Observations

Madeleine Balchan - Senegal


October 13, 2010

I’ve been in Dakar for one week. The first few days, I was numb from sensory overload. I see sheep in the street meridian, bright colorful linens, flies swarming the meat stands and more western clothes than I expected. I hear my brothers converse in Wolof, the fierce but melodic call to prayer from the Mosque down the street, and the sheep for Tabaski (a Muslim celebration in November) whining in his captivity. At first the scent of Senegalese air – sand and fish – was a constant reminder that I was in a distant land. Now I feel I have grown accustomed to these foreign smells and only notice them in the tap water. I taste the spicy, oily, delicious Senegalese food. I feel the heat.

With a base of understanding from my lessons at the Baobab center, I am now beginning to put these things I saw and heard into cultural context. At first, I thought Senegalese people suffered from the chronic-lateness syndrome I battle myself. If the schedule says class starts at 9, we might start as late as 9:45. But people aren’t late because they’re lazy. The emphasis on relationships and greetings is valued over business and productivity: even if I’m in a hurry to go to school, I stop and talk with the fruit vendor on my street.

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I was uncomfortable my first time in the markets of downtown. As a white “tubab” I’m an instant target for all the vendors selling everything from sunglasses and clothes to woodcarvings and necklaces. I’m tired and hot and being followed up the street by a man with a bag full of butterfly wing art. He won’t accept my French of “non, merci” (no thank you), “c’est joli mais je n’ai pas besoin de ca” (that’s pretty but I don’t need it), nor my desperate Wolof “baba naan” (next time). I was annoyed but then I remembered he probably has a family to feed. It’s logical to target a foreigner. Accepting the target on my skin allows me to laugh when every taxi that passes stops to ask if I need a ride.

At first the heat was annoying, but now I appreciate how it can add to the experience and relationships. I’ve endured heat over 100° before – with air conditioning and short shorts – neither of which are an option here. Even the fans are unreliable. The first four days the circuits broke an average of 6 times a day, sometimes for hours at a time, leaving us without light or rest. At one in the morning I sat in our outdoor room, talking and laughing with my family because it’s too hot to sleep in our stuffy rooms.

I’m processing everything I see and feel based on what I know from the past. I’m uncomfortable with always being catered to and never being allowed to help at home, but that’s the culture of hospitality “Teranga”. With an understanding of the values and beliefs of Senegalese culture I will hopefully be able to impartially compare the new things I’m seeing with my old life. Until then I’ll just observe.

Madeleine Balchan