Thursday, January 28, 2010

African Ignorance?

The Western world still has a long way to go if it wants to understand what it means to live in an equal and unified manner with those they consider to be their "Other". Of course in a perfect world, the previous sentence would not have distinguished between the Western world and everywhere else; even that goes to show you how far away we are from understanding each other as fellow communities.

Yesterday both of my classes consisted of field trips to local conferences on different topics. For my Gender and Development class, in which we are studying the role gender plays in a country's development from an African perspective, we attended a lecture at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop hosted by the French Embassy. The man who spoke is a French Academic and he gave a talk titled "Vers un monde multipolaire?" (Towards a multipolar world?). In the talk he developed the argument that our world is in the process of becoming multipolar so that at present it is neither unipolar nor multipolar but somewhere in between. Being the practically minded person that I am, what does this really mean? And being an Africanophile, what are the implications of such a proposition for Africa? Now, you would think that since the lecture was given in an African country, before a majority of African nationals, the lecturer would address his audience as such. However, I was sorely disappointed, as were my African counterparts, to find that this Parisian academic merely grazed over the entire continent of Africa in a few ambiguous sentences.

During the question and answer session, many professors and students posed important questions regarding Africa's current role and future potential in the globalization phenomenon. Much to their chagrin, the answers were lacking in knowledge and reflection. "Africa is currently participating in globalization through sports, most importantly soccer, art, and primary resources," was the lecturer's response. Unfortunately, as my Gender and Development professor pointed out, Africa's art and primary resources are often managed and guided in a manner that does not benefit the continent's 53 countries. So we end up "speaking only about the countries that guide globalization and never about those that are subjected to it". And if you want to talk about soccer being Africa's forte, unfortunately the United States is still out of the loop on the continent. Did you ever find one of the Africa Cup of Nations games on your television there in the US?

There are so many things to talk about, analyze, study, and question when it comes to responding to the questions intelligent, scholastic Africans posed yesterday at the first lecture. All the lecturer was able to leave us with, however, was the optimistic suggestion "Go and define for yourself as Africans, what it means to take part in globalization" and the circumlocutory statement "Africa needs a developping country in order for it to participate fully in the discussion regarding globalization". OK, thanks France.

On to my next enlightening and disappointing lecture of the day: a video conference between top Senegalese academics and three stereotypical American politicians who work in Paris. The topic: An analysis of Obama's first year as president. A group of American students in Senegal, including me, was invited to join the conference, pose questions if we had the nerve, and be interviewed after the conference by local TV stations. (Actually, the same cameraman was at both lectures I attended so I am pretty sure I was on the news twice. I didn't get to watch the news last night though because I was off playing soccer with friends.) As I listened to the three American politicians argue with each other in French about American public opinion, Obama's administrative actions, and comparaisons between Bush and Obama, I couldn't help but wonder what the point of the entire conference actually was. When it was our turn to pose questions here in Dakar to the three in Paris, my ears perked up.

"How would you analyze the President's actions with regard to Africa?" "Did Obama chose the right moment to become president?" "According to most Senegalese, Obama has been faithful to the things he promised to achieve in his campaign, why do you think there is such a difference in opinion between us here and Americans over there?" Etc.

Sadly, these politicians didn't know much about Africa either. Their responses ranged from "Well, Obama is the son of a Kenyan so I think he is consciously playing a role in Africa" to "Republicans aren't racist" to "Well, Africa, now I'm sorry if it might sound like I'm speaking about Africa as if it were a country, I know it is not a country, that in fact it is composed of many countries, actually I don't know how many countries really..." Great, thanks America.

These two experiences just go to show that we all have some learning to do. I'm confident in the intellectual capacity of Senegal, as I've seen in my short time that the professors here are really sharp, inquisitive, and well informed. They have been defining what it means for Senegal and other African countries to develop and participate in globalization, and will continue to do so in years to come. But apparently the rest of the world isn't listening.

To end the day, I squeezed into a taxi with three other American students and returned to the Western African Research Center where most of our classes are held. If you add traffic, people trying to sell us anything from cell phone minutes to bath towels, honking horns, and a smattering of French, English, and Wolof conversations amongst ourselves together, and throw in an attempt to sing the American National anthem just for some extra spice, you would basically get a typical taxi ride through the streets of Dakar according to some American students who are trying to listen with all their senses and might to the people they live amongst. And the ride would only cost you about $3 if you know how to bargain!

