“Alhamduliliay!” I say, with a sigh of relief, as my brother, Djibril, and I arrive at home from our long run through the dark yet lively streets of Dakar. He laughs at my Wolof, an Arabic saying meaning “Thanks be to God (Allah).” For once the power is still on at my family’s compound, a collection of four motel-like concrete houses surrounding a courtyard. Indeed, I had spent all my previous nights — after long days of class at the Baobab Center –completely in the dark, with no electricity to cool my room or keep the lights on.
Every night that I make the walk home at dusk, listening to the loud, melodious call-to-prayer ringing from the Karak Mosque across the street, I’m made to wonder what the coming evening will hold: two losses of power? Three? An impassioned discussion between my family members? A new guest that joins the 12 or more people –young and old — that make up “ma famille”? Really, I’ve come to expect surprises and roll with whatever situation may develop once I open the front gate of my home, drop my things in my room, and change out of my sweat-soaked shirt.
Take away the luxury of a functioning TV set — which my little siblings, as well as parents and older cousins tend to be glued in front of for multiple hours — and desktop computer, and instead turn on the few candles and flashlights that the family owns, and you have a receipe for a relaxing, enlightening evening. One night, for example, I finally connect with my host father Ibrahima, who I’ve previously only greeted in the basic Wolof and French that I know. Because I often arrive around the Maghrib, the evening prayer, I see various members of my family bowing on beautifully-sewn rugs in calm communication with God; therefore, I take this opportunity to inquire about my father’s piety and strict commitment to Islam. Luckily, with the basic English he can speak, my respectful curiosity comes across well and he shares with me how he wakes up each morning at around 6 AM to head to the local mosque for the first prayer of the day. Another evening, my older brother Djibril speaks with me about Islam, asking whether I’ve read the Qu’ran or understand the sort of brotherhood and peace that Islam essentially stands for. I share with him that I have studied some of the texts, but that seeing the lifestyle and practices of thousands of Muslims in Dakar (peacefully alongside Christians) firsthand has confirmed for me the positive influence of religion.
Other evenings are more light-hearted, spent drinking ataya (a strong Senegalese tea that is routinely made) while joking in a mix of French, English, and Wolof, or hanging out with my five youngest siblings. I show my brothers the collection of pictures I’ve brought along from the US, and after only five minutes they excitedly identify the members of my family along with me. Another night, when I am just about to head to bed, my family’s maid brings out a second big bowl of food — piled with rice and tender mutton (sheep meat) — and begins to serve us Fanta, Sprite, and heavenly bissap juice (a red fruit). Surprise! It’s my aunt’s birthday! Each night is full of memories, no matter how random, and I go to bed perfectly exhausted and content.
Deprived of physical activity, though I sweat multiple liters per day, I decide to go for a run with my brother Djibril when I get home from classes at ACI during the first week. The next forty minutes were a blur, as we manuevered through darkening streets and I drew looks from vendors and youth headed home; how often do you see a curly haired “Toubab” running through the streets? Soon, I find that I’m hardly alone as a runner in the big city. Along the western edge of Dakar, I am among masses of young, lean Senegalese men, bounding through the night in groups, yes, like lions and gazelles. The highlight of my night comes when my brother and I climb down onto the beach bathed in moonlight. After several sets of push-ups, squats, and sit-ups — apparently the typical daily workout for the incredibly fit Dakar population — we stretch out our legs and stare out at the ocean, splashed with warm, pink light from the setting sun. And at that moment, even as I imagine the Boston skyline thousands of miles across the Atlantic, I feel incredibly at home, right where I am. It has only been a week, but Djibril, at once feels like my real older brother. Call it “teranga” (hospitality, in Wolof) or brotherhood, but the way the Senegalese have already opened up their hearts and minds to me has been beyond what I could have imagined.