Our very first night in Senegal, we participated in an evening prayer, where djembe players led a call and response, and we all danced together, moving and singing to the drums. In Mouit, near the city of St. Louis, a week later, we danced a Sabar, a drum-led dance circle, each of us taking a turn, alone, in the middle. In Dakar we hear a mix of Mbalax, Rihanna, and Akon on car radios. At night, many nights, we sleep to the drums and chanting of religious or celebratory events, like the Ndep ceremony for the protector spirit of Yoff (our neighborhood), Mame Diarra, which has been happening all week. Rhythms are around us constantly—if we wish to describe our experience in Senegal we have to find a way to write about rhythm.
Our broader lives are settling into a rhythm now as well. While the first half of the year may have been defined by all that was new, the second half has been about what’s become standard. We know our families better, and know how we fit into the daily lives of those at home. We know our work, and have a better idea of what we can do there throughout the week. We know Dakar and can get around without getting lost (for the most part). Generally, we now know what to expect—the settling of a daily rhythm has become what is central to our experience in Senegal.
Our lives have come to be defined by rhythm. In our second Update from the Field, we invite you to get a glimpse of how we became woven into the fabric of Dakar’s rhythm.
For the first three months of my Dakar homestay, I woke to the same sound every morning at 5:45 am. It was the sound of birds screaming from the nest right outside my window. Neither the reusable earplugs I was recommended to bring nor yelling, “I’m going to kill you!” ever helped me to escape their insufferable shriek. Thankfully, the birds have finally found a new place to stay, and I now find myself able to sleep until 8:30 when the garbage truck starts blaring its horn to alert the people of Yoff Apecsy that it has arrived, as it always does, at the same time every single day. Ah, the sweet, sweet sounds of the city.
Of course, it’s usually not so bad and, once the trash truck has left to wake other neighborhoods, I find myself enjoying many of the sounds of the city--the call to prayer sending out its daily promptings, or the sound of my yaay (homestay mother) singing along to the laundry soap commercials. When I arrived in Senegal, everything was new and exciting, even to an extent, those villainous birds. I took pictures of every donkey I saw, until I had about 30 pictures of donkeys littering my phone. I walked down the street and was surprised and curious about so much. I was bewildered by the women hacking apart giant fish on the side of the road, and the sound of sheep baaing at me on the roof of my apartment building while I put my freshly washed clothes on the line to dry. That is not the case anymore.
Once the initial wonder stopped, it was much easier to see the rhythm in the sounds and movements of Dakar, the patterns of people moving around the city each day. My family has the same thing for breakfast every morning, I buy my bananas from the same fruit stand each week, and the same people greet me every weekday on my walk to work. I’ve reached a level of comfort and understanding in my surroundings that allows me to recognize all of the patterns, all of the things I was too excited and surprised to notice when I first arrived.
Sadly, for a while, I allowed that comfort to limit my experience of Dakar. It was a few nights before we left for our winter excursion that I realized what I had been doing. I got home a bit after dark (oops, sorry Babs) and realized my laundry was still hanging. After depositing my backpack in my room, I made the additional two-floor ascent to the roof of my building and started taking my clothes down. I was so focused on getting back downstairs and studying that I didn’t really take in my surroundings until all of my clothes were folded and ready to go. I had never been on my roof after nightfall and was unaware of how beautiful it was. I stood there, staring out at the lights, the moon, and the skyline, and I listened to the faint sound of the ocean waves crashing nearby.
This was a divergence from the rhythm I’d become accustomed to. For weeks, I’d done the same things every single night. There had been no surprises. It was the first ‘first’ I’d had in a while, and it opened my eyes to how many things I might be missing because I had stopped looking. Here was a gorgeous view that has been two floors away from me since I arrived, and I was seeing it for the first time! That night as I sat with my family in the living room, talking about the same things as always, I decided it was time to mix things up.
Since that moment on the roof, I have had many new firsts, especially during our time in the South of Senegal, but also here in Dakar. Last week, Sabien showed me a Matcha Cafe that has the BEST cheesecake ever and the next day we all went to see a mosque together that we had been talking about for weeks. The mosque was gorgeous, but I’ve dreamed about that cheesecake often.
