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Eben: A day in Senegal

September 27, 2009

Sorry for the long time between posts. Some updates:

  • My 6-week internship has now been confirmed; starting October 25, I’ll be in Mekhe, a town of 15,000 about 3 hours northeast of Dakar. I’ll be working in a microfinance institution called Femme Developpement Entreprise en Afrique that gives small loans exclusively to women. (I guess I should translate: Women’s Development Enterprise in Africa. ) Their website is here, but this is the Google-translated version of the site for the non-francophones. More to come on this later.
  • Ramadan is now over, with a big day of celebration (called Korite) having taken place this past Sunday (although it was yesterday for the Mourides, another set of Muslims…depends on when the new moon is first seen or something). Given that my family is Catholic, I spent time collecting invitations for different Korite parties, only to find out that my family just likes to have parties and was having our own. If I had to compare it to a holiday back home, I’d actually say Thanksgiving; although there are a lot of visitors going in and out of houses, the big part of the day is really spent eating with your family. Although maybe I should also compare it to Halloween, since the kids go around asking for money in between meals.
  • I have some more dish on my family after finally having asked a few questions. A couple fascinating teasers: one of the daughters of my host mother/grandmother works at the airport, and another works at the local DHL (which tried to charge me $178 to send my Dad a birthday package…happy birthday, Dad, by the way). I did actually learned plenty of good stuff, which I’ll share in a second post about my family sometime soon.
  • My group of students will be taking a five-day trip starting tomorrow to a town near the edge of the Senegal-Gambia border. There’s a bunch of microenterprise activity there as well as very interesting environmental features, so I think it’s supposed to be some sort of an educational field trip. I’ll be sure to update when I return.
  • In the French-dubbed Indian (as in the country India) soap opera that everyone watches, called Vaidehi, the main character has now tried unsuccessfully to kill his wife and his brother. I’m totally hooked, but I never know when I’ll get my next dose; the last two episodes, inexplicably, took place on a Sunday night and a Thursday night, and shows tend to start at times like 8:26. But somehow, everyone knows when it’ll be on. I’ll keep you posted. (Five seemed like a better number of bullet point updates than four.)

So people have been asking me what I’m up to in Senegal, and my response has tended to be a mix of banal stereotypes about how different life is and some platitudes about how I’m enjoying my host family, or something similar. It hit me at some point that perhaps people would actually like to know what it is that I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. So here’s a timeline account of a typical day. (Every day is somewhat different, but hopefully this gives a good idea of what life is like.)

