Posts Tagged ‘Dakar’


Caitlin: I’m going to Senegal…

January 11, 2012

for three and a half months. I’ll be studying microfinance at the West African Research Center in Dakar for eight weeks, and will then have an internship in microfinance for the last six weeks. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to update, but this blog is in case I do! Check back with me here!


Grace: Korité, theft, & chocopain

September 8, 2011

Okay so let’s see, what have I done since my last post…I’ve finished my pre-session French class, learned some more Wolof, eaten lots more chocopain (the nutella-ish stuff that I love), completed the month of Ramadan (feeling like this is a major accomplishment, not that I fasted or anything…), celebrated said ending of Ramadan, had my cell phone stolen while buying an outfit for the aforementioned celebration, and made lots of new friends, both American and Senegalese.

Alrighty, let’s talk about Ramadan. I got to Senegal the day before it started, so I have gotten the full Ramadan experience. Before coming here, I knew what Ramadan was, but I thought all it really involved was skipping lunch. Turns out, it actually involves more than just not eating during the day.  During Ramadan, people don’t really hang out with friends, or go dancing (all the dance clubs in Dakar have been closed), or see their boyfriends/girlfriends, or wear makeup, or play sports. They pretty much avoid fun.

So on Tuesday evening, my family was frantically searching the night sky for the moon, which has to be there for the end of Ramadan to happen. We couldn’t find it anywhere. Thankfully, the moon-less sky was only in Dakar, and other places in Senegal saw it (don’t really understand this, but whatever). So Ramadan was officially over! This meant that Wednesday was “La Korité”, the end of Ramadan celebration. 

I really didn’t know what to expect with Korité, but I had heard that everybody buys new, traditional-style outfits for it, so last Saturday Anne and I went to the market to find dresses.  This was an experience. And I don’t really mean that in a good way. It was sooo hot, and there were pretty much a billion people there, pushing and shoving, 500 million of whom were trying to sell stuff to me or give me a henna tattoo. We had to squeeze our way into the center of the market where the pre-made, Korité-appropriate clothes were and try to find something that was a decent color and wouldn’t make us look obese. In the end, we were successful, and each found something we liked for about $20. We then managed to squeeze our way out of the market again and took a car-rapide home. And then I got home and discovered that I no longer had a cell phone…

So I don’t think I’ve explained car-rapides yet.  These are small, brightly colored buses that are the traditional means of public transportation in Dakar. Anne and I have been wanting to ride them this whole month, but we didn’t know how they worked and were a little scared, so we’ve just stuck with the boring old taxis. But Saturday was the day, and with the help of Ami, one of my family’s maids, who took us to the market, we got the car-rapide experience. Basically, there’s a guy hanging off the back of the bus and you hop on and tell him where you’re going and pay him (the going rate is like 20 cents).  Then you squeeze onto the rickety bus and try (and usually fail) to find a seat in between all the bodies.  When the bus gets to where you want to get off, the guy on the back hits the side of the bus and the driver stops and lets you off. 

Your typical car-rapide.

So after buying a new outfit, and hearing about Korité for weeks, I was expecting a pretty big shebang.  However, Korité day actually wasn’t that different. We ate lunch, which was new, but I’m assuming that starting today that won’t be that unusual. Oh, and we had this sweet yogurt-y stuff on top of oatmeal for breakfast (instead of chocopain like usual…this was sad).  Other than that, everyone just kinda sat around all afternoon and napped.  Towards the evening everyone changed into nice clothes, but nothing really special happened then either, except that the kids in the neighborhood came around to all the houses asking for money (it’s a little like Halloween, but not).

With my cousins (Aisha, can’t remember the baby’s name but she’s adorable, and Suley) in the courtyard of my house on Korité (note my new outfit)

Oh, and something else exciting that happened this week was that the rest of the study abroad group came! So now there are 18 Americans here, which means lots of new friends, yay! We start classes on Monday. I’ll be taking French, Country Analysis (culture/history of Senegal), Wolof (actually super pumped for this), International Development, and Public Health.  All in French. I’m pretty excited, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a semester before where I’m actually legitimately interested in all my classes.


Grace: Why in the world am I here?

September 4, 2011

Up until now I’ve just been writing about what I’ve been doing, eating, seeing, and feeling in Senegal and not so much of what I’ve been thinking.  So let me first take a little dive into my thoughts for coming here in the first place.  Later I’ll talk about my thoughts now that I’m here.

Warning: this post may not be as entertaining as the others.

