Letter Home from Dakar, Senegal

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Cities: People, Planning, and Politics spring 2014 program:

After a tearful goodbye to our loving homestay families in Ahmedabad, India, we began the trek towards Dakar, Senegal, a city that remained an elusive mystery. The journey over the Arabian Sea and across the width of Africa left us with much time to reflect upon all of the notions that were both clarified and complicated during our time in India. While our initial perceptions of city life were turned on their heads, we remained ready for what might lie ahead. As a quick look at our entry visa photos would reveal, though, the 30 hours in transit were not pretty.

Our jet lag was soon relieved by the warm and welcoming smiles of our enthusiastic country coordinators, Waly and Mariane. It was our first experience of “teranga,” Senegal’s culture of hospitality, a tradition we found manifested in almost every aspect of the country.

Dakar is a striking city, located on a peninsula and surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic. The westernmost point in Africa, Dakar’s coastline is made up of breathtaking beaches, fishing ports, and sidewalks filled with joggers. Over the next five weeks, we explored the diverse neighborhoods of Dakar; from the urban villages of fisherman, second-hand traders, and artisans to the upscale waterfront areas of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Dakar would serve as a superb model in our study of urbanism, as it allowed us to draw connections with Ahmedabad and New York, while highlighting the unique challenges and opportunities present in this former French colony. Furthermore, our experiences in the city and with our families offered incredible insight into understanding the legacy of colonialism, role of religion, and unquantifiable value of tradition.

On our first full day in the city, we visited Gorée Island, one of the many slave trade ports that dot the West African coast. Crimes against humanity stood naked against the sandy beaches and bright blue ocean. Our group was awestruck at the juxtaposition of the sheer natural beauty of the island with its abominable past. Seeing first-hand the inhumane conditions in which thousands were held was quite a visceral experience. Even more haunting, however, was the commodification of that historic space, more frequently referred to by the Senegalese we encountered as a beautiful tourist island and artisan craft village. Leaving the island, the weight of colonial history and the tensions that remain in the country’s historical memory became fuel for thoughts shared in the following days.

During our following discussions, we learned that Senegal is defined both by its French colonial legacy and its many varied village traditions and histories. In many ways, we saw this manifested in greetings and language. As we learned in our country orientation, to greet someone in Senegal is to acknowledge their humanity. As a result, simply exchanging hellos does not suffice. People will inquire at length after the individual, the family, the house, and much more, all the while switching between French and Wolof. Such an intimate exchange of pleasantries extends beyond family and friends to the grocer, post office clerk, taxi driver, or street vendor. Waly elaborated on the cultural significance of this gesture saying, “In America, time is money. It is not like that in Senegal. Here, time is people.” Although this routine sometimes seemed inefficient to our American notions of time, we soon adapted to “West African Internal Time” (WAIT). Senegal forced us to slow down, open our eyes, and really appreciate the people around us.

Islam is another defining characteristic of Senegal and permeated our experiences from the classroom to the village and everywhere in between. The Islam practiced in Senegal and other sub-Saharan African countries, however, varies greatly from the Islam of the Middle East and North Africa, and thus offered our group valuable insight into the diversity within a religion most Americans know little about. Senegal blends African tradition with Islam in a very syncretic fashion. Soothsayers called Marabous play an important role in influencing both national and city politics.

As in India, our relationships with our host families became an integral part of our experience. All of us lived in the same neighborhood: Sacre Coeur 3, an upper-middle-class area in the center of the city. Language was a barrier for many of us, as most families spoke little English and most of us spoke little French. Quickly, however, we overcame these challenges as we bonded over soccer matches, trips to the beach, and delicious meals. Fresh fish was a staple of Senegalese cuisine and a centerpiece of the national dish, Thieboujenne, in which it is served over rice or millet, accompanied by whole roasted root vegetables, and washed down happily with a glass of sweet bissap (hibiscus) juice.  For many of us, meals were the most cherished time of day, as we had the opportunities to speak (or mime, as the case often was) with our host parents, siblings, uncles, nieces and friends over a shared platter of food.

As was the case in Ahmedabad, classroom and experiential learning often met in unplanned ways as we explored public spaces on our own. We eagerly navigated the markets of Dakar, from HLM and Colobane to Sandaga, where fabrics, food, second-hand clothing and counterfeit goods are sold. In these markets, one must establish a rapport with the vendor by bargaining for a good price, which, in keeping with “WAIT”, may take quite a while to build. Our experiences and readings about these markets sparked discussions about formality and informality and the structures in place that both encourage and discourage “informal” commerce.

For many of us, the opportunity to spend a couple of days in two small villages in southern Senegal, Keur Samba Kalla and Kuer Moussa Seny, was the most memorable experience of the month. Upon arrival, we were immediately welcomed into our respective homes with laughing and dancing. While teranga had been a strong tradition in Dakar, it was simply a way of life in the village. Though we had little to no language skills to communicate with our families, we felt their warmth through the kindness and generosity they showed us. During our stay, we also set out to gain a better understanding of the complex relationship that Dakar has with the villages throughout Senegal. It became clear that one cannot really understand Dakar without understanding the village. While migration to Dakar is at its height, people in the city remain inextricably connected to their home villages. Through the lenses of food, gender, homes, health, and migration, we came to better understand the complex urban-rural relationship as an interconnecting web of influence. While it is true that many Senegalese say the village will never disappear, it became clear through our experiences that the village realities are certainly changing.

As we leave Senegal, we reflect on the teranga that was demonstrated so generously by Waly and Mariane, our homestay families, and the numerous communities that opened their homes to us and whole-heartedly invited us into their lives.  As in India, the people and communities we have met and the structural challenges they face each day stay with us.  While we continue to struggle with the ins and outs of experiential learning, we can see that is not simply a balance of classroom learning and site visits.  It is a collision of the relationships built with the communities we have had the privilege to engage with that then leads to questions that we will individually and collectively wrestle with as we continue on to Buenos Aires.

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