- You can live off of your Wolof if you know these three key phrases (phonetically spelled):
- “Da fa tangue” which means “it is hot.”
- “De my sango” which means “I am going to take a shower.”
- In Islam, washing oneself is a way to purifying oneself, so my host mother takes a shower before each of the five prayers every day.
- “Dama sonne,” which means “I am tired.”
- Don’t break a glass all over your bedroom floor on the first night. Although your host mother will be fine with it, it makes for a very awkward exchange in broken French. It also makes for another very awkward moment when a piece gets stuck in your foot when you are walking to the bread shop and you start bleeding everywhere.
- Don’t tell your mom the piece of glass lodged in your foot is from the street. You won’t be able to wear sandals for a while after that.
- Poulet yassa and mafe are so good. They are even better when you help make them.
- The Senegalese share my deep appreciation for naps (Nopolu tuti – in Wolof). It’s so hot after lunch that everyone takes a nap just to get out of the sun.
- Polygamy is normal here. The reason (coming from my host mother)? In Islam, it is bad to have a relationship outside of your marriage, but if just marry that person, it is acceptable. This means family sizes tend to be rather large. My host mom was even telling me of a man who had 4 wives, and because it is common for women to have multiple children, this man fathered over 50 kids.
- 4 year olds cry. SO. MUCH.
- Basketball is 10x more fun here than in the US. I go with Marieme (my host niece) and when we play, it ends up being Marieme, the boys from the neighborhood, and myself playing pick up games. It’s great because there is little to no pressure to play well, it’s all for fun.
- Also, a way to a girl’s heart is by passing the ball to her even when she has missed basically all of the shots she has taken. There are about three guys that consistently pass to me to be kind and I swear in those moments I considered marrying them.
- There is A LOT that won’t make sense at first and may be a little uncomfortable, but it all makes more sense in time. Take for example, the situation with the room that I have been sleeping in. It has two wardrobes and a dresser, all of which are already filled with clothes. This means that I have had to live out of my suitcases. This made me a little uncomfortable at first for two reasons. One, at our Pre-Departure Orientation they made it clear to us that we need to keep things tidy or our host families would get upset. I will admit, and my parents can attest, I am not always the most organized person although I would like to be. So, combining this characteristic and the fact that I completely over-packed, I knew this would be a bit of an issue. Two, people are constantly in and out of my room. The room has two doors: the first connects to the living room, the second connects to the main bathroom. Although I have nothing to hide, it still makes me a little anxious (especially with a very curious 4 year old host niece) every time someone walks in. Now, this was all a little tough to take in the first night, all until I talked to the host student from last year who lived with my family. She told me that my host mom had given up her room for me. The room I was promised has some troubles in the rainy season and due to climate change the rains have been heavier this year. So while I was so worried so about my situation at first, I am now super thankful for her kindness especially because the rest of the family has had to sleep in the living room because their rooms are flooded too.
- Don’t wait to do a week’s worth of hand washing. You will rub your fingers raw.
- I am actually not as afraid of speaking French/ Wolof as I though I would be. Senegalese people are so incredibly kind and encouraging, especially when it comes to learning their languages. I am certain they don’t have any clue what I am saying half the time, but they are so nice they will just run with the one word they could understand and continue the conversation. I don’t know enough French/ Wolof to know what they are saying, so I just respond with the two words I understood. We end up having some pretty extensive conversations, but they probably don’t make any sense to someone listening in.
- The intro to the Senegalese news channel that we watch is the beginning to Paul Simon’s “In Your Eyes.”
- I don’t understand Senegalese eating patterns at all. We don’t really eat during the day, if we do it is in the late afternoon. At night, we will have what seems like two meals and maybe some snacks. Granted I haven’t started school and don’t have a clear routine, but still I never know when I am going to eat! And I want to make it clear that this isn’t a problem, it has just taken some getting used to.
- At the neighborhood water filling station, a 10 L bottle of water costs 500 CFA ($1) and takes 4 min and 55 seconds to fill. FYI, the fountain only takes 500 CFA coins, not 500 CFA bills. It takes every other bill, just not the 500 bill.
- Some of my favorite moments are just sitting with my host family. Sometimes we talk and I get to practice my French, other times I learn new Wolof or watch TV, but often we just literally sit there. I realize how rare moments like these are in the US.
- As many of you know I really can’t stand cartoons/ animated movies and shows, but I have learned to appreciate watching animated French kid shows at the end of a long day.
- The Voice (French version) is also very interesting.
- There are probably 10-20 dogs in my house. The twist is I don’t know where they are. Like I think there are a couple on the roof, a couple off a door in the hallway, and many more in my host brother’s living quarters. There also might be a cat room on the roof and even a man living up there as well, but I honestly have no clue.
- It is seemingly impossible to break big bills here and nobody takes anything above 2,000 CFA (and that is already is pushing it). From the ATM I got 10,000 CFA bills and my host sister helped me break one 10,000 CFA into 5,000 CFA. I then got some smaller bills at the grocery store but that was accompanied with a dirty look. Maybe this is good for my budgeting.
- Chapstick does not do well in this heat.
- There seems to be very little judgement here, or at least that occurs in the same forms as in the US. Being fat doesn’t matter, wearing the same thing twice doesn’t matter, being sweaty doesn’t matter. I know there is definitely some hidden judgement that I don’t see quite yet (especially because I am a foreigner), but I realize how much energy I spent at home worrying about my appearance.
- Homemade bissap (hibiscus) juice is to die for.
- This really is a country of “teranga” (Wolof word for hospitality). My family will just walk into another person’s house and just sit for a while. We will often eat a meal with them and all will talk. We once decided the morning of to spend a whole day (9-5) with my host mother’s mother (for context my host mother is in her 60s-70s, I have absolutely no clue how old her mother is!) who lives about an hour away.
- I had a misconception coming here that there were some topics that I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about, but I have had some very open conversations with my host mom about abortions, birth control, periods, family issues (roles of women/ men), etc.
- Fans are the best invention and you cannot tell me otherwise.
- Mosquitos like me better than any other person in my family. My host mother finds this very funny, then politely yells at me to put on insect repellent.
- Buses here make no sense but everyone knows how to use them. There are no maps and everyone I ask just helps me get on a bus. I don’t know how they know which one is the right one!
- I really miss toilet paper. Literally no one here uses it. They use these little tea pot things with water in it. I don’t understand them.
- You can walk into an Olympic training pool… no questions asked.
- You either buy eggs one at a time or in a package of 120.
- Working out by the seaside while the sun is going down makes exercising somewhat bearable.
- Feeling comfortable coming home to a group of people that now feel like family (even though they were strangers 30 days ago!) is an amazing feeling. Getting house keys literally made my day because it means this place is really home now. Also, if you break your key chain, floss works well as a replacement.
At the beginning of February we hit our halfway point. If that wasn’t enough to give me a rollercoaster of emotions, the rest of the month surely did the trick!
To start off the month, we had our first set of exams, or as they call them, compositions. You would think this would not be fun, and I guess it wasn’t something I looked forward to at first, but it was a nice change of pace from our normal schedule of classes. At Sacre Coeur, once you finish an exam, you can leave the class. And as they get 3-4 hours for each exam and each exam only has a few questions, Will and I had a lot of time to just hang out (most other students take the entire time, we do not know how they do this). It was nice to have time in the day to enjoy school. We would read, walk around, talk and just enjoy the nice weather we have been having recently.
On the final day of exam week, we were lucky to have had no compositions, so Will, Eli, Lydia and I headed into Centreville (center of Dakar) for a day of exploration. We started with Le Musée Civilisations Noires (Museum of African Civilizations). The museum starts from the beginning of human time and follows the development of humans up until current day tribes and countries. This was another one of those experiences where I realized how ethnocentric my history classes have been, and it is always so interesting so see African history from an African point of view. Afterwards, we found an amazing Lebanese restaurant and bakery, and then headed to the local grocery store and found ourselves a good deal on an ice cream cake-like dessert, which we ate on a random sidewalk in the middle of town, while we mindlessly talked about life and anything that popped into our heads.
