I can say with great conviction that the last few days have been by far the most turbulent of my life. That's not really saying much, because for the most part it's been smooth sailing in terms of my own personal trials and tribulations, but perhaps part of the difficulty I've been having is because my life at home is shockingly easy. Here's a short list of things I take for granted: Clean water. Salad. Consistent electricity. Indoor plumbing. Air conditioning. Chocolate. Paved roads. Utensils. Soap. Cars. Internet. Anonymity. Crying. Being a part of the majority. Being alone. Not being sweaty. Now don't think this is some "poor-little-white-girl-goes-to-Africa-and-finds-out-her-life-in-America-is-great" story, because although I am white, a girl and I am in Africa, I already knew I was living the dream. And I'm not feeling sorry for myself, mostly because it was my decision to come here and I have a hard time admitting when I have possibly made the wrong choice. But all stubbornness aside, I refuse to believe that coming here was a mistake. Let it be known, before I describe what transpired in the last 72 hours, that I am--more or less, happy. Or I believe I can be, that it's within my reach. I don't regret coming here. I'm hot, I'm sweaty, I'm dirty, I'm exhausted, I'm usually confused and something is currently wreaking havoc on my digestive system, but I'm not having second thoughts.
So, with that said, on Thursday morning I was put into a taxi and dropped off at a historic train station in the middle of Dakar. I wasn't alone, I was with two other students--but they were just as lost as I was. The train station was beautiful, if dilapidated and no longer in service, and it was surrounded by some make-shift stands that people crowded under for the shade. It's blisteringly hot here, like sweat soaking through your clothes hot, and shade is a precious, precious commodity. We talked one guy for awhile, because we had to answer some questions from an assignment sheet they gave us, and he was really helpful and nice. After that, every other person who approached us was either selling something or somehow wanted money. Now, we were prepared for that on some level--our Academic Director did a whole session on the scams that people run to get money and how they'll steal things from you if you're not careful. What we weren't prepared for was how blindingly obvious we were. You just can't hide, there's no blending into the crowd. Wherever you go, you are instantly targeted as a "Toubab", a word derived from the French word for giving out medicine. Toubab! Toubab! follows us everywhere, even into our homestays. White skin in this country is synonymous with money and medicine--toubab.
And the vendors are ferocious hagglers, they start you at least twice what whatever you're trying to buy is worth. Unfortunately for them, I am an expert, if a little psychotic, haggler. Justin, one of the boys in my group, told everyone when we got back what a sight I was to see bartering with the locals. Mostly I think they were afraid of me--I pretty much just pick a price and stick to it, compensating for my poor French by yelling louder than they do. I'm sure I was a sight to see, red-faced and sweating, clutching a water bottle and a thousand CFA for dear life, shouting in a mixture of French and English, with a wild, hunted look in my eyes. That's what the market did to me though, I felt attacked and had to go on the defensive. God help the poor Senegalaise who dare offer me a less than acceptable price.
It didn't help that I had an unfortunate run-in with a squat toilet and an emergency bathroom break at a restaurant early on in our adventure. I had to seriously question my life choices when I was faced with a hole in the ground, total lack of ventilation, no light and a need to pee.
Ultimately we made it out alive, and it was, in some ways, fun. Or I could see how it would be, in the future. Maybe when I'm a little more comfortable feeling like a bulls-eye.
