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I believe He’s watching out as I travel around Senegal

I’m truly overwhelmed.

I keep saying “best meal so far in Senegal”, “nicest person so far in Senegal”, “coolest thing so far in Senegal”, “best day so far in Senegal”, “best week so far in Senegal”. I’m not sure if things truly keep getting better or if it’s just the case that everything is so awesome all the time that everything feels like “the best”, “ever”.

This past week was Spring Break for me, and the week between the two halves of my time abroad, the first half being the classroom phase and the second half being my internship/research phase. It’ll be hard to write a blog post summarizing the week, but I’ll do my best. Sometimes when I have a lot to write about, my tactic is starting at the present and writing about the events in reverse chronological order. This post will be something like that, as I am writing about the trip home from Spring Break, and a rundown of my six days of vacation will come later.

clando: an informal taxi, an unmarked car with a random driver; part of the Senegalese informal sector; not exactly illegal; less expensive, just as safe. My theory is that “clando” comes from the word “clandestine”. (For readers who aren’t great with vocabulary, clandestine is an English word meaning secretive.) However, my other English speaking friends here did not make that assumption and perhaps that’s not the case. (I strongly believe it is).

A week ago my friends and I left Dakar to head to Saly for Spring Break. Saly is a small city south of Dakar on the coast known for its beauty and tourist opportunities. Our plan to get there was this: take a taxi from the mosque in Mermoz to the lot with the sept-places, pronounced “set-PLAAS”, which translates as “seven seats”; take a sept-places from Dakar to Mbour; take a clando from Mbour to the house we were renting in Saly.

It was, as always, easy to hail a taxi in Mermoz where we live. “Hailing a taxi” is an overstatement anyway because when you’re a Toubab (white) walking along the street here, the taxis all hail you (honk, slow down, honk again, stop, honk) and you acknowledge them if there’s mutual desire. We bargained with the driver for the price to the lot with the sept-places, a ten to thirty minute drive. While in the taxi, the driver tried to convince us to let him drive us all the way to Saly, a roughly two hour drive. We insisted that we weren’t interested because the sept-places were so much cheaper. So the bargaining began.

Because locals had told us to expect a price just around 25,000 FCFA, we were happy when we successfully bargained with the taxi driver for a price of 15,000 CFCA ($25). This split between four people wasn’t going to be that much more expensive than paying for the taxi, the sept-places, and the clando. Futhermore, staying in the taxi and not getting out until we were at our vacation home was going to be so much less stressful, albeit not as exciting. So we did it. Although we had some difficulties in Saly finding the exact house, where street names and addresses exist only in theory, all went very well.

Now fast forward a week to this afternoon. Our amazing vacation has ended and our bags are packed. We say good bye to the two people who had become our Salian parents, and the pool boy. We walk towards the busy road where a clando will hail us and we will accept. (Taxis don’t exist in small cities and villages.) We plan to take a clando, then a sept-places, and then a taxi – the reverse of our first plan out of Dakar. However, it was as if God was telling us that we weren’t meant to ride in a sept-places, that we weren’t ready; our plan failed again.

After getting in the clando, it turns out that our driver was on his way to meet a friend. He called him to let him know he was going to be late because he had “clients” he had to take to Mbour, a little bit of a drive. When he has the opportunity to make a couple thousand francs he will. Again, we never made it to the sept-places lot. After only a couple kilometers he flashed his lights and pulled his car off the road. It’s not abnormal for a driver to pull off and buy water or fruit or sandals or anything really. But this time there wasn’t anything to buy. It turns out that he signaled for a taxi to stop. Generally taxis don’t exist in small cities like Saly, but this taxi had just come from Dakar and was dropping a man off.