Jërejëf (thanks) Dakar!

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The local language here is Wolof. While most people speak both Wolof and French, their mother tongue is either Wolof or another local language and French is the language they speak at school and while conducting business. This means that while my French is really good, I still don't know what is going on around me most of the time because people socialize in Wolof. I am learning to speak Wolof very slowly and am taking classes at the University while I am here. Hopefully by the time I leave, I will be able to understand what people are saying. To give you a better idea of what Wolof sounds like below is a skit conducted in Wolof. Notice that when the foreigner comes to join the family, the language switches to French. I feel a lot like that foreigner because my presence often changes the language spoken in the room.

If you liked that skit, here is another one to watch. It also shows what the streets of Dakar are like. The men in the skit are dressed in typical Muslim clothing.

I'll leave you this time with some pictures of my time here. Enjoy!

The Dakar skyline from one of the nearby islands.

Some of the study abroad group in front of the White House, Senegal style

Mosque and Ocean

This is in one of the fishing communities in Dakar

The group on our first day in Senegal

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti and Senegal

The President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, made a comment a couple of years ago about offering land and repatriation to Haitians who wanted to return to Senegal. Just off the coast of Dakar is Gorée Island, which was one of the main holding sites for slaves headed to the Americas during the slave trade. Therefore, many Haitians are thought to have ancestors in Senegal. The recent earthquake in Haiti have made Wade's offer very pertinent now. Below I've attached an article from the Washington Post about Senegal's connection to Haiti.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Give thanks

"Give thanks with a greatful heart, give thanks to the Holy One, give thanks because He's given Jesus Christ, His son..."
In many strange sort of ways, I've been thinking a lot about being thankful over the last couple of days. I guess it started with attending church on Sunday, something I was really craving to do. The service was great and we sang many songs that touched on us being thankful for all that God has given us. One of the songs we sang was "Give Thanks," which for those of you who don't know the song, I've written one of the verses at the top of this blog post. I've have found myself thanking the people I interact with here all the time because they are so willing to help and be hospitable. One of the first words I learned in Wolof, the lingua franca here, was thank you, or jërejëf. Another fun word that shows up everywhere here is alhamdulilaay, which means Praise God in the Wolofisized version of arabic. You hear and see this word everywhere, including on the front of the car rapide buses that shuttle people around the city. Besides it being a really fun word to say, it is a good reminder of how much I have to thank God for in my life. Here, instead of saying "you are welcome", or "it was nothing" in response to somebody thanking you, people respond ñoo ko bokk, which means "we share it"; even in giving thanks, people do it here in solidarity with one another. So, in solidarity with my fellow Americans, here are 10 things I have learned to be thankful for since arriving in Dakar. What I once took for granted, I have found to be lacking here. These things are not lacking in any bad sort of way and I am not suggesting that the Senegalese people need to necessarily take my list and make amendments to their culture. It's just that the absence of these things here showed me how much I rely on them without thinking about it in America.
  1. Toilet paper. The Senegalese probably have a more hygenic way to clean themselves after using the facilities. This consists of water, soap, and one's left hand; however, one thing I still don't understand is how one dries off afterward...don't you eventually need that wonderful invention called TP? (Don't worry, TP is sold in any local toubab store in the area. I just have to remember to carry it everywhere with me.)
  2. Water. My body is not used to drinking the water here, which means that I have to buy bottled water and carry it along with my TP everywhere I go - I feel like a camel. Luckily it's pretty cheap (1000 CFA = $2 for 10 liters) but more than anything I took for granted the fact that wherever I go in the US, I can find a drinking fountain or sink to fill up my water bottle...and I can have ice.
  3. Raw vegetables. Technically I shouldn't eat raw vegetables here because they are cleaned with local water; but that isn't the most pertinent problem. More importantly, families here consume very few raw vegetables. We were at a restaurant this past weekend with our group of students and almost everyone ordered a salad. Upon its arrival in front of us, we almost cried with excitement.
  4. Course registration. You guys have it easy in the US! I will never again complain about course registration not working out for me. We went through the process here last week, and in many ways I am still trying to figure things out. We can take courses from three different organizations; WARC (Western African Research Center), IFE (Institute for Foreign Students), and UCAD (the university here). However, each of these organizations has separate listings of classes, most of which lack a course description, and the courses at the university are often cancelled due to student and professor strikes (one of the unfortunate influences of France colonizing Senegal). It is a headache trying to figure out what to take, how to register, where to go, and if these courses will transfer back to Colgate. But so far the classes I have attended have been very interesting.
  5. Meat without bones. To keep it short and sweet, I don't know how to eat meat off the bone. I am now thankful for knowing that when I bite down on a piece of meat or fish in the US there will not be a loud crack from my teeth meeting bone.
  6. Being Cold. It's really hot here and I do a lot of walking, so I am thankful for snowmen and blizzards, and negative temperatures.
  7. Traffic lights and cross walks. I've only seen one traffic light since I've been here and it was broken. They mostly have round-abouts, free-for-all intersections, or stop signs that are often ignored. There are cross walks, but as I mentioned before, pedestrians do not have the right of way.
  8. Trash cans. They don't exist outside the house, and even in the house there is only one main trash collection that has been elusive to most of the students in our program. I don't really get it.
  9. Punctuality. I'm not very good at being on time, myself, but here I am having a hard time learning the art of being late. Sometimes it is expected that you are late and other times punctuality is the norm. I still haven't figured out how to distinguish between the two.
  10. Movie theaters. Apparently not a single one exists in Dakar, which probably means there aren't any in all of Senegal. You would think that this would mean I know more about American pop-culture than the average Senegalese, but unfortunately this is not the case. I guess illegal downloading is the way to go if you want to see a movie in Senegal.
So Alhamdulilaay for these things that God blesses us with everyday in America. The next time you drink from a drinking fountain, or throw your trash in a receptical, give thanks!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Discover Dakar with your senses

