Saturday, April 23, 2016

Last Post From Dakar

So, as has been mentioned, my stay here has really come to its end. My flight leaves tonight, and I should arrive back in the US on tomorrow evening (fingers crossed!).

The past few weeks have been a really nice send-off. I finished up my time at APECSY last week, and celebrated my birthday with friends with a picnic at Îles des Madeleines last weekend.

Left to right: Me, Claire, the ferryman, Jillian, and Bennett. Photo by Brenda.
This week I had my final classes and presentations for MSID. I've said so many goodbyes already, and it's terribly bittersweet. I prefer "ba beneen yoon" (until next time) and "au revoir" (goodbye, but more literally, to meet again) to anything more final, because I know I will be back.

I remember coming here and having trouble believing I could ever feel at home here. Yet today, I went to the market in HLM for souvenir shopping (a lot of cloth, candy, and tea), and began walking away in search of a set of tea glasses. I was walking in the direction of Mermoz, where I live, and decided I would take a taxi when I got tired or lost. As it was, I made it all the way back - this after I got lost in my own neighborhood the first week! It felt like a real accomplishment.

I shared my last plate of ceebu-jën with my host family this afternoon, though we still have dinner to look forward to tonight. I'll be doing a little more shopping and hanging around, and trying to let the knowledge that I'm leaving in under eight hours set in. It still hasn't.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What I've Learned

Today is two weeks to the day until I leave. It's a little over a week until my 21st birthday, which I suppose is a day that might merit its own post. I thought I'd talk a little bit about what I've learned here.

Sit down - there's plenty of hammocks to go around!
I've been more or less composing this piece in my head for months now. A clever sort of summary of how I've spent my time here, of wisdom I might impart to myself a year ago or someone else considering studying abroad in Senegal who could use the advice - or even for those of you who will never see Senegal, whose most personal experience with the country has been reading my haphazard posts about it these last seven months. So here's another quick list of odds and ends I've picked up this year:
  • I've learned a new kind of table manners, which really aren't table manners at all but bowl manners. There's a clumsy way of eating rice with your hands and a polite way, and I think I've gotten a handle on the polite way. I say I think, because really I've also learned that sometimes you can spend a very long time being what Dave Barry calls an "American water-buffalo" without realizing it. At least I only slipped up and put my left hand in the communal bowl once.
  • I've learned how to interpret and navigate a lot of social customs and patterns that I was previously unfamiliar with. Greetings, for instance, are a lot slower here and more important. While I still smetimes get frustrated with how long they can drag on, I wonder if I'll feel at all cut off when I go home and experience the shorter American greetings again. As far as other languages differences go, some kinds of offers and requests are meant as jokes (like asking for my hand in marriage at first meeting) or a sign of unending hospitality (like encouraging me to eat until I thought I would explode). At first it was a little hard to tell which is which, but I think I've gotten the knack of it.
  • I've learned how many other, smaller things are local customs, rather than just universal behavior. For instance, during my summer working the register at Pekara, I was taught that it was my responsibility as the cashier to always have correct change on hand and in the register. I assumed that held true everywhere, but did not account for a place where much less money passes through most businesses each day. Here, exact change is the responsibility of the customer, not the seller, and some shopkeepers here can be downright rude if you try to pay in big bills (about the equivalent of $10 or $20 bills). In one case, I visited three different stores in an effort to break a 5000 CFA ($10) and ended up in a pharmacy buying a small box of painkillers I didn't really need just because I needed change for the bus. I can't imagine the look I would get if I ever just asked for change from the register without buying anything.
  • I've learned how to efficiently haggle for a taxi, and a lot more about navigating Dakar's public transportation network - so much so that I have a separate post about that that I'll post tomorrow or the day after. Haggling in general is an interesting approach to buying and selling that I'll miss in some ways - though in others I'll be glad to get back to just hearing a price and knowing it means something other than "I think this is the most I can get you to pay for this."
  • I've learned some more overarching lessons as well. I've gotten a little better about not panicking in strange and unfamiliar situations, and much better at saying "buzz off" to people who I get a bad feeling from. I've learned that even life in a big, exciting city is not enough to change my love of afternoons staying indoors with a good book. I've learned that I think I'd like to do something different with my life than what I thought when I first came here.

If I've learned so much from just the past short months in Senegal, I can't imagine what a lifetime of travel to other interesting places can do to a person. I certainly hope to find out!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Personal Reflections

NOTE: I wrote the original version of this essay for a class assignment, but I thought I'd also post it here, as it discusses a few of the more difficult aspects of my stay that I haven't discussed on this blog. I always want to keep this space "pleasant" and not fall into the trap of ranting or oversharing. I felt this essay struck a difficult balance between that, and telling the truth.