So first of all, I have grown up in a family with parents who regularly discuss the issues of poverty and the privilege we have (I was never allowed to substitute “starving” for “hungry), emphasize compassion for the poor in a Christian context (Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy”), encourage thinking beyond ethnocentricity (growing up we were not allowed to say that people in other countries drove on the “wrong” side of the road, but the “different” or “other” side), and constantly exposed me to the international community (my parents have a lot of non-American friends).  From an early age I knew that there were billions of people less fortunate than me, that I had an obligation to do something for them, but that they were no less smart, deserving, innovative, or loved by God than me. I knew that my blessings in America were just that: blessings, and that I had done nothing to deserve them.

I also was blessed in high school with the opportunity to travel some, because my parents knew that they could tell stories about poverty until they were hoarse, but my siblings and I (this was before our family completion in 2008) needed to see true poverty for ourselves in order to really understand the extent of it.  Now, ok, I’m a little embarrassed talking about these trips, because they feel a little voluntourism-y to me now. Yes, the primary objective of these trips was for my siblings and my benefit. No, the “work” we did in orphanages in Myanmar didn’t really help the orphanages in any long-term way. But voluntourism or not, these trips changed my life by showing me first hand the harsh realities of poverty and loss. They were also a lot of fun, because let’s face it, traveling is awesome!

In 2008, my parents adopted my two brothers from Ethiopia. The addition of Amani and Habtamu into our family just emphasized all the more how completely undeserving I am to have grown up with such privilege. My brothers have also shown me that I am in NO WAY better, smarter, etc than “people in Africa”.  In a cultural environment (America) where “Africa” is a country and all “Africans” are starving, poor, and helpless, it sickens me to know that thoughts of superiority have crossed my mind more times than I’d like to admit. Oh yes, there are definitely starving, poor, and helpless people in the world. My brother Amani can recount stories of poverty that still blow my mind. And there is no doubt that Habtamu was helpless, as a 5 year old in an orphanage. But my parents didn’t “save” them, any more than a couple saves 5 and 10 year old American orphan. Orphans are orphans, the only difference is government protection and help. But anyways…

Through my (sorta strange) upbringing, international exposure, and brothers, I have developed a passion for the impoverished, and a huge desire to see the end of poverty, suffering, injustice, and preventable deaths. And after a trip to Kenya with a non-profit organization (my dad’s) to evaluate the effectiveness of their projects, I can’t quit thinking about ways to achieve culturally appropriate, sustainable development.

I also have totally fallen in love with Africa. Ugh, I actually can’t stand saying those words because I have heard them so often in a voluntourism-y, derisive context. Like “OMG, I met some African orphans while I was in Africa for a week and they were like soooooo cute and hadn’t even seen a camera before, it was so crazy! And there were some giraffes too when I went on a safari after working at the orphanage, and they were soooo amazing.  Now I’ve totally fallen in love with Africa! I just hope I can raise enough money to make a trip back next year, I just have to do something for those poor little African kids”. AHHHH. I really hope you can all see the millions of bad associations I have with “falling in love with Africa”. 

But I don’t know how else to say how much I love the variety of cultures, languages, peoples, triumphs, problems, landscapes, and faces to be found on this continent. So when it came time to choose a major, I chose International Studies with a concentration in African studies.  And when it came time to choose somewhere to study abroad (I am required to for my major), I chose Senegal.  Specifically, this program because it has a big emphasis on exploring the issues involved in international development. So that’s why I am sitting here in a house in Dakar, with a fan blowing on me (thank goodness), listening to the muffled sounds of Wolof conversation and the calls to prayer from the mosque.

This post definitely doesn’t cover all my reasons for coming to Senegal, nor does it even scratch the surface with explaining the situation we are in with development, the subjugation of Africa, voluntourism as a business, and general apathy.  But now you sorta know what I’m doing here, and can see that I’m (hopefully!) not like most people who visit “Africa”.  I’m not here to save the world, or enlighten the Africans with my Western wisdom. I’m here to learn, to observe, to think, to wrestle with issues, to make friends, and to have fun.


I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I know of books, websites, and people who have a few.


Grace: Ile de la Madeleine

August 20, 2011

Today I feel like a real study abroad student.  All the stories I hear about students abroad sound so adventurous and cool, and now I feel like I have one of those stories.

This morning (not sure when I’m gonna post this…today=Sunday), the other two students and I decided to go to the fish market and try to hitch a ride with a fisherman to Madeleine Island, a little deserted island off the coast of Senegal, where we heard it was fun to hike.  We found a fisherman to take us there, and agreed on a price for him to take us and pick us up later (hopefully…we were kinda putting a lot of trust in this guy that he wouldn’t just abandon us on a deserted island).