Our clando driver said “Get out” and we said no, take us to the lot with the sept-places because that’s what we’re paying you to do and who is this random taxi driver eyeing us and we don’t want to take a taxi because they’re expensive and even though we are white we are ready for the adventure of the sept-places. The taxi driver came over to our window and said “Dakar? 20,000.” We told him that we were planning to take the sept-places which was much cheaper. Then he said, “Okay, 1,500.” Time stood still. I looked back at Katherine and Tori and Haley in the back seat with the most confused expression. Katherine told him that we didn’t understand what he said, and he repeated himself. “1,500.” I told the girls, no way. Even if he actually means he wants to do it for 1,500, that’s just too good to be true. We aren’t looking to get trafficked.

Then I understood. The taxi was a Dakar taxi, and the driver lived in Dakar. He had taken a man to Saly. Now he was headed back to Dakar. Taxis don’t belong in Saly and he probably wouldn’t be able to get good business because clandos can drive people around Saly for cheap. Not to mention he probably wanted to get back to Dakar to pray and eat. Our clando driver saw an easy way out of driving us all the way to Mbour (because he wanted to go hang out with his friends), and he thought he could help a Dakar taxi driver make 20,000, or at least something, off Toubabs headed home. The taxi driver knew he probably wouldn’t be able to find Senegalese people to drive to Dakar, because they would most certainly take a sept-places, or even a Tata or another big, cheap bus. But today we Toubabs were Senegalese too, and after insisting that a sept-places was just fine for us, the taxi driver decided to give us a sept-places rate if we would just get in his car and go. It wasn’t too good to be true – the taxi driver was happy with the situation too. Because there were four of us, his car would be at max capacity for his trip back to Dakar, and he would charge a rate slightly higher than he would normally be able to charge – 1,500 per head.

It worked out perfectly for all parties involved. He was charging us each 1,500 FCFA ($2.50) to drive us right to the door of our homes in Mermoz. Considering the length of the drive this was an insanely good deal. He even convinced us to pay to take the toll road which got us, and him too, home in record time. We trusted him more than the average man because he was quite old and wearing a traditional Muslim gown, (regardless if this increased trust is merited or not). He stopped just once to buy raw meat but he put it in the trunk. He was mostly silent, and spoke to me only when he wanted to tell me something interesting about what we were driving past. We tipped him well (in a country where tipping doesn’t really exist), and he gave us his phone number if we wanted to call him in the future. “What’s your name?”, Haley asked. “Saliou”, he said. “How do you spell that?”, Haley replied, fingers ready to type it into her phone. “T-A-X-I”, he said with a smile.

Where travel was likely going to be the most stressful part of my day I actually loved it. Also, I officially love clandos, even though the idea was mysterious and questionable before. In a country where unemployment, idleness, and money insecurity abounds, things like clandos put men to work and money in pockets. I’ve decided that although things seem unorganized and crazy in Senegal, systems exist here just as much as systems exist in the United States. Where formal systems are lacking, informal systems take root. Sometimes the systems in Senegal are less efficient than the ones in the U.S. Other times the systems in Senegal are notably more efficient, and more exciting too.

Learning Wolof, but Arabic first: InchAllah, God willing. (It’s appropriate to use this phrase after any sort of plan, and people use it several times a day. For example, “See you tomorrow, inchallah.” “I’m taking a sept-places, inchallah, (and it turns out God wasn’t willing).” “I’ll post tomorrow about my Spring Break, inchallah.”)

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It’s-almost-March updates!

As an update, things are going really well. Yesterday I did pretty well with talking to my mom after school and even said some complete Wolof sentences at dinner. I took a bucket shower by filling a pail with cold water from the shower head. It was refreshing and reminiscent of Ghana. My mom was confused why I would use a bucket when we have a shower head, if both were going to be the same cold water anyway. I explained to her that with the shower head, it’s much more uncomfortable because the freezing water is hitting you everywhere and you have no control over it or a way to escape it. The bucket method is honestly much more peaceful, gently splashing water where you need it. My mom was cracking up and went to tell the rest of the family how silly I was, but I think she understood.