There is a rhythm in the sounds and movements of Dakar, and I do love the symmetry and effortless flow, there is no anxiety when you always know what’s coming, but there is too much left to discover to spend all my days doing the same things. I need to break from the routine I’ve become accustomed to, and intentionally seek out and learn as much as I can with the time I have left. I have just passed the half-way point of my time here in Senegal, and I want to fill the second half with as much wonder, excitement, and learning as I can.
Here is one thing you should know about New York City: it is home to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, MTA. Forget the Statue of Liberty or Brooklyn Bridge, every New Yorker has seen this attraction. Growing up in NYC, I memorized my neighborhood stops, discovered the secrets of transferring trains without paying twice, and could recite the announcer voice perfectly. As an MTA child, I thought understanding Dakar public transportation would not be a challenge for me, but I was naive.
When I reached the Roundpoint Yoff station on my first workday, I was full of confusion. There were no crosswalks. Thus, women hiked up their dazzling long outfits and shuffled through traffic across the highway. Vehicles would stop to allow crossings as people climbed over the Jersey barriers of the highway. Buses arrived meters before the station signs and often their back doors stayed open with customers clinging to anything to remain inside. The most bewildering part, no schedules were available to the public. Yet, everyone knew what to do. I asked those at the station about the DemDikk 8 bus and they told me to wait. So, I sat on a concrete step and waited, worrying about being late.
The following few weeks, I waited for thirty minute to an hour. Often, I would chat with other cohort members and buy coffee from NesCafe stands at the station until I was the last one left. I became waiting buddies with a Sengalese woman, Aminata, who would speak about Dakar fashion, attractions, and neighborhoods. All my weeks of waiting, I observed the others at the station. I saw people board white vans, question conductors of blue and white buses, and flag down cars and minivans. Through speaking to Aminata, I learned that I had options through an intricate system of public taxis and minibuses. However, I was afraid to venture into the unknown. Until, one afternoon, an hour and a half long wait took me to my breaking point. I arrived home hungry, hot, and tired, only to see my family already seated around the lunch bowl and eating cheebu djen.
Finally, I needed to step outside my frustrating comfort zone and try other forms of transport, beginning with public taxis. They are cheaper and faster than the DemDikk buses, and transport between 4 and 42 people along specific routes through Dakar’s neighborhoods. The smallest taxi is the “klando,” a car or minivan with the current khalif’s image and fur boas on the windshield. Despite sometimes charging more, they are the most comfortable form of transport. I finally understood why people rushed to these decorated cars for an empty seat and argued about who had been waiting longer. Also, there were white vans, “ndiagandiaye” and blue-yellow vans, “blue-jean klandos” or “karapit.” Young men dressed in skinny jeans and slides would hang from the back door of the van, shouting the final destination: Patte-Dois, Mermus, Grand Yoff, Patte-Dois. People would signal the van to stop anywhere along the route and they, in response, would either slap the van or bang Senegalese currency coins against the van’s door to notify the driver. While I was confused by their way of conducting, they were readily available to help. Sometimes, elderly ladies carried colorful buckets of fruits, bagged juices, or fabrics to sell in the market that the young men put under seats. I have even seen them climb ladders on the side of the van to tie mattresses or baggage on the van’s roof.
Also, more officially, there are the blue and white minibuses. These have stations, seated conductors, and longer routes. As people piled into the bus, if they were too far from the conductor, they would send their money through the crowd. Somehow, their ticket and change always returned to them like a successful bus ticket version of the game telephone. The bus driver would urge people to place their lunch bowls, school bags, and sacks of fabric on the stand next to his seat to make room for others. Kind passengers would offer to hold items for those standing. Older women who did this sometimes would not ask, but take my backpack and rest it on their lap in a motherly fashion. Rarely could one hear the soft ring of the bell rung by the conductor to stop. The more effective way to stop the driver is by yelling, Mayma watch, “Let me off,” loud enough for the bus driver to slow down. Often, my voice does not carry through the crowd and a host of people will cause an uproar for me to exit. This bus of commuters formed a temporary, trusting community. Whether you had stayed for a couple stops or the whole route, everyone seamlessly abided by the shared rules.
