Hello everyone and greetings from Dakar! I just got back into town a few days ago and am still readjusting to the sights and sounds of the big city. I cannot believe that my fieldwork experience is over and it definitely feels surreal to be back. After a great long weekend here in Dakar for the ultimate frisbee tournament at the end of April, I headed back out to the Fouta for my fourth and final site, Doumga Rindiao. The 10-12 hour drive each way was definitely brutal and I am so glad I don’t have to do that again anytime soon.
Doumga Rindiao is a Pulaar-speaking village located about 30km north of Ourossogui and about 10km past Ndouloumadji Dembe, my previous site. Doumga Rindiao is situated directly on the national highway, making it easily accessible to public transportation. With about 4500 residents, this village was smaller and slightly less affluent than my previous site. There was also a more diverse range of migrant destinations here, with a variety of West and Central African countries appearing alongside France, Spain, Italy, and the United States. I stayed with the family of one of my contacts here in Dakar and the approximately fifteen members of the household lived in a compound of three buildings surrounding a central courtyard. I stayed in the building with one of my contact’s wives, their two young sons aged seven and four, and his 80-something mother. Her presence sparked some interesting conversations about aging and the differences between Senegalese and American methods of care for elderly family members.
The boys, as well as the rest of the children in the house, were adorable but extremely rambunctious. Unlike in previous homestays, all of kids were immediately intrigued by my presence and weren’t shy at all. My Pulaar has improved infinitesimally, so I was glad to able to communicate with them on a basic level. In particular, they were very excited about my personal belongings and loved to come into my room to examine everything. They were fascinated by the fact that my flashlight is not handheld but is worn on the head, by all of my different types of “soap” for my hair, teeth, face, and body, and most of all by all of my electronics.
This interest in my material belongings was often frustrating, particularly when I was trying to get work done or read a book on my Kindle without a bunch of elementary schoolers and toddlers climbing all over me. At the same time, their fascination forced me to confront my relative material and financial privilege, as I often have over the past several months. It’s quite understandable that these kids would be interested in seeing everything, because many of my belongings were new for them. For example, while only one person in this household had a smartphone and nobody had a tablet or a computer, I have all three.
I was also frequently reminded of my relative wealth by adults, because (in my experience) Senegalese people do not consider it rude to directly ask someone else for money or to buy them something. In the United States, it is not socially acceptable to walk into a store, see a stranger or acquaintance one perceives as rich, and publicly demand money from them. However, Senegalese people don’t hesitate to do so in tones ranging from obviously joking to completely serious. I often don’t know how to respond in this scenario, partially because I have been socialized to consider such a request extremely rude, but also because as a recent college graduate with a loan to repay and no long-term salaried job, I don’t feel particularly affluent by American standards. At the same time, I know I am individually more wealthy than almost everyone I have met in rural Senegal. This fact has made me feel uncomfortable on numerous occasions during conversations with my host families or other individuals, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge these realities and interrogate why the world is the way it is today.
Beyond just discussing money, I have observed over the past several months that Senegalese people tend to be much more direct than Americans. There are no qualms about differentiating between, addressing, or mentioning people based on physical characteristics ranging from weight, height, skin color, or relative attractiveness. For example, in my host family in Doumga Rindiao, there were two women named Ramata. When I was still learning everyone’s names, the two Ramatas were differentiated to me within both of their earshot as “the short Ramata with all of the kids” and “the taller fatter Ramata.” I once mentioned that one of the little girls in the house was cute and the response was, “Yeah, but don’t you think her older sister is actually cuter?” Another time, I showed everyone a picture of me and my family taken right before I left to come to Senegal and got the comment, “Oh interesting you look skinnier now. Too bad, you looked better in this picture.” These types of comments would be considered very rude in the United States and probably would never be said directly to someone’s face. On the other hand, in Senegal, people observe characteristics in others and believe them to be true, so they see no reason not to broadcast them to the general group. Needless to say, it’s taken me a little while to get used to.
