Picking up where Anthony Bourdain recently left off, let me tell you about some things I noticed during my 8-week stay in this West African city. I should tell you that my experience included a homestay living arrangement with a Senegalese family, so the more typical tourist experience of hotels and hostels does not apply here. Also, I did not go to see the beaches; I went to participate in a brief, professional opportunity, so I got to see a face of Dakar that not many international travelers experience.
1. Dakar is not Senegal and Senegal is not Dakar.
Just as Omaha is not the United States, and Helsinki is not Europe, Dakar, despite being the capital city, is not entirely representative of Senegal. Its one million people are situated on the coast, attracted by educational, employment, and commercial opportunities; yet, many residents come from villages and maintain close ties with their families and relatives who remain in more rural areas.
2. Wolof is king.
You speak French? Your textbook told you that Senegal was a French-speaking nation? You’ve been working on your verb tables? Je travaille, tu travailles, il travaille? Pff! Yes—the dakarois speak French, but not because they want to, per se. French is/was a colonial language and most people you will encounter have a formidable level of French. However, French is hardly the “default” language of the people. When you come across two buddies sharing tea, overhear neighbors on the bus chatting, or when your host mom calls her son from another room, Wolof reigns supreme. And if not Wolof, perhaps Serer or Pular. French is rarely the language of discourse between people sharing an intimate relationship. French is used in more formal, administrative, and clerical situations. So be sure to look up even some basic phrases in Wolof before arriving.
3. You are a walking dollar sign.
Or euro sign or pound sign or yen sign or sign for any foreign currency that is stronger than the West African CFA franc at any given time. This means that taxi drivers, vendors at tourist sites, and panhandlers will intentionally target you for making their next fare/sale/dollar/coin. The attention can be overwhelming. Taxi drivers will put their cars in reverse to pursue you and honk their horns so as not to miss your fare. Beggars will shake their metal tins at you and say “Sa.” And vendors and tour guides on Gorée will hound you with, “Is it your first time? Come see me. My store is at the bottom of the hill. Don’t forget!” (Can you blame them? Money is hard to come by all over the world and it is not any easier in a developing nation.) Moreover-- and I hate to say it-- but ladies, the attention that you receive from men may not be about you but rather the countries and opportunities you have access to via green cards. Any relationship you pursue should be approached with great discernment. Edit: It was brought to my attention that women can be just as opportunistic as men in approaching romantic relationships. That is, it is just as easily true that a woman seeking a chance to 'access the West' has the capacity to emotionally manipulate a man as a man does a woman. Point noted.
4. Islam will inform your days whether you are religious or not.
You remember reading about the five pillars of Islam. One of these pillars is salat (prayer) and it happens five times a day. You will hear the call to prayer; you will see Senegalese Muslims bowing in prayer indoors and out; you will wait to have a meeting with someone until s/he is done with his/her ablutions and prostrations. In some way or another, the Islamic religion will touch your life by your mere presence in the city. Despite all the hype, I must assert that it is entirely inoffensive, but ultimately still present and pervasive.
5. The food is good, but repetitive.
You will eat the national dish, che bu jen (also known as thieboudienne, in French), a rice and fish dish served with eggplant, carrot, and cabbage. And you will eat yassa, a chicken and rice dish accompanied by a generous amount of glazed onions. Then you will eat them again. And again. Unlike many metropolitan hubs in the U.S., sushi on Monday, tacos on Tuesday, and makhni on Wednesday is not how the Senegalese roll. Variety is not as much of a priority among the dakarois as it is in a heterogeneous society like the United States.
6. Comfort is relative.
When you come from a “developed” nation—formerly known as the “first world” and frequently synonymous with “the West” or “the global North”—there are certain comforts you come to expect and take for granted: uninterrupted running water, ubiquitous air conditioning, dependable public transportation, etc. You might want to mark these as “N/A”—“not applicable”—for many places in the global South. Water requires stable infrastructure; air conditioning requires steady electricity; and among other things, transportation requires roads, fuel, safety regulations, and more! While some places can check some of the requirements off the list, not all of them cover everything. So, be prepared to encounter some day-to-day activities that vary from your routine at home: bucket showers, eating in the company of flies, the continuous use of a fan, necessarily dining by candlelight, navigating the stairs with a flashlight, bracing yourself for bumps in the road in lieu of a seatbelt, etc.