Just as how I had to learn the system of the MTA, I found the daily rhythms of another transportation system. This seemingly chaotic system of shouting young men, colorful mini buses, and passing small change through crowds of passengers had rationality and function. Each person found where they fit into this rhythm whether a vehicle stopping for people or a young man hanging from the back of a van. The streets and highways are filled with cars, buses, klandos, moto, and people alike that move in harmony. Now I had to adapt and create my own commuter pattern in the mix.
Over time, I started leaving later in the mornings. I stopped going to the Rondpoint station, but instead to one further up my route. My commute time dramatically decreased as I would take the first minibus, or even a car to Patte Dois. Then, ride a blue-jean or minibus through Grand Yoff to my service site. The young men in the blue-jean vans always beckon to me when it is my stop. As the mornings got cooler, I walked from Patte Dois to work. During my trip, I found a boutique with my favorite wafer snacks. I befriended a lady who sells tasty frozen juices in plastic bags. I started traveling through Dakar with a new confidence, knowing bus routes and neighborhoods. So much so, that I am now able to help someone else find their melody in this polyphonic arrangement.
I sat by a free-styling djembe playerand listened in on what he was doing. He would begin with a rhythm, a repeating pattern. Not something overly simplebut something more playful and alterable, though still easy to hear. But after a while, something would change. Perhaps he would delay the downbeat, force the entire pattern to shift, all of it basically the same but in a different location and thus with a different stress and sway. Then he would change something else. Maybe it was the time signature, give it the feel of a piece in three, make it waltz, and then bring it back. Or not—maybe he would keep it there. So it went. He would turn the rhythm sideways, flip it over, and begin something new (and yet somehow still very much like the original). It was hard to understand. But he was doing… something.
What I liked about his playing is also what makes it hard to describe.
It’s almost like circular doodles on a piece of paper, where each time the pen is close to completing its loop, it verges out onto another circular thing. The paper is filled with wandering spirals and hidden infinity signs. It’s jumbled and confusing, but there is an underlying pattern, which barely exists (the circles never complete themselves), but does, through constant movement and curving shape and change.
Laying down a beat provides the listener a world to be within—only the world which the djembe player creates is constantly changing. A rhythm exists enough for it to be acknowledged. Or really it exists enough for it to be subverted. Or not. Sometimes the player would repeat the rhythm, and then just go on repeating it. The listener expects a change but doesn’t receive one—the subversion is itself subverted—the listener’s expectations are defied and something new and unexpected is done through doing literally nothing new.
I can’t completely hear (or understand or put down) the rhythm not because there isn’t one, but because there’s too much going on at once—there are too many rhythms. These aren’t random jabs at the surface of the djembe, but rather a conscious disassembling and reassembling of something very concrete. Chaos is found constructively—with each improvisation, the player begins with a pattern, and then, like a self-aware art piece gone too deep into itself, the pattern is subverted until something completely new and sometimes strange and different arrives (though it always begins from pattern).
Conspicuous patterning is everywhere in Senegal—the multi-patterned fabrics, the constant repetition of Senegalese meals and foods (every breakfast seller sells the same thing, every household takes from the same rotation of meals), the unending sets of greetings—Senegalese are perhaps obsessed with patterns. Or, more accurately, perhaps Senegalese are obsessed with the acknowledgement of patterns. Everywhere, in all societies, there are standards for what to wear, what to eat, or how to greet people. But these standards usually go unacknowledged—we act out the patterns without acknowledging that they exist (shake someone’s hand without making a big deal out of it). In Senegal the acknowledgement is first—it’s why the repetition is so heavy—we acknowledge the existence of these social customs, but instead of doing away with them (because we need them), we go in the other direction: we take them to the extreme, repeat them constantly, playing and acknowledging and creating and letting anyone participate.
