Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First Dakar Post

After a long, long voyage here, I have finally arrived.
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 Sénégal 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
Solères (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 Sénégalais, 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 Sénégalese 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,