Learning to Drink Coffee

Elizabeth Schmidt - Senegal


September 11, 2014

It has been a week since I moved in with my Dakar host family. I came home Sunday afternoon to a room full of suitcases, soon to be packed and sent off to France with half of the family. When my grandmother first brought me home, most of the adults were preoccupied with packing so I sat with three kids, all under 10 who taught me how to count to ten in Wolof. YAY children!

In addition to the little kids, I had four brothers/cousins at my house the first day. One (16) is fluent in English and lived in the US until he was eleven. His older brother is 18. Of the two younger brothers one is 10 and the other says that he’s 14, but my English-speaking brother insists that he’s 13. The first word in Wolof that they taught me: crazy. Although I was told it would happen, I was shocked to hear the 13/14 year old loudly singing with a perfect accent every lyric of songs by Jay Z and Nicki Manaj. He has no idea what the words mean; thank goodness his parents don’t either.

Honestly, I have only now figured out who lives in my house and don’t necessarily expect the same people when I wake up (most of the kids only show up a few times a week and two men who I think are my uncles are usually there). This seems to be fairly normal in Dakar because families have extended visits and are huge to begin with (it is unlikely that a rural home has less than 20 people living together).

In my family, the head of household is my grandma, Ma. She is a sweet lady of the age that her only responsibility is to keep an eye on everyone. She was born in France, but her parents were from Dakar and at some point she moved back. She is trying to teach me a song in Wolof to name the parts of the body.

My sister/cousin from Kedougou, Dalada, who wouldn’t go ten minutes in the US without being recruited by a modeling agency, is visiting for the next two weeks. She is about twenty. Although some girls in Senegal, especially in rural areas, choose to get married as young as 15, she does not have a husband or children. The first day I came, she seemed a little put off, but every time a speak to her she is more and more friendly and I think we are going to go running together next week. Ironically, my relationship with her is due mostly to my imperfect language skills; it was when I kept messing up my French and Wolof and she started laughing at me that we were able to really connect.

The other seemingly permanent member of my household is my brother and one of my best friends here, Mamadu. He is 27 and works as a mechanic at the Dakar airport, although I think he is also working on solar panels. In two months he will leave his job and go to graduate school. In the evening, when he gets home from prayer (the men at my house go to the Mosque for all five prayer times) he invites me to sit and talk with him, sometimes for hours, in French. Through those conversations, I’ve discovered the beauty of Franglais because I couldn’t have them without being able to saying English words with a French accent and have them translate. Not to say there aren’t misunderstandings. The other night I tried to say, “I see a star,” but realized that I actually said, “I go to a star,” when he started laughing and flapping his arms like a bird.

Two maids also live in the house. Both are treated like part of the family (there is also a driver who I thought was an uncle). I occasionally try to help them with chores but usually get shooed away. One of them, Elizabet, will sometimes teach me the names of colors, months, and articles of clothing in Wolof. The other maid, Moore, is deaf, but a great deal of my communication is non-verbal anyways and she has also become my good friend. The other night I came home and she was wearing a bright, traditional Senegalese dress. When I told her that she was beautiful, she laughed and smiled wider than the (attempted) bridge to Gorée Island is long.

There is also another American staying in the house. He is a college student traveling with the West African Research Center and will stay there for two months. He’s taken French for a few years and it seems that in one afternoon he was able to communicate with my grandma as much as I did in three days. He’s a great guy, but as an only child, I’m experiencing my first major dose of sibling jealousy. However, he is free to stay as long as I am the favorite among my siblings and the maids. I think I’m safe because my brother always talks to me more. I also bought mangos on the street and my family shared them after dinner. Beat that, Carl.

If having two maids and a driver wasn’t enough to indicate that my Senegalese family is wealthy, our house certainly is. It has three floors. The first has a cellar-type room, two bedrooms, and a small living room with a TV. My room is on the middle floor, along with a bathroom, two other bedrooms, and sitting area with a small balcony. The upstairs has a mostly open roof with a sitting space and a few bedrooms. The kitchen and clothesline are also upstairs. Because it is cooler than the rest of the house, most of the family hangs out up there. In a small shed next to the house is my family’s goat, although I’m sure that it will be slaughtered for Tabaski, one of the most important Muslim holidays in Senegal.

However, even as becoming a part of my family, I am aware that others still see me as an outsider. It is impossible to ignore the stares when one of us takes out money to buy something. Some people straight out ask us for our possessions. A few of my friends have already received multiple marriage proposals from men wanting a US visa. Although I haven’t received any proposals, I often hear men on the street shout, “belle!” and ask for my number. However, none of these people are dangerous and some are only joking around to see what we do, the later usually end up being very personable.

In fact, over all, Dakar has no lack of hospitality. Although I am still careful about making friends on the street, most people I come across are warm and friendly. Last night, I was in a taxi and while we were stopped in a traffic jam, a random man walked up and asked to exchange large bills for smaller ones. Without hesitation, the taxi driver passed him the change through the window. That’s just how people are here, they look out for each other.

Regardless of the people that do treat me like a foreigner, I feel like I’m starting to creep into the community. When I go jogging on the street, many of the people I greet in Wolof cheer me on as I pass, and I am beginning to form relationships with the people I see on my walk to school. So far, language has played a huge role in that process. While speaking French, the official language, elicits generally friendly responses, when I start a conversation in Wolof, the most commonly spoken dialect, I can tell that people smile far more and are engaged in what I have to say.