In the West, there’s a sense of creation coming about through individual isolation. Creation is inherent, is unique, and only the special individual possesses it. There are no inherent patterns, no inherent narratives—the artist creates narratives from the infinite chaos of the world (or themselves).
In Senegal it’s the other way around. The djembe player creates something magical and mystical and almost completely undefinable solely through repetition and self-reference. This method of creation, beginning with a shared pattern and moving on from there, serves to democratize the act of creation. Instead of hinging on some unclear idea of individual genius (which in the West, for some reason, mostly old white men seem to possess), creation becomes something which in essence anyone can do. There’s no inner magic—the patterns are there. Learning them, and then playing with them, is all creating is.
Thus, in Senegal so much is the same but so much is different. There are worlds of creativity and expression and differentiation, as people do exactly the same things. Everyone is allowed to participate—though what’s created isn’t necessarily standard. The djembe player began with a pattern—a basic rhythm—and then twisted time. A neighbor makes literally, incontrovertibly, the best beans, anywhere. There are plenty of djembe players, and plenty of breakfast makers. In fact, I’ve begun taking djembe lessons.
Sprinklers water the uncharacteristically green field as I rifle through the school’s dumpster. With the herons and tropic-inspired landscaping, my service site often seems more like an Orlando vacationer’s spot than the Dakar that I’ve grown familiar with thus far. I trudge back to the garden with a wheelbarrow of plastic bottles in tow, humming as a kid-safe version of Adam Levine’s dreamy lyrics float across the lawn.
The social experience at the International School of Dakar (ISD) falls far outside the range of what I otherwise encounter here in Senegal. Inside the school walls, I am launched into a microcosm of the upper-class ‘Western’ world. My students are the children of expatriates, politicians, and the wealthiest of Dakar. They arrive in taxis or personal cars and enter immediately into the concrete, barbed-wire wall that shuts out the rest of Dakar. They follow a strictly timed regimen that continues on unceasingly, separate from the city outside. Students, staff, teachers, and administrators, we are all driven by the minutes on the clock. Like most of the staff, my home life is only loosely dependent on the hour—nonetheless, each morning I quickly fall into this relatively time-obsessed rhythm.
But the rigid schedule at my service site is not the norm. When I first came to Senegal, I was overwhelmed by how fluid time seemed. After four months of living here, I understand it better. My days here are very structured; but the timing of that structure is not precise. Unlike the last few years of my life, I don’t leave for work/class at a specific time. I leave a few minutes after breakfast, which happens when the boutique across the street has received its bread delivery and the water on the stove has boiled and my brothers and I are awake enough to determine how much bread we will be able to consume on this particular morning. The commute to work is fluid: Sometimes the bus comes quickly, sometimes it doesn’t stop, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Occasionally I’ll find a cheap clando (“clandestine,” an unofficial taxi) going to the right place. While I wait, I often think about how wide the experience of time precision is between my home life and my work. I can have a 10:00 - 10:42 class in the morning, and yet have dinner anytime from an hour after sunset to an hour or two before midnight.
My days here are parallels of Dakar’s circadian rhythm--never identical, yet they beat the same way. Even now, it’s hard for me to believe that the program has reached its halfway point--although I suppose that’s true of most years. Days and weeks meld together easily without the onslaught of due dates, projects, and quarter reports than I’m used to.
By Maddie Lausted
Our first night in Yoff, everything seemed shiny and new. After a month long introduction to Senegal’s nature and villages, being in a big city again was a sudden jump into a riot of noise, movement, and color. Babacar, our instructor, pointed out roads and landmarks, but I heard none of it as we passed by groups of women from the Layenne Brotherhood in full-length, structured white dresses swaying and singing. A part of our neighborhood, Yoff Lyonne draws its name from the religious brotherhood headed within its bounds. After stepping into these bounds, cigarettes disappear from corner store “butiks,” and the people we pass by, dressed in their best for Friday prayers, are most often in white the Lyonne favor. When Babacar took us down the final stretch of road on our tour, we passed at one point rows and rows of women with the signature white, some in lace, some in traditional wax fabric, singing beautifully as they clapped, turned, and dipped along with their voices to the beat they made.