Next came midyear orientation. It was supposed to take place in Saint Louis, but it just so happened that the one weekend we wanted to go, the fishermen of the town revolted against new taxes and changing laws, bringing violence to the streets. Thankfully our alternative was incredible. We ended up heading to Warang where we traversed through mangroves and tiny islands on a pirogue, played pool and laughed until there were tears streaming down our faces, woke up early to watch the sunrise on the beach and simply enjoyed each others’ presence. Little did we know this would be one of our last times spent together as a group.
The day after we returned from Warang, Will dropped a bomb on me. We were sitting in the middle of our English class when he whispers “Lizzie!” I look and give a confused nod as to not disrupt the teacher, he goes “I am going home!” I give him an even more confused look. “No Will, you can’t go home. It is the middle of English class.” “No like home home. I don’t want to do this anymore.” And with that one sentence my heart dropped.
The cohort has become a family to me and Will has particularly come to feel like the perfect mix of brother/ best friend. Since arriving here we have spent almost everyday together. Whether it was in the beginning when the others started school and each day we would pick a new part of Dakar to explore while getting to know each other, sharing our childhoods/ favorite moments/ hardest times/ weirdest experiences/ anything to fill the time and space we had together, or in school where we shared the experience of being thrown into a completely foreign space that sometimes was so overwhelming that the thing that helped me get out of bed and brave the day was knowing I wasn’t doing it alone. Because I saw him so often, he naturally became been a huge support system for me. Whether it was having him hear me out on how terrified I was of sleeping with the rat/mouse or giving each other reassuring looks in the middle of class so we were both clear that we were equally confused, it hurt to hear him say that he was just going to leave everything and go home. This is not to say I don’t support the decision he made, he was not enjoying his time here and he is happier at home. All I want is for him to happy, it just sucks that he couldn’t be happy here.
Unfortunately, the universe did not think the shock of his declaration was enough for me. The period after our English class, Madame Santos came into our class, and with a heavy heart told us that our English teacher had passed away the night before. This hurt. We knew that he was sick, but I thought they meant he had a cold. The last time we saw him he was perfectly healthy. Will and I ended up going to his funeral, which gave us some closure, but still, English class is just not the same without him.
Just to top everything off, my health started going downhill. I have been noticing little things here and there but I always just wrote them off. Finally, I decided I just needed to go to a doctor and make sure everything was okay. I soon found out that my hormones were out of balance and after putting two and two together, we realized that stress has been causing a lot small but pretty concerning changes to my body. People that know me well know that I am not usually the one who stresses all that much. In fact I didn’t even realize how stressed I really was. My mind has adapted to a lot of the little stressful things I’ve been continuously experiencing, but in reality my body has been feeling the impacts for a while. It didn’t help that there was confusion between the doctor, my local coordinator, my parents, the heads of YesAbroad and me, which led to even more stress! Thankfully I am taking some medication that is putting everything back in order and has helped give me back some energy I did not even know I was missing, which has helped me crawl myself out of this funk I have been in.
But nevermind the bad. I think it is important to address that this last month hasn’t been easy, but I am getting through each day and I am still doing my best to keep looking for the good things that have been happening and that will be happening in the weeks to come.
Thankfully there were some really good parts of February that helped me take my mind off of things for a bit. There were two big holidays that we got to celebrate: Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras. In the US, these holidays are fun, but they are definitely not celebrated to the extent to which they are here! For the week leading up to Valentine’s day, it was all anybody could talk about. Who was going to give who chocolates? “Lizzie you are going to bring me chocolate right??” “Do you think my crush is going to write me a letter??” Valentine’s Day here had the heart and soul it did when I was in elementary school, and I was definitely as excited as I was in grade school to get chocolates!
Similarly, Mardi Gras brought out my playful side as people here treat Mardi Gras as Halloween minus the trick-or-treating. Everyone got to dress up (my class chose to wear traditional clothing, while other classes chose different themes like animals/ characters) and come into school. My classmates were so excited to see that I had joined in on the celebrations and when I arrived in my dress and started walking down the hallways I was met with continuous compliments on my dress, screams, handshakes and a lot of photos! Instead of going to classes, we had a talent show, costume contest, and time to just dance! It was also a time for everyone to hang out, which was great because I got to meet new people and make some new friends!
Next, a crazy coincidence led to one of the coolest experiences I have found for myself here. One morning my (real) mom texted me out of the blue to just mention that the Mercy Ship, a ship converted into a hospital that travels around the coast of Africa providing free surgeries to people who otherwise would not have access, was docked in Dakar. My mom threw out the idea that I should see if I could volunteer or at least get more information. This was one of those “okay yea mom I will do my best” that turns into nothing. I had never heard of Mercy Ship let alone was going to magically run into the boat. But the world works in mysterious ways. That same day I went into town and was at a restaurant when I saw a water bottle that said “Mercy Ship Staff.” Now here I was staring at this woman’s water bottle for a good few minutes deciding if I should go over there and say something or not. I am definitely not very outgoing, but before I could even think, my feet were taking me over to their table. The universe was giving me a sign and I knew I needed to take it. Thankfully, the ladies were super sweet and answered my questions, but they said I unfortunately wouldn’t be able to casually volunteer (to volunteer you live on the boat for a minimum of 2 months- YES Abroad would not be pleased if I missed that much school haha). On my way out of the restaurant, though, one of the ladies chased me down and asks me if I would at least like a tour of the ship. Only friends/ family of staff can get on the boat, but she said she would be happy to show me around. I was ecstatic and she took down my number. But I knew not to get too excited though, because I had to rely on her to follow up and what’re the odds that she would remember a random person who approached her in a restaurant. But later that night I got a text and the next week I was on the boat! If you don’t know much about the Mercy Ship I highly recommend just taking a quick peek at their website. They are run by incredibly dedicated volunteers and they do amazing work.
There were also a bunch of smaller moments that I loved and I know I’m going to remember for a long time.. like us all buying a cake and then eating it all Senegalese style (aka just digging in with forks), or being surprised by having been named Student of the Month which just made my heart so happy!
So there is one more thing that has gotten me through my troubles and anybody who knows me is not going to be surprised… I started fostering 3 kittens! They were brought to my host sister when they were about 7-10 days old (aka their eyes were just opening) and they were on the verge of dying. My family had no clue what to do with them so I jumped up to the challenge! They are now about 6 weeks and are very much alive, playful and healthy. I will not go into too much detail because I plan on dedicating a whole post to them, but I figured I could at least share a photo to tie you all over until that post!
So in all, so much has happened this last month. I reached what seemed to be my rock bottom, but yet I have so many things to be thankful for, even if it is just the fact that I get to wake up everyday in Senegal (and get to see the bright and shining faces of my sweet kittens)!
- Senegalese New Years celebrations are wonderful, but the bigger celebration is making it home alive! New Years Eve was one of my favorite nights I have had yet. I helped my host mom prepare a huge meal of couscous, chicken, and sauce for the whole family and then we were all surprised for the first time with dessert…ice cream! About 20 minutes before midnight my host sister came bursting into the living room and told me to get dressed (I was already in my PJs- oops). We quickly picked up 3 of her friends (keep in mind we are on Senegalese time- take your version of quick then multiply it by 2) and jumped in a taxi to go to one of the main roads. I watched out of the car window as the clock hit twelve and the kids lining the streets sent their fire crackers up to light up the night sky (mind you- these were very young kids with explosives- a little terrifying to say the least). I watched with wonder as we walked through the streets and people hugged and kissed and were just overwhelmingly happy. This wonder quickly turned to fear when, sometime during the night, the little kids got bored of sending their fireworks into the sky and decided to play a game of “let’s aim these explosives at our friends and try to hit them.” Fortunately and unfortunately they had bad aim. Fortunately, they weren’t hitting their friends. Unfortunately, I was nearly hit numerous times by stray fiery bullets! In the end I did make it home alive and well (really late in the morning may I add) and had a wonderful and adventurous start to the year. (Pictured below- our last meal of 2019 which we ate western style.. what a treat)!
