Friday, January 29, 2010

Immersion? An Analysis of Wifi Coverage, Hairstyles, Poverty and Globalization.

I’m having trouble being so connected. Trouble might not be the right word. I feel like I’ve never travelled and been so in touch with my family and friends at home. Why does this trip feel easier, maybe, less distant from home than the others?

In Dakar I spend the majority of each day at the West African Research Center, which has glorious Wifi (pronounced weefee en français). I was surprised to see the new(ish) laptop computer that my host family owns, in addition to an older desktop. And they have DSL internet in their home that they use almost daily to talk to their oldest son, who is studying in France, or multiple other relatives who live in Europe. This is a huge change from the talk of shipping in huge satellites to get slower-than-molasses connections in Kenya. Here people are connected. Gmail, skype, excel, internet-ready phones, they’ve got it and my family, a “middle-class” family, uses it all.

This raises several questions for me. The first being, how will I ever learn French if the World Wide Web in English is at my fingertips? So far, self-discipline is the only solution. It is difficult, however, to regimen oneself to the extent that I refuse to communicate in my “mother-tongue” with other American students. That’s almost impossible to prevent. And as a woman, it would be very hard to be a loner in this city and make friends on my own. So immersion feels elusive, despite being in another country. (Bubble in French is boule.)

Connectivity in Senegal has raised other questions for me about relative poverty, globalization, and the relation between the two. If we’re talking about relative poverty the best gauge I know of is observing mention women’s hair styles. Women in Dakar almost universally get their hair braided or have weaves, which displays an investment of time, money, and perhaps a relatively high value of aesthetics (but describing Senegalese fashion will have to wait for another post), or even the empowerment of women. In Kenya, all girls had very short hair. Only older women or richer women got their hair done. Even in Durham a lower percentage of black women had their hair done than in Dakar. So in that respect also, Dakar feels “richer” to me.

In 2007, Senegal was ranked 166 out of 182 countries on the human development index- in the group of the least developed countries. So why can I not see the poverty? How might the poverty here look different than that of the southern United States or a village in western Kenya? And, I must question my expectations as well, must immersion in Africa be immersion in poverty? Certainly not. Africa suffers from the problem of “poverty porn” in the United States, where the image of starving children is synonymous with the continent. Check out these other blogs for a discussion of this topic. I plan to continue learning about and reflecting on this subject.

The final issue that makes me feel, shall we say, less immersed than expected is the similarities between Dakar and the United States. There are far more similarities than I would have expected. Most of these are cultural phenomenon related to music, dress, food, and entertainment. But the question with globalization is whether it is a two way street. Yes, I’d argue, I’ve heard of Akon, who is a Senegalese rapper now popular in the United States. But I never knew he was Senegalese. The reach of the American media giants (YouTube, Google, but NOT Starbucks, MacDonald’s, or movie theatres) here is convenient for my comfort, but seems to my water down my experience of Senegalese culture. As a professor from Paris said in a lecture yesterday, the United States is dominant in all spheres except soccer. It also feels ironic that I am trying to become more Senegalese during my time here while many others are trying to become more “American”.

In short, my question is why doesn’t Senegal feel more drastically different than the U.S.? Is it my bubble in class with other American students and Wifi? Is it the constant comparison to my hut sans water and electricity in rural Kenya? Is it because Senegal is relatively rich and therefore I am comfortable? Or is it the invasion of American culture? Or just the uniformity of urban culture worldwide? Maybe I’ve begun to undervalue cross-cultural experiences, or am beginning to live like an experienced traveler. Or something else?

It’s hard to know, but it could all be because I’m in a bubble. Maybe Senegal is so different and I just don’t see it yet. I’m just hoping that I can shut up enough to appreciate Senegal for what it is, not what I make of it.

I apologize for the overuse of parenthetical statements in this post, but it was worth it to be able to use the word parenthetical. Twice.