Despite the newness of it all, a feeling of comfort to be back in the fast-paced rhythm of a city mixed with the excitement of discovery around every corner, reminded me of my home in Seattle. I had found the true silence at night of the villages we’d stayed in a little eerie, lonely, different from the cars and people I was used to falling asleep to. In Yoff, the singing of the women in white and the Wolof spoken by people in the streets that filtered inside that first night was the welcome I needed to Dakar, my feeling of falling into the rhythms of life around me a comfortable transition to sleep.
After some time in an apartment with the rest of the girls in the group, the sounds of my homestay that first night were different. My family runs a restaurant at night, and the metallic clang of pots and pans, and shouted words below my window in the beginning threw me off, a messy beat I didn’t know how to follow. Sometimes what I hear at night in bed is jumbled by distance or speakers and wakes me up with a jolt and the realization that I’m going to regret the missed hours of sleep when my alarm goes off in the morning.
It’s the same feeling as when I realize I’ve been pronouncing a word incorrectly or I’ve taken the wrong bus to the end of the line while someone waited for me at a stop on the other end. And it’s equally distorted as the communication I patch together in a new situation, with vocabulary skills I don’t know. The longer we’ve spent here, the more cultural revelations have radically changed how I understand the movement and actions of the people around me. It’s learning to speak the language of Dakar, with confusion as I misunderstand or conflate different actions, the same way I spent a week asking to learn how to cook only to be brought a chair each time. This, followed by sudden clarity as I’m revealed essential underlying information...Such as that the words for “to sit” and “to cook” are both a variation of “togg,” my ignorance of this allowing me to regularly explain in all earnestness to homestay families how much I LOVED to sit and would love to learn to sit here in Senegal. These moments fall disproportionately in--because of, and contributing to-- the periods of time when I feel a beat off from Dakar, in my own rhythm that’s just not quite lining up. When you’re learning a language, it comes in big leaps ahead but also every so often a step back, maybe confusion over one tense bleeding into confusion over another. One interaction gone wrong and suddenly the language is unintelligible again, and you’re left doubting who you should be greeting or whether you can get away with eating on the street.
On my walk home through the market a few months ago I had that feeling of being off beat. The movement around me seemed to fast, the questions too intrusive (Do you have a husband?) or spoken in Wolof too quick to catch. And then, as I made my way through stalls selling fabric and produce, through a crowd of people (and occasional massive heron), I heard the drums. A circle of men in colorful checkered clothes, singing songs from the Bifal school of Islam. As my sisters and I picked our way through the crowd towards our house, I slowed down to savor the moment. There was a film of light surrounding the drummers, catching the bright reds, yellows, and greens in their clothes. Even as a toubab (foreigner), I felt like I blended completely with the crowd, everyone drawn in by the beats laid down by the drummers and the sound of voices that rose above them.
That night, the sound of the drums followed me up the blue-and-cream tiled path to my house and up the stairs to my room. I fell asleep still feeling part of the crowd, part of the sounds of Yoff, and of Dakar. Many times in the months since, as I get ready for bed I’ve heard the drums start and remembered the feeling, pictured the scene outside. They remind me that I’m welcomed as part of Yoff more than I could ever ask for, and that every sound that becomes a familiar part of my life is an example of how I’m learning to understand my new home more and more.
And then maybe tomorrow I’ll be off again, forgetting to greet people or using the wrong pronoun set. That’s the pattern, for me on Bridge Year, oscillating between stretches of confusion and miscommunication with the new reality around me and moments of suddenly falling into step and understanding a new saying or norm.
When I’m in that off-feeling place, the night sounds of Dakar let me appreciate my time here and remind me of what I’ve learned. One sound in particular has welcomed us from the very beginning. Playing five times a day, the first of which is just before sunrise, the call to prayer is the metronome behind the daily sounds of the city from morning to night. Waking up to it I know instantly I have more time to sleep, but stay awake long enough for it’s familiar sounds to play out. Falling asleep to Bifal singing, and waking to the call to prayer, I’m for at least a time part of the rhythm of Dakar, whatever the day will bring.