I have a new brother! I guess he was visiting other family in a village for a month or so, but he’s back now. He lives in the bedroom that has always confused me a little – perfectly nice and set up, but used only to store our clean laundry. My first conversation with him was funny. He walked into the living room and asked me how I was. This is normal. Every day someone I don’t recognize comes into the house and talks with me, usually several people a day. Then he said, “So what’s your name?” and I told him and asked him his. Lam, pronounced like Laahm, not like the animal. I ask if he was Papa’s friend. Papa is one of my brothers and a lot of people come into the house looking for him. No, Lam said, I’m your brother. He’s the nephew of my Mom, so it’s actually not really the exact relationship, but honestly I’m not sure if any of my brothers are actually my mother’s children. It doesn’t have to be that way here. Lam is super nice so far, and speaks some English which is fun. Still I speak to him in French/Wolof.

Yesterday morning on my way to school I was running a little late. I hate making myself rush because then my fast walking causes me to sweat and then I feel gross for a few hours. Also, I don’t like being that one rushed Toubab in a sea of Senegalese who are walking with peace, at one with themselves and the situation, regardless of what time it is. So, despite being late, I tried to stay cool and calm, knowing I’d only be five minutes late and no one would mind. Previously lost in my thoughts, I saw ahead of me a man on a moto who was stopped on the side of the road and looking back at me. Yama! I walked up to him, so happy to see a familiar face, and one that I love at that. We talked a little bit before he said, “Well get on.” Oh my goodness. Of course I wasn’t going to refuse but I was nervous! Yama is definitely not more cautious than the average Senegalese driver. Most of them are a little bit crazy. And as I was getting on I had told him I don’t really do this ever, so I was worried he would try to make it extra exciting for me. Instantly, I felt amazing riding it. It wasn’t really scary at all, and I didn’t even have to hold on to him in order to feel safe even though of course I held on to him anyway. I could have stayed on that bike all day, the warm air in my hair and cuddling up with Yams. And I wasn’t late! I could slowly eat my baguette and cheese breakfast before class. My arm smelled like Yama for the rest of the day which was distracting.

I have a couple random things I keep wanting to talk about but never have. The first thing is peanuts. Just under half of cultivated land is used for peanut production. While driving to Toubacouta, we drove past a literal mountain. Of peanuts. We were far away from it and sadly I don’t have a picture for you right now, but it was crazy. At first we didn’t even believe Waly because there’s no way you could have a mound that big of peanuts. But no, it was true. I don’t exactly know the facts about the history of peanuts in the area, but the assumed history that I treat as fact that I believe I heard from a reliable source is that during colonialism, the French created the Senegalese economy to be focused around peanuts for export. Although Senegal is independent now, the infrastructure and skill set was here to continue growing them. The peanuts here are absolutely amazing! And very cheap. You can get a bag of them for 50 FCFA, ten cents. They sell them in several different varieties, including fresh unsalted, cooked and salted without shell, cooked and salted with the papery brown shell (think Spanish peanuts), or totally in the shell. You can also buy what we call sugar nuts! They’re peanuts cooked in sugar, coated heavily. I prefer the salty peanuts because as it is my diet is full of sugar, but they’re good. I’ll surely bring peanuts back as gifts. There’s also a good number of cashew trees, and I tried an unripe one off the tree which wasn’t delicious. After they’re done and salted though, Senegal has cashews that are to die for.

The other random thing I’ve wanted to talk about but haven’t is airplanes! My house in Mermoz, Dakar is very close to the airport. And actually, on the ground I don’t feel that close to the airport but I must be because the airplanes that fly over are freakily low. I remember the first one I saw after getting here and it scared me, that’s how low it was. They’re extremely loud, so much so that during school if a plane flies over the professor has to stop talking, (although it seems that people that live here usually raise their voice and power through the conversation without pausing). I’m having a hard time estimating how many planes fly over a day because it seems to vary a lot, some days having only a couple and other days seeming to have a dozen. It probably is like that. When the sun is in the perfect spot and the plane flies over, the whole city goes dark for a second. Once I was in my bedroom and I thought the power went out.  It’s pretty bizarre. I guess in the United States people that live close to airports might experience this same thing. The last thing about airplanes is that I think there is some sort of U.S. military base or something in Dakar too. The most obnoxious planes that fly over are U.S. fighter jets (don’t quote me, I don’t know what they’re called). It makes me sort of annoyed that we, Americans, are flying these obnoxious planes over Dakar. One more reason why Senegalese people have a reason to dislike the U.S. even though they don’t.