- I am not terrified of cockroaches anymore. I am now terrified of mice/ rats. So for the past few weeks I have been hearing some ruffling and shuffling beneath my bed. I was a little scared at first until one night I turned on my flashlight and saw it was just a cockroach. For the next weeks, whenever I heard the sound, I could easily turn back over and go to bed knowing it was just a little bug going about its business. Well, one night, the shuffling was getting a little out of hand. I took out my flashlight and to my horror I saw a tail. A long freaking tail! I was terrified which made him terrified, so he ended up scurrying into more of my stuff, which made me even more terrified. When I told my host mom about it the next morning, she simply laughed- apparently this happens often- and told me she thought there was one in the room. Thanks mom. She then told me I just need to sleep with the cat for a night and I’ll be fine (I dubbed this the Hunger Games: Rat edition). I love La Femme (not really her name they just call her the woman) so not complaining on that solution.
- Meat man at the end of my street is amazing. I can get freshly barbecued brochettes of meat put into a baguette sandwich with sauce and condiments from him for only $1!
- Feeling trusted makes me feel more at home here. As I start to really settle in, more and more people have begun trusting me with responsibilities. At home, I am often the first one up and have to wake everyone else up. I also run errands and have cleaned the house numerous times. At school, Celeste is now a couple seats away from me so I can’t use her when I don’t catch a word or phrase, but now I have become the Celeste for another girl… a Senegalese girl… who has gone to this school for years… and is FLUENT in French. I’m not complaining, if anything it is a compliment, it still just surprises me. In volunteering, I have been put in charge of different projects, whether it is at Village SOS (an orphanage) where I can teach an English lesson, or at Sunu Thiossane (an art and education organization), where I was elected to lead the group’s social media page. In the US, I had many conversations with refugees who explained again and again how they just wanted to give back to their community. I have really started to understand this. Not only do I like being helpful because I am doing something to make others happy, but when other people let me help them, it means they trust me, and that means I have really started to find a place in my community.
- Don’t put your laundry on the main neighborhood clothes line. Somebody had a lucky day and now has some really nice new Lululemon leggings.
- Getting a package from the post office is so much harder than it needs to be. I was aware that I had three packages waiting for me since early November, and that they had passed through EMS Dakar (one of the post offices). Usually when I get a package, a sheet of paper comes to my house that I take to the post office to pick up the package. This slip can sometimes take weeks to get to me so for a while I wasn’t too worried. But two months has passed and I finally decided I had waited enough time and decided to just call the post office. I called twice and in French tried to explain my situation and give them my tracking numbers. Both times they said the numbers weren’t valid. I was getting a little nervous.. What happened to my packages? I decide I just need to go to my post office and see what was up. The man there told me they were all the way downtown at the main post office. I then hopped in a taxi and told him to step on it because it was 4 pm and the post office closed at 5 (also fun fact- a woman just hopped in the taxi after me, she was a nice Congolese woman and we talked in English for a little bit before she just hopped back out- I am still confused). When I finally got there I asked about 3 different people what to do with these three tracking numbers I had written down on a piece of scrap paper- very official I know. Finally one person had a clue and handed me off to a nice man. That man then led me through back doors and little alleyways, shuttled me between 5 more people, and after 45 minutes and me persistently asking where my packages were (they would bring one package out and then forget about me), I had all of my packages. But this was not the end, rather the beginning. It’s 5 pm and I am finally ready to leave; I paid 6,000 CFA for the taxes on the packages and I am walking out the door when a woman stops me. She takes my ID and the papers that correspond to the package and tells me I need to pay her 10,000 CFA ($20) more because I am late picking up the packages. First off, I didn’t have 10,000 CFA and second off, I was not about to pay for a late pickup for packages that they never let me know they had- heck I had to track them down! She then takes the packages from my hands, tells me to come back the next day, and starts walking off. At this point, I channeled my inner Susan Stifel and decided I was not leaving until I got my packages. I called after the woman which attracted attention to the situation. Even better, I started to get a little emotional. Then 4 people came over and start a heated conversation in Wolof. My plan was successful and soon enough I was led to the Head of the Post Office’s office. He also told me I needed to pay, this time only 2,000 CFA (I only have 1,500 CFA so this is still a problem). After some back and forth the woman slaps down 500 CFA on the table, gives me my packages and I leave… I have a lot of time to feel proud of myself as I take the hour walk home because I didn’t even have any money left for a taxi or car rapide.. But all in all what an adventure! (Pictured below- my local post office and a snapshot from my walk home from the main post office – I was walking fast because I needed to get home before dark!)
- Always bring an extra pair of pants. I have ripped two pairs of pants (one from the market, the other my uniform pants). Neither time was an optimal time to rip a pair of pants.
- Madame Santos is one of my favorite people. For context, she is a big, stern, don’t-mess-with-me woman. She is also the principal, our science teacher, and the general rule enforcer/ the one who instills a little bit of fear into every student so they behave well. Although there are periods when I despise her (aka when she makes us come in for extra physics/ chemistry classes that last for 5 hours), there are many moments that I can’t help but love her. Somehow I have weaseled my way into her heart and she into mine. On Thanksgiving morning I showed up in her office wearing turkey sunglasses and a turkey headband and although she was clearly having a tough morning, she burst out laughing. She also went out of her way to wish me a Happy New Year (and let me slide on the first day back to school when I missed a class- don’t ask). She made it on this list particularly because the other morning, in the middle of class, she looked at one of my friends and then looked very intently at his head. “Did you brush your hair??”, she burst out. She then sends him out of class to find a comb. Only Madame Santos would do this. Only Madame Santos.
- Even Senegalese funerals, as heartbreaking as they are, are beautiful. One of my classmates, Caroline, lost her father, so to support her and her family, I went to the funeral. It was hard to watch her and everyone else mourn, but what surprised me was the underlying feeling of love that flooded throughout our seats that even extended to strangers like myself. I didn’t know Caroline’s father and in all honesty I don’t even know Caroline all that well, but as soon as I arrived we became apart of the mass of people already there and all together we helped the family celebrate his life. Music was sung soulfully from the heart and prayers were consistently being quietly said, so there was never quite complete silence. When I looked up at the end of the final prayer, there was a sea of bright, colorful dresses that seemed to sway with the exit music, and I knew her father was smiling down on us.
- There is very little competition here. This realization hit me the other day and before then, I didn’t even realize that it was missing. In the US, there is competition in even the smallest, most normal things. For example, trying out for sports. Here, there are no (or very few) sports teams for girls, so you can’t be picked and you can’t be cut. In school there isn’t a fight to have the best grades because grades don’t mean all that much when going to university mostly depends on your score on the Baccalaureate Exam. There also aren’t any awards or spaces that highlight one student over another. Even the petty little competitions between friends/ friend-groups vying for social power/ popularity are non-existent. It is weird because I haven’t felt disappointed in months, but at the same time, I also haven’t felt the feeling of accomplishment.
- It takes a lot less to make me happy. Honestly, the little things are often what make me most happy. Although it is hard to track a lot of ways I have changed, the one thing I have noticed is that I have become a lot less materialistic (my mom and dad are jumping for joy). I don’t have the same excitement in my stomach when I pass by a jewelry shop or clothing store- I was a little scared the first time I lacked those butterflies- I honestly thought I was getting sick. This idea became even more clear to me when I was ecstatic the other day over going the market and getting new underwear for myself (my host mom accidentally threw away a bag of my laundry). My old ones were shrinking and getting torn up from all the hand washing, so I cannot express to you how happy my heart was to put on a fresh pair!