  • 7:15 am — After hitting snooze on my cell phone alarm a few times, I (usually) manage to make my way out of bed. Although the stifling heat and humidity of the rainy season tends to last 24 hours a day, I’m usually pretty cold, as my newly-installed ceiling fan is industrial power. Take a cold shower, which is essentially a forced choice; there’s no hot water.
  • 7:45 am — I eat breakfast with the flies on our back porch/dining room area as Mère Vitou sits out back in the sun pondering whatever it is she thinks about. Sometimes I ask questions, which leads to good conversation, but usually I let her sit in silence as I do the same. Breakfast is always the same: baguette with either jam or chocolate spread, with whatever hot drink I feel like making from all the instant powders they have. Somewhat ironically given the slower pace of life, every morning drink (milk, coffee, hot chocolate) comes in powder form, probably stemming from problems with refrigeration due to the frequent power outages.
  • 8:10 am — I take the 35-minute trek to the West African Research Center either by myself or with my friend Olivia, who lives right around the corner from me. There is no such thing as a continuous sidewalk here, making for an interesting walk. Given the rainy season and that I usually have to walk in the street, my ankles are often brown by the time I get to school. As I walk, every passing taxi honks at me, even the ones with passengers (maybe from habit?). I would guess that 35% of the city’s cars are cabs, so it is one of my life goals to be able to count as high as the number of taxis that honk during my walk. The goats and chickens are out at full swing at this point, roaming the streets and eating trees and such.
  • 9 am — Classes start. WARC is a nice place, all open air except for the classrooms, and one of our two main classrooms is air-conditioned. Every day’s schedule is different, but I’m usually at WARC all day until classes end, either in class or on a computer since there’s internet. I have a 7-person Wolof class for two hours four days a week, a two-day-a-week class studying Senegalese culture and society with the full group of 26 students, a two-day-a-week class studying development issues with half the group, and then a once-a-week three-hour French class and a once-a-week three-hour class on microbusiness and alternative economics. (Hard to keep track of?) The Wolof class is taught by a traditionally-dressed Senegalese woman who teaches Wolof to different groups of students as her profession; the culture course is taught by our program director, Waly Faye, and the director of WARC, Ousmane Sène; the development course is taught by a pleasant lunatic with some background in NGO work; the French course is taught by a very charismatic teacher whose background I forget; and the microbusiness professor works in the Ministry of Finance here. Classes are all going well. I now know enough Wolof to start a conversation with someone, only to be embarrassed when they try to continue talking in Wolof and I can’t understand a word they’re saying. Otherwise, our international development professor is trying to indoctrinate us into hating all of the world’s multilateral financial organizations (did you know the World Bank invented cancer?) as well as the U.S. (I guess I shouldn’t really say trying, since he only has to really try with me and one or two other students who tend to fight back against this teaching approach, which I find too dogmatic.) The microbusiness professor tends to share generally the same worldview as that professor, but he’s much more reasonable about discussing it, and I enjoy our class. Anyway, back to the schedule:
  • 1 pm — Lunch. We either pay roughly $2.50 for a good meal here at WARC, or pay exponentially more (near $8 usually) for bad lunch at a relatively Westernized restaurant, which is the only thing really within walking distance.
  • 2:30 pm — Classes: I guess I already explained this part above.
  • 5 pm — If I have no late class, I go with either Sean or Jon (or both) to what we call Muscle Beach, a public workout area on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The bench press consists of an iron bar with tire axles attached, and the pull-up bar looks straight over the cliff. The 70’s flavor is accented by a view of the university’s biggest building directly opposite the ocean, which is a blue and orange monstrosity that somehow fits. I’ll upload pictures sometime soon.
  • 7 pm — Start the 35-minute walk back home. By the time I get home, it’s usually pretty dark, and the Mosque near our house is blaring prayer. The neighborhood is usually buzzing with activity, especially during Ramadan, when people were out and about getting bread to break their fast. I get home, say hello to the family, say something stupid about the weather, and then go back to shower.
  • 8:30 pm – Dinner is ready. Lunch is the big meal at the Mendy household, so aside from the weekend lunches, I generally miss out on the big family gatherings. Dinner is laid-back; people come to the table and serve themselves when they want, and I usually eat first with a maid, the two little kids, and Suzanne at the table.
  • 9:00 pm — Settle in for the night. Usually this means watching Spanish or Indian soap operas while maybe doing a little work. From time to time (like last night) I have long conversations with Mère Vitou about the other American students who have lived at the same house or her family’s history, which is really interesting. And other nights I go to a shop right next to my friend Jon’s house, where the Guinean boy who runs the shop makes tea every night. It’s a good place to hang out and learn random Wolof words.
  • 11:30 pm — As if this weren’t already mundane enough…start getting ready for bed, pour my water from the big water bottles I buy into my water bottle (spilling a bunch on the floor), and then usually lights out by 12:30.

Now that I read that over, it doesn’t sound so interesting, but other stuff happens. In terms of the weekend, I tend to wake up late, maybe go to the internet cafe, get a quick haircut every other Saturday ($2.50), and then go back home for the big lunch. Then usually do something with the other students in the afternoon (e.g., beach or ice cream with our host kids), and sometimes go out after dinner with our families or dinner out at a restaurant.

But now I’m off to Muscle Beach.

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