7. Transportation is less regulated than it is at home.
What does that mean? You may stand next to a bus stop or you may stand by the side of the road and flag down a bus/van driver. There may be plumes of black exhaust exiting multiple vehicles on the road and you and other passersby will inhale it. In a space where three people are intended to sit on your ride, there will be six. While all of these factors—routes, pollutants, and use of space—may be regulated by law at home, that is not necessarily the case in Dakar and/or in many parts of the developing world.
8. Buying from corporate vendors and street vendors are different experiences.
When you go to a supermarket in Dakar, for example, City Dia, you can expect air conditioning, a plastic cart on wheels, aisles, and lines. This is much like our experience in the West. However, many Senegalese people visit open air markets to purchase their food products and other wares. In the open air markets, you will see freshly killed and plucked chickens on display, a wide variety of vegetables, beauty supplies, and jewelers. In the corporate markets, one thing you will be asked many times when making a purchase with any bills valued at more than 2.000 CFAs (~$3+), is “Do you have change?” Cashiers appear to make an effort to conserve their coins and small bills and will ask you to help them in that effort. Moreover, cashiers are likely to round up and down in providing change. If you make a purchase for 2000,50 and only have 2000 CFAs on you in cash, the cashier is likely to look the other way as the ,50 is inconsequential. But remember this works both ways. If you make a purchase for 4.950 and pay with a 5.000 CFA bill, don’t wait around for your change. While prices are fixed in the corporate model markets, negotiation (also known as “haggling”) in open air markets and many boutiques is expected. It is your job to suggest an asking price for an item and for the vendor to object saying the amount you propose is too little. Eventually the two of you will come to an agreement. The practice is not for the shy and/or faint of heart. A tip? If you feel a vendor is exaggerating or asking too much, walking away is extremely effective.
My household consistently had hired help in the house. However, for washing clothes, a team of laundresses were invited in every fortnight and hired to wash clothes by hand. They arrived before 8:00 a.m. and went about washing the family’s outer garments in large plastic tubs of water the regular maid had collected the night before. After rinsing, the laundresses hung the clothes out to dry; then they ironed the clothes and folded them. They left the house around the lunch hour, some four or five hours later. The labor is intense. If you don’t want to cross these ladies, be sure to keep your underwear and socks out of the piles to be washed as everyone washes his/her undergarments by hand him or herself.
10. The talibés.
“Talibé” is a word of Arabic origin that means “student.” In Senegal, it refers to young boys, aged perhaps four to twelve who walk the streets asking for money to finance their Islamic instruction. They say “sa” and often carry metal pots to receive and store any change given to them. Theoretically, they are under the instruction of a “marabout,” a religious leader and teacher that will instruct them in reading the Koran and guide their religious maturation. Legislation is being formatted to ban, limit, and/or reduce this practice. However, finding proper alternative education and systems is clearly not easy.
11. Colorism is real.
Colorism is an international phenomenon that almost exclusively gives preferential status to people who have “white” or light skin. The legacies of colonialism, slavery, and long-standing socio-economic hierarchies based on caste systems all reinforce colorism. The system of promoting and valuing light skin has a real impact all over the world, Senegal included. You can see this favoring of light skin manifested frequently on television programs. For example, if a woman is reporting the news or playing the love interest on a sitcom or soap opera, her skin often reflects a shade that would pass the infamous “brown paper bag test,” despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of women in the country have rich, deeply dark, ebony skin. Colorism has led to the widespread use of skin lightening products that are damaging to one’s health. These products are most often used by women and are theoretically believed to help them attract suitors and to secure a greater social status. Again, products such as these are used throughout the black diaspora, in South Asia, and throughout the world.
12. Tailor-made clothing.
While in the West we are accustomed to buying clothing that is “ready-to-wear,” many Senegalese seek out “tissu” or fabric for making clothes and then visit a tailor who takes their measurements and creates custom-made garments. Many a boubou is made this way. The good? The fit of one’s garments will be extraordinary. The bad? As you buy the fabric in meters, you may end up with more than you want. However, there are many creative ways to make use of the excess: head wraps, decoration for earrings and shoes, tablecloths, napkins, tapestries etc.
13. Sharing is a default orientation.
In the U.S., where we are very individualistic, we tend to expect there to be a policy of “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Among the Senegalese, one might say, “What’s ours is ours.” So, if I bought a Kit-Kat or an orange, I expected to share it with anyone who was in my vicinity. It was a pleasure to do so, something that made me feel more like a family member and friend. However, when I stored drinks in the refrigerator to have something cool for later and they disappeared, my pleasure was somewhat abated.
