Greetings everyone and happy holidays! Regardless of your religious or cultural background, I hope you’ve been celebrating something, staying warm, and spending time with loved ones. I haven’t posted in a little while because I had a visitor for the holidays. Liana came to visit me for 10 days on her way back from a semester in Marseille and it was so awesome to have someone from home with me in Dakar!
As I stated in my Thanksgiving post, I find it particularly strange to spend the holidays outside of the United States. My immediate family is not very religious, so this time of year is most important to us because it allows us to spend time together while appreciating the snowy wonderland of a Midwestern winter. I do also love the capitalist temptations of Christmas music, decorations, and gift-giving. As a result, it feels extremely bizarre for me at this time of year to be thousands of miles away from my family while surrounded by palm trees and beach.
Luckily, I was able to take advantage of Liana’s visit to take some time off from my project, relax, and do some tourism. In addition to the usual group in Dakar, we also got to hang out with three of the other Fulbright ETAs who were in town at different points during their vacation, which was an added bonus!
Highlights from Liana’s visit include finally getting up close to the striking and somewhat controversial African Renaissance Monument, a Christmas Eve dinner with my host family, a Christmas day safari at the Réserve de Bandia, a trip to a turtle sanctuary, a visit to Lac Rose, and lots of beach time.
Bandia is a wildlife reserve that is home to both native Senegalese species and imported animals from around the continent. We spend the morning driving around the park in an open-air truck with a guide, getting up close with giraffes, zebras, several species of antelope, crocodiles, warthogs, monkeys, and even two rhinos! I’ve never seen big animals like that outside of an American zoo, so even though it wasn’t a full safari to see those creatures in their native habitats, it was the next best thing.
Lac Rose (also called Lake Retba) is a pink lake less than an hour’s drive away from Dakar whose salinity rivals that of the Dead Sea. We were able to swim (or more accurately, float) in it and it was absolutely unreal! The pink color comes from bacteria that eat the salt and its vibrancy fluctuates throughout the year, as well as depending on the time of day. Harvesting of the salt and tourism are both important regional economic activities. I have been waiting to go there since I first heard about it and it was well worth the visit!
Liana left yesterday morning, which also happened to be the day after my two month anniversary in Senegal. As my mom remarked a week or two ago, the time is truly flying by. As I said after my one month anniversary, some days I feel as though I can navigate life here with ease, while other times are much more challenging. In that spirit (as well as in the inspiration of one of my favorite time-sucking websites), I thought I would post a list of things (both positives and negatives) that I took for granted in the United States that I have been forced to re-evaluate since moving to Senegal. This list is definitely not exhaustive or meant to generalize the wider American or Senegalese lifestyles and cultures, but rather to show aspects of my own life at home that I never thought about before moving here.
1. Vegetarianism as a socially-understood dietary choice
For those who don’t know (although if you’ve made it this far in my blog, you probably do know), I have been an ovo-lacto vegetarian since I was eight years old. This term means that I eat eggs and dairy products, but no red meat, pork, poultry, or seafood. In the United States, some people don’t know much about vegetarianism, but for the most part, it’s usually understood that some people choose to cut out varying levels of animal products from their diets for a variety of personal motivations. However, this concept is much, much less common here. While I have always known it was a privilege to have the financial means to healthily maintain a vegetarian diet, I did not truly appreciate how easy it is to be vegetarian in the US. Non-meat protein sources are readily available in restaurants and grocery stores. Products such as tofu, veggie burgers, etc. are expensive, but relatively easy to find. Most restaurants have at least one vegetarian option on the menu. When you explain to someone that you are a vegetarian, they might not necessarily agree with your motivations or have any interest in becoming one themselves, but they at least have heard of vegetarianism as a common practice.
Here in Dakar, I have tried fish a few times, but have been able to stay predominantly vegetarian thus so far, largely thanks to the kindness and flexibility of my host family, who have been willing to put up with my bizarre food requests. However, the idea of willingly cutting out meat or seafood from my diet is extremely strange to most of the people I have encountered here because these foods are central aspects of Senegalese cuisine. This importance translates into a lack of vegetarian options at restaurants, grocery stores, etc. While I am complaining now, I know that I have it relatively easy in Dakar. I am nervous, but unsure how this dynamic will play out when I arrive in a more rural context.