I got a call last Monday from my friend Samba, the man whose job it had been to help me acclimate to life in Soussane. I had been expecting him to call sometime in the last few weeks, but I didn’t have the courage to call him myself. He started the call with the words I wanted to hear the least, but that I knew were true. “You’ve failed us, Lalla,” he said, addressing me by the Senegalese name I had gone by in Soussane. “You have not come back.” When I left Soussane, I had said I would return, though the truth was I didn’t want to, and because I don’t have a car I knew it wouldn’t be likely. I told him this, and he didn’t seem surprised. He had always seemed a little dismissive of my involvement with the village and Senegal. “I don’t think you will ever be a farmer, Lalla,” he had said one day as we were hoeing onions. “You’re a city person.” I proved him right within a week of this, deciding to leave when I realized how futile my time there was.

To start at the beginning, I was assigned to the village of Soussane for my internship this semester by Agrecol Afrique, whose offices I worked at last semester. In retrospect, it’s very clear that I was almost totally unprepared for a three-month stay in the village. . I hadn’t lived in a house without wifi in years, and no electricity was way more of a transition than I thought it would be. It was more than a little frustrating to have spent over a year learning Wolof and find it totally useless in the very situation I had planned to use it most. My research was not in place enough for me to start conducting interviews or doing any kind of fieldwork. I felt adrift, and what’s more useless. Any work I could do in the village felt like an indulgence, as though people were showing me how to clumsily do something for a few months that they themselves had been doing expertly for years, and would continue to do for years after I had left.

Despite all this, I still liked Soussane. My host family and the rest of the village were kind and welcoming to me. While some of the food was a very stark reminder of the kind of poverty most of the village lived in (I’d never eaten sandwiches with spaghetti before), I also found I really enjoy millet couscous with all the various sauces it was served with. It was quiet and peaceful – the entire pastoral ideal was always at the front of my mind there. I saw so many stars and the most beautiful sunsets, and the background noise of the cows and goats was much sweeter than the traffic of Dakar.

Still, I cried almost every day I was there. Most of it was over little things. I cried because I missed my home, because there was trash blowing around the village and rotting just outside its fences, because one of the family members had a chronic illness that didn’t appear to be getting better, because I wished I were a dentist because no one there had decent teeth. I cried because I thought of what they would do with a fraction of the wealth I’m used to seeing people blow away – that I’m used to blowing away. I cried because I hated that I felt sorry for them, when I had no right – when the little girls work harder than I ever have a day in my life, and will until they’re bent old grannies. They shouldn’t have to. They’re amazingly strong. I cried because I realized that I was not needed, and that I had been foolish to come here.

I have decided over the course of this semester that development work, at least in the vein I have been pursuing it, is not for me. Rather than serving a term in the Peace Corps after graduation, I think I am going to apply for a master's program in library science. I would like to specialize in knowledge management (something I learned about at Agrecol, and which I found very interesting), and I wouldn’t mind one day returning to NGO work as a knowledge specialist. But note that: specialist. I am not coming back to work in the developing world until I know I can bring a useful skill set to it. I have learned the hard way that that does not do much good for anyone.

I regret a lot of things about how I have spent my year here in Senegal. If I could do it all over again, I would have spent my first semester internship in the village, when I was less pressured to get work on my research project done, and my second semester in Dakar or Thiès. Perhaps I would have been happier that way, and maybe I would still be on the development path if that had come to be. But I like to think I have returned to a truer path here. I am grateful to the MSID program and to everyone else who has helped me along my way here. Samba and the Diones, my host family in Soussane, are among those who I am not sure if I will ever be able to repay. I did not want to come here and be a silly American, taking experiences as if they were photographs and discarding people I meet like business cards, but I have. Monetarily my debts are settled, of course. But it will be a long time before I will feel they are met morally.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

One month left

Here's the March update, as once again it was a slow (read: no) posting month. There hasn't been much to report on besides business as usual - work, reading, knitting, friends. My life here has taken on a very routine and normal feeling - and yet I have very little time here left. A month from today I'll be getting on a plane back. It feels crazy.

I will be happy to go home. There's no doubting that. I miss my family, my friends, my pets. There are plenty of other little things I never considered, either - green parks (there is not an abundance of public parks here, and they are generally a little sandier than what I'm used to), peanut butter (I use a bit of the peanut paste my host mom keeps for cooking to put on my bread on occasion, but it's not the same), good coffee (Nescafe cannot compete with a good soy latte). There's so much I am looking forward to seeing and doing this summer.