We got into his little brightly colored fishing boat and took off across the ocean.  Now from the shore, the ocean looks super peaceful. Sure, there are waves, but they just roll along peacefully to make the scenery all the more beautiful. But no. When you’re actually out on the water, they waves are like 10 feet tall, and the teeny fishing boat was rocked all over the place, with water splashing inside. Not quite the peaceful ride I had been envisioning, but definitely fun nonetheless.

We passed Serpent Island (basically a giant rock with lots of bird poop, but no snakes on it)

and pulled into the lagoon (makes me feel like such a pirate/mermaid to say that word) of Madeleine Island. SO GORGEOUS.  The fisherman dropped us off on a rocky beach and took off.  The sense of being alone with nature was overwhelmingly awesome. 

Goodbye, fisherman! (you can see the boat leaving the lagoon)

The water in the lagoon was clear and cool, and the cliffs around us were black streaked with white (from bird poop of course), and we could see between the rocks to the ocean beyond. It was breathtaking.

We sat on the beach for a bit just enjoying how gorgeous everything was and looking at the cool shells, and then we decided to go exploring. I climbed up and along the rock cliff thing next to the water and came to the far side of the lagoon where I could see waves crashing onto the rocks below me and the ocean stretching out in front of me. Amazing. I kept feeling like I was on the set of a music video or mermaid movie or something. The awesome thing too was that the island seemed untouched by humanity, and there weren’t any roped-off sections, signs, or anything.

To the right there was another little rocky cliff thing, and I climbed over there and saw an awesome ocean-creek thing (difficult to describe).  The ocean water would come in from both sies of the “creek” bed and then crash in the middle. So cool. The power of the water was just crazy.  I also saw some cool crabs that were purple, orange and green while alive and red and orange while dead. 

After poking it a thousand times with a long shell and screaming once, I finally determined that it was safe to kiss.  This was actually crab-kiss attempt #2 because I imagined that the first crab moved, dropped it, and it shattered. 

There were tons of other gorgeous and amazing things around the coast of the island, but as my descriptions are miserably failing to accurately represent what anything looked like, I’m just going to stop.  And unfortunately my pictures don’t really convey how amazing this place was. So you will all just have to come to Dakar and go see Madeleine Island for yourself 🙂

I will say that we hiked around the top of the island and saw some GIANT baobabs.  I’m talking 10-15 feet wide baobabs that have probably been there for a couple hundred years or so.  I climbed up one and totally felt like Rafiki in Lion King. There was a lot of red clay around and I was SO tempted to get some and draw a baby Simba on the baobab trunk, but I refrained. 

We swam some in the lagoon too (when I say “we” I mean Anne and I; David didn’t want to get “all wet and blech”), and it was sooo cool, because the water was super salty and we didn’t have to do anything to float.  It was actually difficult to keep our feet under the water, they kept just popping back up.  There were lots of little fish in the water, which at first was a little gross/scary, but they were obviously uninterested in nibbling our toes, so we got along just fine.

At about 5:00 (we got to the island at 11ish), our trusty fisherman came back to fetch us, and he took our sunburned selves back across the ocean to Dakar. 

So now I have one of those cool adventurous-sounding stories to tell about the fun stuff I did while studying abroad. Unfortunately, stories will never be able to convey how breathtaking this island was, nor how amazing this day was.  So like I said, you should all come to Senegal.


Grace: A day in my Senegalese life

August 6, 2011

So we’re technically not supposed to be learning any Wolof for another 3 weeks when we start the class with the other students because if we start learning now we’ll get ahead in the class, but while living with a family who speaks primarily Wolof, it really can’t be helped.  Plus Aisha (the 12 year old girl I mentioned in my last post who I found out is actually almost 11) loves teaching me Wolof words. 

I’ve mastered all the greetings (you have to say like 10 different things every time you greet someone, so this is quite an accomplishment), what to say during meals like “Sourna” (I’m full), “Nairna” (it’s good), and random phrases like “Howma” (I don’t know) and “Rafettna” (it is pretty). I’m practically fluent.  Except that the pronunciations are so hard that most of the time people have no idea what I’m trying to say, but they smile and tell me I’m good at Wolof anyway.

And it’s hot. It technically averages like 10 degrees cooler here than in Atlanta, but without A/C and with sporadic electricity, it feels 50 degrees hotter.  The electricity means fans and cold water, but when it’s out (which is like 50% of the time) the only option is to sit and bake. Or use a hand fan, which I do a lot.  My right wrist is going to be so strong by the time I leave Senegal.  

