Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Trying to keep up ...

The rest of the first week did not let down the crazy pace. This week we took two visits to downtown, one to a Sénégalese school, and we visited the Isle de Gorée. In the next few posts I hope to tackle these one at a time...
Downtown I
After meeting at the Baobab center we split into groups to take different modes of transport into Dakar's downtown area. My group pushed hard to take a Car Rapide (an ancient minibus type deal hollowed out to fit as many seats as possible). Car rapides are on of the cheapest ways to travel here, and one of the most colorful as well (literally and figuratively). They are hot and uncomfortable but the most interesting people take them, and it's only 100 cfa to get downtown. I met a great guy sitting across from me (we were quite close in fact, in the car rapides people often just sticking their knees in between other peoples legs in order to fit). His name is Bashir, he is a student at the University studying English Literature with an emphasis on Shakespeare, who is his favorite author. He reads it in the original English, which I was very impressed by. I asked him if he found it difficult, and said that even the Americans have trouble understanding him a lot of the time. He said it was challenging. Then like many Sénégalese he gave me his phone number, and we agreed that we could teach each other English/Wolof. He got off at the university stop and we continued downtown, where we got off in the middle of one of the biggest markets. Our guides shepherded us expertly through the maze-like stalls. We had been carefully shown how to avoid getting our stuff stolen, and so those who had bags clutched them in the appropriately defensive way and those of us without simply carefully guarded our pockets. In some places the "stalls" that filled entire streets got so close together that it was impossible to walk normally, needing to turn and shimmy through. These areas were often covered by fabrics above, blocking out light and air. Vendors/merchants of varying degrees of aggressiveness, calling out Toubab "white person" and urging us to buy their products in broken french and English. We eventually left this crowded part of the market and got through to the Place de l'Independence, a large open space with a highly defunct fountain in the middle. Apparently it gets fixed every couple years when someone decides that years Independence Day celebration merits it, and then promptly breaks again. As we were leaving the Place, our guide Adama pointed out some guys who were sitting on the ground and said that we needed to watch out for those guys. About a minute later they walked up to us and two of them started grabbing my pant legs... I started to try and pull them off but even before I could do anything Adama started yelling at them in Wolof and they scattered. Apparently it is a well-used trick, as I bend down to shake them off someone comes up behind me and empties my pockets. Thanks to Adama they got nothing from me. As she explained later, "ils sont agressifs mais pas courageux"... they are aggressive but not courageous. If you yell at them loud enough (especially in Wolof!) they will run away, since the most important thing for them in the end is not getting caught by the police. Penalties here are stiff for voleurs. We stepped into the largest supermarket in Dakar, part of a French chain called Casino (their littler stores were a frequent source of cheap nourishment on travels throughout southern France), to see what the supermarket experience is like for the more wealthy and European shoppers of Dakar. But as with most things here it turned out to be smaller and more run down than expected. Like every building worth anything in Senegal, it also had a small team of unarmed private security guards out front. Perhaps at one point Dakar's downtown was a spectacular mix of modern buildings and traditional culture, but this heyday seems to have long past and everything seems to be several decades run down. Most things, including offices of important international organizations (namely banks) are dirty and discolored, the institutional beige, light yellow and white victims of pollution, and indifference. A little later we stopped for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we got decent, relatively good priced food. We returned to the center tired, and welcomed our professor's proclamation that downtown is generally a disagreeable place to which you do not go without a very specific thing to buy or place to go. Al Hassan, the professor who said this and the majority of other useful things in our orientation sessions and post-excursion discussions, is one of my favorite professors/staff members here at the center. He exudes fatherliness, and is exceptionally kind. As a professor he seems to know everything there is to be known about Senegalese culture, and his teaching style reminds me most of teachers in France. That is to say he talks exactly as loud as he feels like (which is very un-loud) no matter what other noise there might be or how many people are in the room. He just goes at his own speed at his own level, so you better be sitting up front! Otherwise it is hard to catch what he says. I think that's going to be all for this post ... until next time!