- I love my cohort so much. This one is not new. I have loved them since our Pre-Departure Orientation. We have had an incredible bond and I attribute so many of my good times here with them. Following out return from Thies we had another Christmas just for ourselves where we found an American restaurant and had a Secret Santa exchange. I ended up getting a wig (which my host family said was actually a quality wig) and a construction mask from Will. Do I know why I got these things? No. Neither does Will. Whether it is talking for hours while looking out at the sea or finding events/ new places to explore more of the city, they have become some of my closest companions. They made this list particularly because as I mentioned above I went to get underwear, but I did not do it alone. My cohort was happy to help me sift through endless street stalls to find the perfect underwear. That is love! (Pictured below- Lydia and me in a car rapid after a successful trip to the market, Will making sure his Secret Santa gift to me would fit, me after I received the gifts- they did in fact fit).
- I value my host family. This goes without saying, but I have started to really appreciate some of the smaller things, particularly the fact that they have learned and accepted (and infused into their own life) the idea of alone time. Although this doesn’t seem like a big thing, Senegalese people are very family/ community oriented and are almost always with someone else. The family will naturally gather in our living room and our neighbors and friends will come in and out to visit. I have really learned to love this part of the culture, but I also really appreciate just having the time to lie down and be alone. My family respects this and I am so thankful I am for that.
- Senegal has different standards of being clean. For one, there is sand everywhere. Even after I take a shower, I step out and my feet seem to already be dirty! Also, even though I have gotten a lot better at hand washing my clothes, I can’t say that they are nearly as clean as anything coming out of a washing machine. And as I have been getting more cleaning responsibilities, I have been learning a lot more “secrets.” For example, when we prepare the chicken (from the moment it’s killed to the moment it is served), we don’t wear gloves (not so worried about eating the chicken because it gets cooked, more worried about the blood and guts that get on your hands).
- Connections matter. I have been hearing this my entire life, but this year is when it has really hit me. Everything I do outside of school is due to connections I have made. I have gotten to know two American Embassy families here, one through my brother’s professor’s help and the other through one of my dad’s best friend’s help. Those families not only welcomed me but also gave me the opportunity to join an Embassy softball team. In volunteering at La Pouponniere (an orphanage) and Hearts Home (a group that works with the community), I emailed a professor at Notre Dame, who then gave me the contact of a student, who then gave me the contacts for these places. For Sunu Thiossane (the arts and education organization), I talked with a professor at Lafayette college, who the gave me her son’s contact, who then gave me the final contact. I am so thankful for these opportunities especially because I have sent an incredible amount of emails to various groups and NGOs that have never been returned (pictured below-the nativity play put on by Hearts Home (in Wolof!) and the Sunu Thiossane Team).
- Senegal is so much better in the winter.
- Senegalese people have very little tolerance for the cold. It has been hovering around 70 for the past couple of weeks and everyone here is freezing! My classmates show up to school with sweatshirts and scarves, little kids are bundled up with winter coats just to go out and play, and I am not allowed to keep my window open at night because my host mom is afraid I am going to be too cold.
- Working out with kids is so much more fun than working out alone. Recently, I hurt one of my calf muscles so I couldn’t run to the Corniche to work out. Instead I opted to work out in the alley behind my house. Some of my neighbors were sweet and would cheer me on when they walked by, one even ran back into his house to give me his jump rope. After a few minutes I had attracted some attention from the little kids that live in the neighborhood. Soon enough I had a whole gaggle (including some girls- which made me super happy because for the most part girls are encouraged to stay seated and hang out at home, which often means they don’t get much exercise) doing the exercises with me. They seemed to be having a lot of fun and it took my mind off of actually working out so I was having fun. At the end, a little girl came running up to ask me if we were going to do it again the next day… My heart was so happy.
- When your host sister offers to take you out (she rarely tells me where we are going)… go! We recently ended up at the women’s national basketball championship game and watched as Dakar won! It was the liveliest sporting event I have been to in a long time, with drummers banging out rhythms (even while the game was being played) and people jumping, dancing, chanting, and twirling shirts above their head. At the end of the game, the man next to me (who Marieme somehow knew) asked me if I wanted a picture. Naturally I said yes, thinking he would just take a picture of me with the court behind me, but instead he helps me over the railing and introduces me to the captain of the team. She then puts her arm around me and takes us to the trophy where we take a picture together!
- I am not Senegalese, nor will I ever be Senegalese. I specifically mean this in an emotional way.. I have come to accept that with my blonde hair, blue eyes and American accent, I won’t be like them physically. Anyways, this may seem like a simple idea, but it is something I have been struggling to come to terms with and I still can’t even say I am quite there yet. Before coming, I unknowingly set high expectations for myself. I thought I was going to become fluent in French, find really good friends, feel perfectly “normal” at school/ home, etc. I have made enormous strides in these areas, but I still feel like I am coming up short. It hit me one night that my school friends don’t really know me. I mean they’ve never really talked to me. They mainly know me as the smiley girl who always asks about their day and just listens in to their conversation and laughs along with everyone else. They don’t know my personality, my opinions, or my humor, and I realize, to an extent, I don’t know much of theirs either. There are so many times when I am late to internalize a joke, or even if I do understand it, I just don’t have the culture reference to find it funny. I have also started to realize that even if I was able to fully express myself in French, the connections I would have with them would never be the same as the ones I had in high school. Where my friends and I would have conversations about politics, social issues, and daily drama, my friends here prefer lighter topics (which I completely understand). As hard of a pill as it is to swallow, I have been slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am a part of their community but I am not quite a part of their culture. In other words, I am not Senegalese. But I am realizing (a big thanks to my parents sharing they have had similar experiences) that that’s okay. I am not expected to be. I wasn’t born here, I didn’t grow up with a Senegalese family doing Senegalese things, learning the unspoken ins and outs of Senegalese culture. And although I thought I was failing because I wasn’t fully connecting, these past couple weeks of reflection have helped me remember that although I won’t ever be Senegalese, my time here is to learn about and appreciate their culture in the deepest sense. In that sense I don’t feel like I’m failing. I have definitely learned a lot from my friends and family about Senegalese culture. And although it is often hard to express myself, I have taught them a lot about American culture, even if it comes through the language of smiles and laughing along with the jokes I don’t understand quite yet.
Merry Christmas from Senegal! This has definitely been a holiday season I will never forget. For a majority Muslim country, you would be surprised by how many Christmas decorations have gone up around Dakar. There are streamers and lights on random streets and the men on the street who usually try to sell you things like peanuts and tissues are thrusting full-sized fake Christmas trees and plastic ornaments at you! There are even some chocolate Santas and log cakes in different bakeries. Although Dakar was settling in to celebrate the traditions of Santa and gift giving on December 25, our cohort was traveling away from the hustle and bustle of city life to Thies (pronouced like Chess) for a week of different celebrations.
The first celebration began as soon as we arrived in Thies on Saturday (December 21). Unlike the other celebrations to come this weekend, this one was completely spontaneous and was made up on the spot when our car pulled into the one main gas station they have in Thies. Our task was to buy something for breakfast, but as soon as we walked in, we did a double take (well each of us did a double take so I guess we did a ten-take) and found Reese’s Peanut Butter treats and different variations of Oreos! Somehow a random gas station in a random city in Senegal just happened to be carrying American snacks that we haven’t seen in a long time. Let’s just say our goal of a hearty breakfast was quickly swept away. We took our goodies, along with some fruit, juice, and chocolate croissants and bread and headed to our guide, Sidy’s house. There we FEASTED! It was definitely a lot of sugar, definitely too much sugar, but Senegalese people don’t eat many sweet things, so for us, this was our first celebration.
The second celebration was a planned celebration. In fact, it had been planned for many, many months and we were just last minute guests. Sidy’s niece was actually getting married that day. So, after we finished our breakfast, we carried our full bellies and went to get dolled up. Some women at Sidy’s house started pulling out dresses for Sara and Lydia (the other girls on my program) because they didn’t have any Senegalese dresses and then at the last minute they looked at me and they told me they had a perfect one for me. The dress was in fact perfect. It fit my waist and dropped to the perfect spot on my ankles and the color was just beautiful. It even came with material that they wrapped around my head. When I finally looked in the mirror, I felt fully and truly Senegalese and was ready to party at this marriage.