So as for what I’m doing apart from trying to make the throat noises involved in Wolof words and not melting, I wake up every day at about 8am, take a shower (even though I took a shower before going to bed too…like I said, it’s hot), get dressed quietly as to not wake up Aida, my sister, and then eat breakfast (usually tea and bread with a nutella-like spread, butter or laughing cow cheese) by myself.  The rest of my family gets up at 5 am to eat breakfast and then goes back to sleep after (this is just for Ramadan, not normal).  Then I walk about 5 minutes to the street where the other 2 American students are living and meet them for the 25 minute walk to class. 

By the time we get to class, I am totally sweaty and gross and look like I haven’t showered in days even though it’s barely been an hour. But the classrooms are AIR CONDITIONED so YAY. Sometimes I actually get kinda cold in class, it’s crazy. Then we read difficult French articles that have to do with Senegalese politics, and learn lots of vocabulary/grammar, and speak lots of French.  After class gets out, we go to the computer lab for a few minutes (the internet is really fast so that’s awesome), and then figure out some place for lunch.

Because of Ramadan, most of the restaurants are closed, except for the really Western, expensive ones.  The last two days we’ve just gone to a little grocery store and gotten random stuff for lunch, but these meals have not been very nutritionally balanced (example of grocery store meal: big bottle of apple juice and a piece of cheese). We definitely need to figure out something new to do for lunch because we can’t spend $10/day at the expensive restaurants, but we can’t eat crap either. And I feel bad asking my family to make me lunch when I get back since it would be prepared just for me. 

Anyways, after lunch (wherever that may be), we have gone to the beach a couple times.  Which was fun until I got sunburned (typical.)  Then I come back home, where my family is usually napping or watching tv, and join them in these endeavors.  Oh, and I shower.  Definitely shower.

At about 6 or 7, the guy in the mosque calls out that the day of Ramadan is over, and my family (which at this point has expanded to include my cousins and aunts and uncle and maybe some others) eats dates and drinks coffee.  They give me tea, not coffee, but I don’t really know why…either they think I don’t like coffee or the coffee is only reserved for the Ramadan-ers.  After the coffee/tea, they lay out rugs in the courtyard and do the evening prayers.  For this, Tapha and Babacar (he’s back! But he’s leaving again tonight…and I now know its for his job) and my little cousin Suleyman and my uncle (if he’s there) are on one rug leading the prayers, and the women are are on the rug behind them, heads covered, echoing what they say.  But I’m a little confused because my brother Mario never prays with the men, and my mom and grandmother never pray with the women.

After prayers, everyone just kinda sits around and talks (in Wolof, of course, so I’m totally lost), and then we eat.  We sit on the floor of the courtyard on mats around a big bowl, which usually has rice with some sort of meat and vegetables.  It’s usually pretty spicy and super good.  No offense to my Togolese friends, but Senegalese food is much better. 

And after lots of them saying “Lekel, Lekel” (eat! eat!) and me saying “Sourna, Sourna” (I’m full, I’m full), the meal is over and everyone sits around and talks again. We usually eat some mangoes (YUM), bananas and oranges for dessert too.  At this point, I usually just play with Aisha and Suleyman because everyone else is talking in Wolof about things way beyond my vocabulary.  We play this game that’s kinda similar to red light/green light, and another game that’s similar to Sorry!, and they teach me Wolof and I teach them English and we laugh at each other’s mispronunciations.  It’s a lot of fun, but I’m pretty sure my family thinks I’m like the most immature person ever, because I’m always playing with the kids instead of being with the adults.  Oh well.  It’s funny though, because sometimes Suleyman and Aisha’s mom, who is this super dignified looking woman, always in full Muslim garb, plays with us.  She’s super nice and fun, but it’s just kinda strange watching her run and freeze during the red light/green light game.  

Everyone just kinda drifts off to bed, to watch TV, or to friends’ houses as they feel like it, and I usually go to bed at about midnight, once it’s quiet enough outside my bedroom to sleep. And then it takes me at least an hour to fall asleep because chances are there’s no electricity/fan, and I’m roasting. 

So yeah, that’s a typical day in the life of Grace right now.  Today was a little different because I didn’t have class (it’s Saturday), but I went to the pool with Aisha and Suleyman instead, and that was tons of fun.  They were incredibly impressed that I could do a hand stand AND a flip underwater, so my self-esteem got a nice little boost because at home, I’m not exactly the most talented person in the pool.  I can’t even dive.

