh – I already have ten.” Aida crafted a lovely story about how we’re really sisters – we have the same toubab French father, but my mother is toubab American while hers is Senegalese – and we were told that the resemblance between us was visible.

At a certain point we realized that the rain wasn’t going to let up, so we made a run for it across the muddy street to another section of the market, where Aida was going to get the top of her ear pierced (against the will of her father, but with the consent of her mother). I couldn’t imagine a sketchier place to have a needle inserted into my cartilage, but Aida was very brave, standing up in the middle of a bunch of stalls while people jostled all around. While I was watching her get pierced, a young man grabbed my hand and started putting henna on it before I could protest, saying “Gratuit! Gratuit!” (“Free! Free!”). I agreed, as long as it was really free, but of course he stopped after one little circle and wouldn’t continue unless I paid. Aida heard the price and turned from where she was having her earring fixed to tell me a better price, and the gist of what happened is that several minutes later I was holding my hand up to a random bedding-vender’s ceiling fan to make my elaborate henna design dry.

While we waited for my henna to dry (which seemed like an eternity as I held my arm out like I was in church giving an extended blessing), Aida sat down on a stool next to the bedding vendor and started chatting. Coffee was produced from nowhere, and I sipped it from my non-henna’d hand. Many people came up to us and tried to sell us things. A few conversations were had in Wolof that left me very confused, like when Aida gave a woman selling packets of spices a coin but then never received any spices. Another henna guy came up and decorated Aida’s fingernails, and I think that actually was for free but maybe I just missed the money exchange. It was all strangely comfortable. I sort of felt like I was in a place where everyone had my back, even though in reality I was gripping my purse tightly to avoid pickpockets.

Upon returning from the market, we took the fabric straight to Usman, the tailor whose shop is literally right next door to our house. He took my measurements and asked a few questions about preference and started right away on making my dress. We ate ceebujën and then my brother Mouhahmed and I tried in vain to watch The Avengers on my computer in my brother Tanor’s bedroom, the only room with reliable Internet (and even then, not so reliable for movie-streaming, we discovered). Even though we never made it past the first half hour of the movie, we ended up having tons of rainy-day fun. My American friend-from-my-program Erika, who lives just around the corner, came over, and she, Tanor, Mouhahmed, Aida, and I listened to music and taught each other dances. Later I wrote some postcards while watching a soap opera with Binta, our wonderful maid, and I snuggled with Mouhahmed and we took selfies on Photo Booth.

So I guess some photos were taken today after all. Not quite the candid marketplace pictures I was wanting, but our Photo Booth selfies do capture some of today’s contentment. This post is only a snapshot, per se, of the adventures I’ve been having here. Tomorrow I’m sure I’ll be wanting that blink camera again – we are leaving bright and early for the baptism of the newest cousin. I am excited (and nervous) to have the opportunity to meet all the extended family so soon, to wear my new tailored dress, and especially to witness a Muslim religious ceremony different from any I’ve encountered before. And on Sunday, my program will visit Gorée Island, where many slave vessels bound for the New World departed. All senses, indeed.

I think this’ll be a weekend to remember, camera or no camera.

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