My favorite moments from Senegal thus far are the following:

1. My mother telling me that if I whistled at night Harry Potter would come for me.

2. My first French spoonerism: pot de masse. (In place of mot de passe- password.)

3. Learning Alhumdililah, which is the equivalent of Hallelujah in Arabic and Wolof.

4. The juxtaposition of the following phrases. “Je suis la folle. Je suis la foule.” They mean, respectively, I am the crazy person, and I follow the crowd. Je me demande, pourquoi le français me deteste?

I’m sorry that the blog posts for the past couple of weeks have consisted of disjointed thoughts and reactions. I plan to continue, dutifully, TWTW Dakar 2010 (Sounds sort of like an MTV show) and a thorough review of Senegalese history and culture in the weeks to come. Also planning on more pictures presented in a more thematic manner.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Week 2 Blues

Well folks, it’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses. I am living in Senegal, not in Disney World. And just like anywhere else in the world, there’s junk I gotta do and people that I gotta deal with.

I started feeling a little whiny yesterday, while I was on an island, on the beach, when it was 80 degrees and sunny. I figured that my current circumstances could not possibly be causing my state of mind. Instead, I realized that I’ve hit the wall in terms of being excited about the newness of life here. In other words, I don’t feel like washing my own underwear is an adventure anymore.

It’s a tease, really, because I’ve figured out life and French enough to live here and do okay. But I also know now how far I have to go. I’ve been in the culture enough to not offend someone’s socks off. But I also know that I don’t fit in. And I’ve gotten to know the people in my program enough to get along, but also just enough to know what might bother me about them eventually, or immediately (not talking about you C&C!).

Last year in Kenya it took me half the trip to readjust expectations. Here it might take some time, but at least I’ve started this early. It’s so hard to know what you’re up against when going abroad, so readjusting expectations is a daily ritual. C’est la vie. I can finally say that and not feel corny, being in a francophone country. I just try to remember that I am me no matter where I am and life isn’t so drastically different that I’m a fish gasping for air. The water’s just murky and the other fish act funny.

What is making me feel better at this point is that my little brother (not my real or favorite little brother, who are one and the same) has decided to improve his English by speaking to me in English all the time, while I will continue to respond in French. His accent is horrendous and he speaks slowly. At least I know someone is feeling my pain, and I his. There, they’re and their!

Today the war of the tongue twisters started. Neither woodchuck or chuck are in my dictionary. Try explaining that in French.

Friday, January 22, 2010

My comrades.

If you're interested on getting other thoughts on what I'm doing from the girls that I spend a lot of time with, check out the following blogs.

L'Expérience Sénégalaise

Cross Cultural Communications

P Words

Why french is bad.

Puce= SIM card
Puce= Flea
Pousse= Push

Péche= he/she/one sins
Peche= he/she/one fishes

If you can come up with an equivalent list in English, I will be impressed. That should be enough incentive for you to try.

Redefining Normal.

Normal is...

...watching TV during dinner about the American bison and prarie dogs and learning how to say those words in French.

...drinking juice and eating fruit after dinner, including juice made from the hibicus flower and from the fruit of the baobab tree.

...watching football matches played on sand, recorded like "home video", broadcasted on the 10 o'clock news.

...drying my laundry on the rooftop.

...communicating as much with your hands as with your words.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

TWTW: Feet (Also Dirt, or Sand, or a Mixture Thereof)

Some of you may laugh at the title of this post, knowing my aversion to our furry friends, feet. However, I have had an epiphany regarding feet. They are somehow important and dirty at the same time. They’re like sin, in a way.

In any case, I’ve definitely had to pay more attention to my feet in the last 10 days than I have in a while. (And yes, this post is about my feet only not Senegalese feet in general. I’ll make it short.) Why? Because they are so dirty.

Why are they so dirty? Because this city is dirty or sandy. The air is sandy or dirty. It’s omnipresent and no matter what I do I come home with dirty feet or sandy-there’s no difference here actually. No matter what shoes I wear or how much I avoid walking “off road” it happens.