Okay, anyways, I better go ahead and post this before the inevitable electricity blackout.  Sorry there aren’t any pictures, but the internet is too slow for those.  I’ll try to post some of my family/house eventually.


Grace: Arrival

August 3, 2011

Okay, so let me start out and say how excited I am for this semester.  It’s only been 3 days and we haven’t done anything particularly exciting yet, and I’m already having the most amazing time.

I got off the plane after an 8 hour flight with NOBODY SITTING NEXT TO ME. Best flight ever! I felt like I was in first class. When I left the airport, nauseous, sweaty, and repulsive after waiting what felt like 3 hours for my bags to finally appear on the conveyer belt in baggage claim, there was Waly waiting for me with a helpful sign.  Waly is the program coordinator for the MSID (Minnesota School of International Development) study abroad program in Senegal.  He took me to my hotel and I was told to just chill on my own for a day (my flight was a day earlier than the program is supposed to start).  Thankfully, the hotel had wifi and I didn’t die from boredom.  Anyways, I won’t go into detail about those first 24 hours, but it basically consisted of lots of sleeping, drawing, and surfing the internet.  Also, all I ate the whole day was a Clif bar and 3 twizzlers because I had no CFA (local money) and couldn’t change any because it was Sunday and everything was closed. So that was fun.

But anyways, Monday at 12, I went downstairs and met Waly again, but this time Kouka was with him too.  She is the other program coordinator.  Also, the other 2 pre-session students, David and Anne (University of Texas and University of Richmond), came down after arriving early that morning.  Yes, there are only going to be 3 people in my class for the next 3 weeks. Everyone else gets here after that. At that point, we are going to be AMAZING at French and be all Senegalese and awesome, and all the other students will be so jealous, hehe.

Monday was a fun day filled with instructions, food, incredibly tasty juices, Senegalese dancing (yes.), a trip to the rocky beach, and sweat. Waly and Kouka and Honourine (another MSID worker whose home we were at) told us all the cultural faux-pas we should avoid and what we should expect from our families.  We found out that apparently there have been problems in the past with students who don’t shower enough and repulsed their host families to the point that they actually had to tell the program directors about it.  The entire way back to the hotel I couldn’t quit thinking about the shower in my near future, so I don’t think that will be a problem for me. 

After an ambien-induced sleep, I woke up this morning at about 7:30 and went down to meet Anne and David for breakfast. We each were served half a (large) baguette and a croissant. Beaucoup de pain. Then Waly came and picked us up with our luggage and we set off on a little tour of Dakar.

We saw all the sights, including the GIANT monument recently built by the President. It’s supposed to represent the African renaissance, with a man, wife and child emerging from rough ground and the child being lifted toward the future.  A cool idea, but incredibly controversial.  Not only did the huge monument cost millions of government dollars in a nation where people are starving, but the statue is a human representation, which is forbidden by Islam.  95% of the population of Senegal is Muslim.  So yeah.  On top of all that, the President actually tried to claim intellectual property rights on the monument and receive personal profit for the tourist revenue.  Oh and did I mention the statue was built by North Koreans? Haha, this monument was not the greatest of ideas. This picture doesnt really convey how huge this thing is. Just imagine my body as the length of one of the womans fingers.
We also saw the “Porte de Millionaires” which was built after the peaceful elections of the year 2000, in which there was not only a democratic election of a new president (pretty rare for Africa), but a total change in government (from socialist to liberal). 
We also saw a few cool mosques.
And the white house.
And some GORGEOUS views with AWESOME cliffs.
After our tour, we went to WARC (West African Research Center), which is where the MSID offices are, and where we will be having our class.  Then we went to lunch at “My Shop”, a totally Western restaurant thing where they had pizza.

And then came the nerve-wracking drive to go meet our families.  I was sooo scared…as it turns out for no reason. My family is awesome.  I have 3 brothers, Mario, Babacar, and Tapha, and a sister, Aida.  Babacar isn’t here right now though, and when they explained to me where he was, I didn’t understand exactly what they were saying, but nodded and smiled anyway, so now I really have no idea where he is.  My host mom’s name is Soda, and she and her children are living with her mother, whose name I can’t remember, but that’s because I just call her “Maman”.  I am sharing a room with Aida.