Fun fact, I have never been to an American wedding. I have actually only been to one wedding, which was an Ethiopian wedding. I was ready, and I mean ready, to experience this whole joining of two families celebration. Throughout the whole day there was a lot of music, dancing and socializing, but we also quickly found out that the day would consist of a lot of sitting, especially for the women. When we arrived, we made our way through the opening corridor and shook hands with every single person our eyes touched. By the time we took our first seat at the end of the hallway my face hurt from smiling and “salam aleekum” had become a tongue twister. We sat there for a while before being moved to the backyard for lunch. Unlike Dakar which has a million people for 83 square kilometers, Thies has 6,670 square kilometers for 620,000 people. Houses in Thies have so much space. There are gardens in front of the house, behind the house, and the houses in general are just so much bigger. There were probably a hundred people packed into the backyard, but somehow it still didn’t feel as cramped as anything in Dakar.
Another fun fact, women don’t attend Senegalese weddings… not even the bride. At one point in the day all the men left us in the backyard to go to the mosque for the marriage. During that time men with tam-tams came and started drumming, women started dancing, and the bride made her first appearance. We welcomed her from the car and followed her through the house to the backyard where there were pictures and more music. The boys happily came back about an hour later with beignets and juice and then we hit another spell where we just sat there. We ended up talking about the universe, different paradoxes and theories, and God, so I mean at least we spent our time well. It was getting dark and we were getting a little tired when we finally got up and into a car and headed back to Sidy’s. But don’t be fooled. This was only for a quick outfit change. We weren’t at his house for more than 5 minutes before we were up and back in the car to a different venue for more celebrating. As you can guess, at the new venue we did some more sitting. It was around 11:30 when we got there but dinner doesn’t start until the bride shows up. The bride was fashionably late and ended up showing up at 1:30 am, so we had a few hours to kill. Leave it to the Senegang to fill the time though. We played games and ended up wandering off and exploring a half-built building, Lydia and I actually swinging ourselves off the edge (sorry mom and American Councils) and onto a roof on the second floor to look at the stars. The marriage celebration was all fun until we all hit a wall at about 1:15 and I started to feel a little sick. We ended up following the man who brought us to the party back to the house of the first celebration, only to find out we gave Sidy a heart attack because this man didn’t tell anybody he was taking us! After getting into a few cars we found our way back to Sidy and finally we made our way home.
Unfortunately, home was not much of a comfort for me. I started to feel sick somewhere into the wedding, but only once I laid down did I actually get sick. Sorry to Sara and Lydia who were sharing the bed with me because there were many times in the night when I popped up quickly from our squished arrangement to sprint to the bathroom. Thankfully, the next day we spent at Sidy’s house instead of immediately heading to host families, and for that I dubbed that day of sleep the third celebration.
By the time we did leave to go to our host families, I was feeling much better. I got very lucky with my host family. My goodness they were great. They are a very traditional group with four different extended families living together. There were six young kids who were running in circles every time I saw them, four women who were always smiling, a young housemaid who was very sweet, and honestly I can’t tell you how many men actually lived there because they were always in and out of the house. Anyways, I was absolutely spoiled at this house. Will at one point said that going to Thies is like going to your Senegalese grandparents’ house and I’ve never heard anything more true. Firstly, I had a room all to myself- this meant I had a dresser for the first time in months and could actually spread out a little bit. Nobody was coming in and out of my room and I didn’t have to worry about being neat all the time. Secondly, for breakfast there wasn’t just bread, there was meat and cheese and eggs and coffee, oh my god there was coffee, and just when I thought I had finished, they brought out juice. At lunch, there was the regular rice, vegetables and meat, but then they brought out fruit! Thirdly, Thies runs on a different time schedule. Everyone stays out until 3 am and then sleeps in until midday. I slept so much these past days. I even did something I was not expecting to do until we got there, which was I took off my watch. I am a very time oriented person. I constantly plan my life around time to make everything as efficient as possible, but for the first time in a long time I just stopped. I didn’t look at the clock at all. If I needed to go somewhere, somebody always told me so I didn’t even have to worry about that. It felt weird at first. I looked at my wrist hundreds of times those first few days, but once I just let go of worrying about the time, I was able to relax in a way I haven’t been able to in a long time. I also slept so much more which was nice and well needed.
The last celebration was, as you can guess, Christmas. But, there were a lot of smaller celebrations that led up to that and a lot of things to do before we could actually celebrate. The first thing we had to do was head to the market and then Auchan (the grocery store) to get ingredients to make Christmas dinner for us and all of our host families. This time was full of a lot of guess-timating because this entire week we didn’t have internet and for those of us that did know some recipes, the measurements were not Senegal friendly. Oh you need 2 cups of cream cheese? I guess we can take 175 grams of La Vache Qui Rit (not cream cheese, just a very creamy cheese).
We then were also let loose with 2,000 CFA each ( $4) to find dinner. Lydia and I ended up pooling our money to buy the one thing I would never have thought to have found in a random city in west Africa… a small vanilla iced coffee from Starbucks. We also got Twix and those little packets you get when you’re little with the tiny bread sticks and cheese.
We took our “dinner” across the street to the first “Christmas celebration.” It just so happened that on Christmas Eve THE Wally Seck was coming to Thies. Don’t worry, I didn’t know who he was either, but it seemed like the entirety of Thies turned out to see him. We all packed into this soccer arena, taking up the stands as well as the entire field. There were even people stacked on the fence and hanging from trees trying to get a glimpse of this guy. The concert was supposed to start at 10 pm but Wally didn’t end up showing up until 1. It’s okay though because we got to talk to Eli’s host brother and his friends and watch some people lip sync on stage to Senegalese songs. When the clock hit midnight, Lydia and I cracked open our Starbucks and started singing Christmas carols. We definitely got some stares because our music did not quite fit against the Senegalese rap/ modern music going on in the background, but not going to lie, it didn’t feel that different because we had been consistently stared at up to that point.
Unfortunately the Americans were weak and couldn’t stay for the whole concert, even though it was a lot of fun watching thousands of people dancing their hearts out to our good friend Wally. We all headed back to Eli’s host family’s house and met up with Sidy. It was too late for us all to go back to our host families so Will stayed with Eli, Sara did end up going home, and Lydia and I stayed at Sidy’s. Once we finally laid down for the night, Lydia surprised me with some Christmas carols she downloaded and we just stared at the ceiling taking in everything in. At some point we fell asleep, but honestly what a beautiful way to start Christmas.
The real Christmas celebration was spent together cooking. Lydia and I got up early (10 am) to start on the mac and cheese. For a meal so simple, we still couldn’t manage to make it work. They only had enough cheddar cheese at Auchan for the buffalo chicken dip, so we decided to improvise and use the only other type of cheese they had there. Turns out it was Swiss Cheese and turns out Swiss Cheese doesn’t melt easily. Oops. For the most part everything else turned out well. In the end the meal consisted of mac and cheese, buffalo chicken dip (La Vache Qui Rit is actually a viable substitute), baked potatoes, chili, fruit salad and dairy free chocolate chip blondies. It took all day, but we had made a wonderful meal that we were able to feed to all of our host families plus some extra guests. Sara’s blondies ended up being burnt and still uncooked, but we all dug in Senegalese style to scoop out every last spoonful. As we walked home that night along a dark and empty road, I just looked up to the stars (which you can actually see a lot of, unlike in Dakar) and let every emotion hit me. It didn’t feel like Christmas. There wasn’t snow. There wasn’t the spirit that flows through the streets of Bethlehem, PA. There wasn’t even my regular or host family. But I wasn’t sad persay. I spent the day with 4 other Americans who I love so much and have become my family and we helped other people celebrate Christmas for the first time. So it didn’t feel like Christmas, rather it was a good day which just happened to fall on Christmas, and so for that I call it a Christmas celebration.