I hop onto the dance floor, but it feels like I’m the only one dancing. It’s because I actually am the only one dancing. As a circle of still yet watchful eyes forms around me, the skepticism that I had entering the party begins to turn into disappointment.
When I first heard of the party, I did not know what to expect. It was set to start at 10 PM in the schoolhouse and there was an entry fee of 300 CFA, the same price as a can of Sprite in Dakar. We were in Temanto, a rural Pulaar village located in southern Senegal, where our instructor Samba grew up. For the first half of our winter excursion, we participated in a weeklong homestay with the families of the village. I had an amazing experience, but the observations I made whilst spending relaxed days with my family did not lead me to believe that the people of Temanto were “party people.” I thought that the party would be a flop. Which it was at first, but then the track switched.
There was a brief pause as the DJ chose the next song. An unfamiliar rhythm accompanied by lyrics in an unfamiliar language began to play. I could only make out the word pinda, the Pulaar word for morning. The crowd awakened. People were cheering and starting to dance. Shocked and a little excited, I stood still for a moment. A young guy leapt into the dance circle and called me out with an “Aay!” He began knee dancing as he looked me in the eyes. I looked right back into his eyes and matched his movements: feet together, knees bent, opening and closing my legs to the rhythm. When he raised his left arm, I would mirror him. When he put a hand on his head, so would I. All while maintaining the synchronized knee dance. I started to get low and he followed me down. My quadriceps were burning and I’m sure his were too because we mutually decided to rise up soon afterward. He returned to the dance circle. I tried to join him for a rest, but another guy jumped out and shouted at me. Of course, I answered the call and every subsequent invitation to dance.
During my everyday life in Dakar, I also find myself being called out all of the time. When I pay Boubacar’s boutique a visit for a snack, we follow the rhythm of a vendor and customer. When I step into the shop, he calls me out with an “A Salaam Maleekum,” I respond with a “Maleekum Salaam,” a rapport of greetings is initiated, I request some bread with chocolate as per usual, he prepares it, and I hand him 200 CFA. When I take the bus number four to work, there is another defined rhythm that I follow. Wherever I go, there is a different rhythm and the people I interact with know it well. When I first came to Dakar, all of the different rhythms were unfamiliar and I relied heavily on observing and mimicking to dance with those around me. Over time, I’ve been able to learn a few well. When I pay Boubacar’s boutique a visit for a snack, we are comfortable enough with the rhythm and each other to play with it. During our interaction, he might teach me a new greeting and I’ll teach him a phrase in English. He might greet me as toubab bu ñaw, “the ugly Westerner,” so I’ll greet him back as jaaykat bu ñaw, “the ugly shopkeeper.” We can have fun interacting with each other.
Learning the different rhythms that exist within Dakar, or any other place, is crucial to building relationships with its inhabitants and its communities. There is oftentimes a very defined and distinct way that people behave and expect others to behave based on the context. Whether or not you meet these expectations will impact your interactions. Here in Senegal, I’m a foreigner, so I really stand out on the “dance floor.” If I know the rhythm well, I can follow it and be welcomed into the crowd or I can choose to deviate from it in a way that creates space for special interactions. Wherever you find yourself, I encourage you to learn the rhythm that’s playing, so that you can make the conscious choice of following or not following it. However, be aware that if you try to deviate from the rhythm, you may end up as the only one dancing as everyone else forms a circle around you and stares.
Bëgg nga fecc? “Do you like to dance?” was one of the first questions posed to me by my homestay family in Dakar. I gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, eager to bond with my family through music.
