My two-year anniversary with Senegal has come and gone. Senegal is that [semi] francophone country in West Africa with great beaches, awesome fashion, and tons of problems. While I rant, rave and complain more than is probably tolerable, my life in Senegal is not all bad. In fact, Dakar has shaped the course of my life personally, professionally, and on the most basic human level. Living in Senegal has pushed me to evaluate what’s important in my life and how far I’m willing to bend to accommodate other people and their ideas.
I don’t think anyone in the States — or here for that matter — would call me easygoing. But Senegal makes me flexible par force. Buses never come when I’m in the biggest rush; the most urgent tasks are always handled by the slowest worker; the power tends to cut when I need it most. Yet, life goes on. I know this, but Senegal makes me accept this; otherwise the Dakar mayhem would drive me crazy after a single week.
That’s the thing about living abroad: You learn your limits. Quickly. I lived rent-free in a fancy villa…with no running water for six months straight during the hottest months of the year. I did not sign up for Peace Corps for a reason. I’m not into rural life or roughing it. I chose to work for a reputable NGO in the “Paris of West Africa”. (Although, that comparison is a stretch even on the best of days.) Having no running water for that long was exhausting and less-than-sanitary, but I survived. I was resourceful, relied on others, and knew there was always someone worse off than me—such as those hundreds of people whose offices didn’t magically deliver bottles of water in their corridors every few days like mine did.
I also learned — and continue to struggle with — my limits with people. Cultural ideas and norms are imposed upon me and I generally take them in stride. (I am in their country, after all.) But some days, depending on my mood, how hot it is, and any number of other factors, I just can’t. That’s right, stay far away. Don’t try to joke with me. Do NOT yell “Toubab,” or “Mademoiselle Dakar”, or any other sexist, racist catcall you may have the urge to throw at me. Other days, the marketplace haggling is actually fun. The Wolof conversation with the taxi driver helps pass the time. The person next to me on the bus makes a funny remark and I remember that these small human connections are what make the world go round. I constantly remind myself that just because someone is rude or short-tempered doesn’t give me the right to react the same way. (For better or worse, Senegal brings out my fiery side that never existed in the States.) Everyone has their own personal battles. We’re all just people trying to live our lives as best we can.
Being in Senegal has taught me a little something about generosity and made me realize how selfish I am. Countless strangers have paid for my bus fare, friends offer me random gifts, neighbors serve me a cold glass of juice just because I stop by their house. They ask — and expect — nothing in return. All the while, I make sure the fruit guy doesn’t rip me off for 50 CFA (10 cents) or I haggle the taxi down a couple hundred CFA for “the principle of the matter.” Dakar is simultaneously poor and expensive with the average person struggling to get by. When surrounded by such poverty and bombarded daily by beggars in the street, it becomes easier to ignore it all than to help those you can when you can. If I take away one thing from Senegalese people, it’s to always be generous and give what you’re able to—it’ll find a way back to you.
Despite so many people living in sub-par conditions, they work hard. Sure, there are men who lounge under the shade, lethargically watching the world go by. That’s annoying and I want them to pick themselves up and DO something for their families. But there are also girls who slave over hot gas burners all day long, women who scrub heaps of laundry for hours, and young men who stand under the beating sun peddling anything and everything to make enough money at the end of the day to buy some rice and oil. And then there’s me, who sits in my air-conditioned office, staring at a computer all day. I get stressed; I am hard-working, but sometimes it’s hard to reconcile what hard work means when you see so many people breaking their backs to make ends meet.
I’ve come to realize that it’s simply a question of opportunity. How is it that I was born in America, a white girl with relative privilege and power? I can go practically anywhere in the world I want to go, pursue any dream my heart desires. By happenstance, smart, kind people who would contribute to any society, were born in Senegal. This means a lifetime of passport discrimination, racism, and economic struggles I will never know. I was watching a pickup basketball game and noticed a player with a bum leg, likely from having polio as a child. He was making baskets and [almost] keeping up with the bigger, stronger guys on the court. He looked happy and accepted, but in that moment, I was overwhelmed with sadness. I kept imagining how well he would play if he weren’t marred by a totally preventable disease and how much harder he has to try to do simple tasks, like play with his friends.
After two years in Dakar, I’ve seen a thousand other people worse off than the polio-affected basketball player. Every day I’m pushed into hyper-self-awareness. White, rich (for all intents and purposes), young female. The perpetual catcalls bring my sexuality into focus like nowhere I’ve been in America. (Subtlety is NOT a virtue in Senegal.) Being aware of how I’m so different from everyone around me in so many ways has oddly solidified my identity. The more I spend time with Senegalese and fellow expats, the more I realize just how American I am. I’m not any more patriotic than before, but I’m deeply and intentionally tied to American culture. (Although when confronted with the latest publicity stunts and political mistakes in the media, I shrug them off and simply explain that America is a large country and I don’t know everything about it.) I also have the honor to latch onto the Senegalese values I choose—openness, sense of humor, the importance of sharing—while rejecting those I don’t agree with.
Growing up, I was never a social pariah, but I wasn’t that girl everyone understands and wants to know. I think that’s the case for many expats—we move somewhere completely new, where we stand out objectively and without question. In some way, this is more comforting than staying somewhere familiar where everyone is trying (or at least pretending) to be the same and we don’t fit. That’s not to say I don’t love going “home”, where I can shop when I want, eat what I want, and walk around completely anonymously. But living in Dakar has changed me for the better. I’ve found my niche, and while I’ll never be Senegalese (nor would I ever try to be), Dakar has become my home. Two years down, x number of years to go.