Yes I graduated high school… yes I’m on a gap year… and yes I’m going back to high school, this time as a junior! Because I am a gap year student, I get to go to Cours Sacre Cœur, a local lycée that follows a traditional Senegalese- French curriculum. I am in Première (the equivalent of being a junior) because they tend to be less stressed than the Terminale (senior) kids who are super focused on their preparation for the French Baccalauréat exam (which, like the SAT, determines future opportunities, but unlike the SAT, is usually only taken once).
I thought it would be interesting if I were to document the beginning of my time at Sacre Coeur, so I wrote a few entries before school started and then couple after. It has now been a month since school started and I am super excited to share my experiences!
Wednesday October 2, 2019
School starts tomorrow and I know nothing about what it will bring. And when I say nothing I mean absolutely nothing! In the US, I would have already gotten my schedule (and would have had it for a month), preseason would have already finished so I would have already seen many of my friends and met any new people, some clubs would have begun and we would have had some meetings, and I would have an abundant amount of clothes for school and supplies for classes. My experience here has been quite the opposite to say the least! Senegal is very laid back. Because of this, everything ends up having to be very last minute. Will (the other gap year student on program with me) and I raced around today after being told at lunch that we need to get our measurements for our uniforms (which we apparently need to wear or we can’t get into school) and passport photos (we still don’t know why we need them). I was at a naming ceremony all day so I had to frantically run around in the evening to get it all done in time!
On a positive note, I know three things.
1. Where my school is.
2. It starts on October 3 (tomorrow).
3. It starts at 8, ends at 5, and has a lunch break somewhere in between.
This leaves a lot of things I don’t know!
What I don’t know:
1. How I’m getting to school. I was told by my host mom that she wants me to take the bus. I don’t know if it’s a school bus or if I have to figure out a bus route. I also haven’t heard anything further about it so chances are I’ll just end up walking.
2. What to wear. We got the measurements for the uniform today but where to find the finished product is a mystery that I will have to figure out tomorrow morning!
3. My classes. I don’t know my classes. And to make it even better, the school doesn’t know my classes either because I haven’t told them which track (S1, S2, L1, or L2) I want to be in. I assume we are going to get that information figured out tomorrow, but if all 4,000 kids at my school are in the same position, I think I might be waiting for a while.
4. What to bring. I don’t have any school supplies because I am supposed to go with our local coordinator to get them, but we don’t know what I need yet. I guess I’ll be showing up with a pen and piece of scrap paper!
5. Where I am going once I get to school. Usually schools in the US have some sort of orientation to find where classes, officies etc are, but the most I have done is walk by the place. My plan at the moment is to just find someone who looks important and hope they can help me get where I am supposed to be.
6. What I’ll be doing at lunch. I am pretty sure we have a 2 hour lunch period (1-3), but I don’t know anybody there or what I am supposed to do with all that time. I also have yet to meet anyone going to Sacre Cœur (other than Will), so one of my first priorities will be finding friends.
It is strange because if this were to happen in the US I know I would be absolutely freaking out, but I have been here for long enough to know this is normal and that everything will work out. I am a bit nervous for tomorrow but surprisingly not stressed. I just hope everything goes well.
Thursday October 3, 2019
I stand corrected. I know two things for sure.
1. Where my school is.
2. It starts at 8, ends at 5, and we have a lunch break somewhere in between.
We got an email and text last night from our local coordinator telling us that school has been pushed back for us until Monday. There was no real reasoning except the principal didn’t want us to come in. We did find out that the school chose to put both Will and I in S2, which from what I’ve been told is the science track that focuses more on biology and chemistry which differs from S1, which focuses more on physics and math.
Monday October 7, 2019
Wow. What a day! I think it will be best if I organize my thoughts and break my day into two parts: La Première et La Deuxième.
La Première: I leave my house at around 7:15 this morning (my walk takes about 25 min) and I’m feeling good. I’m walking and it’s a pretty nice morning for Senegal standards (aka I am not sweating after taking two steps, I just have a light glaze). During my walk I approach a roundabout and I start to go around. Yesterday it rained quite hard and because road infrastructure is not the best here, the road was almost completely covered in water. Naturally, I begin to walk around the water. Turns out that was a mistake! I take a step into some mud that looks thin, but no… it was at least a foot deep and very wet, so my entire ankle and (white!) shoe is just covered. I don’t really know what to do, but I do know I need to clean it off. I go over to a big puddle off to the side of the road and begin to clean my shoe. Mind you, this roundabout is very crowded and everybody in their cars is staring at me while I struggle. Thankfully some cleaning women at a nearby building call me over and unlock a water spout for me to use. I get the first layer of mud off, but now I have one white shoe and one brown, soggy shoe. At this point all I can do is laugh because what the heck.
So I finally make it to school. Now is a good time to mention that I got my uniform yesterday, but the shirt is so tight that I can’t button it up (there was supposed to be a tailor at Sacre Cœur to help before school so I wasn’t worried). So, I have my button up wide open showing my undershirt. I also realize while looking around that I am the only one wearing a skirt. In the midst of feeling very out of place, I remember I also have no clue where I am going. So just imagine: here is this white girl (the only one to be seen for miles), with a muddy, soggy shoe, abnormal skirt, sweaty, tight, unbuttoned shirt, going around asking people for directions in broken French. Definitely not one of my best moments!
I attempt to ask two girls that seem nice where I am supposed to go, but as I ask my question (“Where is Madame Santos’ office?”) they give me a weird look and say they don’t know. I’m starting to worry that I completely made up her name. I mean how could they not know who Madame Santos is? She’s the principal! I end up following a crowd of kids that look around my age and find a list with a whole bunch of names on it and I actually find mine. It tells me that I’m in S2C. Suddenly Will pops up and shows me where our class is. I’m thankful, but I have to leave him because I need to ask Madame Santos where this tailor is so that I can get a shirt that fits. When I finally find her, I ask her if there is a tailor and she just looks at me and says “c’est pas grave” (it’s not important). Not the answer to my question but it was the only answer I was getting so I ended up just spending the day with my shirt wide open. *Note from a month later: I still don’t know where the tailor is or if there even is one.*
So I try and go to my class, but nobody is there, not even Will. I track down a man who seems like he knows what he’s doing and he says I need to go down the stairs to the courtyard (he had to repeat this three times before I turned my head and see what he meant). This was honestly the most awkward part of the day. All the students are lined up facing the building I am in (which has outdoor hallways) and everybody is watching me, clearly very confused, walk across the hall as I try to make my way down the stairs. Finally I make it to my line (thank god for Will being in my class and for being white because I honestly wouldn’t have had any clue where to go otherwise) and we stand there and say a morning prayer, which is interesting because although it’s a catholic school it seems like most people there are Muslim. Then we then go to our first class.
Deuxième partie: This part is where everything begins to look up. I find a seat next to a really nice girl, class begins, and although it’s in French I can begin to relax. The first class is our French class and we all introduce ourselves. I say my American name but the prof and the class laugh because they don’t recognize it at all, so I just tell them they can call me by my Senegalese name “Diarra.” I honestly don’t know what he said for most of that class but from what I could understand he was just explaining what we would be doing this year.
Then came break and the girl sitting next to me invited me to hang out with her and some friends which was nice because I got to talk with some girls and just enjoy standing up (two hour classes feel very long). Then came math class. We wasted no time getting to work and I’m honestly quite thankful. We learned (or reviewed I can’t tell) how to factor and find roots. This was great because I knew how to do this the American way so I could easily make the switch and follow how they factor the French way.
