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By rosessupposes

This semester has been... eventful. So many new experiences, with travel, food, people, customs... And now, I'm home again, back in my tiny Massachusetts hometown- it's a far cry from Dakar, the bustling capital of Senegal. But I've only been home about 5 days, and it's still hard to truly process how this experience may have changed me (besides the henna that's still on my hands).

I believe it will take a lot more time and probably re-entry into the GW school & social environment to really conceptualize what about my outlook on the world has changed. So, to finish off this blog, I'll talk about what I can understand at this point.

What I'm Glad to Leave Behind:

  • Bathrooms with only sometimes-working water and no toilet paper
  • Eating red meat almost every single day
  • More frequent street harassment and marriage proposals
  • Not being able to understand the Wolof or Pulaar conversations around me
  • Lack of washing machines, dryers, or dishwashers
  • Weekly power outages
  • The neighborhood chorus of obnoxious sheep and goats
  • Street cats and dogs

What I'm Going to Miss (or am missing already)

  • My little host brother Mohammed and his toy cars
  • Cafe Touba in the street for 10 US cents
  • Haggling with taxis and in markets
  • Tailored clothes from the fabrics you chose yourself
  • Speaking French and hearing myself improve
  • Ataaya with the Ouakam kids
  • The balmy temperatures of winter in Dakar

What I Am Bringing Home

  • Two bags of Cafe Touba that I'm learning to brew myself
  • 'Wax' fabric for my mum and bracelets for my friends
  • Huge Senegalese flag for my dorm room
  • Much more functional French vocabulary and ability
  • Better appreciation of my privileges here (especially technological)
  • Improved awareness of strong and weak sectors of development in Senegal and similar countries
  • Experiences of living in a part of the world that most of America knows little-to-nothing about

By rosessupposes

One of the largest adjustments that I’ve had to make here in Senegal has been in the manner of interaction with others in a variety of contexts. Different food and styles of houses and dress are easy to adjust to with time – having to constantly second-guess how you relate to others even as continue to fumble with a second language. Some interactions have become much easier. I know to find and greet all my family members when I re-enter the house, I know how to politely tell the talibes that I can’t give money or food today, and I know how to behave around the bowl at meal times.

And yet, there is a one genre of interactions that continues to be confusing and very frustrating, and that is the myriad of interactions between genders. ...continue reading "Impressions of Americans vs the Patriarchy"

By rosessupposes

One of the many attractions of studying abroad in Africa was the chance to experience life as a minority race. For the first time in my life, I’m living in a city where almost all the faces I pass are a different race than my own. When I look at the faces in the government, the same is true. Here in Dakar, I’m an anomaly, and I stick out.

That is an experience in itself. But the additional differences of how people relate to racial differences compared to the US are staggering. It is pointed out quite often that I’m a ‘toubab’, or a foreigner. According to my host father, this name comes from a word for ‘doctor’, referring to one of the first interactions the resident population had with the French. At one point it just referred to French expats, but it’s expanded to include all white foreigners. And yet, there is no malice in the label. It’s a statement of fact – I’m white, and look different. The same logic applies to students who are referred to as ‘chinois’ (used for anyone who appears to have East Asian ancestry), ‘arabe’ (not necessarily Arab, has included my friend of Indian heritage), or any other racial labels. The concept of having mixed-country racial identities seems to be difficult for folks here to grasp – the idea of ‘Indian-American’, ‘Chinese-American’, or ‘Mexican-American’ is very strange to a people who identify only with ‘Senegalese’, regardless of personal or family origin. Nevertheless, there remains no negative connotation to pointing out these differences in racial characteristics – it’s just a fact.

I had a long conversation about this with my host brother Papi about this. It was prompted by him asking about the events transpiring in Ferguson and St. Louis. With such a strong perception of America as a country of freedom and opportunity, he was completely baffled as to why there were American cops killing young black boys. And that’s a hard question, especially for me. While I have observed the continuing problem of racism in the US, and while I continuously try to educate myself on it, I will never have the intimate knowledge of a lived experience with it. But there are some elements that seem clear, especially in contrast with Dakar.