Muslims here clean their feet and face every time they pray, which is 5 times a day. A very good habit, I’d say.

Today I had a lesson on cleaning from my mom. She walked into my room and there was footprints all over the white floor because I try to wash the dirt away but never get it all. (Thanks, Maman.) I knew she was wondering why I didn’t know how to clean myself or why I wouldn’t just let the maid do it. I told her that we do it a little different in the U.S. She laughed at that.

That seems to be the case for a lot of logistical (not cultural) things here. They’re the same in principle, and people usually use the same kind of tools. But they look different and come from different places and if you don’t know how to do things with the tools available, you feel incapable. Or you have a dirty floor.

Birthday gift to myself: pedicure. Yes, I’m thinking that far ahead.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dakar Moon

A few pictures.

Naptime for the goat.

African garden gnome.

A bird's eye view of Dakar, including the infamous African Renaissance statue.
Soccer on the beach anyone? In Yoff.

And a tongue experience.

I was at a restaurant last night and ordered the falafel. (Yes, they have falafel here, score!) The waiter came back and said that they did not have any falafel but asked if I would like the cow tongue, which was right next to it on the menu.

No, merci.

Learning a New Tongue

While preparing to go to Senegal, I told people that I enjoy learning languages. I’m feeling now that this is statement must be revisited. While I like learning languages in theory, in practice the exercise is endlessly frustrating. And while it’s frustrating constantly, it’s also full of rewards. Let me explain.

Language and the act of living are inextricably intertwined. In America I think that we overuse the word indescribable. Very few things in life are indescribable. In fact, language is developed and evolves to fit every experience that we might face so that we can communicate it to others.

Now suppose that the English language was constrained to one tenth of the words that exist now, and it could not grow. How would we describe the discovery of new biological processes or a new sport? Every conversation would be one long process of describing one object and then describing another using simple language.

This is my life right now. It feels sometimes that because the way I can describe my experiences is limited, my experiences are also limited. Somehow not sharing them devalues them. One perspective is not enough to learn and grow. (Not to mention it’s hard when I average 1 word/2 seconds.)

I’ve also been thinking about memory and language. If I experience a conversation in French, will I remember it in French? At some point in learning a language, you begin thinking in the new language. But what if you forget it, like I’ve lost most of the Spanish I learned 2 years ago? Do I also lose those memories? I don’t think I have, but I wonder if they’ve been recast in the English words that describe them differently than Spanish would, thus changing my memory.

In the great debate over the merits of immersion versus grammar in learning a language, I doubt I have anything new to say. I’d only note that I’m trying to use a mix of the two. Learning new vocabulary or new words in immersion is difficult and slow because you do not have an English translation for the word. But maybe that is best so that in your mind the word is categorized by experience rather than letters. Perhaps this sticks better in the brain goop.

To end, I’ll note that I think I hit a low point in my French when I mistakenly said yes when someone asked me if I liked Lady Gaga. This mistake led to a Franco-Senegalese accented rendition of Poker Face. I then tried to recover by telling the joke “How do you wake up Lady Gaga?” It took about 5 minutes for them to understand the correct answer. (Poke her face.) It’s all up from here folks.

The Way Things Work: Dakar Version

I have a boatload of things to say about logistics here and I decided the best way to share them all would be a post on “The Way Things Work”, thus inaugurating TWTW on this blog. Look out for future postings on how to not die, or rather, have very bad stomach cramps.

TWTW Series~
1. La poubelle
2. Car rapide et taxis
3. L’eau
4. Le temps
5. Cuisine
And more to come…

TWTW1: La Poubelle

To start, I must say that la poubelle, or trash, works very differently here than it does in the United States. In short, there is less of it in the house and more of it on the street.

There is very little waste in the homes here because families (generalizing from my own) here do a good job of not wasting anything. There’s also very little packaging used and very little packaged good bought. Lots of what we eat is fruit and vegetables. Almost every container that is bought is reused in some manner. There’s a small garbage can outside the house, but the trash truck doesn’t come often. Inside the house there is sometimes a small plastic bag for garbage, which is rarely filled in one day.

