Since I basically live on the edge of Sebikotane, opposite from Gaya, Hilary, and the places where our activities are, I walk about two or three miles every day to get around. I could take a ndiaga-ndiaye for about 15 cents, as my Senegalese family and friends encourage me to do, but I prefer to walk for two reasons. First of all, it keeps my lower body, which has been expanding alarmingly due to Senegalese food and the enthusiastic women who feed me, in check. Secondly – and more importantly, I suppose – the walk becomes sort of a social event. Ever since my last post, I’ve started being a lot more insistent in doing what I want to get done, and thus have met many new people and become much more familiar with those I already knew.
So now, on my daily walks, I have to factor in a few extra minutes to account for all the stopping. I stop to shake hands with, chat with, and receive meal invitations from teachers, co-workers, extended family members, and, because this is Senegal, many other “family members.” I am not excluded from these broad familial definitions – the children at the preschool call the teachers “Tata,” which means “auntie.” It never fails to make me smile to hear all these little voices shouting “Tata Victoria!” and waving frenetically when I pass by on the road. Most enjoyable for me are all the new friendships I’m building thanks to the high school English club that Gaya and I have started. I have never before realized how essential it is to my happiness and well-being to have friends my age, and my appreciation for my friends, both back home and here, has deepened greatly.
My host cousin, who is one of my favorite people here even though he has an awkwardly obvious crush on me, has noted that my “face is more open” when I’m around him and our friends, as opposed to when we’re around the family. This is probably true. I truly like almost everyone I’ve met here in Senegal – my co-workers and family are all caring, friendly and good natured. They like to tease me – about everything – and I feel very comfortable around all of them. However, there exists a sort of wall of professionalism and politeness that I don’t plan on taking down, because I feel like it really helps me be taken seriously as a linguistically-challenged 18-year-old working among people twice my age. My Senegalese friends see more of the “real” me, I guess. My role in the English club as American pop song translator/singer/comedic relief makes me and the students happy and has helped to build our relationships. I am willing to put any and all musical taste aside and sing along to Beyonce, Chris Brown and Celine Dion to help me connect with my new friends. My old friends certainly know that is kind of a big step.
Largely because of these new friendships, I feel like I’ve made the transition from just staying in Senegal to actually living here. It’s hard to explain the depth of this at-once startling and comforting realization in words. It’s a very pleasant shock to realize I’ve been meandering along a sandy path for the better part of an hour, chatting with a girlfriend or two in a language I formerly could not comprehend. It’s very gratifying to have social appointments to balance out all the apprenticeship-related ones. It’s very cheering to run into a friend with whom I can talk about nothing but music, our boyfriends, and how much I miss my long hair – one who won’t ask me questions about why I’m here, what I think of Obama or Abdoulaye Wade, how I would compare America to Senegal, and my opinions on the Senegalese educational system. I am, of course, willing to answer these questions, and those conversations are usually interesting and enriching. However, I am finding that I didn’t fully appreciate the value of a good friend until this experience, when I couldn’t just pick up the phone or go have lunch with one whenever I wanted. Not a lesson I expected to learn while here, because I’ve always genuinely loved my friends, but I’m happy to add it to the list of things I’m learning during this crazy year.