Ramadan began today so I’m really glad I got lunch, because my family didn’t eat until after sundown.  They can’t drink anything allll day, which seems unbearable in this heat.  I downed two giant water bottles this afternoon, but I tried to be discreet about it so I wasn’t rubbing it in their faces. Tonight for the late dinner, several of their family members who live close came to do evening prayers and break the fast.  It was a little awkward because they spoke Wolof pretty much the entire time and as of now all I know how to say in Wolof is “hello” and “thank you”.  Surprisingly, my extensive Wolof vocabulary didn’t really come in handy during the dinner conversation. But 2 of the cousins, Suleyman (I’m guessing 9 years old) and a girl whose name I can’t remember (12 probably) said they felt bad for me just sitting there clueless, so they spoke in French with me.  They taught me a bunch of like hand-clapping games (I’m sure theres a name for them…), and I taught them that little “down by the banks of the hanky panky…” thing.  And we talked about America, and Justin Bieber, and movies, and school, and it was actually tons of fun!

And now I am sitting in my room after a nice cold shower, and writing this.  And thinking about how long this post is, even though I left out tons of stuff, and how if I write this detailed of a post every 3 days, I will have a very large book by the end of this semester. 


Russell: T-shirts & peanut butter

September 24, 2010

Yesterday, I went on a small adventure to pick up a package sent by my parents. I hopped in a cab to la poste de Medina, what I hoped to be my final destination. The wheels of the rickety taxi waned to and fro on the corniche, as the cloudless sky rained heat onto the stranger and me. When we reached our destination I was in a world of my own and had not noticed the post office on my direct left, so the driver asked if this was good, and I responded oui, c’est bon. I sat outside the building eating my peanuts and Parisiene baguette. People passed by me, investing countless glances just to see if I was worth the conversation about what they were selling. I popped peanuts in my mouth, the product of their labor, while they looked to me for more business. The relationship was very clear. Did this mean that the relationship won’t change?

I then went into the office. I didn’t notice at first, but it was lit dimly. I sat down feeling timid but looking French. After 10 minutes, I asked a woman next to me what’s going on, as no employees were at any windows in the foyer. I quickly learned that she only spoke Wolof. I was able to say that I’m in the process of learning Wolof, but don’t really understand enough to talk. She smiled warmly, tried a few times to explain things to me, and after I failed miserably to understand I motioned with my hand and retreated to my phone to call my mother back. As I sat speaking with her in boisterous English, the office slowly filled with other frowning unknowns seeking some kind of help. It would be difficult even for a local to truly summarize the variety of possible requests seated in the office, jailed to their hard chairs by obligatory patience. After speaking to mother, I stood and tried for the nearest worker behind the windows, showing him the package receipt I had and mumbling something that I hoped was intelligible French. He quickly retorted something I couldn’t understand. After asking what I would say to a taxi driver so I could get wherever I was supposed to go, a man seated near me interjected and explained where I needed to go, within walking distance.

I took to the streets happily, enjoying the sights as I went. The Grand Mosque of Dakar is one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen since arriving. It is huge, prismic, and washed with the colors of green and white. In my diminutive glory, I reached the quite obvious “poste centrale” de Dakar, and hesitatingly went inside.

If I were a television director, this is when I would begin the SNL sketch. I kid not. This is my attempt at a Dave-Barry-like take on my experience of retrieving my package.

A police officer immediately saw my paper and directed me to the set of windows down the hall. I got there, sat down, and was hastily told to stand up and go to the window that was available. Whoops. The man looked at me, looked at my paper, asked if it was my name, I said yes, and then handed him my international ID card. He said “do you really not have your passport?” and I followed with “I may be a silly white person, but if I had my passport I would have handed it to you,” to which he responded “good point, but you should really have your passport for something bureaucratic like this” and I admitted “yeah, I really should, but I just got legalized copies and forgot them at my school, the information for which is on the card you’re holding” to which he finally agreed “yeah, I guess this is you, and it’s not like a rocky conversation with you about where your passport is would be any easier than just putting my dumb little stamp by your name on this list I just spent 11 minutes sorting through papers to find.”

After taking my first paper, the man gave me three more and sent me around his window to a set of desks and offices. I had no idea where to go, so I just stood there until a nice man pointed me to one of the back offices. There, I got the top of my 3 papers stamped, and was sent to the desk of the other nice man. He looked at my packet, nodded, put a tiny mark in a corner with his pen, and sent me to a room next to this one, which connected to a small warehouse. Read the rest of this entry ?


