Monthly Archives: September 2013

Not everything is steeped in cultural significance

Throughout our orientation – and even before I came to Senegal – we heard a lot of “it’s important to do this and this, make sure you don’t do this and that.” Wanting to make sure we would be able to navigate this new culture with many traditions we may not understand, our program administrators inundated us with rule after rule of Do’s and Don’ts.  While some rules were just to ensure we were being polite: don’t reach across the dish when around the bowl, always greet everyone; others were superstitious is nature: don’t talk about a woman’s pregnancy, don’t compliment people too much.

Particularly as a female traveler in a predominantly patriarchal society, there are other rules and nuances you must be aware of. Some men may not want to shake your hand at all, while others want to jump in your pants the first chance they get. Between trying not to offend anyone and trying not to give anyone the wrong ideas, you might start over thinking every little situation, every little action.

In my host family, my father is an Imam and he has a 2nd wife somewhere. We’ve exchanged a few greetings but have never really had a conversation – I’m sure part of it is that he doesn’t really understand my deplorable French and worse Wolof – but I don’t push it. On Fridays, there are many men over for lunch and my sister and I eat upstairs after they all finish eating downstairs. This is odd in my house, because every other meal, we all eat together. I haven’t been able to figure out if there is a particular reason we do Friday lunch like this or if there simply isn’t enough room for all of us to eat around the bowl at once. All I know is that I’m starving and my two nephews, 11 and 12, are eating and I have to wait another 45 minutes. I sulk quietly, but I’m too nervous to ask.

A few nights ago, during dinner, we all gather around the bowl. There’s a guest who sits in the area of the mat I generally sit in (not that we have assigned seats), so I sit on the left side of him and to the right of my host dad. My host cousin who lives with us and is 20 or 21, looks at me and says “You!” and gestures for me to move away from that spot! My cheeks feel really warm and I’m thinking “Oh no! I did a cultural taboo!” I guess I noticed that my cousin was the only one who ever sat to the immediate right of my dad. Perhaps that was a spot reserved for the next oldest male in the house. It made sense anyway – not even my host mom sat there. I left really silly.

After dinner, when everyone else had cleared the living room, I asked my cousin why he told me to move spots. (Since he’s my age, I’m not nervous asking him bizarre questions). He responds (this is all in French) “Oh, no reason. That’s my favorite spot.” I laughed and explained I thought it was a taboo and he laughed too. I’ve observed him more the last few days and I notice he always sits there even if my host dad isn’t eating with us.

While I appreciate all the information we learned during our orientation, all the rules kind of get to your head and put you on edge. And while it is important to be observant and respectful of the culture you’re in, it doesn’t mean every little misstep is of cultural significance. Sometimes people just want to sit in their favorite spot.

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Foto Friday

So this is something I’ve been trying to start for a while, but for some reason, internet usually eludes me on Fridays.

The other things is that I’m not positive which form Foto Fridays should take, so some suggestions and feedback would be much appreciated. Here’s what I’ve got:

Type 1 (This one): One large photo of something awesome I did that week or since the last time I posted and I talk about it.

Type 2: A handful of my favorite photos since the last time I posted and no words (Maybe a short caption of what/where the photo is from).


This photo was taken at Toubab Dialaw – a small town a few hours from Dakar. Our school took us there for a weekend excursion and we stayed at a resort like hotel called Sabo Bade. Sunday morning, I woke up quiet early – around 7 (although I’m still not sure why, since I stayed up dancing till 3). The sun had only recently risen and everything was peaceful. It was at that moment, as I looked over the vast ocean, the breeze blowing around me and the sun glistening off some rocks in the distance, that I realized I was having a really good time in Senegal. Everything was coasting, I was making friends and knew my way around – for the most part – and my French wasn’t entirely failing me. But mostly, I just soaked up the moment. I was at peace with my surroundings, I had no immediate worries. I breathed in the fresh morning air. I snapped a few photos. Did some yoga poses. Walked over to a gazebo that over looked a beach where I snapped this photo. I sat on the ledge of the gazebo and journaled to the symphony of the waves crashing below me.  I’d say it was a pretty great morning.

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Knees and Trees

The easiest and cheapest mode of transportation in Senegal is the car rapide. It also happens to be the most dangerous. Car rapides are old, fast, usually crowded and may or may not have breaks. But I can get from my neighborhood of Sacre Coeur 3 to my internship in Yoff – about the distance of Target to Elon and back again, or Point Lookout to Great Mills – for 100 CFA, 20 cents. Car rapides try to go as fast as possible with as many people as possible. This means they may wait for a long time at a stop to get people to take it. This also means that once they see a final person about to board they’ll slowly start taking off and the person is just supposed to grab the edge and jump on.


Generally, I’m a pretty good jumper, but this particular morning, Thursday the 12th, I was wearing a green pencil skirt. The car rapide saw Claire and I approaching, she got on but I was still a few steps behind. The car rapide started to move forward – no problem! I’ll just jump on. But rather than landing on my feet in the car – my shin scrapped against the ledge and I landed hard on my knee. The car stopped when the other passengers made noise and the apprentice helped me in. He still made me pay for the ride though.