Today I will introduce you to Dakar with the five senses. I find this fitting since my nose has been in hyperdrive here; both smelling, and sneezing, the latter due to the surplus of sand in this country coupled with taxi exhaust.

  • Right now I smell fish frying in the kitchen. The very nice maid is making it for the family. (Most middle class families in Dakar have maids who come from rural areas to make a better living than selling themselves as prostitutes or begging in the streets. So unlike what is often the case in the US, being a maid here is a pretty respectable job.) We will be eating this with spaghetti around 9 tonight for dinner from a platter that everyone shares while sitting around a table. I will be eating with the girls upstairs and the boys will eat the same thing but in another room downstairs.
  • On my walk to school I smell vendors on the streets roasting nuts to sell to passersby. They are very tempting and one day I will have to buy some. I will wait until I know how to bargain in Wolof though because then I will get a better price for them.
  • When I took a car rapide, which is a rainbow bus that is stuffed with passengers wishing to get somewhere cheaply, all I could smell was exhaust from the many cars squeezed together along the road. Dakar is truly a city like I've never lived in before.
  • Lots of onions! One of the main agricultural products in Senegal is the onion, so many of the dishes we eat here are full of onions. And not just onions that we put in our dishes for some extra flavor, they are the principal vegetable in some Senegalese dishes and one probably eats 2 whole onions in one meal.
  • Sophisticated spices. When I was speaking with one of the Senegalese professors here he articulated the difference between Senegalese food and American food. The difference is that in America, every bite of a dish tastes exactly the same, whereas in Senegal every bite, and even within one bite, you taste a progression of flavors. It doesn't matter if it is the Senegalese tea, ataya, or the famous dish tièboudjeun, every meal contains spices with little time-bombs programmed to go off at different times in your mouth.
  • Fish, beef, and chicken. The staple meats of Dakar. The fish because Dakar is on the ocean so lots of people make their living here as fishermen. We took a walk along a fishermen beach the first day we were here and there were so many boats and fish, it was crazy! And you really had to watch where you walked so as not to step on a dead fish. Since I've been here I've eaten all sorts of cuts from a cow, including the liver. Dakar is not like Denver where you are not allowed to have livestock in the city. In fact, one of my neighbors has a goat and a chicken in his back court yard, they are named magique and magique 2 respectively. The chicken is also not like in the US because it does not come boneless, so I am learning how to eat from the bones; somebody should give me lessons...
  • Some of you will be sad to hear that I have not tasted yams here yet, but I have had cassava root.
  • Bizarre but delicious fruit juices. Examples include baobab fruit juice, bissop flower juice, ginger juice, ditakh juice (google it), and more well known varities like mango, guava, and pineapple.
  • Call to prayer. It starts at 6 am, lasts an hour each time, and happens five times each day, finishing around 11 pm. I live next to a mosque so I hear the call to prayers when I wake up and when I go to sleep. But I must say, Senegal has a special gift because Muslims and Christians live, eat, and socialize together in peace. For example, most of my host family is Catholic, but my host cousin who live with us is Muslim. They say that since they were brothers and sisters before Islam and Christianity began influencing the country, they are still brothers and sisters after. A lot of other countries need to learn from Senegal.
