Archive for the ‘Eben in Senegal’ Category


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.) Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: Culture in Senegal

September 15, 2009

I hope that just as interesting as my descriptions of life here are my reactions to it, and so I’d like to take some time out to talk about culture. (I guess this counts as part of my series on life in Dakar…I now realize that I could probably categorize every one of my posts as that, save my ones about trips to Gambia and other similar things.)

So, as I documented in my first post after arriving, time is treated very differently here. Using economic terms, I would say people consider the opportunity cost of the time spent doing something as much less than the Americans I know consider it; in other words, they value their time less than we do. I’ve told that to some Senegalese students I’ve met here, and they’ve all, interestingly, had roughly the same response: “I’ve heard the phrase ‘Time is money’ when reading about American culture,” they say, “and now I finally know what it means.” This different frame of mind here leads to a less action-oriented society; instead, relationships are highlighted (among plenty of other things, to be sure, which I’m still figuring out). Some, it seems, have no problem hanging out for hours, or days, or years, or a lifetime. (I guess it’s also possible that the arrow of causality runs the other way — that the less action-oriented mindset leads to a more lax conception of time — but I don’t think the difference really matters for this.)

(Of course, this is all a horrible generalization. There are plenty of people with the same sort of ambition as a Wharton student, for example, who would dispute that I think their life has no “purpose” in the American sense of the word. But I would make the case that from an aggregate point of view, rather than the point of view of individual people, what I’m saying has some credibility, although I guess it’s also possible that I just have everything wrong.)

These differences, I think, lead to two different ways of seeing the arc of a person’s life. The (average) American manner of thought is, roughly, that life has the capacity to constantly improve, and that a person actualizes this possible transformation through hard work and a little bit of good luck. The (average) Senegalese viewpoint, from what I’ve seen, is different in that there’s less emphasis on possible improvement and more acceptance that the way a person’s life goes will ultimately be pretty constant.

So I’ve been considering this difference. And my conclusion, in relatively blunt terms, is that perhaps the people here have got something right. Let me explain by saying, first, that I love the teleological American viewpoint that our lives are leading to somewhere tangible. I think it leads to a lifelong optimism that tomorrow could be different, that life could change for the better at any time as long as we keep working at it. And I don’t see myself changing that viewpoint anytime soon because it leads to a constant sense of hope about what’s ahead. But perhaps it’s just a worthwhile illusion to maintain. In reality, I think there are a lot more people who spend entirely unremarkable lives in the same place they were born than there are people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and create a new reality for themselves. To be a little morbid, most people’s gravestones, frankly, should read, “Born, Lived, and Died.” In that way, I think the view that I’ve encountered here — that although there will certainly be some surprises, life is ultimately pretty predictable – may be closer to how things usually end up working out. There’s also, of course, the possibility of the two different mindsets actually leading to two separate realities about the way life works out, but that becomes a tougher issue to deal with than I’m willing to do while sitting at this cyber cafe. So that’s all I’ve got.


Eben: To Gambia and Back

September 9, 2009

I guess it should technically be To The Gambia and back.  Anyway, as you can tell from the title, I am in fact back, and now have a horribly long blog post to show for it.  The 20 other kids in my group (the ones who didn’t do the presession) have now arrived, making our group complete with a round 29.  Our program’s orientation is now done, and classes start tomorrow.  I doubt I’ll devote a post just to describing the other members of my group, but hopefully our character becomes somewhat clear in the course of tangential references to people.  If not, and you happen to have a fascination with in-depth descriptions of generally similar college-aged kids, please let me know and I’ll change tack.

