Hi all and greetings from Dakar! I have settled back into a routine in the big city and have been trying to focus on my project and get a lot of work done before my family’s upcoming arrival!!
Things have been pretty mundane around here, particularly after all of the exploration and adventure of my time out east. I’ve mostly been working on organizing my recorded and written data and consulting with my advisors at UCAD to figure out what I’m going to do with all of the information. As a result, I’ve been dividing my time among a few of my favorite cafes around the city with decent wifi, AC, and close approximations of American coffee. I’ve also been reunited with Dakar’s public transportation, which is truly an experience. Public transit here comes in various forms and I am now pretty used to the process, but it was definitely a huge shock when I first arrived. I’ve discussed taking the bus in previous posts, but I thought I would elaborate a little bit here.
In Dakar, there are two types of government-owned bus: the Dakar Dem Dikk (“Dakar come and go” in Wolof) – the largest newest fleet of buses that resemble buses in the US or Europe and run somewhat infrequently depending on the line, and the Tata – smaller buses of various sizes that run more frequently. For both of these types of buses, there are set routes and stops marked by signposts, but no set schedule, so one essentially has to just go to the stop, wait, and hope a bus will show up eventually.
Once it finally arrives, passengers generally enter in the back door and pay the receveur, an employee sitting in a chair near the rear entrance. The receveur charges based on the zone traveled (an entirely oral exchange) and gives passengers a paper ticket. If the bus is very crowded, passengers pass their money and say their destination amongst one another to the receveur and then the ticket and change are passed back. It’s definitely an honor system, but I’ve never seen any conflict about stolen money or people trying to sneak on without paying. On a Dem Dikk, there is a button to request a stop, but on a Tata, passengers have to ask the receveur to signal the stop to the driver, usually by dinging a bell or hitting the ceiling or sides of the vehicle.
There are several non-state options for transit around Dakar that resemble more closely the mini-cars, bus-taxis, or sept-places I took while living in rural Senegal. The principal two types are car rapides and Ndiaga Ndiayes. These cars basically function the same way, but differ in appearance and size (small brightly painted cars vs. large white vans). These private options do travel set routes but have no formal stops, so passengers basically just have to be in the know about the routes. As with the public options, passengers pay distance-based fares to an apprenti, who spends most of the time hanging off the open back-door of the vehicle trying to attract other customers or just enjoying the ride. There’s no tickets involved and they’ll stop wherever the passenger wants to get off, although they also tend to stop near major stops of the public buses. What you lose in formal organization, you gain in price and speed, as their routes are generally more direct, their fares are cheaper, and the cars come more frequently. I was too intimidated by their informal nature to regularly take car rapides or Ndiaga Ndiayes before leaving for my fieldwork, However, since my return to Dakar, I’ve basically gotten over that fear and started using them more often (mostly for the sake of convenience).
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been staying with an American embassy family who has been immensely kind and welcoming to me (a reoccurring theme throughout my entire time in Senegal). I have really enjoyed playing with their dog and taking her on walks up to the top of the lighthouse hill, which overlooks a spectacular view of the city and the ocean. I also had dinner with my host family from the fall and as life-long big city dwellers, they were wowed by all my adventures out east. I had to laugh when my host mom mentioned that she had recently visited a village a few hours away with some American study abroad students and she admitted that she spent most of the time looking forward to returning the amenities of Dakar.
When not working on my project, I’ve been able to take advantage of some of these excellent luxuries that Dakar has to offer. I’ve definitely gained a new appreciation for simple activities like cooking my own meals, visiting establishments with air conditioning, and playing frisbee bi-weekly. Culinary highlights include cooking fresh tofu at home, making smoothies, and devouring Indian take-out. My current neighborhood is a brief stroll over to one of the most beautiful public beaches I’ve seen here and weekly swims in the ocean have been a welcome addition to my weekends. My friend and I also hit up one of Dakar’s major markets, the fabric market known as HLM.
For those who don’t know, Ramadan is just about halfway over and I’ve been pretty surprised how minimally it’s impacted daily life. For practicing Muslims, Ramadan is a month-long holiday of total abstention from eating or drinking (including water!) from sun-up to sundown (which is from about 6:30am to 7:30pm here). It’s considered a very holy month and an opportunity to devote oneself to religious practice and general good deeds. I have a little bit of Ramadan experience, as I did all of my MAP interviews with Muslim respondents in Paris during Ramadan 2015, but this is my first time living in a majority Muslim country during the holiday. I assumed that many things would come to a halt during this period but besides people looking a little more tired while hanging around outside and the occasional restaurant being closed for lunch, things have pretty much continued as usual. I have been extremely impressed with everyone’s composure and ability to go about their normal routines without visible distress (as I guzzle an entire water bottle after spending no more than 30 minutes outside).
Beyond the current holiday, the past seven and a half months living in a majority Muslim country have been extremely fascinating, and sometimes difficult, for me. Although both of my parents grew up Catholic, I am not a follower or believer of any organized religion. For me, most of the challenges here have arisen from living in an overtly religious country in general, not necessarily because its an Islamic society. Although many people in the United States are religious, no one in my immediate family or friend group really is. As a result, living with and amongst people who frequently practice such a visible belief system has been very new to me. Particularly because Islam manifests itself in such public ways including the call to prayer, five daily prayers, frequency of mosques, polygamy, and more conservative dress for both genders, there’s no escaping religion in daily life. Obviously, the degree of religiosity is much different in Dakar than it is in a rural village, but religion (and generally Islam) is definitely present everywhere in Senegal. At times, it has been difficult for me, as a non-believer, to bite my tongue when religion is used to justify structural gender injustices in society (a phenomenon that is not unique to Islam, Senegal, or the developing world by any means) or when several of my fieldwork sites had no high school, but at least three (and often more) enormous and well-maintained mosques. At the same time, I’m very glad I’ve been able to live somewhere like Senegal, which is extremely tolerant and open in its religious practices. I’ve been lucky to learn so much about a different worldview and how a particular belief system shapes a way of life in many places around the world.
All in all, things are going well with me and I am freaking out to see my parents and Marla on Monday! This is the longest I’ve ever lived outside the US or gone without seeing my immediate family and it will be the first time since Marla left for college last summer that all four of us have been together. Stay tuned for the next blog post which will definitely have lots of photos and updates about our travels all around Senegal! Sending love to everyone and thanks as always for reading!