I'm definitely also going to miss it here though. Dakar worked its way into my heart little by little, and suddenly I found I had a pleasant routine here. I can't possibly talk about all of it, but here's a short list of some of the things I know I'll miss most.

  • Lively Neighborhoods

I'll miss walking around Yoff and Mermoz a lot. Kids play unsupervised around the neighborhoods here, something I've never seen much of in the US. I frequently have to step around or through games of marbles, soccer, and tag. In Yoff especially I can still rely on shouts of "Bonjour toubab!" which I have more or less gotten accustomed to.

Animals also make the city a little livelier. It seems as though I can hear sheep bleating everywhere I go in Dakar, as well as the clip-clop of horses' hooves. There was a rooster crowing on my street for a while, but I believe he's met his fate. The kitten at WARC is thriving (as any cat fed a good amount of chicken scraps would be).

  • Good eats

I'll miss the lunches and dinners around communal bowls, though I don't think the transition back to western-style serving will be too difficult.  I will miss the wonderful plates served, however, and I'm going to have to work on learning a few recipes before I get back. I've got plans to try serving trout yassa-style (grilled with onion sauce and white rice). I also need to get much better at my tea-pouring skills.
    And that's not to mention the street food - something I didn't explore for a while, but have had a very good experience with. My favorites are the grilled sticks of liver and onions, fried egg sandwiches piled with french fries, and even the overpoweringly bittersweet Cafe Touba. I have to say, I'll also miss being able to buy all of these for less than $3! 

    Sharing a sandwich with Claire at our favorite lunch stand near WARC
    • Teranga (hospitality)

    I'll miss the pleasant little interactions that follow day-to-day life here. Today, for instance, I went to the tailor to pick up some things, but ended up waiting a bit while they were adjusted. While waiting, I had a series of conversations with the employees and customers of the shop and the beauty parlor next door (I was knitting, and it seems everyone the world over loves to talk about my knitting). We shared bissap juice, millet flour beignets, and ataaya. That's the real Senegalese teranga, that kindness that I'm still so enchanted by.

    I know already that I'll be back here someday. Not to live again, but I will be back. I want to see Dakar grow, and Senegal with it.

    I've got a couple other posts I want to get up in the next few weeks. Thank you for your readership and patience!

    Saturday, February 27, 2016

    February, in brief

    I've never been as good about keeping diaries, blogs, or journals as I would like to be, and so the month of February has almost passed me by without a single post. Rest assured, I'm doing very well.

    I'm back staying with the Kobars, and the house has been rather lively of late - some family friends are staying at the house right now, and two former MSID students stopped by this week as well. One works at an organization that does work here in Dakar, so comes through infrequently, and the other is on vacation from her job in France and chose to come back for a bit of sight-seeing. The spring MSID students are on their Toubacouta trip right now - I can't wait to hear about how it went.

    I've started up a new internship with a group called APECSY(L'Association pour la Promotion Economique, Culturelle, et Sociale de Yoff), a community development organization in Yoff. Yoff is a neighborhood in the northern part of Dakar. It's about a twenty-minute bus ride from my host family's house, and I have to say I've come to enjoy the commute. Usually, I snag a seat and pull out my knitting - I've finished a kerchief and I just started a new knitting project which I'd like to keep a secret for the time being.

    Yoff and Mermoz are both circled in blue. I take the yellow-green route between them.

    I'm mostly observing at the organization right now, though I also did a bit of translating for an informational brochure and went around with my supervisor, Oumar Diene, for a look at some of the problems and successes of the neighborhood. I like Yoff a lot - like any city, all the neighborhoods of Dakar have their own character, and Yoff is a bit slower than downtown or Fann. In some ways, it's a bit more like Thiès - more horsecarts and a thriving street market, though it also sits directly on the beach, and still derives a lot of its industry from fishing.  It also boasts a high concentration of Lébou people, the original inhabitants of the peninsula on which Dakar sits.

    Me (center) with the members of the women's group AFADY and fellow APECSY employee Mame Diene (holding baby).

    Outside work, I've been doing a bit of sightseeing and generally enjoying Dakar life. I've got a good group of friends here and we've been exploring some of the cuisine and nightlife Dakar has to offer - most notably, a Nigerian restaurant (which I wasn't terribly fond of), and an Ivorian restaurant (which I was), as well as frequenting Lalibela, a wonderful Ethiopian restaurant. I've had a few market & sightseeing expeditions with the new MSID students, including a wonderful cookout on the Mamelles beach with some CIEE students (another undergraduate study abroad program). I'm still not much of a dancer or a partier - even living in a city halfway around the world can't change this couch potato that much - but I have fun.