The following is a travel diary of sorts (in present tense!) of what transpired over the course of my five-day trip to The Gambia.  This is The Gambia (the one with Banjul starred):


I wasn’t planning on doing this so that I could continue with my series of posts on Dakar, but the trip was pretty interesting and so I decided to try my hand at a travel log.  There are a bunch of pictures of my trip relevant to the account here (as well as some pictures from our group’s subsequent trip to Goree Island, an island off Dakar that was central to the slave trade for centuries).  I’ve also uploaded a few pictures to this post, making it take up huge amounts of space in your mailbox if you get my emails.  So here’s the journey:

Wednesday, August 26

  • 7:00 am — I wake up with a horrible head-cold, which feels eerily similar to the ones I get back at home.  And I thought everything here was supposed to be different.
  • 2:00 pm — Having finished our last presession class, my three companions (Olivia Snarsky, from the University of Illinois; Alex Kutac, a girl from University of the Pacific; and Jon Fischer, from the University of Minnesota) and I go to the Garage Pompier, Dakar’s main transportation hub.  It’s a parking lot with thousands of generally decrepit Peugeot 505 station wagons (referred to as sept-places, or seven-places, since they fit the driver and seven people) going every direction.  After three men try to trick us into paying too much, Waly (our program director) somehow shows up out of the blue and tells us we’re in the wrong place.  He has an uncanny ability to do that.  We meet a friend of Waly’s, who puts us in a sept-place headed to Banjul, Gambia.  We leave at about 3:30.
  • 8 pm — The driver takes a two-minute stop in Sokone to tune the car up.   In that time, our Senegalese university friend Casimir (the one who killed the pig) runs and manages to find our car.  We say hello and goodbye.
  • 9:15 pm — Our first bathroom break comes a good six hours after we leave, and it’s at the house we’re staying at for the night.  I guess maybe it’s easier to sit in a tiny car spot having to go to the bathroom for six hours if you’re fasting for Ramadan and thus not drinking anything, which the other car members were doing, but for the rest of us it could be described as torture.  (The driver didn’t speak any French in order to be instructed to stop, and the car wasn’t equipped with empty bottles.)  Anyway, we get off  at the last village in Senegal before the border, Karang, in order to stay the night with Waly’s family.  Waly’s wife Amy is there on vacation, and she picks us up on the side of the road.  We go on a toubab parade (toubab=white person) through Karang, down a long dirt road, and get to the Faye family compound, where Waly grew up.  The compound consists of a big front yard with an outdoor bucket-shower area, a house with four rooms and not one piece of furniture that I see, and a toilet-hole in back.  A couple of Waly’s younger brothers are there, along with his mother, who doesn’t speak more than a few words of French but is very nice.  (Actually, how would I know?  I can’t even talk to her.)  We sit outside under the stars talking to Amy, while the Mosque down the road blares prayer over a microphone throughout the night.  The Arabic songs are particularly dystopian, not for what they might be saying (again, how would I know?) but how it sounds.  After a good dinner around a communal bowl, the four of us go to bed.  We have two rooms, each with one mattress and nothing else other than our bags. Read the rest of this entry ?

Eben: Mendy Family Matters

August 27, 2009

First in a series of posts about everyday life in Dakar.

Tomorrow is the last day of the August presession, and fall semester orientation starts on Monday, meaning we have four days off to spend as we please. So three friends and I are taking a 7-place bush taxi down to The Gambia, which, for the geographically handicapped, is the tiny country that lies entirely within Senegal except for its west coast. I hear that it’s pretty striking in terms of natural beauty, but I can report further when I come back. So since I’ll be away for a few days, I figured I would start my “series” about what things are actually like here in Dakar because I’ve said almost nothing about that to this point.

Before that, though, a couple updates. I successfully navigated my first Senegalese haircut this past weekend. I guess that’s my only update.

Anyway, as you can guess from the title, I’d like to use this post to introduce my host family to the world (or at least the 47 people who subscribe to get my updates, plus the few other various people who accidentally navigate to this site). I live with the Mendy family in a neighborhood called SICAP Baobab (I’ll elaborate on the neighborhood in a later post). It’s a large family run mostly by the strong women that compose it, and it’s been great to get to know them so far. Problem is, I don’t know them that well yet; a lot of the time they’re just speaking to each other in Wolof, and I’m also quite shy to ask questions about what people do with their lives given that, as I said a week or so ago, no one really asks those questions of me. So I’ll do my best here.