  • Honking. Pedestrians do not have the right of way here, that is saved for the taxis. If you are in their way, they honk and won't wait for you to move. This is even more complicated when most of the streets do not have sidewalks. Stepping on the break is their last resort. For a country full of people on African time, drivers always seem to have somewhere to go, and fast! I think there is even more honking because I am white, and all the taximen want to drive us around. (But don't worry, I am very attentive of my environment and will not get run over.)
  • Toubab. This is the Wolof word for white person. It isn't pejorative, but just states the fact of my skin and the fact that I have to lather myself in sun screen every day. I hear this word uttered amongst children when I am walking to school with the two other girls in my program since we stick out like a sore thumb.
  • Asalaam Malekum. Malekum salaam. Nga deff? Maangi fi rekk. The traditional greeting here that is important to exchange with EVERYONE that you know, otherwise you risk suggesting that they are not worthy of possesing their humanity.
  • The ocean! Dakar is a peninsula, which means I often find myself stumbling across the ocean when I least suspect it at the end of a street.
  • Touba. Not to be confused with Toubab, Touba is a city in Senegal where the Muslims go for their pilgrammage. This word is written on everything, from buses to hair dresser shops and as far as I can tell it is like writing kosher on everything.
  • Trash. Senegalese don't have trash cans along the road, so you just throw your trash when you are done with it. Eventually it is burned when somebody collects a pile of it and sets fire to it, which adds to the smells I sneeze at.
  • Soccer! There are people playing soccer everywhere, and there are lots of soccer fields (made out of sand). Plus, right now the African Soccer tournament is going on so we watch the games on the television at night. It's a good way to learn African geography.
  • The sun beating down with vengence.
  • Potholes galore when you are riding in a car. Most of the roads in Dakar are not paved. This makes driving around very interesting and if you get carsick, you should not drive in Dakar.
  • Cold water showers. Very few families have hot water in their houses. If you want to take a hot shower you have to boil water first. I am too lazy for that, so, like a true Senegalese, I brave the cold and hold my breath each morning when I take a shower.
  • Sore muscles. I have done a ton of walking since I've been here. It takes about 45 minutes to get to some of my classes and an hour for other classes. Sometimes walking is the best way to get there because the traffic is so bad that you would get there faster if you walked.

Hopefully that gives you a better mental picture of where I am living and learning.
A plus tard,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bienvenu à mon blog

Hello family, friends, stalkers, and strangers!

I have created this blog to inform you of my adventures abroad and will try to update this blog when I have time. I think this will work better than sending you emails because then I won't forget the interesting things that happen during my daily life.

My first cross cultural adventure: Dakar, Senegal. If you are scratching your head like many Americans do when geography becomes the subject, Senegal is a French speaking country in West Africa. Consult the map below to become better informed. I arrived in Senegal on January 9th with two other girls and a professor. It took me 10 hours total in the air to get from my home town to Dakar, which actually wasn't that bad. We arrived at 7 am and had a full day of orientation on the roof of a lady's house in Yoff, a neighborhood in Dakar. We joined another group of five students for this orientation and learned about the most important things that we shouldn't do if we don't want to offend people here. For example, I am not allowed to eat with my left hand because that is the hand that people use to wash themselves. So I am becoming ambidextrious.

I won't bore you all with details in this blog, instead I think each entry will have a theme stemming from my daily experiences here. I hope that you learn some about Senegal through my experiences and enjoy reading about my adventures.