Skip to content

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.

By juliaraewagner

My time in Senegal has had me thinking a lot about cultural relativism. During my stay, I faced some pretty alternative manners of thinking and living that greatly contrasted with my own. When I encountered such traditions and values, I wrote them off as simple differences in culture. I was adamant about not imposing my own assumptions of what is right and wrong upon a culture that I was just trying to observe and better understand without judgement. Now that I have left Senegal for the last leg of my trip in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I've been reflecting on my experience in West Africa and trying to piece together my opinions on the experience.

One situation that really challenged my assumptions was a discussion about polygamy that I had with one leader of a feminist organization in Dakar. She had said that many educated women often seek to join a polygamist relationship because the system offers them opportunities. For one, as wife #3 or #4, the educated woman would be free to get a job of her choice without worry that she is not caring for her husband. She may also be a more attractive match for a man seeing that she can work and support herself. Thus, female education does nothing to threaten the institution of polygamy at this point in time. The fact that many educated women still seek polygamist relationships speaks to how comfortable the general populous is with the idea of polygamy.

In contrast, I entered the country with many reservations  about the idea of polygamy. In my eyes, the institution exacerbates inequalities between the genders and perpetuates them. Hearing what women had to say about polygamy was unsettling for me, but a healthy dose of cultural relativism. I am currently working on discovering where the line of what is culturally appropriate and what is simply right or wrong lies. In my eyes, polygamy is still a perpetuation of the patriarchy, regardless of whether the women agree with the system or not. But it is also important to consider whether the people and institutions whom I evaluate even consider their values on the same terms. I will have to continue to reflect on this.

By juliaraewagner

It's hard to believe another month has already gone by! We are already leaving for Buenos Aires this weekend! Our final week in Dakar was a busy one, finishing up our country case studies and completing some clarifying interviews and observations for our semester-long research projects. Needless to say, I am very happy to be spending spring break in Saly, Senegal, a dusty and bustling beach town about 2 hours south of Dakar. We've had a very relaxing two days full of the perfect balance between adventure and down-time.

Even getting here was quite an experience. As students on a budget, we decided to rent the most affordable type of vehicle, the Senegalese car rapide. Resembling a massive psychedelic soda can on 4 wheels, the car rapide is the most convenient and cheapest way to get around Senegal. The ride was a bit bumpy and more than a bit dusty, but we made it to the beach without too much incident and a lot of laughs as we were tossed around in the bumpy  backseat. 

We've decided to spend the week at a low-key (read: inexpensive) hostel outside of town called Boabob Belge. Its run by a bubbly Belgian woman who bears the easy, airy personality of an expat who's found her niche abroad. She sings in a Senegalese drumming group in her spare time, and giggles about her various stories over the years. She has been very helpful in getting us situated.

Yesterday, we left to pick up some beach clothes, but found that all of the touristy stores were far too expensive for our student budgets. Our lovely hostel hostess sent us to the next town over to the local market to pick out our own fabrics to have tailored instead. We traveled via horse and buggy to save a couple of pennies. The whole process was definitely a bit dustier and sweatier than a taxi would have been, but I'm pretty sure we had more fun that way.

The lesson from the past couple of days has been to accept the challenge of traveling on a budget. It forces you to go off the beaten (and more comfortable) path, but definitely leaves more room for adventure and serendipity, which is what travel abroad is all about.

By juliaraewagner

Our latest project has been to create a case study about the rural to urban migration patterns occurring here in Senegal, so this past weekend, we hopped on a bus to a small village within Toubacouta, located next to the Gambian River delta just north of The Gambia. It took 7 hours, 4 pit stops, about a hundred potholes, and one flat tire, but we finally made it to a welcoming group of drumming villagers who were very excited to host students for the weekend.

I was introduced to my home-stay mom, Awa, in the dark because we arrived well into the night and the village had no electricity. We were lucky to have a full moon as I helped her cook dinner under the night sky. After initial introductions, I ran out of Wolof phrases, so we mostly smiled and sat in silence as she directed her niece and daughter around kitchen. I shredded lettuce as Awa and the girls grilled some onions in a pot over the fire. They found it funny that I was so infatuated with the baby goats that were hopping about the outdoor kitchen space. After dinner, we sat under the stars and listened to the radio. Then my host mom ushered me to bed, where I fell asleep next to my new host sister, Oli. 

I woke up the next morning to a small stampede of farm animals being herded through the bedroom into the front yard. I had to laugh as I mused about how absurdly different this way of life was than my own. The differences were stark as everything from manner of dress, to gender roles, to simple body language was jumbled across cultural lines. My friends and I definitely had some interesting efforts when trying to explain basic needs, like going to the bathroom. For example, the villagers have separate toilets for #1 and #2. I was happy to walk around with my host sister because she usually deflected any random questions people asked me in Wolof. When she wasn't around, I would just revert to dancing as a means to connect with people with whom I didn't share a common language.

By juliaraewagner

After some 30+ hours of travel and 4 flights, IHP Cities has arrived in Dakar, Senegal! We've spent the past week getting acquainted with out new city, meeting the people, seeing the sites, and tasting this country's delicious food.

With warm weather, fresh air, and a constant, refreshing sea breeze, there's a lot to love about Dakar, but my favorite element so far has been the Senegalese attention to people. One of the first things our country coordinator told us is that Senegal has a people-centric, people-first culture, and that has been continuously reinforced in the classroom and my home-stay.