The head of the family is a woman of about 75, whom we call Mère Vitou. Mère Vitou is a retired veteran of the fashion industry, although I’m not sure in what capacity she worked in couture. She has diabetes and high blood pressure, but that doesn’t stop her from having a pretty great sense of humor, as is evident in this picture that one of my host kids took:


She’s also quite stoic, though; every morning, I eat breakfast with the flies on our back patio while Mère Vitou sits in a chair outside considering life, I suppose. She likes watching TV, and loves making fun of her grand kids. Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: A Couple More Things

August 25, 2009

I have a couple addendums to my last post about Sokone. First is that I now have a Senegalese name: Souleymane Diop. I got Souleymane from my friend Casimir, who studies English at the university in Dakar. He was (or is) probably my best friend among the group of those students, and when I remarked that I didn’t as of yet have a Senegalese name, he gave me Souleymane. My picture with Casimir is pretty terrible, so here’s one of him attempting unsuccessfully to braid my friend Alex’s hair.

sokone-and-back-in-dakar-2009-08-13-091And Diop came from a stoic man of probably 60, who was sitting with a group of similarly-aged men on a dirt road in Sokone when my group-mate Vu and I walked by. He started to chat with us, and when he asked me if I had a Senegalese name I responded that I just had been given Souleymane. He didn’t think it was acceptable not to have a family name, so he gave me Diop. I then kept walking.

And finally, I have one last story about Sokone, which I should have included in the section about lack of irony (or perhaps animal sacrifice—you may want to stop reading now if you didn’t like the cow story). One day Casimir mentioned something about wanting to have our group of Americans over to his house for dinner, since he hails from Sokone. I then heard the next day from Casimir’s cousin, Moustafa, that we were supposed to go to Casimir’s house later that night. He told us we would be going there after dinner at our compound, so I assumed that the dinner that Casimir had mentioned would be happening some other night.

After dinner, we went to an open-mic concert-type event, with the intention of going to Casimir’s after that since we were told by our group leaders that we had to go to the concert. We had just settled into our seats in the small assembly hall when Casimir stormed into the room. Being his friend, I went to go talk to him, at which point he informed me that he had killed a pig for us. Oh. So we rallied the troops and went to Casimir’s house. (For those wondering, Casimir’s family is one of the 5% of Catholic families in the mostly Muslim country, so they do eat pork.) Like most people, I don’t generally eat two dinners, and I never eat pork, but I think he would have been more than slightly offended had I politely declined. Casimir is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, but he was serious about that pig. I guess whoever wrote my guide book wasn’t lying when she said the Senegalese are aggressively hospitable. Lesson learned.


Eben: Camp Sokone

August 21, 2009

As I briefly alluded to, we spent last week participating in the “Vacances Citoyennes” run by the Cheikh Anta Diop University (also known as UCAD, and Senegal’s biggest university). Translated pretty literally, “Vacances Citoyennes” means “Citizen Vacations.” And although there was certainly some Citizenship (whatever that means), there was a lot of Vacation.

3837453972_de778d2c1dThe Vacances Citoyennes is a yearly program that allows students to opt to do a couple weeks of community service at the beginning of their vacation (which runs, pretty unbelievably, from August to January). Students go to any of about 10 villages throughout Senegal, teaching reading/writing skills, teaching computer skills, doing reforestation, and giving medical help. Our group of students went to Sokone, a town of about 12,000 people a few hundred miles southeast of Dakar.

The first day—Sunday the 9th—set the tone, in many ways, for what was to come. We were set to leave the university at 8:30 am, and I managed to sleep until 8:45. I raced to the university so that I wouldn’t be late for sitting on the bus for two hours before we left. We then stopped for a two-hour lunch break. Waly took some time during that break to explain to us the differences between the Senegalese and American ideas of time (which was entirely unnecessary at that point). He said that people refer to Senegalese time as West African International Time, or WAIT. I think it’s unfair and stereotypical to extrapolate from a day’s worth of experience to say that nothing in Senegal goes efficiently, but it was certainly different. I think that efficiency just doesn’t play such a big role in decisions as it does in the US; people are happier taking their time and hanging out together.

