Storytelling

Maximilian Chen - Senegal


October 18, 2013

The following was written at 2:32 AM on October 6th, 2013.

This is what Senegal’s capital city of Dakar looks like at first glance, to a first-time observer. In a purely logistic sense, Dakar is the product of two rather arbitrary factors. Factor One is what seems to be the driest, most arid location on the entire coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Factor Two is a random assortment of hastily-constructed buildings of all shapes and sizes, towering skyscrapers, rickety tin shacks, thatched-roof huts among them. If the latter had been lifted up by some titanic being and unceremoniously dropped onto the former, what you would have is a rather hyperbolic picture of Dakar from a newcomer’s point of view.

This is what my future home, the village of Ngaye Mekhe, looks like at first glance. To a first-time observer (the parallel construction of this and the previous paragraph should indicate to the savvy reader that said first-time observer is me), Ngaye Mekhe looks like someone went through the same building inventory that the planners of Dakar did, took only the most poorly-constructed buildings, and threw them onto a sandy patch of land with even greater disregard for urban planning than whoever put Dakar together.

I realize that I’ve given both Dakar and Ngaye Mekhe a rather bleak introduction, but this is perhaps to illustrate that while one’s first impressions of something may be difficult to swallow (and certainly my first impressions of Dakar and Ngaye Mekhe were not exactly the most positive), what really and truly counts is one’s ability to shed them. And in the past month or so, I’d like to think that I have honed the art of tearing apart first impressions to a very fine degree.

Between these two places, I have spent a bit more than a month in Senegal. In that fraction of a month, an uncountable number of things have caught my attention—things that I am bursting to impart to anyone and everyone who will bear with my rambling (people who fit into this category do not number many)—but as Nas proclaims at the beginning of NY State of Mind, “I don’t know how to start [this].” Yet it doesn’t exactly feel right to let it all out right away, to proclaim, “this happened and this happened and this happened and this happened”, because I’m not sure that for all these anecdotes, I’ve really been here long enough to put all these things into perspective. Needless to say that they will all be illuminated in due time—typhoid and jazz clubs and being Jet Li—but for now I sit here writing this at 2 in the morning with my two brothers, Abdooulaye and Willy, while they talk Bob Marley and point at snails in our courtyard with the wonder and amazement of schoolchildren.

I depart for Ngaye Mekhe in less than five hours, with a month’s worth of stories under my belt. And the most amazing thing that I’ve come to realized while I’ve been here is that this is only the beginning. And whatever ideas and observations I might have made in this first month about recent happenings might be, in as little as a week from now, completely reversed. The thing about storytelling is that the way the story is told can depend heavily on when or where or to whom you’re telling the story. If I were asked about what I thought of Dakar a month ago, my answer would have been, “hot, polluted, crowded, and destitute”. While some of those things are still true, I have lived there long enough to have been exposed to the beauty of Dakar and its people. The stories I carry now are bound to be different from those that I would have had in September. Within those stories, anything can happen, but similarly, nothing might happen. And that’s to be expected.

 

Maximilian Chen