First of all: Sheep.
Now that that is taken care of –
Dakar. Dakar seems to be a good place to start. It’s where I’ve spent my first two weeks in Senegal and yet I still cannot seem to put a finger on what exactly Dakar has done to me. Done for me is different. It’s a test run for what my long-term host site will be like. So basically, everything I do here is practice for when I really need to make friends with the neighbors, connect with my family, and find the best stands to buy mangos from. But when I reflect on my time here, I have a hard time understanding all the raw thoughts and emotions that have been evoked by these littered streets, cat-calling strangers, and disproportionate number of taxis-to-civilians.
I won’t sugarcoat it. Dakar isn’t a city sought-out for its magnificent architecture and manicured gardens. The fact that it is the capital of Senegal doesn’t exempt it from the daily power-outages and sketchy internet access. If a family doesn’t happen to have a huge, grassy field to graze their herd of sheep, goats or cows; they’ll use highway medians or public parks. I went exploring the upper levels of my house one day and found fourteen sheep sleeping on my roof – which is four floors up, mind you – sheep happen to be good stair-climbers! If you don’t have a car or a flat-bed truck to transport your wares, you probably have a horse and two-wheeled wooden cart that you navigate through the crowds of pedestrians and honking taxis.
Life in the city doesn’t seem to imply that life suddenly changes when you enter “civilization”. And that is because people here just have a different way of life. I can’t say it’s better or worse, just different. And yet, that acceptance doesn’t make the adjustment much easier. A few nights a week, I awake with my mosquito net plastered to my face and my shirt sopping with sweat when the power goes out and my fan stops working. Usually, if I don’t wake up really early to take a shower, I might have to go the day and perhaps next few without having any water at all. There are just times when it decides not to come out of the faucet. Spraying my room with some insecticide each morning to fend off the cockroaches is just another daily task I have had to adopt. To walk to school each day involves shaking off the ever-present taxi drivers, turning a blind eye to the waves of begging children, sidestepping mangy dogs, and dashing through wide lanes of traffic (don’t worry mom!). I haven’t even begun with the borderline hilarious language-barrier. Street signs could be in French or Wolof or Arabic or sometimes even in English. My family speaks what I call “Frolof” which is a combination of French and Wolof – one of the more widely-spoken local languages. There I was thinking my French would get me through and the next moment someone throws in a completely foreign word which turns out to be in an entirely different language! The food here is really interesting. So good. So many flavors and textures. I almost forget that I’m eating rice in every meal because of the multitude of way to prepare and spice it. That being said, fresh fruit is a rare thing and not something I get to eat during mealtime. I’m constantly tired and overwhelmed and craving weird vegetables like whole avocados and handfuls of spinach.
So yeah, the transition has been hard. Every day, throughout the day, I fluctuate from fascination and curiosity of the culture, to laughing uncontrollably about its quirks, to being overwhelmed by the magnitude of differences, to wanting to fly home to hug my mommy. As I’ve studied, this is known as the U-curve of adaptation in which there are three basic stages: honeymoon; culture-shock, and integration. I’d like to say that I experienced a smooth “culture-shift” instead of the many visits I’ve made towards the bottom of that U but I would be lying to myself. Culture-shock is real. But it doesn’t have to be immobilizing. Another key point to this U-curve is that it isn’t a U-curve in reality. It’s a cosine curve; it goes up and down and up and then down again and then up and…you get the idea. Constantly I am experiencing moments of culture-shock. Like when I went to the beach on day with my family. Apparently women here don’t tend to learn how to swim so I was one of a few females in the water. Basically I was getting a lot of unwanted attention for doing something that – to me – seemed normal and not-warranting of such behavior. I became very frustrated with the people around me and resented their standards of gender roles. As soon as I felt frustrated, I recognized that I was experiencing culture shock. The best thing to do is to either remove yourself from it for a while or simply take a metaphorical step back and separate your own expectations from the reality of the situation. What I mean by that is, if you keep trying to enforce your own standards, it’s a losing battle and you will only distance yourself from coming to any understanding. In order to “integrate”, you have to let go of those hindering expectation, and just go with it. Every circumstance is different and some are easier to cycle through but no matter what, it’s all you can do.
The key to success is time which is really funny because time has a different meaning in every culture. Here, the well-used French word “après” is a good representative of Senegalese concept of time. Après means later. “I’ll show you how to make tea later.” “You can come with me to the market later.” “ Those dirty clothes that have been sitting in your room for a week, yea, I’ll help you wash them later.” “Later when?” This is what I often ask myself, partly in exasperation and partly in amusement. But later just means later. There will be time, relax! And that is true. And what is also true, so so true is that time heals. Just in the two weeks I’ve spent with my host family and with my neighbors, I’ve slowly become more comfortable. Of course it is hard at first. That is just the way it is. Every new environment is strange and unwelcoming at first. But over the course of my two weeks I have come to know my neighbors names, to play with their children, to greet the colorfully dressed women who always sit beneath the trees across from my house, to understand how to pick the best mangos and which streets make good shaded shortcuts. I’m picking up bits and pieces of Wolof and can hum along with the local mosques call to prayer. My family has stopped giving me a spoon to eat meals with – which is actually a step forward because everyone else eats with their hands. It has all come with time. With all these little steps, my emotions have become steadier and my demeanor more relaxed. I feel more level-headed and comfortable with the direction I’m headed. But ironically my immediate future as in a few days from now will be taking me to a whole new place: my long-term host site! But more on that later for sure.
Well, I hope this wasn’t too much of a downer and more of a realistic window into what I am experiencing. It’s a rollercoaster ride for sure!
Sophie (which is apparently a very common name here in Senegal!)