    I went to a wedding with the Kobars this week - I'd not gotten the chance before, but Senegalese weddings can be legendary events. This one was pretty chill by comparison to some, but it still lasted the whole day and long into the night, and the house was absolutely packed. Like in any social situation here, I felt severely underdressed - the Senegalese women are very glamorous dressers, and even the little girls were much more put-together than me. I'm having some new clothes made soon, though, including a dress in a rich purple bazin, the shiny, embroidered fabric favored for fancy clothes here.

    I've been reading a lot (as always), but I'd like to promote one of the books I read lately - Tom Burgis's The Looting Machine, a look at some of the worst of the corruption and resource theft which continues to keep many African economies in the red. If you have an interest in international economics and/or politics, I highly recommend it.

    I'm hoping I've broken my lazy writing streak with this post, and I'll try to get something else posted later this week. Thank you all for being so patient with my sporadic correspondence!

    Wednesday, January 27, 2016

    Quick Update: I'm back in Dakar

    Scarcely a few hours after I published my last post, which I'd drafted over the weekend, I thought over some things that I'd been dealing with since my arrival last Tuesday, and decided that my time in Soussane wasn't going to be worth it. Honestly, reading through that post with the knowledge that I get aggressively upbeat when I'm close to breaking makes it seem like a bit of a cry for help.

    A big part of me also wanted to stay, but I also knew I was not doing anyone any favors by staying there. Soussane needs a lot of things, but an unskilled young intern who is treated like a china doll is not one of them, and I was not thriving there. The people in Soussane were wonderful, but a stomach bug, a general sense of frustration at the resources available to me there, and the fact that I'd had no warning or information about the site beforehand made me feel very frustrated at being sent there, and I was so upset Monday I was seriously considering going home. I was having some trouble adjusting to not having sufficient internet connection and electricity, which I'm pretty dependent on because I've built a lot of my research and writing habits around using my laptop.

    So I'm back in Dakar this week, figuring things out with MSID and finding another place to work this semester. Rest assured, I'm still staying in Senegal until April, but I'll be doing something different. Thank you all for your continued support and readership.

    Monday, January 25, 2016



    That’s how you say “good morning” in Sereer. If someone says that to you, you respond with “fedee jam” (fay-day jahm). Then there are several greetings asking about the family and your health that follow, and other ways of greeting each other during the afternoon or evening. Salutations are serious business in the village of Soussane.

    Soussane, not to be confused with Sessene (a small town along a main road where Agrecol has an office), is a hamlet of a few dozen families, five kilometers of dirt road away from the main route. Agrecol though it would be best to send me to one of their newest sites for my internship, and they just got their organic gardens at Soussane off the ground in the past year.

    In some ways, it’s rather like my fantasies of the Little House books as a girl – the town still gets all its water from a well (though I buy bottled drinking water because of my weak American stomach). My host father is the head of the village, and so we were among the first to get electricity, which is still being installed in other homes – until those arrived, only the school had electricity. It is enough to power lamps in the evenings and to charge cellphones, but to charge my computer I have to go a little further afield.

    I can either ask a neighbor on the other side of town who has a more powerful electrical system, or go to the Agrecol offices (a journey which can range between fifteen minutes and an hour, depending upon whether I go by horse cart or car), or to Beersheba, a little under a mile away. Beersheba is a faith-based center which offers training in organic farming. The latter two have wifi as well, though I also have a 3G internet connection if I want to work at home. It’s a bit slow out here though, so I can’t post any pictures as yet.

    So far, my schedule is split between helping at the village preschool a few mornings a week, helping with the organic farming, and doing things with the Agrecol offices. I can’t start conducting interviews until I get IRB approval, which I’m in the process of applying for, but until then I can do a lot of reading – as usual, I practically brought a mobile library with me.

    The food is a lot more carbohydrates and a lot less meat and vegetables than I’m used to – at this rate, I think most of my body mass will be millet by the time I go home. Fortunately, I’m rather fond of it, and I really love the feel of meals eaten around the communal bowl.

    Soussane is not the kind of place that gets all that many newcomers, and certainly not white girls like me, so all the kids here find watching me to be endlessly interesting. If I just sit down outside with my journal or my knitting, a crowd of them will gather. All except for the littlest ones – I still frighten some of the babies.

    As per the usual, everyone, adults and children alike seems to like to watch me knit – I really wish I had brought teaching supplies with me, but I shall have to figure something out.

    There is so much to say about life here that I have to cut myself short for this post – I’ve got a couple themed pieces in mind for later. Will post a lot more in the weeks to come!