Senegal was one of the first countries I learned to identify on a map. My mom always said that it looked like Pacman, engulfing Gambia whole. Our apartment was always filled with art from Senegal, an allusion to my mother’s time in the Peace Corps and a reminder of my own heritage.
I have been thinking about visiting Senegal my entire life, always hoping that there would be something there that would shape me into who I was meant to be. My expectations never dared to manifest into concrete ideas, fearing that once I started day-dreaming, my imagination would take off, leaving me with an imaginary land too far from the truth.
First Days in Dakar
Upon my arrival, I felt and looked like a slightly panicked foreigner. Even a simple “Excusez-moi” revealed who I was—an outsider. The subtle tonalities of the language that I have yet to grasp prompted the person I was addressing to reply in English, “I’m sorry”. As I shuffled my way through the airport, I realized with regret that I had not done any extensive research on the country, and more pressingly, how to leave the airport. After borrowing a phone from a cab driver, I finally got in contact with Cecelia, one of the program directors, and found the APA van that would take us to our hotel. The ride to the hotel was about an hour, and the darkness that night brings made it hard to see anything. But I still squinted through the car window to try and catch a glimpse of the new city I was going to call home for 6 weeks.
In my experience, the first few days in a new country always seem like a blur. It is hard to process the fact that I’m suddenly in an entirely new environment, halfway across the globe. For the first two nights, we stayed at Casa Mara, using our time there to fight off jetlag and getting to know other members of the group. There are 8 of us in total, 4 girls and 4 boys. A few of us knew each other already, as 4 of us are also from Yale. After sharing a couple of meals together, it was quickly evident that becoming friends would be one of the easiest and most natural things.
We tried venturing off to explore the neighborhood a couple of times, but it was clear that our little adventures did not aid our understanding of where we were. We were walking aimlessly, a diverse group of students obviously out of place. We mostly stayed on one road for the fear of getting lost, with echoes of English words bouncing within our little bubble.
However, the walks were the first steps to our familiarization of Dakar. Our feet slowly got used to the feel of sand instead of the hard concrete we were used to at home. We began to understand that the constant honking of cab drivers was an attempt to ask us if we needed a ride. Our eyes hungry for information, we took in the goats standing by the side of road, the occasional horse trotting on the street, the colorful patterns on women’s dresses, and the beauty of the city that revealed itself in the smallest of details.
My last name
My last name is Diop, which also happens to be one of the most common last names in Senegal, equivalent to the American Jackson or Smith. When people find out about my last name, the most common question is whether or not I speak Wolof. When I say no, there is a moment of shock and confusion, “But every Diop has to speak Wolof!” When people say this, I often reflect back on my motivations for learning French and the connection between language and belonging. I wanted to learn French for many reasons: it is the language of diplomacy, it sounds beautiful, and with it I could communicate with francophone populations. However, the most important reason was for me to have a stronger link to Senegal. Yet learning the language of the colonizer only gives me a surface-level connection to the people of Senegal. With French, I could communicate with a large portion of the population, but it does not make me any more Senegalese. This epiphany incentivized me to more seriously consider mastering Wolof as well as French during my time here. While 6 weeks is not nearly enough time to master a language, it is definitely a start.
Start of Classes
In APA, we have a choice of 4 different classes, and each person chooses two to take throughout the week. Except for dancing and drumming, which are held in the Blaise Senghor Cultural Center, all of our classes are held at ISM. Each class is 3 hours long, and there might be days where you don’t have any classes. On Mondays and Fridays Wolof is offered, and on Friday afternoons we have the option of taking either a dance class or a drumming class. Personally, I chose to take the French language class and a literature class that is split between oral and written African literature.
The thing I enjoy most about having classes in French is that my attention is always completely focused on the material. If my mind wanders for just a moment, I risk missing entire chunks of information. While this type of concentration should be the norm in all academic settings, it is unfortunately not the reality that I live in. So apart from learning French, I find that I am appreciating the process of learning itself.
My host family
Everyone in the program was placed in a host family in Point E, where ISM is located. My host family is extremely large, with the Grand-mere as the head of the household. There are kids ranging from the ages of one to nineteen, and adults that come and go. I immediately fell in love with my host family after I was invited to join a birthday celebration during my first night. As I danced alongside members of the family, I felt like I was part of the family already. Everyone continues to be extremely kind and warm-hearted. In conversation with one of Grand-mere’s daughters, she told me that in Senegal, family is everything. If someone is going through a hard time, the family will always come together to support them. It felt so good to be apart of something so beautiful, especially when Grand-mere took me in her arms and told me that I was her granddaughter now, the newest member of the household.
On the first Saturday, we had a group trip to the Dakar Plateau planned. We meet at ISM early in the morning and headed over to downtown Dakar, where a guide met us and showed us several government buildings, a textile market, the oldest cathedral in the city, and the French Institute. The tour was not only informative, but was also our first glimpse into a completely different part of Dakar. The hustle of the city was a contrast to the relatively calm streets of Point E. It was great to get to know the history of the city, and see its many faces.
For the second Saturday, APA planned a trip to Goree Island. To say the visit was emotional is an understatement. Going into the House of Slaves and stepping into the Door of No Return made me reflect not only on the horrors of slavery but also the effect that slavery has on today’s society. All the immeasurable violence, chaos, and loss flashed through my head as I was standing on an island that marked a new era of slavery. I could not even begin to imagine what kind of emotions filled the bodies of the chained slaves as they looked across the ocean. On Goree Island, the architecture also told the history of Senegal’s colonial past. The island was beautiful because the lurking shadows of its history was exposed in the open. After the visit to the island with a guide, we were free to explore by ourselves.
End of First Post!
That will be all for my first blog post! There was so much that happened just within the first two weeks, but I hope I did not ramble on for too long. These were just some of the key points I thought were worth addressing and if I went into all the details I could write a book. But I will definitely spend more time on subjects of interest, such as my host family experience, food in Senegal, and navigating the city in future posts. Until next week!