Anyway, we arrived in Sokone at about 8 pm after a couple hours of traveling over red dirt roads with multiple potholes per mile. I think everyone was at least slightly uncomfortable upon arrival with the way we were going to be living for the week. The compound we were in—I think it was a converted dance hall, but not sure if that rumor is true—had four rooms. The biggest room was the girls’ room, and the other three smaller rooms were for the dudes of the group. Other than that, there was a bathroom (hole), some showers outside (really just bathroom-holes in which you shower by filling a bucket of water), and big, covered front yard where people hung out most of the day. The first day finished with a nice lesson about the Senegalese sense of irony, which (having learned the hard way) is nonexistent. Upon arrival, there were two cows in the backyard. We were told by Waly that the cows were given by the director of WARC (the place we study in Dakar) to be killed and eaten by our group. I laughed at the funny joke. At 11 pm that night, there was a dead cow in our backyard. Read the rest of this entry ?


Eben: Boring Details

August 10, 2009

…as promised.  For those who would be inclined to ask.

The first question the curious masses have been asking is why I chose to go to Senegal. I like lists, so here’s one to answer that question:

  1. They speak French in Senegal.  I speak French (or try to).
  2. I hear that they (another they) speak French in France, too. But I figured it’d be more interesting to get to experience a developing country as part of a structured program, which is an unlikely opportunity after college (especially one in Africa). I’ll always be able to go to France. (Though I’ll have to do some more investigative work to see if “they” do, in fact, speak French there.)
  3. My high school French teacher and adviser, Chef Mamadou Guèye, hails from Senegal. I figured it must be good enough for me if it produced him.  And I hear it’s a fun place, with a vibrant, musical culture and very welcoming people. It’s also comparatively safe and stable.

The second common question is about the logistics of the trip.  So here’s my short answer:

I leave for Senegal on August 2, arrive early August 3. (As in two weeks from now.) (I’ll be on Martha’s Vineyard until August 1.)

As you can see in my trite little “About” section, I’m going through the University of Minnesota’s MSID program. To answer your next question, MSID stands for Minnesota Studies in International Development. MSID runs pretty well-known programs throughout the developing world; this year, the other ones are in Ecuador, India, and Kenya. Why MSID instead of Penn’s Senegal program? I flipped a coin. (Not actually…more explanation later.) There are 29 kids on my program, and they come from various schools; many from Minnesota, some from the University of Illinois, a few from Kenyon, and a bunch from East Coast schools.

August 3–August 26 is the presession program in Dakar (the capital of Senegal). I’ll be taking a French class and getting acclimated (whatever that means) to Senegalese culture. August 31–October 23 is the classroom phase. Still in Dakar. I’ll be taking three courses: one on microbusiness and alternative economics as it relates to development, one learning Wolof (the most prevalent Senegalese native language, which is useful to be able to speak, especially away from Dakar), and one on Senegalese culture. The classes (save Wolof, obviously) are in French. No Penn credit for these courses, since I’m taking a leave of absence from Penn (meaning no Penn tuition), though I’ll get credit for the presession French course. The classes are taught by MSID staff at a small place called The West African Resources Center and taken with the other students in the program. (I take it that the local university is often on strike, which makes it hard to run a program through there, although I’m sure I’ll miss meeting all those Senegalese students.) Apparently they take us on some sweet field trips and similar activities.

Throughout my time in Dakar, I’ll be staying with a host family. I’ve heard a lot about what to expect. I’ll report how much is true when the time comes.

October 23–December 4 is the internship phase. I’ll most likely be in a Senegalese village, hopefully working in microfinance. But the internship isn’t fully settled until some time after I get to Senegal. Staying with another host family wherever I’m interning. The internship is one of the reasons I chose MSID. (The other main reason is that it goes in the fall semester, when everyone at Penn is abroad, whereas Penn only goes to Senegal in the spring semester.)

Then back to Dakar for a final week, and the program is over December 11. I’ll hopefully have had enough time by then to travel throughout some of West Africa (suggestions for places to travel welcome), so I’d like to get to North Africa (Tunisia/Morocco?) after the program officially ends. Then maybe to South Africa on my way back home. (I know that’s the equivalent of “stopping by” DC on the way back to Asia after a trip to Alaska, but if my parents want to meet me—and pay for me—I’m headed wherever they say. Always wanted to go there.)

To answer a few more questions: Yes, I have gotten all my vaccinations and medicine. No, I have not yet packed. And I’m still in the process of finding presents for all the unknown people who will want a slice of America. (Again, suggestions welcome.)

And I think that covers it.

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