Old Posts

Michaela Kobsa-Mark


March 23, 2011

A post written in October…

“Life is not in the pulse, but in the heart”

“La vie n’est pas dans le poulse, mais dans le Coeur”

Today, I was nervous for the first time since I began my GCY experience. This feeling of uncertainty hit me as I sat at a table in ACI Baobab (the new school where I will be having five hours of intensive French and Wolof training a day) and realized that I was going to be living with a famille d’acceuil, or host family. Yes, I had traveled to a new country, but I had the comfort of knowing that I was experiencing this with fourteen similarly naïve peers. Now, a day after I arrived in Senegal, I am living with a group of strangers. I have a stranger mother, a stranger father, and four stranger siblings. I have had conversations with all of them, and I have so much respect for them already, but it will still be some time before I feel fully comfortable around them.

“La fille avant toi, elle ne pourrais parler un mot de français, et  à la fin, elle parlait couranment. “

I was the first of my GCY fellows to leave the bus to meet my family.  When I arrived, I did what every foreigner does best to show that she is friendly and interested- I smiled and nodded. I tentatively extended a hand as I wondered whether this would be seen as too forward. I looked to Anta and the ACI Baobab worker for guidance, they just smiled. I stumbled over the first traditional greeting. My host mother asked me: “Salaa Malikum?” and I answered “Malikum Salaam?” with such uncertainty that my host mother did not pursue to the “Nenga def” and “Magnifirek” part. My standard reply to all the greetings (most of which inquire how I or various members of the family are) is djamma rek (which translates to: there is peace within).  These greetings are common here- when I read last years fellows’ blogs I was as confused as you are now, but now it is completely natural to me. The language, Wolof, will be the hardest I learn thus far. I am so impatient to learn Wolof. People have on several occasions mentioned that I should not be so impatient, that I will learn in time, but I want to learn the language as quickly as possible so that I can begin taking in more when I walk around.

“Içi, tout le monde est égale.”

It wasn’t too awkward meeting my host family- we made a bit of small talk, and then we watched television outside, which is quite common for the Senegalese. My little host brother, Isa, who is four years old and starting second grade was playing with a ball. Antsy to do something instead of sitting around and watching television with my family, I asked if he wanted to play, and soon he, my host sister Mata, and I played soccer in the courtyard. The humidity was stifling, and after playing for half an hour and doing push ups, my other host sister, Nathalie (which is ironically my American sister’s name) remarked that I was tired and that I needed a break. I proceeded to go to my room to unpack and freshen up. It was after I had unpacked and decided I wanted to shower that I encountered my first problem- my shower was in the form of a bucket of finite water and a pail, and I had forgotten to pack a towel. I hesitated for about fifteen seconds and then proceeded to dump minimal amounts of water on my head until it trickled down my body and I was fully rinsed. I air-dried with a little help from the fan over my bed. After I freshened up and after I drank from my ten liter water ‘bottle’ (which is incidentally so bulky that I drink it by balancing it on my stomach and mouth and then leaning backward), I returned to the outside patio area, where my family was still watching television. (Let me quickly add that I have owned a television for one and a half years of my life, so watching television for hours at a time is an entirely new experience for me.) My host sister Nathalie then brought in a fabulous meal: Moroccan couscous with a sauce of tomatoes, beef and onions- that I devoured while my host family politely picked at it. We ate it family-style, with spoons, however I am excited to inform you that in the future I will be eating with my hand- my right hand, specifically. (Nathalie asked me if I enjoyed eating with my hands, and I honestly replied “Oh yes. I do.”) My host mother, who I am to call Yaye then fed me words of wisdom, as she talked about how everyone in this house- young and old, female and male- is equal, and how she makes sure to treat everyone she encounters with love. I instantly felt more at peace. My eldest host brother, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, and I then talked about the stereotypes we had about each other’s countries. He asked me if most people in America are Jewish. “No..the most popular organized religion in America is Christianity.” Isa’s birthday is on September 11, so I told him about this year’s Ramadan scare. He mentioned the Qu’aran burning story and I had to convince him that as a whole, Americans are pretty tolerant. I then added to his itinerary of biases by explaining to him that it is Southerners who tend to be more religious, conservative, and fat. Oops. I heard rather traditional music playing in the neighbor’s yard, and I asked him if it was Senegalese. He then laughed and informed me that the Senegalese listen to American hip hop and rap, and that they also watch typical American films. Nathalie- his wife jumped in and asked if I knew several famous Hollywood actors. “Pardon, mais non. Je ne sais pas beaucoup sur la pop-culture”. (Nope, sorry. I’m pop-culturally illiterate. It’s a result of general apathy and being raised without a TV.) Nathalie is earning her Masters in Marketing and she attends a University in Dakar that was featured in the news. Back to the television. We watched the national channel, which featured reporter at a public school in Senegal. The children were smiling, well-dressed, and eager to learn. My host mother then broke the satisfaction I felt by informing me that this was just an illusion- the real schools in this area are currently flooded, leaving the children with no place to learn. The next show we watched was a ram competition, in which rams competed in a ram pageant similar to the kind we Americans enter our dogs and cats in. I had always assumed that television dulls the brain, but it offers so much insight into the Senegalese lifestyle.

By the way, I got the job I wanted! I’m working with a group of women called Les Femmes Dynamiques, a group of female artisans that are trying to expand their market. I will be living in Joal, the birthplace of the first Senegalese president, President Leophold Senghor. He is also known as the poet-president, and he is responsible for starting La Négritude in France, a sort of African Renaissance. I will be happy happy happy and fulfilled.

Tomorrow I am taking my French language test. I hope to be placed in the advanced group, but I will not be too disappointed if I am assigned to be in the intermediate. Tomorrow is also my first day of school and my Senegalese host family will be escorting me! It’s first grade all over again (Except I remember that on my first day in first grade my father was so late in picking me up that I ended up waiting with my first grade teacher and the principal. I have not forgotten.) Oh I feel so young.  I’m also making Mata go on a run with me tomorrow, so that’s another thing to look forward to. Anyway, it’s late, 10:44 PM and I have to be up by 8 AM, so I shall brush my teeth using the bucket water and then sleep with the windows open (Don’t worry, mes parents, there are bars in front of the windows to protect against les moustiques, AND I am wearing repellant) and the fan on full blast. The idea of sleeping under a cover is laughable. I am also wearing pajamas that I made sure to dampen with water. This should give you an idea of the heat in Senegal. Il fait trop chaud à Dakar, mais je m’acclime.

Michaela Kobsa-Mark