14. Eating out is not as prized as it is in the West.
I’m crazy about a diversity of foods. However, I can’t prepare all the varieties of foods I love expertly at home. So, in the U.S., eating out is a large part of my life. This is not the case in Senegal. Restaurants are expensive and frequented, often, by people who either do not know how to cook, do not have a spouse or maid preparing meals, or who are transient/ temporarily in a metropolitan space. While you hear phrases like this one all the time in the U.S., “Did you hear about that new place on 5th Street? I hear they serve Hawaiian fusion tacos. I can’t wait to go!,” I didn’t hear anything akin to that at any time while in Dakar.
15. Blackouts and water cuts.
For the two months I was in Dakar, I experienced about four blackouts. Two happened while I was at work; two happened while I was at home. The first lasted about three hours; the last lasted about fifteen hours. Work productivity can come to a halt, particularly without Internet access, and the comfort you once felt from your fan can soon become discomfort in its absence. Nonetheless, while the blackouts were unpredictable, they were also infrequent. Regular access to water was more of a challenge. I lived high up on the third floor of a single-family home along with five other, international boarders. While I had my own bathroom, water ran sporadically, more in the evening, and less during the day. So, it was a regular practice for all six of us to collect water, from one shared spout, for cooking, laundering, and showering. My showers so regularly involved buckets and a cup that at some point, I stopped even testing the tap to see if water would come out of the shower head.
16. Teranga is real.
“Teranga” is the word used for Senegalese hospitality and, for me, it is befitting as the Senegalese give with open hands. Maybe I should rephrase that. The Senegalese are not giving away all of their material possessions left and right. They give their time, energy, attention, company, and humor most often. For my first weekend in Dakar, my supervisor left her daughters with a relative and accompanied me to Gorée Island as I’d never been and knew no one in the country. I was invited on multiple occasions to a friend’s home to break the Ramadan fast and dine with him and his family. A library patron of mine invited me to her home and prepared mafe, a peanut butter stew dish, for me; then her father bought us grapes and mangoes and paid for my cab fare home. While there, I encountered impressive displays of generosity, some I would not necessarily expect from my own family.
17. Ataya is the best.
Literally, ataya refers to a strong brew of hot green tea served in glass shot glasses, but it is actually quite a bit more than that. It is an event, a tradition, a ceremony, a break, a pause, a gathering, a coming together, a demonstration of presence, nearness, intimacy, and friendship. The tea is attentively prepared and served in multiple rounds after lunch and/or dinner. It is mixed dramatically with long pours (not spoons) and generous amounts of sugar. The server offers a glass to everyone in the room, making sure everyone is included. Though every round of ataya only includes a few ounces of beverage for each drinker, much like the sobremesa, the session can last an hour or more as the objective is to be present with one’s peers and/or family members and to discuss whatever may come up. Sharing moments during ataya is one of the most intimate ways to get to know the Senegalese.
18. Senegal is a haven for other Francophone Africans.
This may just be a figment of my imagination, but my residence was shared by two men from Madagascar, one from Chad, and another from Burkina Faso. Moreover, the one night I went out dancing, I was accompanied by a group of Cameroonians. Most of these people were pursuing graduate studies at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop. One was working full-time and shaping a start-up. It appears that in comparison to some other Francophone African countries, Senegal offers a stability and hub of opportunity not necessarily found throughout France’s former colonies.
19. The religious tolerance is a true and fair estimation.
The idea that the Muslim and Christian populations in Senegal get along and value peace between each other is a popularly touted truth. This is one of the first things you will hear about the Senegalese and it can be easy to dismiss. Yet, if we pause and consider the uniqueness of this phenomenon, we may learn something. There are few places in the world that embrace religious diversity the way the Senegalese do and it is worthy of admiration.
20. Senegal is both traditional and modern.
The same woman who made me mafe, covers her hair with a hijab-like scarf everyday. While she made me mafe, she also told me of her admiration of Nicki Minaj and showed me her best twerking dance moves. No, I wasn’t expecting it. My home stay brother, who dressed in traditional clothing on Fridays for the mosque, was obsessed with the latest cell phone technology-- even more than me who has heightened access to these technological toys-- and LeBron James. I was asked at least five different times if I had What’s App, a tool used to remain in conversation with friends while away and abroad. Prominent stereotypes we encounter in the U.S. suggest that anyone who is deeply religious is also antiquated and unable to appreciate the complexities and comforts of the 21st century but the Senegalese consistently prove that this is simply not true.
For more on the context of my experience, visit the Hack Library School blog and search for writings by Katrina Spencer in the fall of 2016. Also, see the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Center for African Studies' Fall 2016 Habari Newsletter.