First Weeks in Dakar

Michaela Kobsa-Mark


March 24, 2011

A post written in October…

Had someone given me the chance to return to California today, I may have taken the person up on her or his offer. There were a few things I could depend on today: the fact that I would be going to school, the intensive heat, and my body’s capability of sweating an inhuman amount. Today’s forecast went like this:

91 degrees, feels like 105.

Now take those 105 degrees and imagine walking through a city with narrow roads and taller buildings, a city in which the beautiful dirt on the ground I raved about earlier turns into a poisonous gas once stepped on. Drivers in broken down cars spewing exhaust see you and speed toward you, going for the 250 point prize. Imagine being in a city where you are constantly adjusting your sleeves and dress to maximize both the air coming in, and quite paradoxically, your own modesty. Now imagine that you can barely communicate with the people, most of whom are staring at you because you are a white foreigner. You walk into the convenience store, expecting to wave your money around and be treated by royalty. Relief! The store is air conditioned! You barge in, not believing your luck, but in a few minutes, in the time it takes for you to realize that most of the items here are the same price if not more expensive than the items in the states, your sweat glands give in, and you leave puddles where you step.

Erin, Kedisha, and I took a “quick walk” to the convenience store during the lunch break. This turned into a one-hour “Oh my god we’re so lost all of you shut up I hate you right now shut up I said we’re going to die on the street” dramatic representation of our self-pity.  And when I finally knocked on the gate of my host family’s house, soaked throughout (thanks to my freshly mutated sweat glands), everyone’s sympathetic reply of “Elle est chaud (She is hot)” translated to a “Why don’t you go to your room and drink some water and soak your hair and feel sorry for yourself”, which I promptly did.

An In-n-Out truck or large Golden Spoon would have been greatly appreciated at this low point of the day. I was definitely craving something familiar when the sunblock I had avidly applied a minute earlier seeped through my pores and formed white rivers that crawled over the new heat rash on my collarbone and down my body. How futile it is here, the action of putting on sunblock. You know those Costco freezers where they keep the fruit? Yeah, I’m glad I didn’t think of them in this moment of self-love, because it would have been my last memory.

Things picked up after I returned from the school. Lunch gave me energy, and the culture lesson was invigorating. I stopped with Kedisha to get some ice cream (I did not get anything because I am attempting to use my 5000 CFA-about $10- sparingly.)  and then returned to my family, which was watching TV, as usual. I issued the same greeting I always do: the ‘Salut! Bonjour!’, the way too big smile, the awkward “What did you do today” conversation initiatives (which are literally the worst because they either lead to culdesac answers like “Nothing” or elaborate explanations of the day’s proceedings. Fortunately my family answered “Nothing”), the inquiring of Isaf how he feels (He has the flu), the contemplative standing around until my family offers me a seat, and all that jazz. (I realize that I speak of my family as a collective- once I get to know the individuals better, I will describe them.)

Dinner was with my host brother’s married sister. We hailed a cab and drove about twenty minutes away to an apartment complex in a different quarter of Dakar. My host brother’s sister is a hair dresser and her husband works with computers. She also cooked the most fabulous chicken couscous with dates that I can still taste in my memory. We all talked about several events going on in Senegal: the coupure de courant strikes, the Coca Cola monopoly and the legislation Senegal has implemented to give its own soft drinks a chance, as well as the depression in the United States. Overall, it was a wonderful experience because I got to learn how three people of my Senegalese family interact with their relatives.  I also had the chance to know everyone, especially Nathalie, better. They also provided me with information that broke the stereotypes I had hoarded. For example, it is not completely bizarre to own domesticated animals. My host family has traveled. It is strange for women in Dakar to marry young (Although the adjective ‘young’ is relative.). I have yet to ask about polygamy (I have already asked about La Fête du Mouton (The Sheep Feast) and my family did confirm that on this day, they really do sacrifice a sheep.). I found a cockroach in my bathroom yesterday, and for a minute I considered drowning it in the toilet, but then my morals kicked in and I let it be. I will never be able to watch the slaughtering of a sheep. I think I will take a lot of painkillers that day.

Anyway, all is good. Well, most things have been repaired. The fan is on full blast, aimed toward my face, and the window is open, and I am dressed in clothing that I could never wear in public in my Muslim country. I have been drinking a lot of water.

And I have a Senegalese name: Moi, je suis Aïda Cissé.

Michaela Kobsa-Mark