Not finishing the food on your plate is really not understood. I’m having trouble because I don’t eat the fish heads. My host-mom told me to not take the fish heads anymore if I’m not going to suck out the brains (not verbatim). And no, I refuse to believe eating brains makes you smarter.

Walking to school I have the complete opposite experience. Trash is everywhere. Perhaps the wrappings on candy, etc. never make it back to the house? I’m not sure why this is accepted while any waste within the house is looked down upon. I wonder if this flys because people spend more time inside where it’s cooler because it’s so hot here.

I did get to see a trash truck yesterday. Highlight of my week.

Cross-Culture List-a-RAMA

I’m sorry if I’ve overused lists on this blogs. I’m not sure how intellectually rigorous it is to make lists rather than pontificate in long paragraphs using lots of passive voice. For now I’ll stick with the former.

Here’s a list that you won’t see often- it’s not what I find weird about Senegal but instead of people in Senegal find strange about me. Believe me, they do think I’m strange.

Why I’m strange to Senegalese people:

1. I don’t finish all the food on my plate, specifically the fish heads.

2. My verbal responses have an average delay of 2 seconds.

3. I don’t follow directions well (because I don’t understand).

4. I laugh randomly when I finally understand what’s going on.

5. I say when I dislike something (I stopped doing that now).

6. I dislike some types of food, like fish heads. Also, papaya.

7. I have a “Mexican” accent.

8. I walk to school (because I can’t figure out the bus system).

9. I don’t know how to wash my own clothes.

10. I like cold coffee (which apparently doesn’t exist here).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Maangi fi rekk.

Maangi fi rekk is "I am here only" in Wolof, which is the typical response to "How do you do?".

We had our first Wolof class yesterday at WARC, where I'll be taking most of my classes this spring. Our professor's name is CD, which I don't know how to spell in Wolof, but his nickname, given to him many years ago, is Q-Tip. (He's super skinny.) All our other classes will start next week.

For now, I'll just give you my favorite slip-ups en français.

1. Instead of saying I caught a cold from my father, I said that I caught my father.

2. Instead of saying I like Lebanese food, I said that I like Lebanese cousins.

But, everyone is very pleasant when I say that in French, I sound stupid. They don't say that I don't sound stupid, they just say that it's okay and that it will come. Luckily, my host family speaks decent English in case I don't understand.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Je suis arrivée.

I'm here. Some random rantings because I've been up all day without much sleep:

The ceilings in the little hotel/hostel we're staying in are very ornate for the quality of the place. I wonder why that is.

I can help clean up from dinner here without fighting, actually it's expected, which is a 180 degree switch from Kenya. I also get to wash my own underwear, because it's rude to let other people see it.

I like the food so far.

There are only women on my program. Why do only women want to study abroad in West Africa?

Today we did cultural orientation and a little walk around Yoff, the neighborhood by the airport. Pictures later.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Who are you?

I'm trying to get a sense of who is reading my blog. If you read it, thanks! If it's boring, tell me!

In fact, if readers could please leave a comment on this post listing one thing that they want me to blog about in Senegal, I promise I will fulfill as many of your requests as possible.

Suggest away!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Countdown

It's a week until I land in Dakar.

I've had a surprising lack of anxiety about going abroad for 4+ months. I guess that's what going abroad often does for you. I'm trying to get the most out of my last few weeks in America by:
  • playing in the snow
  • eating like there's no tomorrow
  • spending time with friend and family
  • using lots of electricity and internet
  • taking long, super-hot showers
Some things that I haven't a clue about that will hit me right away on my trip:
  • Wolof, the language most widely spoken in Senegal, of which I don't know a word
  • how well I can communicate in French
  • when I'll get a chance to get a Senegalese SIM card
  • the new and improved TSA guidelines (joy)