Russell: Flowcharts in Mermoz

September 4, 2010

I am stressed out, confused, and tired. Funny thing is, I’m not physically tired at all. I’ve been really on top of staying healthy in terms of sleep, hydration, and sanitation. But being here is exhausting in many other ways. There is a certain amount of that struggle that “getting used to things” will alleviate. But after being here for 5 days, I think that a large amount of that exhaustion is actually part of life here. One of the domestiques a ma maison, qui s’appelle, Nina, was sitting with her head in her hands this afternoon when I came home. Knowing the amount of responsibility she has, especially after a really raining morning like this one, would make her fatigue understandable. The confusing thing is…she does this every day. And not only that, she’s probably done this every day for her entire life. To show physical exhaustion like that on a day like this, which was rainy but not apocalyptic, blew my mind. Life must actually be as hard as it’s seeming to me—you can’t just get used to things. It’s the little things in life that are difficult and then turn into flaming hellfire encompassing bigger difficulties. They’re constant and persistent and frustrating and make you feel helpless. There is nothing that makes that pain go away.

Even in my short time here, I have found a completely new sense of purpose in studying development. My passion was extensive before, and it remains that way, but I now have opaque blinders on me, and they guide me only to the plight of people. Political pondering is nothing but an obstacle. I still believe in politics, but only because it takes political action to conquer the status quo. The very disciplines of political and social sciences have become an obstacle to simply fixing things. I mean think about it. When you struggle to keep water flowing to your household because pipes are exposed to vandals that pillage just 2 miles away because they want to be rowdy in the cleanest area because the city is dirty and dangerous because not enough planning goes into developing physical infrastructure because contractors have to rush projects in order to make a living because business owners need money for their families right away because their medical expenses are off the charts because their children keep getting diarrhea because they aren’t using sanitary water sources because they can’t get water to flow properly to their household,

…life just sucks. And hey, I got more:

• Bad/inconsistent water –> pipes exposed to vandals –> urban abuse –> fast development –> unsupported/unregulated business –> household poverty –> high costs and poor medical care –> water-borne diseases –> bad/inconsistent water
• Caste system –> certain roles to fulfill in society –> a universal desire to show off one’s physical or cultural wealth –> building houses bigger than your financial and familial means –> being in need of help to take care of basic daily chores and tasks –> housing maid(s) –> becoming lazy –> abusing relationships –> creating a culture of abusing power –> halting social immobility –> caste system
• Religious government –> strong religious majority –> temptation to bypass constitutional precedents –> centralized disrespect for the law –> legislative stagnation –> decentralized disrespect for the law –> more crime and instability –> higher enforcement costs –> advantaged majority –> religious government
• Bugs –> f-ing bugs –> f-ing bugs everywhere

There’s little you can do. Neither is there something for any one individual of the agents involved in this network to do. Either everyone must act, or a higher authority must. And both can be successful, but the problems have to be hit where it hurts. Normally, the most painful spot is right in the middle of these networked maps:
• unsupported/unregulated business
• building houses bigger than your financial and familial means
• centralized disrespect for the law
• f-ing bugs
These hurt because it sucks for everyone to admit the necessity of doing something. No ordinary citizen wants their tax money spent on politicians arguing about some random business near the airport, and neither does that business owner. No person wants to admit that you can’t have a house bigger than his/her neighbor’s, and neither does the builder being paid to construct it. No politician wants to be held accountable to a constitution that they might not agree with that much, because it was drafted under the table by a colonial power. And f-ing bugs. But these things must be dealt with, in the most direct way possible.

I’m not here to change the world, nor Africa, nor Senegal, nor Dakar, nor Mermoz or anywhere else, I promise. I’m just going to keep accumulating perspectives on these and other problems. Maybe in shouldering some of the frustration, pain, poverty, and sadness that strikes people like my maid, Nina, I am, in fact, changing something.

To stray from that poetic statement, I’m also changing the world because I take care of Bebe Verain quand il pleut. That’s one very good thing. This is just about the cutest and most beautiful baby anyone will ever see. And don’t worry, you’ll see him.


Russell: Things I’ve learned

September 3, 2010

I have way more shit than these people. I call it shit because, honestly, when I’m here, it is all shit. It’s not that I am learning that object possession is way less meaningful than I originally thought; it’s that it all has a context. If I don’t have electricity to plug my computer into… of what real use is it? That’s an extreme example I guess… but what about clothing? I’m going to sweat through everything I wear, and so is everybody else. Why would I have the most stylish, expensive clothing? It wouldn’t be showing anything off, not even wealth, because I’d be changing it all the time or degrading it by wearing it. In other words, what I am finding by living in Senegal only for a few days is that material possession would mean a lot more to the local population if certain infrastructural changes were made, or if certain realities didn’t exist. But the realities do exist, and the changes are being made too slowly for me to witness a cultural impact in just a 3.5 month period.

