Today, as an exciting and somewhat frightening addition to the variety of health precautions we've been inundated with, we had a Peace Corps therapist come in and talk about the state of our mental health "abroad". This was in English, so I couldn't even blame the language for my lack of comprehension. Could Africa really break me to the point of a psychotic episode? The answer is yes, but probably not. The presentation itself was more about how to handle stress in a culture so very much unlike your own--one that we've just barely gotten a taste of but is still obviously worlds apart from the United States. I've been making a list of things to tell my therapist for the last six months but clearly that list is expanding rapidly. My biggest fear? Beyond an inability to communicate, difficulties with health and food, and offending someone deeply by improperly using my left hand, is feeling smothered. Alone time in Senegalese culture simply doesn't exist as a part of a daily routine, unless you're sick or you hate them. This is going to be an experiment in very social living, and maybe having someone tell me up front that it's going to be difficult to lose all sense of personal space will ultimately lead to a better outlook and experience, I don't know. I think it probably will, but I plan on finding out for sure.
Today I met my host brother, Dogo, who immediately caught the attention of every girl in the building except myself--I was too busy sweating and being nervous to evaluate any sort of attractiveness at all. I will admit, however, that I did notice that he was dressed to the nines and I just was not competing--I'm operating on the assumption that everyone would be wearing tunics and looking like they stepped out of the Sahara's version of Little House on the Prairie, but he came in dressed like a Senegalese version of Bradley Cooper. The instant I meet him, I tell him that my French is terrible, which is true. And he smiles and goes, "Well I speak English. But you're going to learn French and Wolof, so we're only speaking French." But he was patient and kind and didn't make fun of me even when I told him I was terrible at math, and he thought I said months, and then when he realized I said math, he told me to count to 10, and I did--except I skipped 7. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He and the rest of my host family, an uncle, mother, two sisters and a nephew, will come pick me up on Friday afternoon and take me home with them.
I'm having a hard time envisioning a "home", mostly because we're staying in a Western-ish style hotel on one of the biggest interstate type roads they have, so I haven't gotten a good feel for a Dakar neighborhood yet--except for a few roads away from the SIT building, our home base. Most of Dakar is currently under construction, every businessman in Africa appears to be picking up shop and moving to the city because of the instability in other regions, so they're experiencing an unprecedented building boom. Our building is a product of this boom; we're on the fourth floor of a glass and steel building that doesn't have any other floors finished. But the offices and classrooms are light and airy, and solid walls are few and far between--everything is glass and windows. And there's rooftop access, which is gorgeous. You can see all the way from the ocean to the airport, a significant chunk of the city. The building is surprisingly modern, especially in comparison to the surrounding neighborhoods. There are other business buildings, and a business school, but we had an assignment yesterday, on our first day of class, to go out and talk to people about an object the instructors had given us. Most of us had no idea what the objects were or where they came from, so it wasn't difficult to start a conversation--excuse me, but what is this? did pretty well. I had what looked like a bundle of branches, but it turned out they were actually the Senegalese traditional toothbrush, le cur-dent, or en Wolof, sacchu.
We wandered out onto the main road and down a wide, beaten dirt alley-road lined with houses--it was quiet and most had courtyards out in front with huge, flowering gardens. We stopped and talked to a guy sitting on a bench reading the paper and his friend, a day guard for one of the houses. They were exceedingly helpful, as is pretty typical of most Senegalese people, but I think they were a little confused too. We told them we were students, and they lightened up--we talked to them for awhile about each of our objects (I found out you can chew the roots of the toothbrush tree, the Tamanawa, or Guro, to calm your stomach), and about when we had gotten there, and the weather, and how much Wolof we knew--which at that point was pretty much nothing. There was a funny yellow dog outside, and a horse and cart. It was peaceful--that's the Dakar I want to get to know better. I'm hoping our homestays will be the key. As long as I can stay out of the psychiatric ward long enough to find out....