Then came lunch. A little while ago my host mom told me she would pack me some lunch, but this morning she told me that our local coordinator would give me money at school, so I was sent off without food or money. Turns out my coordinator did not show up to give me money. Thankfully I could see this coming and I packed some of my stipend. I made my way quickly out of school to the food trucks waiting just outside and got myself a Senegalese hamburger (don’t think American hamburger). Then as I was starting to walk back to school, some girls call out my name. I didn’t recognize them from being in my class but I didn’t question it. *Note from a month later: I still don’t know how they knew who I was.* They asked me where I was going and I answered that I honestly didn’t know. They invited me to walk with them and get some juice and then we migrated back to school picking up friends as we went. We made our way to the back of Sacre Cœur and met up with a group of friends and we all stood and ate lunch together. They kept telling me to speak and I wanted to, I just didn’t quite have a grasp on what they were saying! It was really nice to have their encouragement though. When lunch finished we went back for our final class of History and Geography. This class seems like it’s going to be super interesting (from what I could understand), but it was also when my soggy shoe started to hurt and I realized I just wanted to go home.
I’m home now and I just took a nice shower. Looking back on the day I’m happy with how it went, but when I think about how I have to do it all again tomorrow I realize how much today took out of me. I’m still not quite sure about who I’m going to hang out with (friend wise) so that takes a lot of mental energy, and I still need to figure out my uniform. But in all, I got through my first day and that’s what matters!
Thursday, October 24
This week has felt so long… and it’s only Thursday. As I start to settle in I’ve had some really great moments. I have joined chorale and it has become my absolute favorite thing (I think I may even write a whole post just for it because I love it so much)! I’ve also had many moments where I’ve found myself smiling and laughing and being simply happy for no reason. With this being said, nothing seems to be coming easy for me.
The one thing I’ve noticed is that everyone already seems settled. I think culture must be similar all along West Africa because even the new kids have seamlessly made friends (I didn’t know a lot of my friends were also new this year until recently- they all just seemed to know what they were doing). The girls here are crazy (in the best way!) and just seem to be happy all the time. They have so much energy and will scream, run, jump, hit (in a joking manner), and dance whenever they are given the opportunity. I think it’s beautiful to see all of my friends so happy, especially when they hug/ hang on to each other or sit in each other’s laps. As much as I want to be like them and act like them, American culture is almost the exact opposite of Senegalese culture in terms of personal space and how you express your happiness/ excitement. My time in American high school has ingrained in me a way of holding myself that has been hard for me to shake even when I want to scream and run and jump with them!
I have been incredibly fortunate to have come to a country where everybody is so kind and welcoming. People here love just talking and being in each other’s company, which I love too, but have found that these times have become one of the more tiring and sometimes even stressful times, not just because of the culture, but also because of the language barrier. Making friends in another language is hard. It is hard to fully connect when I can’t express myself in the way I want to. I seem to stress a lot because I feel awkward when I don’t know what they were saying and I am just standing there. Thankfully, even with all of my worries, my friends, although they wish I spoke more, still like having me in their group and for this I am so grateful. I just wish I could feel as normal around them as I do my American friends.
School itself has also been tough. I was the type of person that would be upset if I didn’t get an A on the test and although I have lowered my expectations, I don’t feel like I understand enough of my classes to even get passing grades. Other than classes, just going to school from Monday to Saturday (and most days until 5) has been difficult because I am doing more school now than what I was doing when I was actually in high school.
Anyways, school is a rollercoaster and I’ve had tough experiences like the ones mentioned above, but they’ve only made the good moments that much better. With so much change comes so many emotions and I’m sure I just need to give myself more time to settle into school life. I realize this entry was not be as upbeat as I wish it could be but I think it’s just as important to share some of my struggles as it is to share my good times.
It has been about a month since school started and I have learned a lot! School has definitely been better than my last entry! Everyday is different and everyday is still a roller coaster but I have definitely found myself slowly settling into a routine. Though, I often have to take things one day (sometimes even one hour) at a time. Most importantly, I have been coming around to the idea that everything that I run into (both good and bad) is a learning experience!
I now want to reflect a little on what I’ve experienced the past month and also give a little bit of context to the place I’ve been going almost everyday. I decided to include some observations as well as some experiences from the past month and I broke everything up into three groups: school basics, school culture, and classes.
The school day starts at 8 am and ends most days at 5 pm (Thursdays we end at 6 pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays we end at 1pm).
My typical day will follow this schedule:
7:40: Arrive at school, greet as many classmates as I can
7:50: Line up in the courtyard for morning prayer and announcement
8-10: First Class
10:30-1: Second (and potentially third) class
3-5: Last Class
The high school is one big building, three stories high, with outdoor hallways. It is in the shape of a square with a courtyard (filled with dirt and palm trees) in the middle. My class has 50 kids and we all sit in old wooden desks that face a blackboard. Other than the desks and the blackboard, there isn’t much else. No posters, no art, no projector, no clock, there isn’t even flooring. We erase the blackboard with water and a sponge, and on the days we don’t have water, we just use our hands or a tissue.
Unlike in the US where each classroom had a Smartboard and each student and teacher had a computer, there is no technology here at all. We are not even allowed to have our phones on campus (and people actually follow this rule, even when teachers aren’t watching).
Everyone must stand when the professor enters the room.
Teachers here have more power than those in the US. For example, all of Premiere was supposed to have a day off from school, but my Physics/ Chemistry teacher decided that she not only wanted us to come in for her class.. but stay for FIVE HOURS! On a different note, that same teacher, along with a couple others, aren’t afraid of using a little bit of corporal punishment (usually just throwing chalk or a quick slap with a ruler) here and there to show us who’s boss.
With 50 kids in one room combined with Senegalese heat, the classroom can get quite hot and stuffy. There isn’t any AC and there aren’t even fans, so the school day consists of me just sweating for 9 hours straight! And don’t try and take a drink in the middle of class. You will get in trouble (I learned this the hard way)!
The toilets are squat toilets (with no toilet paper) and don’t smell the best. Girls do their best not to use the bathroom and the no-drinking-in-class rule helps dehydrate us enough to not need to go! Another little tip: don’t get sick during school, these bathrooms don’t accommodate well for such instances (again, I learned this the hard way)!
The bell sounds like a national emergency alarm and it rings for about 20 seconds. It took me a good two weeks to get used to it and not have my first reaction be “we need to get out of here!”
We have a uniform of a blue linen shirt and either dress pants or a long skirt. I have two shirts, a pair of pants and a skirt… for 6 days of school… in the heat. Although my uniform was tailored, it is actually quite small so it is not the most comfortable thing to wear. I also have learned that even though my skirt came from the school tailor, it is not in dress code. It goes below my knees, but it doesn’t cover my ankles. So, for the past few weeks I have only been using one pair of pants for an entire week. Talk about different hygiene standards!
For lunch, there isn’t a cafeteria, but there are a whole bunch of vendors in the back of campus that sell anything from sandwiches to juice to little cakes. Some days I will just get a ham and cheese on a baguette (350 CFA about 60 cents), other days I will get a hot sandwich that’s filled with eggs, fries and ketchup (600 CFA – just over $1), I am proud of myself because recently I found a woman who sells a sandwich with the classic Senegalese onion spread, meat/ or eggs, fries, ketchup and hot sauce for only 400 CFA. What a steal! If I am feeling like having a small snack, I will choose between getting a little cake (200 CFA), 3 beignets (100 CFA), a few spring rolls (50 CFA each), a crepe with a chocolate spread (100 CFA), or a juice (200-300 CFA).
Honestly I love the culture here. Everyone is open and truly kind. Everyday, everybody greets each other. If one person has a snack or drink, they will offer it to everyone in the vicinity. Even in my friend group, they will buy each other water and snacks just to be kind. I mean this isn’t a perfect world and I have heard my friends say that they don’t particularly like some people, but there are no fights/ picking sides; they keep it as a personal problem and move on.
There are friend groups, but they are not anything close to cliques. Everyone is welcome into every conversation and there really does not seem to be any sense of popularity or social judgement that determines who your friends are. This has made me realize how toxic American school culture can be, even in its most basic sense. Even at my high school which was a pretty accepting community, there were unspoken rules of who you could and couldn’t speak to based on who your friends were and what people thought of you. I didn’t even realize I was carrying that weight on my shoulders until it was suddenly gone.