First and foremost – Papi knew, even as a non-American observer, that the conflict in Ferguson is inherently tied to racism and specifically anti-black racism. That fact is one that it seems a lot of white America has yet to fully grasp or accept. We can debate specific situational factors until the end of time, but the fact remains that there are too many instances of white cops shooting black young people, both young men and young women, who were unarmed and, by most all accounts, completely unthreatening at the time of their needless deaths.  Even if it is not said in so many words, these white cops continue to feel ‘threatened’ by the very presence of these young black people, and their response continues to be immediate escalation of violence.

I believe that this may be the biggest visible factor that plays into the enduring racism in the US – no one in positions of power want to admit that race still heavily influences their judgment, and in a negative way. No one wants to be called or shown to be a ‘racist’, even if all their thoughts (and actions) align with such a label. But even more so, none of these folks at the top of the privilege totem pole want to talk about race, and the fact that different races exist, and the fact that there are still so many institutional factors at work against those who are not white. And a lot of this is self-protecting: to admit that there is an imbalance of privilege is to admit that you, as a white person, receive some form of unfair opportunity that others, as non-white people, do not. And this means that the leaders in the Ferguson area don’t think or don’t want to think about the disparity between percentage of white folks in the population compared to in positions of power, and in the police force. This means that this disparity has persisted for years and years, and needed just one more act of senseless violence against a young high school graduate to spark massive backlash against an unjust system.

It becomes clearer and clearer the more time I spend in Senegal how messed up the American way of dealing with race is. Here, there are many separate ethnic groups (Wolof, Poullar, and Serre, to name the biggest). They have different traditions and languages. They have very recognizable last names that belong to each group. It would be very easy for this to create tension or even violence between groups, if they purposefully ‘othered’ those who were not in their specific group. But instead, the opposite happens. They have a relationship called ‘joking cousins’ between specific groups and last names. When opposing groups meet and exchange family names, they’ll go off on stereotypes about that family – “oh, you’re a Dioup, I don’t want to eat dinner with you, you’ll be greedy!” or “Oh you’re a Ndiaye – haha, I own you! You have to obey me!” Any tension that could exist between the clearly divided in-groups and out-groups is smoothed over and eliminated by universal jokes that everyone knows are not personal, and are reciprocal. I fully believe that these animosities remain so calm because the differences are acknowledged as existing, and simultaneously acknowledged as inconsequential.

Being a minority race in Senegal definitely is a weird feeling, and at times can be scary. But yet, I know that it can never compare to the feeling of being a minority in the United States. I cannot purport to know how to magically solve the racism problem back home, and as a white person, it’s not my place to lead the discussion. But what I do know is that having that discussion is essential. Taking a page out of the Senegalese book, to acknowledge and discuss our racial differences, might just be a way to reach a similar level of comfort, humor, and nonviolent in the relations between races.

By rosessupposes

« Etranger, ne partez pas aussi vite. Restez-vous et prenez une casse du thé » / “Stranger, do not pass away so fast. Stay and take a cup of tea”

This is the translated line of a local poem concerning the ataaya ceremony. Ataaya is a drink made from loose-leaf green tea, mint leaves, and a lot of sugar. Since I have been in Senegal (now over a month), I have had the pleasure of having ataaya many times and I’ve started to learn a fair amount about it.

First, the preparation:

People here rarely have stoves. Instead, they have gas cans of kerosene or propane and cook on open flames. Water for ataaya is heated directly on these cans or on small beds of coals. The tea used is a Chinese green tea, which here is often called just “chine”. An entire box of leaves is poured into the kettle, and the effect is a very strong-brewed tea. Then sugar is added, usually at least 4 or 5 cubes.

Second, the presentation:

Ataaya is served in a small “casse” – a small glass that resembles an American shot glass. Before pouring tea to serve, a small amount is poured back and forth between glasses to create a layer of froth at the top. I asked my host brother why this is done. He said ‘because it looks pretty’. But regardless of why, it’s universally practiced in all the regions of Senegal I’ve been to thus far. When the tea is ready, everyone close by is offered a casse, and often someone will go throughout the house to offer it to other family members/guests.

Third, the discussion:

The most important part of ataaya is not the tea itself, but the ceremony of being together in a group while preparing. The most traditional practice of ataaya involves three rounds. The first, the most bitter. The second, with added mint leaves. The third, the most sugar. These three rounds provide ample opportunity to discuss life issues and to inquire after others’ families.  Problems are brought to ataaya to be discussed and resolved. It involves much more than merely drinking tea. Because of this, one never uses the verb ‘boire’ or ‘to drink’ when discussing ataaya. Instead, the Senegalese use ‘prendre’ or ‘faire’ – ‘to take’ or ‘to do’.