Whenever I listen to music, I tend to focus on the lyrics first, the poetry and emotions conveyed through words which really speak to me. I know the lead singers’ names in all of my favorite bands and other famous bands too. But how often do I notice the beats, instruments, and patterns that the poetry relies on as well? Do I even recognize the other band members? Singers are always at the forefront, but often these other members go unnoticed. Likewise, the first thing I did when my sister started playing Bass Thioung’s Niamakh Niamakhi was try and decipher the words. But I understood nothing. The foreign Wolof terms went in one ear and out the next. As my sister grabbed my hand, however, and pulled me up to dance with her, I realized the words weren’t important, but rather the rhythm. Agile steps, hops, and hand gestures accompanied the tag-taggle-tak of the drums. And then my favorite part— the WOOOOAAAHHH— caused my sister to put her hands on her head and shimmy to the floor, followed by a backwards hop to the drums. I watched in awe, trying to mimic her skill. As I let the beat take me, I started to catch on, and as I laughed with my family I noticed my sisters face— pure joy. She appeared to be dancing for a crowd of thousands of people, a celebrity dancing for her fans as if it was her destiny, on a stage as confident as can be. She knew all the patterns in the song— when to tel sa yere, “move your shirt,” when to jump— as if she had done it a hundred times before. But she still found joy in the patterns. I soon realized the words didn’t matter as much and got swept into the rhythms. My feet started to tap in time with the drums and I learned the art of the shirt twist.
Similarly, the activities in Senegal that might sound most impressive and stand at the forefront (similar to the songs lyrics) such as learning French and Wolof, talking with intellectuals, meeting the leaders of federations, and visiting renowned museums, are all amazing but still not the richest part of my experience. Rather the day-to-day immersions and patterns —conversations and greetings with people I meet, places I see, and problems I overcome— provide insights to everyday beauties, teaching me more about the Senegalese culture, more about myself, and the importance of noticing and embracing the routine.
As I bend down to adjust my sandal straps each morning, I often notice a path of ants crawling along the sidewalk. Their only purpose is to make it from point “A” to point “B” but do they ever notice the clear blue sky overhead or stop to savor and taste the crumbs they carry with them? Do they acknowledge their companions? I have this option to notice too. As I go along my everyday path to my service site, my own crack in the cement, I pass a small, colorfully painted barbershop. Each morning the owner stops what he is doing to greet his friends that come by with such passion, energy, joy, and genuine concern for the person in front of him. Whenever he sees me from all the way across the street he shouts my name and wants to exchange English and Wolof lessons. He even took time out of his work day to play me some songs on his guitar. Similarly, on my walk to school, the woman selling fish, vegetables, and other food outside of her home acknowledges me each morning with extended greetings, diverting my attention from the monotonous rise and fall of sand from my sandal’s kick. Her bright smile and laugh are contagious. I carry them with me as I pass my favorite family of young girls. They excitedly yell out my name, call the rest of their siblings out to greet me, and, giggling, show me new dance moves they insist I mimic. Each day they are playing a new game, but stop to shake my hand and smiles spread across their faces when they see me. Across the street, I shake hands with sama xarit, “my friend,” who is selling vegetables as well. We compliment each other’s outfits, we talk about our favorite foods, and say we missed each other during our two week hiatus while I was on winter excursion. Once again, I am struck by her stopping what she is doing just to greet me each day and wish me peace for the rest of my day. As I continue my walk to class, I pass a group of young boys who chant “Mane, Mane, Mane!” whenever I walk by because I often wear the famous Senegalese footballer’s jersey, and will pass me the soccer ball. Taxi drivers insist on teaching us Wolof in short rides, and I will come home to guests who are eager to teach me phrases. One time a friend of my homestay family came over and helped me with my homework and taught me the Wolof proverb Ndank ndank mooy japp golo ci naay —“slowly, slowly you can touch the monkey in the bush.” These genuine, selfless interactions have taught me more than any class could.
I even learn from the struggles (although I would never admit it in the moment.) One night as homesickness descended upon me like the encroaching darkness, I watched a beetle repeatedly, involuntarily flip onto its back, the world seeming too heavy of a burden. But each time it got back up. And I realized amid the pattern of problems or monotony, I too can flip. Some days I sit on a rock for an hour and a half waiting for my bus and then stand for just as long inside of it. But I learn to be patient. I take in my surroundings and notice an old man playing with a child and the tired mom smiling at this act of kindness. There are always strangers making sure other passengers get the correct ticket. I start to pick up more useful phrases. At home, I navigate the fine line between selfless sharing and the need for assertion with my homestay siblings, amid frustrations. Even moments of intense gastrointestinal sickness bring out concern and kindness from others.