This week, we've learned how to greet people we meet, an act that is extremely important here. To not greet a person is to not acknowledge his humanity and so to ask someone to do something for you without greeting him first is one of the biggest offenses in the book. That must be why the Senegalese greet in not one, not two, but three different languages before getting down to what they wanted to discuss. So in the past week, I've learned how to say, "Hey, how are you?" in Arabic, French, and Wolof, the most prominent ethnic language.

Sometimes, this attention to the person means that things take longer than they would in our time-centric Western society. People are often late to meetings because they stopped to talk to a friend on the sidewalk or were busy checking in on their family. Our Senegalese country facilitator has joked that this loose attention to time is called WAIT, or West African Internal Time. Time here is all about giving people the time of day.

In my home-stay  I've also seen manifestations of the people-centric culture. Random family members and neighbors are constantly wandering into each other's homes and spending the night or the afternoon. Each house is home to a large extended family. I'm pretty sure that my household consists of about 12 people from three generations, though I'm still very unclear of who actually lives here and who simply spends their time here. Even more confusing is who is the child of whom and who is married to whom. The whole family gathers around the same tray for dinner every night, but we always seem to be adding new members.

Speaking of food, my home-stay roommate and I helped the women of the family prepare a huge feast today for their monthly family meeting.  Every month, all of the people of the same age within the family meet to talk and spend time together. Our house, which is usually bustling with about 20 people at any given time had about 40 people this afternoon. We spent the whole afternoon cooking for the event, but cleanup was super easy with so many hands to help out!

By juliaraewagner

Today concludes the end of my first full week with the IHP Cities program. We have been prepping for our 3 month journey through India, Senegal, and Argentina with an orientation in New York City. We have already hit the ground running, examining the biggest questions in urban planning happening in our country's most vibrant city.

This week, most of our work was based out of the Chelsea neighborhood, which is home to one of the most diverse communities in New York City. An old manufacturing neighborhood, Chelsea has transformed into a mecca of art galleries and new urban design. Starting in the 1990's, it became the home of NYC's gay community. Today, it is one of the most trendy spots for the wealthy to settle into their multi-million dollar town homes. Meanwhile, Chelsea serves as a home to the older manufacturing communities and residents of the long-standing public housing facilities on 26th Street. Thus, the nieghborhood is a bustling mish mash of  personalities and privalege.

Meanwhile, our group has been living at a hostel in Long Island City, Queens, a world away from our classroom in Chelsea. The site is also an old manufacturing center, but has not yet been touched by development or gentrification. Many believe, however, that the neighborhood is set to change in the coming years. MoMa has already established a satellite museum here, and a developer has recently kicked out longstanding graffiti cultural center, Five Pointz, as he prepares to develop and sell the space. Change is most definitely on the horizon for LIC.

We have also used New York to help us prepare for our travels in the coming months. Earlier this week, we tested out Indian, Senegalese, and Argentine restaurants so that we could have an idea of the foods we would be experiencing later on. I ordered the baked fish at the Senegalese restaurant and recieved a plate piled high with a huge fish, head and tail and all. Its going to be an interesting semester! It is truly amazing that this diverse city has been able  supply us with such a rich backdrop in urban planning in the world today. As we continue to study how cities work across the world, I look forward to comparing these cities with New York and DC back at home.

By juliaraewagner

As I sit here, I am one day away from departing on a tri-part adventure to India, Senegal, and Argentina to study urban planning with the SIT-International Honors Program, and to be honest, I have yet to start packing. Its not that I'm a disorganized person or not excited to set off; I've been working on getting my visas in order for the past six months. My unpreparedness stems from the fact that I simply do not know what to expect! 

I spent last summer and fall semesters abroad in Costa Rica and Argentina with GW Latin America, I know better than to set expectations. Its not that my experiences fell short of my expectations (quite the opposite in fact), but rather the experiences were far from what I could have imagined. Sure, I expected to go hiking in Costa Rica; I had not anticipated gliding above its forests on a zipline. I expected to go to some tango performances in Argentina; I did not know that I would participate in the country's interactive entertainment. 

In fact, one of the first tidbits of advice our Argentine program director imparted on us was to immediately drop all expectations. The Argentines do not hold expectations, he explained, not the way Americans do. In a country that as only escaped from the grasp of authoritarian rule in the past 30 years, where the currency's value is constantly in question, and where industry depends upon foreign investment, the Argentine people do not dump all of their hopes into expectations. Instead, they focus on the joys of the present and remain unflummoxed when all does not go as planned.  Essentially, the Argentines have a penchant for making the most of the unexpected.

I like to think that I have adopted a bit of this open Argentine ability to roll with the punches. Some of my most beautiful experiences abroad thus far have been the result of a wrong turn or a missed bus, and I would not trade them for any of the expectations I had at the beginning.

Argentina and Costa Rica were not the countries I had imagined before arriving. In fact, they were so much more complex than I could have ever conceived, full of cultural subtlties and unspoken norms. Thus, I learned studying abroad what I could have never picked up in a classroom. I cannot wait to learn from more experiences. Maybe this notion is the only expectation that I'll carry with me this semester.

And so I'm off! I've got my backpack and open mind in tow, but I've left the expectations back at home.