Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First Dakar Post, Take 2

The formatting on my first post was all kinds of funky. Here goes again:
I am living with a very nice host family not far from the Baobab center, which is very convenient. My host father is polygamist and so he switches between households every two days. My host mother, Saly, is nice, I like interacting with her. Amadou, my youngest host brother (and the only son who still lives in the house) is also very nice, he is a first year university student (if I understood correctly), studying computer science. He is learning Cisco networking right now. My older host sister is named Adja (pronounced something like Adia), and she works for Orange S=E9n=E9gal as an accountant. Orange is a French company, in fact it is the same one with which I had service while in France. I also have another host sister named Diatou who is younger, in high school according to my handout on my family (this is the same handout which mixed up Amadou and Diatou's names, however). So far I haven't talked a whole lot with any of them, much like with the De Sol=E8res (my host family in Strasbourg) they are old hats at hosting students. There are also two maids ("bonnes" is what they are called here. They are also very nice but speak much less French, so communication is a challenge. Everyone in the household will switch periodically and unpredictably between French and Wolof. Their accents in French are challenging for me to understand, so it normally takes me a few minutes to understand that the switch has occurred. Thus I find myself in situations where I am certain everyone in the room is talking about me, but I can't probably understand or respond! My French is good enough though that most people who I speak to for any period of time think that I am French. Apparently this is the experience of several others in the group too. General impressions of Dakar: noisy, dirty, polluted, hot, dusty, colorful. We are still learning how to navigate the culture here, but the Baobab center is doing an AMAZING job in my opinion of teaching us. I have the distinct impression that what we have already learned in these three days would take anyone not going to the center months or even years to understand. Small cultural nuances, the relationship between the different religions here, where we are most likely to get mugged when walking at night, loads of very important things. virtually all of our teachers so far (or rather orientation leaders) are S=E9n=E9galais, and very, very experienced at explaining and sharing their culture. It is such a powerful experience already in just these 72 hours. I am starting to miss everyone and everything, so I am trying to pace myself. I have definitely been in survival mode since I arrived, there is just so much that is new and stimulating in different ways. Everything that is normally easy is now a challenge. We learned the Wolof version of "Head, shoulders, knees and toes" the other day, and it is a hilarious reminder of how in so many ways we are "children" in this place and culture, still learning the language, the do's and dont's, the most basic social norms. It is a challenge to relax and not worry too much about inadvertently offending my host family, I felt the same way in France, often afraid I would do something that would annoy or upset my host family there. So I am using that experience as one of the tools in my "toolbox" (they even used this term at the Baobab Center!), in order to cobble together some way of relaxing and trusting that if I try my hardest everything will work out fine. The group seems to be doing well so far, most of us are still quite tired. It is so exhausting being in this environment where literally everything is new. Alexis and Jess went for a run today but I wasn't feeling it in the kind of heat we had. They really enjoyed it though, so I am looking forward to the next opportunity! Tomorrow is our first "Sortie" or small excursion, we will venture for the first time dowtown to one of biggest S=E9n=E9galese markets. They were preparing us for it today a bit, it promises to be a fairly assaulting experience with people aggressively trying to get us to buy what they are selling, and others simply trying to steal what we have. The food here is excellent, I love it. And yet another example of the fascinating mix of traditional and modern practices ... to be elaborated upon more later! That's all for now! Yours truly, Sean