This reminds me of something that always fascinated me about developing countries when studying in school: no matter how low the GDP per capita or what the poverty rate is, everyone purchases alcohol, attends festivals, plans extravagant parties for important occasions, smokes and drinks moderately, etc. Even if people are making less than a dollar a day? Yes. They do. I didn’t know the reason (I mean I guess I still don’t entirely, but I can make a good guess now; why else would I be typing this?) I thought it was just because celebration is a universally important and fun thing, and it takes a disproportionate amount of importance in societies who have less. But then I realized that it may be much simpler than that.

When I want to have fun with friends, I can go drink with them. But drinking with friends is essentially for exactly that—drinking with friends, not for doing business (well…most of the time), or working hard, or purely for the sake of getting out of the house or something. It’s a specific activity for a specific desire. But that’s the case because when I have a different specific desire, like learning more about the people I’m interested in, I go on facebook. That’s also specific, and it caters to a different desire, and in itself constitutes a different context for satisfying my desires.

In Senegal, my brother LouLou doesn’t have facebook, and doesn’t often go on his wife’s computer for any reason other than to look up exchange rates, so there are in fact many more desires and specific thoughts that could lead to going out and drinking with friends than there are for me. In fact, when LouLou wants to meet someone new and get better acquainted, get out of the house to avoid maman’s traditional ranting, have fun in general, or a whole host of other things, he goes out to drink with friends. Hence him bringing me along—it’s all in the context. There is nothing profound about the answer to my aforementioned question; it’s just all about context.

Like how people I meet will avoid speaking to me in length if I suck at communicating, and they will eventually learn to dislike me. Man I am exhausted from thinking. I don’t want to complain, but it is difficult experiencing a new culture, learning directions to and from the places I [need to] go, meeting my American peers and 3 days later needing each other to lean on, staying on my guard physically and mentally, and keeping up with school material, all while learning the two languages in which all of that mess is communicated. Just like a hormonal teenager, I want all the riches of home, but also have a hearty taste for being elsewhere. Likewise, here I am, in “elsewhere,” but it is now called “home,” and I have a hearty taste for being back in Southern California. It won’t go away, and it also won’t get in my way of learning, experiencing, and loving this beautiful place. It’s only a taste for it. Just because Taylor always has an inkling for some good ole’ Tilamook cheddar in front of her, doesn’t mean she always needs it or really wants it, and just because Evan is a metalhead, doesn’t mean he can’t groove to Stanley Jordan.


Russell: Arrival in Senegal

September 1, 2010

It wouldn’t be a trip to a foreign country without a costly mistake during moment #1.

Upon arriving to l’Aeroport Leopold S. Senghor au Dakar on August 30, my peers and I rode a shuttle to customs and baggage. There were many people around the baggage claim, including some men to which some new friends were conversing. When I came over, made friendly conversation (road-testing my French), I spotted my baggage and began taking it off the belt. Once I conquered the immediate struggle of lifting the ungodly amount of belongings I apported to the Western East, the [nice] man offered a cart, and quite physically placed it within reach. I put the baggage on the cart, and helped my friend Natalie put hers there as well. Once the cart was full, the man began guiding us through the rest of security/customs, seemingly helping us. Our compliance triggered a mass of similar men following our group like vultures, “helping” us when they could. They didn’t succeed extensively, but my vulnerability-gone-idiocy caused the pack to follow our now-formed-and-aware-of-Russell’s-idiocy MSID group. We walked briskly, following a different man who had now explained what was happening. He made subtle hints at what I needed to do to end the barrage, and I ended the 10-minute first encounter $62 poorer. What was an unusually anxious voyage to begin with turned into the most nerve-racking experience of my life. Everything was fine, and I was well supervised and safe, but the uncertainty of what was going on and how to deal with it gave me a fright that I tried to house in my gut.

We spent the day with our supervisors and peers at a beautiful shared home overlooking the ocean neighborhood. There was a lot of eating, talking, relaxing, fanning, and learning. Besides going to the beach itself and interacting with some local children, the highlight of the day was a long discussion on cultural survival in Senegal led by the organizers Waly, Korka, Adji, Honorine, et Prof. Sene (I honestly don’t know how long it went because too much of my brain space was reserved for understanding the fast French and learning the cultural details they were describing).

To try to describe the differences between the United States and this place would be not only pointless, but irrelevant. The point is that it is more different than anywhere else I’ve been, and that’s enough to keep me busy for a while. Hopefully you can get a feel for these small albeit complicated details through other anecdotes I relate and post about.

%d bloggers like this: