I sincerely promise that my description of my first week in Dakar as a “whirlwind” or “rollercoaster” is not a mere metaphorical cop-out for a lazy writer who does not feel like searching for the right words. I would be very surprised if any dictionary could give me one single term for the mixture of thoughts and emotions that I have experienced since being here, and this is not an exaggeration. For example, how would you describe arriving in a place that looks almost exactly as you imagined it would? (Shout out to one of my absolute favorite women writers Mariamma Bâ for helping me to create Dakar in my mind before ever setting foot here). What word could I use to describe the familiarity of crowded streets, over-eager fruit and anything-else-you-could-possibly-want-or-need sellers shoving their goods in your face combined with the same gnawing homesickness felt by someone who is away from loved ones for majority of the year? Maybe my abstract ramblings will give you a taste of the jumbled state my mind is in at the moment, which is definitely a good thing because then reading this blog will help you to “feel” Dakar along with me!
In a city of stark contradictions such as these, you don’t have to walk very far down any given street to notice flashy European cars speeding past talibe begging on the pavement, or expansive beachside villa-style homes sitting next to rickety wooden kiosks. This type of antithesis isn’t something particularly new to me, and I think I may not even notice it as much if I didn’t engage with other participants in my program who are grappling with this constant inequality which plagues many African cities. I find myself making a concerted effort to see Dakar with new eyes, and there are a lot of new things to see if I’m honest. The flat-roofed buildings look as though they may be just as home here as they would be in Morocco, and the gorgeously-attired women (especially on Fridays, the holy day) do not escape my notice. In coming here, I realize that I have to catch myself from approaching the experience with a disdainful “been there, done that” sort of attitude. Little glimpses of home seep into my life here, like expertly navigating the prepaid cellphone system and showing others how to do so as well. Ah yes “credit pour mon portable”, the bane of my existence when I’m at home. Other than that, I keep my déjà vu moments to myself in an effort to remind myself that I came here on the vague quest for “something different”.
My purpose for coming to Dakar seemed a lot more concrete as I filled out all the forms and pre-requisites, but nothing prepared me for the confusion of my fellow students, “So tell me again why you came here if you live in Accra?” I had encountered this question before my arrival of course, but at this time, I must confess that a little sliver of doubt weaseled its way into my mind the more I thought about it. But actually, yes Francophone Africa (too general of a concept in itself) is THAT different from its Anglophone counterparts. Yes, academic interest and a love for francophone African writers (a.k.a. research for the daunting senior thesis I must write in French) as well as sheer curiosity brought me here and that’s ok!
I think it’s hilarious that so many people seem to think I’ve come home for study abroad, even some Senegalese! No less than 4 times during our “sortie” to Downtown Dakar, random people in the market would stop me and rattle away in rapid-fire Wolof and refusing to believe me when I tried to explain in French that I’m in actual fact not Senegalese. One man flat-out rejected my excuses, “Non non toi, tu es Senegalaise! Tu dois rester içi et trouver un mari comme lui”, gesturing to one of our guides. At this point I’m used to my identity being very fluid seeing as it appears to be a complicated concept to explain, and I am not offended in the least if I blend in to the extent that random men on street corners insist that my name is Fatou or Binta or insert-Senegalese-name-here. My case of mistaken identity also means that the multitude of taxis rattling up and down the streets do not even sniff in my direction let alone honk to let me know they are empty. Again, I cannot complain! Perhaps I’m walking the Senegalese walk after all!
Interestingly enough, during orientation I was telling some friends on the program that my goal for the semester was to speak French and Wolof well enough to trick people into believing I was from here. During one of our sessions on Gender and Diversity, a student from last semester shared her displeasure at the fact that people would insist that she was Senegalese and laugh at her Wolof when she tried to practice with them, as though she was some sort of failure of a citizen for not knowing her own language. She also mentioned her need to identify as Nigerian (first-generation) whenever she was asked about her background in an effort to create some sort of solidarity with the Senegalese. I found her comments very interesting and was hoping to get the chance to talk to her more about her experiences.
In my experience so far, I haven’t noticed any improved treatment or any exceptional feeling of belonging after telling a Senegalese person that I’m a Ghanaian born in the States and currently studying there. I may get an excited “Oh I’ve been there, it’s lovely” or two, but for the most part my explanation is usually met with a vague “Aah, Ghana” or even “Ghana, Nigeria, Ghana”. I get the impression that English-speaking countries are this abstract concept that exist somewhere roughly outside the Francophonie and are know primarily for soccer and well, speaking English.
I had originally intended for this blogpost to be a summary of this week’s events. But in the same way you can’t possibly condense the culture and history of a people into one week of orientation, I can’t compress Dakar into a single post and will probably never be able to do so. Besides, I can hear my host grandma Mama Cato cracking up in the other room and I don’t want to miss out on any of her hilarious comments on the news, or tonight’s telenovela, or whatever else may be on! So then, Ba beneen yoon! (Until next time!)