My friends in particular have been wonderful and so incredibly helpful. I still eat lunch and spend every break with the group from my first day. I mentioned before that I found this time stressful, but now it feels normal for me to just kind of hang around and listen, which has allowed me to relax a lot (and even look forward to my time with them). I have also been getting better at using this time to practice my French. My friends are amazing and have been finding different ways for me to be a part of their group (i.e. playing games, talking directly to me rather than expecting me to add to group conversations, translating the main idea of the conversation so I can follow along etc.). The girls have also made it their mission to find me a boyfriend so we will see how that goes.
Other than my lunch friends I have my class friends. The girls that sit around me in class are great. There are many times when we have to be in class and stay seated even when there isn’t a teacher, so we use this time to talk. They have given me song/ movie/ show recommendations and have done my hair on many occasions. Celeste, the girl who sits on my left, has been my personal guide to the French school system. She helps me with dictations, tells me when I need to switch pen colors when taking notes, tells me if I am not drawing/ writing clear enough, asks me every 20-30 minutes if I understand what’s going on, and will repeat instructions/ homework if she sees my blank face and knows I don’t understand. I am so thankful for her because I realize how much work she does for me. There have been so many times when I ask myself why she keeps helping me. In the US, if you are new and don’t speak English, people often try and help you at first, but for the most part you are on your own. Language takes a while to learn and most Americans (myself included until recently) don’t fully comprehend this because we are rarely in a position where we can’t use our English. I admit Celeste has made feel a little guilty for not having done more to help my international friends back in the US. At least I now know how I can be of best help when I return.
I am in the Science 2 track. This track focuses on Chemistry and Biology, but we also take Physics, Mathematics, History, Geography, English, Spanish, Morals (different classes for Muslims and Christians), Information (which focuses on how to use Excel), and Gym. Unlike the US where each year started fresh with new courses (i.e. I took Chemistry sophomore year, Physics junior year, Environmental Science senior year), my classmates have been continuously taking all of these classes for years now and each year it gets progressively harder. This has made it feel like I am starting in the middle of a school year and has made it difficult to understand what is going on even if I understand the French! In my first chemistry class I was actually able to follow the lesson pretty well. Then we were given three homework exercises. I went home that night and read, re-read, then re-re-read the question because I could not see, for the life of me, how it connected to what we did in class. The next day my classmates took an hour and a half during lunch to help me with the first question… turns out I needed to know theorems and formulas from the year before.
Another huge contrast to the US system is that every class is lecture/ dictation based, meaning that the professor will stand in front of the class and read out sentences that we write down, word for word, in our notebooks. These dictations essentially become our textbook. Because of this, notes here have to be taken in a VERY specific manner. Certain things need to be written in certain colors (meaning I have to switch pens in the middle of a dictated sentence- which is stressful!). Often times Celeste will tell me that I am not writing clear enough. One time she even told me to stop taking notes off of something the professor was teaching (not part of a dictation just his lecture) because it was messing up my page. Sometimes this drives me a little nuts, but she is doing it in good faith because apparently there are “pop notebook checks” where our notebooks get graded. It has been hard for me to dedicate so much effort towards aesthetics, but again, this is a learning experience!
Dictations have also been difficult to grasp because many of our professors have different accents so I can’t even distinguish words I do know! Celeste has gotten to the point where after every sentence she will just shift her arm so I can copy/ check whatever was just said. Recently though, I have found that my listening has improved a lot and I only need to look over every three to four sentences (we love small victories!).
Although this type of learning has been helpful for me to learn French, I realize there is little to no analysis done in or out of class. In the US, most of our classes were discussion based. We were presented with information and then we had to make conclusions or make connections with what we were given. Here, we are simply just given information. Even science/ math courses in the US were interactive. We would start a topic with a lesson, then we would be shown a few questions and do them together, and finally we would do work on our own or in groups. In science, we would have labs about once a week. Here the teacher will lecture and if we are lucky they will show us an example or two. I have found it difficult when I go home to practice, because I don’t understand the material/ examples enough to make connections and apply what we learned in class to any new material I run into. I realize that it will take time to get to know this new system. While at times I seem to find the French system a little confusing or inefficient at times, I realize I’m just being critical because it’s all so new. This system has worked for millions of students so I am sure that as I get more used to it I will begin to recognize and truly understand its benefits. Even so, I really do value learning how to think rather than what to think.
Before I end this blog I want to just want to take a little bit of time to say that I am currently class valedictorian. We had our first “devoir” the the other day and it was for our English class. I came out with the top score- boo-ya! Sure we were only working on passive/ active voice and my classmates don’t speak English but whatever. I have also been in a little rush to post this blog while my standing holds true because we are supposed to get our Chemistry grade back soon and my GPA is only going downhill from here.
Anyways, this month has been a lot, but it has been anything but dull and I am thankful for that. I am excited to see what the next 8 months will bring!
Today is the Grand Magal of Touba! It’s the annual religious pilgrimage that Senegalese Muslims take to Touba in order to celebrate the life and teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, who was exiled on this date in 1895 due to religious persecution. The Mourides are one of the main brotherhoods here in Senegal that follow the Islamic faith. Millions of people, of all brotherhoods, migrate to Touba to celebrate with prayers and huge shared meals. But, if you are like my family and can’t make it to Touba, you stay home and prepare an enormous amount of food for anybody and everybody that wants to come and eat!
Preparation started Wednesday with the first half of the day dedicated to the meat and the sauces. Multiple chickens and goats were killed earlier in the morning and I watched and learned while my family began to tediously skin, clean and then stuff them with seasoning. While they were showing me the different steps to preparing the meat, I was putting two and two together on what I have actually been eating these past weeks. I had to take a few “water breaks” every now and then and I realize it was definitely better living in ignorance. Since neither my family nor I trusted me with actually preparing the meat, I just fanned it to keep the flies away. I also skinned and cut up the garlic for the sauce. Helen (the housemaid) then ground the garlic with spicy peppers, other seasonings and oil.
In the second half of the day my family took to cooking the meat and skinning/ cutting the vegetables. My job was to boil and then peel over 100 eggs with Baldé, our houseboy. Because I was out in the afternoon, we stayed up until 11 PM finishing our work!
Day two started at around 8:30. I finished peeling more eggs while eating my breakfast. Then the house was cleaned and we began to cook… again! We started to make the vermicelle and rice and finished cooking the meat.
Then I was assigned my big task: fruit salad. I sat with Mamie (my host sister, although she’s more like my host aunt because she’s in her 40s with three kids and doesn’t live with us, but call her what you will) in the cat room and we began our work. I only mention we were sitting in the cat room because I learned that the cats have been enjoying air conditioning this whole time. My family and I don’t have air conditioning… just the cats. Anyway, we sliced bananas and melon, peeled and separated oranges, thinly chopped apples, added grapes, pineapple, vanilla sugar, a whole lot of juice and voila! We had fruit salad to feed over 50!
The party had already started by the time we finished the fruit salad so I snuck to my room to throw on my Senegalese dress and braid my hair. I was then ushered into my host brother’s living quarters and introduced to his girl friends (think companions, not polygamy for this one). Today was one of those days I am so grateful I am a girl because we got to sit in the air conditioning while all the men were sitting out in the (scorching!) heat.
The 13 of us huddled around two platters (one of vermicelle, one of thieboudienne) and I listened as they animatedly spoke to each other in Wolof. After we finished our meal everyone took a deep breath and enjoyed the fruit salad and some juice (bissap, madd, or baobab). Then all of a sudden they erupted into conversation which lasted well into the evening.
I think this holiday is exactly what I needed (and not just because it was a break from school). I not only got to spend some quality time with my family, but I also got to spend a good amount of time getting to know people like Mamie and Baldé, who I see all the time but have never had time to sit and talk with them one on one. I also feel like I reached a new level with my family today because I was right alongside them sharing the responsibility of welcoming and serving others. By doing so, I was no longer a guest myself. So, in all, for my first holiday here, I would definitely say it was a success!
My soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty and peace within you, because it is also within me. In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one. — “Namaste” — an ancient sanskrit blessing