My Friend Dan, the Hippo

Madeline Ripa - Senegal

September 13, 2011

The moment I stepped off the plane in Dakar was the first time I set foot on foreign soil. I’ve been experiencing culture shock every since then, and am loving every minute of it! With that said, I’ve had a few misunderstandings, mistranslations, and overall struggles. The following is a compilation of them all.


I brought a flashlight and thought I’d never really need to use it more than a few times. The extra batteries on the packing list? Not my top priority. If I had done a little more research, I would have discovered that in recent months, due to the controversy over the upcoming presidential elections, riots have shut down four of Dakar’s power plants. Power outages occur at least twice a day, if not more. That trusty flashlight of mine has already been used more than a few times.


I tried to tell my 5-year-old host sister, Marie-Jo, that my travel-size hippo Pillow Pet, (it’s a pillow that can turn into a stuffed animal), was a gift from my friend Dan. She now thinks that I named my Pillow Pet Dan and that he’s my friend. I guess that’s weird even to a 5-year-old, because she gently put the hippo on my bed and backed away.


Even though training is in the large, diverse city of Dakar, I expected to be eating traditional Senegalese food, (fish and rice), around the bowl, (on the ground out of a giant bowl, where everyone has their own “section”, similar to the pieces of a pie), with my host family every evening. The past three nights I’ve had meat balls, spaghetti, fries, hotdogs, and mashed potatoes, all while watching futbol on the TV. (Go Senegal! We just beat the DRC, 2-0)


Something all of us Fellows have in common is the fact that we LOVE TO HUG. We love to hug, give massages, a pat on the back, etc. If there is a friendly sign of affection, we’ve done it. We did it at Stanford during pre-entry training and have continued that practice here in Senegal and at our respective host houses. What can we say? We love each other. Something we found out during class today: even if you’re in a relationship here, public displays of affection is taboo. Holding hands or hugging, even among married couples, doesn’t happen in public. Well……crap.


Last night, I wanted to hang out with some other Fellows and go on a walk before bed. They called me when they were at my front door so I went downstairs to meet them. I turned the handle of the door to realize it didn’t turn. It was locked from the inside. I looked all over for the key to find nothing. Extremely frustrated, I called them from mere feet away to relay the message that I would be staying in tonight, and proceeded back up to my bedroom feeling like I would be SO out of luck if there was a house fire.

This morning I was running late, and decided to skip breakfast and head straight to class. As I went to open the door, alas, I found it locked. Well after the time I was due at school, my family’s maid came to my rescue with a key. I STILL DON’T KNOW WHERE THIS MAGIC KEY IS OR IF I CAN GET ONE. Is it OK if I have a house key?


I’ll ask how to say it in French tomorrow.


Madeline Ripa