laptop computers and blueberries

Gaya Morris - Senegal


October 8, 2009

Sitting on the roof balcony of my new home, the call to prayer rings out loud and strong. Wispy clouds scatter the dark sky pinkened slightly by the lightsbelow. The shape of a bat darts overhead every once in a while. I write by the light shining through an open doorway through which I can see a low bed dressed in a sheet of silk, slightly grimy white walls, a tiled floor. In the corner stands a table covered in various bottles and other colorful plastic items and next to that a stationary bike – a surprise for sure when I first saw it. One of those unexpected things, funny little details, often traces of modernization, that makes you laugh inside. (For example hearing Aby Diallo, our homestay coordinator, call blackberrys, blueberries, a very strange phenomenon in her opinion, or seeing my wolof teacher make fun of all the medications Americans recieve at the baobab center. I need wood not iron he says.) And then there’s the lap top computer left on the doorstep, the chord disappearing inside the room.

The silence in the house below is a little earie and I wonder where everyone has gone. I arrived this evening just before sunset in good spirits after a three hour wolof lesson and after having somewhat successfully shaken the hands of the various people seated in plastic chairs out on the street (their smiles are every bit worth the awkwardness) to find the kids and their mothers all hanging out up here on the roof balcony. Not sure what to do after having greeted them I just sat down on a step to watch, trying to catch a few familiar words. I don’t think they minded, but its always hard to know at the beginning. Its hard to know when its appropriate to ask questions and when it isn’t. Its not that I’m afraid of being the silly tubab (there’s not much I can do about that anyways) more just of being rude. 

The full day cultural session that we had at the baobab center yesterday was I think very important because there are certain aspects of Senegalese culture that a foreigner may never understand because they are not really talked about. One for example is that a host is very unlikely to confront a guest if he or she is making them uncomfortable.  They will only gradually distance themselves from you while you wonder where you went wrong. The purpose of our full day of cultural learning at the Baobab center yesterday was to prevent this from happening, but as I am discovering now, finding your place as a guest in a new household is and will always be a delicate process. Where to find the balance between too reclusive and too outgoing, too helpful and too lazy? Exactly where these lines fall is what varies from one culture to the next. As a guest for example in an American household I would never leave my plate sitting on the table or not offer to help with dishes, but here I can see that my offers only bring up awkwardness in that I’m interfering with separate spheres of the guest and the host.

But anyways, back to the first scene. Imagine that balcony roof top: dimly lit pinkish sky, tiled floor, concrete walls, various chairs of different materials and shapes scattered about. Little kids in shorts and soccer jerseys eating porridge out of tin cups with large spoons. An elderly woman covers her head and shoulders in a pink veil, unrolls her plastic matt and bends up and down on her hands and knees praying the rhythm of the call from the mosque. On one ledge there is a wooden calabash bowl, probably containing the porridge, and then there is the laptop computer. Everyone’s attention is drawn to a small window open on the screen in which a music video is playing. But there is no sound because the computer lacks speakers. The older woman praying swats at her son to move out of her way so she can see the screen while she prays.

The preservation of traditional culture, interrupted so minimally by the presence of this computer – a useful tool to be sure to enable the spread of ideas, awarenss and global colaboration – is encouraging.  But what about the day they install the speakers? What changes will that bring?

Gaya Morris