2. Consistently functioning and potable water at home
I have always known that the United States is wealthier than many other countries in the world and that having clean drinking water from the tap (or even a tap) is a privilege, but I did not truly understand what that meant before I arrived here. The water in Dakar is potable, but many people drink bottled water just in case. In fact, I have only recently started to supplement my bottled water with a little bit of tap water to prepare my digestive system for my fieldwork. Even though it is a minor inconvenience, it still makes me appreciate how we rarely think twice about drinking water in the US. Here, the public water supply also goes out periodically, which has been a new experience for me. At some moments, it has been cut in an entire neighborhood for days at a time, while other times it only fails in the upper level of a building for a few hours. Either way, during these periods, water has to be carried upstairs for the bathroom, cooking, and bucket showers. These situations remind me of how fortunate we are in the US where almost everyone (but not all) has access to unlimited, potable water at all times.
3. Living in a non-cash based economy without bargaining
While the American economy still uses cash, most people tend to use credit or debit cards for the majority of their transactions. As a result, we don’t need to worry about planning ahead if we want to buy something. At home, I rarely have to stress out about if I’ll be able to pay for something, because most places accept cards without question. In contrast, daily exchanges here in Senegal are done 99% of the time with cash. Furthermore, businesses or restaurants often don’t have change to break large bills. This results in frequent strategizing on how to break a 10,000 bill at places we know will have change available. If these plans don’t work, a friend will have to pay for you or you will just have to wait while the vendor asks for change from a colleague, neighbor, or another customer.
Furthermore, I never reflected upon how rigid Americans are when it comes to set prices. Every time you want to purchase a good or a service in the US, the price or fee is clearly marked and the customer knows how much they will be paying from the onset. I rarely reflected upon the fact that this is not a universal characteristic across the world. In Senegal, prices are not necessarily displayed, even in situations when bargaining is not expected. In some contexts, such as with taxis, the consumer needs to enter a transaction prepared to negotiate to their price, while other vendors, such as boutiques, have set prices (even if there is no displayed signage). This system requires the consumer to know when to bargain and when not to, which feels extremely strange for people who have been conditioned by systems like the American one. Most people that I’ve met who are accustomed to such an environment felt (or still feel) uncomfortable when they first entered the Senegalese economy. At the beginning, I was terrified to buy anything because I didn’t know how to navigate these different contextes, but I feel much more at ease after two months.
4. Street addresses
In the US, buildings are numbered and streets are always named, so it is relatively easy to use a physical or electronic map to navigate from point A to point B. At home, I usually use the step by step Google Maps instructions on my phone to find my way around. Even if I don’t know where something is, I can use the street address to find it eventually.
To put it simply, in Senegal, this is not the case. Most streets are named, but the name that everyone uses might differ from the official name found on the street sign or a map. Similarly, most buildings do have numbers, but they aren’t necessarily standardized, displayed, or used to situate a location in the same way they are in the US. So instead of relying on the address, you have to situate a location within the neighborhood/district and then in relation to other things.For example, the directions that I give a taxi to get to my host family’s house are wildly different than their mailing address. This system creates a different conception of space, because you have to pay attention more closely to major landmarks than to memorizing a specific number or name. During her visit, Liana mentioned that she was planning on sending a postcard to a friend in Marseille. I was confused and asked how she knew the address. She replied that she had been to his apartment before, so she knew where it was. It genuinely took me a moment to realize that I was thinking about it in terms of a Senegalese conception of space and that I had forgotten that going to a place multiple times could signify that one knew a street address.
The US is known for being a society that values individualism, especially in comparison to a more communal culture like Senegal. When you’re in the US, it’s difficult to conceptualize what that means, because you’re so used to the way our society treats individual actions, rights, property, and personal space. Thus, while it’s easy to learn theories that compare different cultures while sitting in a classroom, it’s much different to see the ways that these values manifest themselves in practice.
One interesting and unique example that I never would have considered is public transportation. In the US, bus fares are paid at the front entrance of the vehicle right next to the driver and the passenger is forbidden from entering until they have paid the full price. Each individual pays their own fee, generally with exact change or with a pass/card. In Senegal (at least in Dakar), passengers almost always enter the bus through the back entrance and pay the receveur, a second employee who signals the stops to the driver and handles payment. Each fare is slightly different depending on the distance traveled, so it is the passenger’s responsibility to state their destination when paying. When the bus gets extremely crowded, passengers pass their cash and tell their destination from one person to the next until the payment and information reach the receveur. The ticket and change are then passed back to the passenger without a problem. This process is completely based on the honor system, relying both on the passenger to pay with minimal enforcement and on the rest of the crowd to safely return the change. Even when the buses become extremely crazy, everyone respects one another and the whole thing operates without a problem. From an outside perspective, I do not think this system would work in an individualized society like the US.
That’s all I have for today, thanks for reading such a long post and have a great end to 2016! Gros bisous to all!