In addition to being generally kind, the Senegalese are extremely strong of spirit. Family is everything here, and at the beginning of the week, my grandmother’s brother died. Despite the devastating impact that a family death must have had on all of them and the flurry of funeral preparations, when my brother came home from prayer the day it happened he still made jokes even as I initially tried to be somber. Even my grandmother, to whom her brother was one of the closest people in her life, was laughing a few days after when she came home from staying with his household. As my younger brother says, “C’est la vie.”

The same is true historically. Yesterday we went to Gorée Island, which was one of the largest and most organized ports in West Africa during the slave trade. Walking through the slaves’ quarters, I found myself wondering, how could people do this to each other? It was hard in those moments to hold on to my belief in the beauty of the human spirit. However, one of my friends pointed out later that it was also amazing that the people living on the island were able to rise above the past and create a vibrant, beautiful life in a place that seen some of most horrific events in human history. She is right. We can’t ignore what happened on that island—or what is still happening in some places. On Gorée, it was beauty and civility that ultimately won out, and so there is hope that whatever darkness lurks in humanity today can also someday be made beautiful.

As for the city, there are aspects that can be a little jolting. Few Senegalese keep dogs or cats, preferring instead goats or horses, animals that provide use as well as companionship. As a result, strays wonder the streets disheveled and emaciated, sometimes carrying disease. Trash is often thrown the uneven streets, and although some of it is swept up, much of it is simple pushed aside or goes to fields of broken concrete: the remains of some unknown structures. It is important to remember that these things are not good or bad, only different.

In fact, Dakar is lovely overall. The beaches are gorgeous—one drops off from the road and the sand on the resulting hill is a dark salmon color—and palm trees spill over throughout the city. Many of the women routinely wear long, bright beautiful Senegalese dresses (my sister is particularly fashionable) that fill the streets with color. It is impossible not to pass large groups of kids playing soccer or friends and families sitting out on the street together to talk. In the afternoon, music is played on a loud speaker in a nearby area of Dakar and it carries to my house. Five times a day, starting around 5 AM, the call to prayer from the Mosque one street over from my house fills the air. Walking past street vendors, I can often smell meat sizzling on small grills. When lunch or dinner is being cooked the scent of rich, savory spices permeates the entire house.

The food itself is out of this world. Both lunch and dinner are cooked from scratch over stoves that look similar to small, upside-down, metal kerosene tanks. Most of the food involves some kind of grain—usually rice, millet or couscous—with meat—either chicken, fish, or a mystery red meat—a few vegetables—carrots, eggplant, onions, yucca, and a cabbage-looking thing are particularly popular—and a sauce—often an onion sauce called yassa. Multitudes of fresh fruit are sold on the streets; it’s currently the middle of mango season. 🙂

As for me, I am beginning to have a routine. In the morning, I come downstairs to find half a French baguette with chocolate spread and a hot drink. After eating, I walk to school to study language, returning home for lunch, and then going back to school until six.

I can already see changes since I’ve arrived, and it is the small things that now feel normal that surprise me most. I am no longer surprised by horses and carts clunking past me, cows grazing in between the parallel one-way highways, taxis that honk to attract tourists, or cars that drive up on the side-walk. When a whole smoked fish is put in front of me, its eyes open as I eat it, I just stare that fish right back down. My language, too, is becoming more natural. Yesterday, someone spoke to me in English, and I realized that I was no longer thinking about what language I was using: French, Wolof, or English. Within five days, my conversations with my brother went from me saying things that literally translated into something like, “You mama at house?” to actually forming real sentences with linking words and tenses. My real milestone: the other day I bought mangos entirely in French.

Another development is that now I drink coffee. Before I came to Senegal, I would have never willingly picked up a cup of the stuff. However, on the first morning with my host family, it was a packet of instant coffee that was laid out next to my chocolate-spread baguette, and I was not about to turn down what my family had prepared for me. That first morning, I took the coffee with sugar. However, on the second morning no sugar was put out and not knowing where it was kept, I drank the coffee black. Almost every day now, I drink black coffee, even when there is sugar.

Although it’s simple, liking coffee is perhaps the most significant change that I’ve noticed thus far because I never saw it coming. I knew that I was going to make friends and family, eat fish and rice out of a communal bowl, learn how to wear wrap skirts, and develop better language skills, and therefore I could have sought them out anywhere. The real value of being in a new environment is in challenging the things that are so ingrained in our sense of self that we take them for granted and which may or may not be stripped away when life hands us of a cup of coffee instead of tea. Either way, we can only hope that the process will allow us a more genuine understanding of who we are, our potential, and what we want to do with it.

As for me, it is still early in my journey; being with my cohort in Dakar, I’m still taking it with sugar. Yet as much as I am enjoying this first round of Senegal and drinking in every bit that I can, it’s only a matter of time before I will be living without added sweeteners and go instead for the experience that is undiluted by urban Westernization or overlooking things because I simply don’t know to be looking for them. I have no doubt that there will be surprises, but I think I am going to learn to love them just as much as coffee.

Elizabeth Schmidt