Nanga def? Maangi fi rekk! (Some spellcheck unavailable)

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


October 4, 2010

Humidity greeted us before Anta did. Stepping onto the tarmac of Leopold Senghor Airport was exhilarating and liberating after what seemed like months in anxious transit in our sealed cabin of South African Air flight 914 en route to Johannesburg. However, we understood immediately that we were strangers in a strange land as airport officials checked our passports and ushered the dazed group onto the bus that would take our newly sweaty selves to customs. (A brief side note: I highly recommend that American owned airlines adopt the friendly service and attention to passenger comfort of SA Air.)

Still fazed by the unfortunate goodbyes of the night–or was it three nights?—before, we passed through customs with only a few hiccups (see other blogs for details) in the process and reunited with Anta, then met our friendly bus driver Bernard who took us to our temporary home, a small Senegalese hotel,  for the first day in Dakar. Through the frame of the bus windows we got our first glimpse of poverty in Senegal, clusters of shacks and half-built carts, all shrouded in dust. Overwhelmed by the new sights and smells on GCY Fellow remarked, “wow, cool,” to which another replied, “yeah, but not cool.”

At the hotel most went to sleep, exhausted by the marathon of travel. Determined to shift my internal clock quickly, I stayed up with a few others and enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and tea, baguettes, and some delicious homemade jams including hibiscus-mint and sweet potato. We sat until lunch time attempting to decipher Wolof phrases from a book and working together to practice French pronunciation. Every few minutes someone would pass by, either a French tourist or one of the Senegalese women dressed in brilliant colors, and we would greet each other with smiles and a “bonjour.”

For lunch we enjoyed the national dish of Senegal, cheb u djen, literally translated from Wolof as “fish and rice.” Let’s just say that I am appreciating Senegalese hospitality already. We discussed the possibility of returning to this place for Thanksgiving, and I certainly would not be opposed.

After everyone had rested up, we piled back into Bernard’s bus to see a bit of the city. Some observations:

  1. There are animals everywhere and nobody seems to own them. We saw a pack of cows (and one sheep lost among them) walking alongside the road. Apparently they navigate the city without anyone to guide them.
  2. The word “inequity” takes on an entirely new meaning when you see some of the most beautiful seaside houses in the world built minutes from terribly impoverished slums.
  3. The juxtapositions continue when you see the stunning new statue of the “African Renaissance,” the figures of a muscular man, scantily/barely clad woman, and child, taller than the Statue of Liberty, only minutes from a beautiful mosque among a community of fishermen. They weren’t too happy when the statue opened.
  4. The new US Embassy is going to be really nice when finished. Right now it is just a hole in the ground, but we are definitely making a calculated political effort in Dakar.
  5. There is physical activity everywhere. People jog in the evening and every open lot hosts a local soccer game. Children swim in the Atlantic and a few people even surf.

That’s just a taste of the excitement. I’ve slept under my first of many mosquito nets, started learning greetings in French, Wolof, and Arabic, and experienced typical Senegalese power outages. Oh, and I have just found out that my apprenticeship will be in a health center in Sangalkam, a “semi-rural” (according to Anta) town not too far from Dakar, working on public health and awareness there, as well as traveling with community health workers to other villages. And that is just the seed. Now off to meet my Dakar homestay family! Saalam alekhum.

Gus Ruchman