We’ve had such a fun time here in Senegal, we’ve barely had a chance to contact you. We hope you aren’t missing all of us too much! We did so much in Senegal that it’s hard to pack it all into one letter! So, here are some highlights from some of the things we did and learned throughout our stay in Dakar.
Our adventures in Senegal started with our lovely country coordinator Waly picking us up from the Leopold Senghor airport. One of the key parts of our stay was learning the greeting system that’s commonly used in Senegal. Waly told us that here, time is people (rather than time is money), perhaps best revealing the value of humans in the Senegalese culture. You always greet someone with “Salaam Maalekum,” meaning ‘peace be with you,’ which triggers a prescribed back-and-forth that can last up to sixty seconds (per person)! No one wants to be the one to end this greeting, because that is often perceived as rude. Overall, this greeting system and the Taranga, or hospitality, that is characteristic of Senegal, reflects the emphasis on interpersonal connections.
In Senegal, the economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the informal sector. In fact, over 90% of the jobs are based in it. This means, that people rely strongly on their relationships with each other to get stuff done. We saw this all over the place. When we wanted to get clothing made, we went with our host family to the tailor they know personally. When a cab driver didn’t know where to go, he would pull over and ask somebody on the street. Another huge aspect of the informal economy is bargaining, which goes hand in hand with the personal relationship that customer and vendor have with each other in Dakar. The vendor will start a price on a shirt, for example, at 25,000 CFA and you’ll say “you’re crazy! Come on!” and the vendor will say “No! It’s a good shirt! You come on!” and you’ll say “No way! That’s too much! We’re only students after all!” and then he’ll say “Ok, ok. For you, my friend, 20,000 CFA. It’s a good price.” And you’ll say, “I have a shirt already, I don’t really need another one. That’s still too expensive.” And this will go on back and forth and back and forth for a long time until you finally get to the price that both the customer and the vendor are comfortable with. Then, you exchange money for product and the deal is done. For some of us, this was really stressful, and for others, it was really fun! Overall, we learned so much about navigating the informal economy because of our hands on, experiential learning interactions with it! The city really is our classroom.
In addition to the beautiful experiences of Senegalese teranga, or of wonderful encounters with street vendors, we could never leave out our experience in the village of Keur Mousa Seny. Two weeks into our stay in Senegal, we traveled six hours on dirt roads inside a 21 person van to our home for the next two days. As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed with open arms into the village and introduced to our host families right away. Soon enough, we would have to put our Wolof skills to work, because most of our families speak more than Bonjour! in French! Yet, the love and affection that was given to us transcended our language differences, and we spent a marvelous two days in the village researching and sharing with our families. Many of us left with a deeper reflection of our position as foreigners or toubabs (Wolof word for foreigners) in the village, and how this informs every single step we take in our country visits.
We are also very proud of the work we put into our Dakar case studies. While one group focused on housing and dwellings in the city, another focused on food (in)security and yet another on gender relations. These case studies allowed us to walk around and explore different neighborhoods in Dakar, as well as interview and talk to various residents with the help of our ever helpful and patient facilitators. Having spent time at the Keur Mousa Seny village, we were privileged to be able to note the strong rural/village influences in each of these different topics. During our last week in Dakar, each group presented its findings to the rest of the class, allowing us to board the plane to Hanoi with a more holistic view of Dakar in mind.
Perhaps the most memorable part of visiting Senegal was the opportunity to live with my host family in Dakar. We were welcomed by a large family including a host grandmother, host grandfather, host mother, host father and three host siblings. From the beginning, I felt extremely loved, accepted and cared for, even though I was with people who did not know me and I did not know them. Through eating dinner, spending mornings together, and even trying to communicate where I was going or planning to be home, connected me to my family.
I had the chance to become very close to my younger host sisters, Nogaye and Maj, ages 4 and 9 years old. Despite our obvious language barrier, the selfies we took together, the games we played on their tablets, and the time I spent chasing them around the house felt like I was actually a part of the family. My host mother helped me take out my twists for half an hour, without any hesitation or me asking for her help. And the following day my host father drove me to the hair salon — familiar acts of responsibility that my own family in the U.S. would do for me out of love and concern. My host mother’s daughter in law Dior, whom I also considered my host mother, invited me to her school at which she teaches, and fed me breakfast that morning since I woke up late that day. And the best part of my day would be when I came home after a long day at school, and seeing my host sisters run up to me with excitement, and give me hugs as if they did not think I would ever come back. Every night for dinner we gathered around a large bowl and ate with our hands, sharing the food from the center. My host mother kept pushing food to me and said “lekkel,” which means, “eat” in Wolof. The food was amazing because my host mother made homemade meals every night! I was able to learn a part of Senegalese tradition through interacting with my family. I was able to learn about my family and their individual personalities just by observing, and over time gained an understanding of the family dynamic. During my time in Dakar, I felt I had actual younger sisters, and host mothers and fathers. And even though I would not trade my time there for anything, the most difficult part of this journey was knowing I would have to leave their sides soon, not knowing if I can ever come back.
I will never forget what it meant for me to be comfortable and embraced by my family in a new place where I desperately missed my own back in the U.S. I did not ever think I could meet strangers, within a matter of minutes, who would become a memorable landmark in my life. I will never forget my time in Dakar and how I learned to forget about being a guest and learned to love those around me who showed me their hearts.
With this, we leave you with some of our own favorite memories from Dakar, Senegal. Thank you for your constant support and love from all across the world.
Sending you hugs!
IHP Cities in the 21st Century, Fall 2015 Track 2