Apart from the daily work on my interviews and plenty of laying around to avoid the heat, I had a chance to take a couple of side trips. For some of these voyages, we took public transportation, but a couple of them took place by charrette. I’ve now decided that while I’m still terrified of falling off when traversing bumps and potholes in the dirt road, horse-drawn carts are actually not a bad way to travel. While in pursuit of fresh produce, I visited the communal seat of Bokidiawé and returned to Nabadji Civol for its weekly market.
My host family also took me to visit the 350 hectare rice fields set up as a development project by the Senegalese state as a part of its afore-mentioned plan to decrease dependance on rice imports. Each family in Doumga Rindiao and the neighboring village of Mbakhna received a plot of rice whose size varied depending the family’s standing in the community and their capacity to actually exploit the land. It was shocking to see such a huge expanse of green surrounded by brown, arid earth and I was extremely impressed with the large electric water pump that irrigated everything. It was the first example I’d seen of mass-scale agriculture since being in eastern Senegal and while the state definitely used tractors and other machinery to set everything up, all of the day-to-day maintenance of the fields is still done by hand. This project is seen as a great employment opportunity in the village and has allowed families to stockpile their own rice, saving the hefty expense of buying it.
I also had the opportunity to sit in on a few of Doumga Rindiao’s community meetings, including the monthly meeting of the village’s development association, which is something I’ve wanted to do during my entire time in the field. Many villages, including Doumga Rindiao, not only have development associations comprised of migrants living abroad, but also have a domestic branch. It was interesting to see a sizable chunk of the village amassed to hear the monthly updates, even though nothing major other than a cabinet change ended up being discussed. I also observed an all-village women’s meeting about corruption problems in the mayor’s office and attended the weekly women’s micro-savings association meetings with my hostess.
It was so empowering to see the women participating in political conversations and collaborating on small-scale economic activities, particularly in a region that subscribes so strictly to gender roles. This homestay was the first time since my first village that an adult woman in the house spoke fluent French and we were able to have some really open conversations about domestic violence, premarital sex, women’s clothing requirements, and the gendered division of household responsibilities. As an essentially single mother whose husband lives in Dakar almost full-time, I think my hostess appreciated accompanying me on our trips outside of Doumga and helping me with some of my interviews, because it gave her an outlet to get out of the house and mix up her routine of childcare and other domestic tasks.
At the end of my three weeks in Doumga Rindiao, I packed up everything for the last time and headed back to Dakar for good. As it has been each time, it was quite sad to say goodbye to the family after spending so long in their home. I still can’t quite believe that after 4ish months, my time in the Senegal River Valley has concluded. During this period, I have had so many new experiences that I never would have imagined before. I have spoken very minimal Wolof, very minimal Soninké, and slightly more than minimal Pulaar. I have taken myriad forms of transportation, ranging from taxi brousses, mini-cars, and sept places (including one that turned into a neuf place) to motos and horse-drawn carts. I have fended off umpteen marriage proposals and reiterated numerous times why I don’t have any children yet. I have sweated more than I have ever sweated in my life during the day and shivered while sleeping outside at night. I have distressed five host families with my vegetarianism and introduced them to the concept of peanut butter on bread. I have touched Malian and Mauritanian soil. I have squatted over more types of toilets than I knew existed. I have laughed at ridiculously adorable children and at the antics of livestock wandering through people’s homes. I have cried as a result of loneliness, food poisoning, and the patriarchy. I have conducted more than 100 interviews and learned so much about migrant-led development, the Senegalese state, the joys of working through translators, and my own privilege as a white woman born in a country like the United States.
In sum, these last couple of months have been the most challenging, humbling, and enriching of my life. I am so glad to have to lived them and I am also pretty glad that they’re over. I am also beyond grateful to everyone who offered their practical, emotional, and professional support. I’ll be spending the last two months or so of my grant working to analyze my data and come to some conclusions about my findings. I’m looking forward to finish everything up, while taking advantage of the beautiful weather and diverse food options that Dakar has to offer. My family is also coming to visit me in a few weeks and I am beyond excited to see them!!
If you’re interested in seeing even more photos of my time in Tamba and Matam, feel free to check out my previous couple of blog posts, because I’ve updated them with pictures! Thanks again to everyone that’s been following along with my blog and Instagram posts, I really really appreciate all of your positive feedback and am sending love your way!