On Friday we went to our homestay families. Dogo came and picked me up and we went to our neighborhood, Mermoz. I met my host Mother, Virginie, who I think thinks I'm a little slow--but at that point, I was so wildly overwhelmed that I was mostly afraid that if I opened my mouth, I would cry. We were told from the get-go, don't cry in front of your family, don't cry in front of your family. Crying in this culture is for when someone dies, so if they see you tear up or outright cry, it's cause for serious alarm. She is, however, nothing if not perfectly accommodating, and eager for me to learn as much as I can while I'm there. The first night, she sat with me and taught me how to count in Wolof, their native tongue. I talked to her as much as I could, given my limited French, and told her about my family and where I'm from in the United States. I met their guard dog, Achill, 80 pounds of pure, pitbull muscle. He lives on the roof. I had dinner around the bowl with them, and they worried because I wasn't eating enough even though I had eaten until I was full. Then they were worried because I wasn't saying enough--silence is a very nuanced thing here, and clearly I haven't figured out all the tricks yet. The language barrier is doubled because I don't speak French that well, but even so, that's all they speak to me--Wolof is what they speak to each other. I'm sure they were talking about me while I sat at the table, but I had no idea what they were saying. I'll learn, in time. But for now, it might as well be Greek. Then in the middle of dinner, the maid (which everyone has, they hire girls from the villages to cook and clean and apparently it's really cheap) led in a large, white goat and tethered him in the house. This was apparently very normal.
The house is set up around a tiled, partially covered courtyard that serves as a central meeting place for the family--on one side is a building with a room for the kitchen, my room, my host sister's room, and the shower and bathroom. On the other side is a double doorway into a large living room, and more bedrooms. At the back is a stairway that goes to the roof. It's actually very comfortable, and I like the set-up a lot, everyone gathers and we eat in the courtyard because it's the coolest place during the day. The other challenging part of the family situation here though is that alone time just doesn't exist. If you aren't sleeping, or sick, then you are out with the family. If you shut the door to your room to read, or write, or whatever, they'll knock and make sure everything is ok. And they'll also think you hate them.
The first night I was discouraged, I'll admit. I was overwhelmed and I was discouraged by my inability to communicate and for the first time, I faltered in the faith that I so far have had in myself. For a brief moment, cultural and language barriers seemed insurmountable. I was hit with wave after wave of crippling self-doubt, a gnawing sense that I might not be able to do this--maybe, in the end, I'm not so tough. Maybe poor little white girls don't belong in places where squat toilets are the norm and hygiene standards are low, at best. Maybe we're better off on tempur-pedic mattresses in rooms without mosquito nets. This feeling followed me all the way to the next morning, through a breakfast brought to me in my room, and onto a tour bus, where I saw the rest of Dakar.
It was on our way home from SIT that day that I was able to straighten myself out. One of the girls that lives in my neighborhood couldn't remember where her house was--we were hopelessly lost and without any minutes left on our phones to call for help. We stopped and asked someone, but he didn't know where Chez Diallo was either. Come with me, he said. I'll get the chief of this neighborhood. Does this sound impossible? It's true--he came back with an old man in tow, the chief. We greet him, and he says, I don't know this address (they're not really a thing here, directions are done by landmarks), but let me call Madame Diallo. He does, and she gives him directions. Ok, the chief says, Pape will take you. And he does, and it works out fine. And we saw adorable twin girls, maybe 2 years old at the most, and they followed us down the street. There's a Senegalese saying: as long as you have a tongue, you will never be lost.
Then I have a hard time remembering where my house is, but luckily I see Dogo in the street. Dogo, I yell, I'm lost! Where's the house? And he laughs and laughs at me, but he brings me back. I talk to Virginie, my host mom, about my day. I take a shower. I learn how to count some more, and how to say, I'm going to school in Wolof. I gave them gifts and they were thrilled. Dogo brought me to visit a friend's house with him, and they were so excited to meet an American--when I ate around the bowl with them, with my hand, they told me I was a good girl. That I was always welcome there. Things started turning around. You were overreacting, I say to myself. Of course this will be fine. Of course. You can do this. And it's true. I'll be fine.
Today I talked to my family for the first time, and I cried and cried. I think missing someone is the strangest emotion--it doesn't make sense. But I think it's more the absence of something so familiar that's the hardest, the worst part. The voices on the other end brought me to the safest, most comfortable place I had been in what has felt like a very long week. Now I'm feeling peaceful. And I reminded myself that I didn't come here to find out who I am, because I know that person and I like her a lot. I came to find out what I'm made of--and I think I'm going to find that it's some pretty tough stuff.
*or Lala, my Senegalese name. I was re-christened yesterday, it's not a big deal.