I’ve been debating talking about this on my blog, mostly because I don’t want people to worry about me when worry isn’t necessary. But two of my friends and I almost got robbed! It was one of the scariest things to ever happen to me. We were walking in an area that is known for this sort of activity, generally at night. I don’t usually walk down this stretch of road along the beach, but I was going with my friend Cat to buy something she wanted. Coming from school, we had our backpacks, and this made us more of a target. I can perfectly recall the whole thing like a video, but it’s not as easy to explain in written words. Basically us three were walking on the sidewalk, on the side of the road across from the beach which is the safer side. A scrawny, wild-eyed guy came running across the street towards us and motioned with his arms that we three girls clump together. At this time, another white guy was walking towards us girls. The aggressor tried to rally him up too but the white guy knew what was going on and quickly walked away from the scene. I knew instantly what was going on too. The whole thing was playing out exactly how I was warned: the aggressor will put you and your friends together, take out a knife, and demand your things/money. You must give it to him. Luckily I never actually saw the knife that I’m sure the guy had because Cat screamed when he touched her, and two guards that were on security for one of the buildings down the street came to see what was up. A truck in the street had also stopped, knowing what was going on. The combination of Cat’s scream, the guards yelling something at the guy, and the truck stopping in the road scared the aggressor away. He ran across the street and over the beach mound where they’re known to hide. In the situation, my first response was to stay calm; I wasn’t even close to screaming. But I fully believe Cat’s scream saved me, (and by me I mean my laptop, phone, camera, school stuff, agenda, and journal, which is basically my life). I learned several things from this scenario and have changed my frame of mind slightly because of it. All is well. We haven’t reported the event to the Embassy yet but we intend to.

As a last little update, my search for an internship is underway! Right now I have two roads I could go down. The one road is that I will stay in Dakar with my current host family and work for an organization dealing with prisoners, in some capacity. Exactly what I would be doing is unknown at this time, but I have a meeting on Tuesday to talk about what the internship would look like. The other road is that I could live in a village, and either work for an NGO or in a school. Ideally I would take the prison internship but still get the experience of living in a village, but I can’t get everything I want. It’s also not for sure that the prison organization has a job for me, but if they did it would be a really hard decision for me. As of now, I’m thinking that if the prison organization offers me what seems like a great internship, I’ll take it. If God wants me in the village, he can close the door of opportunity to work with the prison, because honestly it’d be a miracle anyway if I actually got the job. I had a “mini-interview” this past Tuesday with a really professional guy who works with the prison system, but he wanted me to talk to someone else. I’ll keep you all posted. It’s all in God’s hands, but you can pray that I would have peace with how the whole decision making process goes!

The weather today and yesterday is “dust”. Literally. I asked Yama what was wrong with the sky and the air, and he said no, it’s just the weather – dust. I insisted that dust wasn’t a weather type, but I guess it sort of is. I’ve been sitting at a bar blogging and my notebook is covered in dust already, and so are my laptop keys. It’s very interesting. In general, school work bogs me down and I couldn’t find anyone to go to the beach with me today on my day off, but life is still so good. Half the days I’m smiling, and the other half I’m on Cloud Nine.

Learning French: Il n’y a pas d’autre Dieu qu’Allah et Muhammad est son prophète. There is no other God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. (It’s been interesting learning about Islam and sharing my thoughts about the similarities and differences between it and Christianity. I’m thankful for being totally free to express my beliefs and for the openness of people here to discuss religion with me. I didn’t know before I came, but you can even read on Wikipedia that Senegal is known for its religious tolerance.)