These are all found amid my everyday routine and would be so easy to miss. But like the proverb, it’s important to slow things down. Only once you dive into the pattern, make it your own and live in the moment, can you touch the metaphorical monkey. By creeping slowly along and taking in the little details, eventually you will fulfill your goal in the process. My independent enrichment activity art mentor told me, “We are not horses (or ants). When we stop listening, noise becomes sound.” There’s a beautiful rhythm and music in the everyday, but I just have to listen.
I have loved to eat for a very long time, and food has played a role in most interactions I have with people and places. The memories I have of people and places are mostly connected to what I ate while I was with them. At home, I sometimes would plan days based on what I was eating and where. Here in Dakar, I have fallen into a similar pattern, with the rhythm of my days being built around the times and ways in which I lekk.
The day starts with ndekki, or breakfast, usually when I am hurrying off to work I stop at a boutique along the airport road. I get my mburu ak chocopain which is half a baguette loaf with chocolate sauce on the inside. To drink I have cafe touba, a spiced coffee unique to Senegal. The issue is that the cafe touba is usually much too hot to drink when it first comes out of the thermos, luckily for me I have a walk over the pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the highway, where my bus stop is. The breeze over that bridge is usually enough so that when I settle down on the short wall behind the bus shelter the coffee is ready to drink. I sit on that wall and eat breakfast and watch the car move along. Sometimes I see Alison waving at me from a klando, I see the false dawn of a dem dikk bus with seats on it, before realizing that it is out of service. Once I’ve finished the bread and coffee, it usually isn’t long till a 47 or 8 pulls up and I am off to work.
Lunch or an is next, and its size and intensity does depend on the day, however on a regular workday it is a pretty low-key affair. My brother Fallou and I will be in the middle of a very intense game of Ludo, Senegalese Sorry!, when he asks if I have credit on my phone. He calls my yaay who usually instructs him to go and get a plate of ceeb from her sister. Fallou usually finishes our game of Ludo, before running off to get the food. We have our lunch a couple minutes after my yaay returns. She has a couple of bites before hopping on the couch and encouraging me to eat more for the rest of lunch.
The time between lunch and dinner is more flexible, this is the time for snacks, a little improvisation in the rhythm if you will. I have tried to explore many different snacks in my time in Senegal. Abdoulaye, a beignet seller down the beignets usually open at around 5, but the issue is that we have to deal with the mobs of kids leaving school who swarm him. I also like to get a kebab sandwich from a guy down the street from the program house. When I had been going to his place a couple days in a row, and he saw me walking to his stand from a little ways away he began making my favorite sandwich while I was walking toward him. I also love to make a trip to the boutique downstairs for a brioche with chocolate.
Dinner is the biggest meal of the day for me, most of the time it is the only meal I have with my entire family. Around 9 o’clock my family’s favorite soap opera, “Au Coeur de la Ville,” starts; it is also around that time that I begin to get hungry. Dinner usually follows five or so minutes later and we sit down to eat. Whatever we are watching on TV stays on, midweek Premier League or Ligue 1 games, or Novelas or even news on TFM. After dinner, I have a final glass of Lipton tea and go off to bed.
During the day I feel how my day matches the rhythm of so many others in Dakar. Sitting on the concrete slab in the mornings, I see people eating breakfast, people sitting on the benches near cafe touba stands, coming out of boutiques with sandwiches, or just hurrying along the street with hot cups of tea or coffee in hand. As I take the bus home I see young men bring lunch home to their family. They walk down the streets and turn into alleys holding wrapped bowls of ceebujen, mafe, and yassa. As I head out of the program house to look for a snack after language, I see kids getting out of school doing the same thing, getting beignets, Biskrems, and sweets peanuts. Then as it gets dark and I head home for dinner I see the streets clear. I notice the men sitting in tanganas, small restaurant on the side of the road. In the apartment I hear the streets get quieter and I feel at one with Dakar.