Expect the Unexpected

Tess Langan - Senegal


October 13, 2010

Before I left for Senegal I got advice from some of last year’s fellows.  Of the various conversations I had, one piece of advice stuck and tumbled through my mind like laundry:  have no expectations. For the most part I think I have honored this counsel, remaining unruffled by kamikaze-like drivers,  “bucket” baths (kind of like bailing out a boat and dumping the water on your head), the loud, melodious, tribal calls to prayer that are broadcast throughout the day, street vendors that will shadow you for blocks,  and eating etiquette (licking fingers recommended).  I did fail to purge my mind of expectations though, in one respect; I expected to feel a little culture shock. Instead, I am closer to feeling reverse culture shock– my host family, in some ways, is more modern and “American” than I am.

Back home in America, my family has a strict no texting at the dinner table policy; offenders may be docked dessert. In Senegal the soundtrack of dinner is laced with the pop ring tone of my twenty-one year old host sister Vivienne’s cell phone. In America, my real sister works her blackberry obsession into unrelated conversations (“Mom, I need a ride to practice—can I get a blackberry?”) and my overzealous younger brother would still text me “hi” from across the room months after he got his first phone. In Senegal, Vivienne has a blackberry and her three year daughter marches about the house, a cell phone plastered to each ear. In America, it is an unspoken understanding that television and dinner are separate. We do not even have a t.v. within earshot of the kitchen. But in Senegal, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) colors my dinnertime experience.

In America, to the chagrin of my carnivorous Dad, our meals are rarely anchored by meat. We are (mostly) a veggie-centric family, full disclosure: I even love brussel sprouts. My mom, a former health writer, rarely serves fluff foods like macaroni and cheese that have little nutritional value.

My first home-cooked Senegalese meal was fried chicken, and french fries. When, puzzled, I pointed to the French fries and asked, “Senegalese?” Vivienne nodded. Halfway through dinner she abruptly said, “ketchup” stood up, walked to the kitchen and returned victoriously wielding said ketchup. I must have been overly enthusiastic about the ketchup because my family continued to provide it for me, even the next night when we had cheesy spaghetti accompanied by a meat and onion sauce.

I have been carefully conservative in my dress here, a Muslim country. I wear khaki pants, and blowsy collared shirts, raiment that I am aware might make me look like a missionary. Meanwhile, Vivienne prefers sparkly tops that are dangerously low cut. Before coming here I was prepared to cover my knees, but another fellow confided that yesterday her host mom “was just chilling in her bra.”

Senegal has surprised me for all the ways it is similar to the United States–but also for the ways in which it is vastly different. Mercedes Benz roll down the streets of Dakar but they share the road with haphazard rickshaw’s pulled by scrawny horses. My host cousin preens about the house singing Justin Bieber’s “One Time” and at night Muslim calls to prayer waft into my bedroom window. Senegalese strangers greet each other on the street with Asalaa Maalekum (Peace be with you), acknowledging their shared humanity, and yet one fellow was robbed on our fourth day here. I have dished myself scoops of mashed potatoes with a silver spoon but also worked to roll balls of rice, funneling them into my mouth with my bare hands. I have seen houses redolent of Grecian mansions and turned down a dogged salesman who flanked our procession, peddling his artwork.

Amazingly, I have only been in Senegal for less than a week. I am just beginning to learn this country and appreciate its paradoxes and nuances, its refusal to be stereotyped. Senegal is an African nation characterized by urban sprawl. It is a country of French fries and rice millet, prayer and soccer. Before I came to Senegal, I failed to wipe my mind clean of expectations and as I prepare to see Goree Island, and the Senegalese country side my mind mutinies and preconceptions surface once again. I cannot control the musings of my mind but there is one thing I can count on with certainty. I expect Senegal to challenge my expectations every step of the way—and I welcome it.

Tess Langan