There is an open cut on my shin and knee but they are healing very well. My knee suffered the worst of the fall and it’s still swollen, it’s considerably warmer than my left knee and I can’t it bend well – meaning I walk very slowly. This probably wasn’t helped by me going camping with the other CIEE students at the Great Green Wall.


The Great Green Wall is an initiative to plant trees across the continent of Africa in order to stop the Sahara Desert from advancing further south. It also helps to alleviate poverty. But as I soon found out upon returning home, no one in my family knows about it. Friday, after a visit from some of the founders of hip-hop/youth civil society movement “Y’en a marre”, we took a coach bus for over 5 hours from Dakar to a town near Saint Louis. From there we got into the beds of 4 white trucks and drove two hours down a dirt road surrounded by nothing but open fields, speaked with trees, herds of crows, donkeys and goats grazing and the occasional thatched roof village compound. Our destination was a compound made up of a few buildings and many tents.


The next day, we woke up early and drove about 30 minutes to the site where trees were being planted. We received a brief introduction to the history of the initiative and were put to work. From 9:30 am to around 1pm, my fellow students and the workers set to work putting samplings in holes 10 meters in neatly pre-toiled rows. I hobbled along behind taking pictures and was eventually lifted into a truck to pass out trees. With Sama’s help, I was able to plant one tree by crouching down with my right leg out stretched beside me. Sunday, we made the same long trip back to Dakar, stopping in Thies for lunch.

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While it’s obvious that I shouldn’t have gone camping this weekend and should have instead rested my knees and even more obvious that I shouldn’t have tried jumping into a moving vehicle in a pencil skirt – I can now say two things: I’ve officially contributed to the Great Green Wall and I’ve earned my stripes on the mean streets of Dakar. Because on the bright-side, my injury is one that could only occur in Dakar.


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One Month Update

So this is almost two weeks over due, but I just wanted to give a quick update on how everything is going in general and how I’m adjusting. There are random things that irk me that I may or may not elaborate on in later posts, but in general, everything is awesome! My French has improved considerably and I’m able to hold entire conversations now – even if they are short. I’ve got a routine going and I know how to get where I need to go. I’m making friends and having fun. Everything’s going well.

The Good

Just about everything is the good! I’m loving my classes, my internship, the people around me, my host family, Dakar and Senegal in general. My program is pretty great! All the faculty and staff are very friendly and really invested in their work! They are genuinely concerned for our well-being and they make themselves quite available. I’m taking five classes with CIEE, auditing one and continuing my Wolof courses at the Baobab Center, so I’m staying quite busy – just the way I like it. But despite all of that and working on my research, I’m finding time to hang out with new friends and explore the city! On top of it all, I’ve also found some down time to read, draw, jog a few times, do some yoga and other random things I generally can’t find time for in a regular semester!

The classes I’m taking are Intermediate French II, Education and Culture in Senegal, Gender and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa (My favorite class!! And the teacher’s research interests align with mine!), Senegalese Culture and Society (we get really interesting speakers each class), and my Internship seminar class which is in French. The class I’m auditing is a French course called Crisis Management and International Law in Africa. I would have taken it instead of Education and Culture, but I didn’t place into the right French. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I understand in the class and I’ve even participated a few times!!

My internship is a blast! I’m the Assistant in Communication at ImgaiNation Afrika – the first Children’s museum in Africa! The working environment is very energetic and I enjoy being with my co-workers. The director, Karima Grant, is a wonderful person with a lot of spirit and a beautiful vision! I’m getting to put the skills I’ve learned in my Strat Comm courses to work and having lots of fun while doing it!

I’m making friends in my program that are wonderful and I’ve kept in touch with the Senegalese friends I made in my old neighborhood and I try to go see them about two or three times a week. I’m also getting along with my new host family. They teased me endlessly, particularly the 11 and 12 years-old boys, when Nigeria lost to Senegal during the Afro-Basketball tournament. Nothing says family love like being teased about a sports team you didn’t coach.

The Bad

I sleep and eat soooo much here, it’s not even funny! At most houses, breakfast consists of bread and anything from cheese, chocolate, butter or jam with some tea, powdered milk or Nescafe. At my house, it’s an unusually small piece of baguette and cheese or chocolate (I always take the cheese). Then lunch is generally any time after 1, and Fridays can be as late as 2:45 for me. Dinner at my house is between 8 and 9pm each night (earlier than most other houses). But between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner, I’m so extremely famished! Because I’m so hungry, I end up stuffing my face during lunch and dinner. Thus, I’m either extremely full or extremely hungry! And the food here is so good, I can’t help eating as much as I can and since I’m never sure what time the next meal is, it’s safer to just go ahead and over eat. I think one of the biggest differences here for me (and most other students in the program) is not being in control of when and what you eat.

On top of that, I’m packing in 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night!  I don’t even know why! It might be the heat or how much I walk here, but by 9:30 I get really exhausted! By 10 or so, even if I’m trying to journal, I’ll just pass out! Then I generally wake up at 7 or 8. It’s kind of the life – but still a bit bizarre!

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