Another very important aspect of this ceremony is tied up in a concept that is central to the Senegalese way of life: teranga. This word translates more or less to ‘hospitality’ in the second-most prominent language, Wolof. Part of teranga encompasses the importance of welcoming foreigners to the country or city they are visiting. I have just returned to Dakar from a week of vacation in towns that were much more off the beaten path. While there, I and my travelling companions were welcomed with open arms and were able to receive deep insights into life in the places we visited purely by virtue of locals who wanted to make us feel welcome. We took ataaya in the village of Podor when our new friend and guide, the grandson of the village’s imam, brought us to meet some of his friends. This also showed another aspect of teranga- to welcome family, friends, and strangers into one’s house. If you stop by a family’s home near a mealtime, it’s not unusual at all to invite them in for a full meal. And by that same token, if you happen to be preparing ataaya when three Americans come into the hotel, matters like showing them rooms and discussing prices are not nearly as important as welcoming them with a casse each.

Traveling one week through Senegal without any particular schedule has kept me aware of many of the risks of traveling in a foreign country. In a country with so much un- and under-employment, many vendors can be very persistent and sometimes desperate to have obvious foreigners patronize their businesses. But no matter the size of city I and my friends passed, from old French colonial capital, to older towns on the Senegalese river, to tiny villages that are still waiting on a real bridge to be connected to the main road, we found that the Senegalese truly embrace the idea of hospitality and welcoming new people to their towns and lives. From tours guides to tea ceremonies, Senegal is truly proving to be «La pays de teranga »

Only a week after arriving, and it's already been jam-packed with new and interesting things

By rosessupposes

It feels a little strange to be blogging in English- here at CIEE Dakar Development Studies, we take a challenge to speak French (or Wolof) all the time, unless we absolutely must speak some English. I arrived on the 24th of August, but it already feels like my French has improved from constant use.

This week, we’ve covered all the orientation material you’d expect- like proper hygiene, safety, local transportation, cultural differences – and some you’d probably not expect. Like how to eat ‘around the bowl’, eating the national dish of Senegal, Thiebou jen, with our hands out of a communal bowl. And since I’ve been at my homestay, I have eating every lunch and dinner in this way, though with modifications, like using spoons or pieces of baguette.

But eating here is not the challenge. Living with the Diallo (pronounced like Jell-O) family has redefined the term ‘language barrier’. English is incredibly rare here- my family members have bits and pieces, but nothing substantial. I know only some greetings and polite questions in Wolof, which is their first language. So French is our primary means- and that is by no means smooth. No amount of worksheets at GW could give me the knowledge I need to completely live en français . I suppose I was being a tad overoptimistic when I envisioned communication being less of a worry than cultural adjustment.

Unfortunately, I know that my French can only improve with time, which is frustrating when I was to talk to my host sister and all the words I want to use seem to be fleeing from my mind. But my continuing studies in Wolof delights all of my family, and my brother Papi is especially enthusiastic, volunteering to help me review what I learn at school once I’m home. It is hard, and often frustrating, but staying optimistic on average really isn't difficult- there are new things every day!


By rosessupposes

Preparing for a semester across the Atlantic would be a cause for both excitement and nervousness regardless of which country I'd chosen. That I'm going to Senegal, in Western Africa, makes this all the more true. My parents would have been worried about their youngest child going this distance even without the risks of visiting an underdeveloped country, or the risks of a certain well-publicized outbreak being in the approximate region of my destination.

But the risk of ebola and general exposure of being in Sub-Saharan Africa is not what has been preying at my mind. No, what I find myself most concerned with is what kind of knowledge I'll be bringing back in December. Hopefully, it will be the knowledge that yes, I can function and flourish in a country and culture dramatically different than my own, and in addition, a better knowledge of what exactly development means to those whose countries are the focus of this area of study.

My worries at this moment in time, just 13 days before I depart, are concerned with my ability to acclimate to the culture there. Will I be able to communicate with my family? Will I be able to find my way around the city? And, as a proven introvert, will I be able to fully experience life in Dakar without clamming up?

I know these worries can only be answered in time, and I am striving to stay optimistic as I compile and endless-seeming checklist. But whether or not this experience is one I'll want to repeat, I know that it will most definitely be enlightening.