Transition, Travels, Neighborhood, and Family

Hello to all and welcome to my “Official Blog!”  Dakar!?  I can hardly believe I am here..

As I begin my third week living and studying in Dakar, it truly feels like I belong here.  But let me get you caught up on my travels to Senegal, my living situation, and my neighborhood! When I emailed my flight plan to my local advisor she responded, “Ohhhh Eliza!  My prayers are with you!” But my flight path to Dakar was a kick start to a wonderful semester.  After saying goodbye to my family in SFO, Itook WOW Airlines to Iceland, where I transferred and arrived in Denmark at ~5 pm.  Practically jumping off the plane and boarding the city Metro, I began my 12 hour layover at the Copenhagen metro stop my friend Anna had suggested.

I decided to center my adventure around finding the famous Little Mermaid statue, and saw some lovely architecture and cute narrow cobblestone streets on the way.  After sleeping a few hours near my gate in the Copenhagen Int’l. airport, I boarded yet another flight… to Lisbon!

A few hours later, I began another 12 hour vacation in Portugal!  The red, yellow, and deep orange tiles pop out against the blue sky, and after wandering through oceanside Lisbon for several hours, I met up with Sammy, another student en route pour Dakar!I am eternally grateful I did, as we bonded immediately and have been each other’s “comfort zone” ever since. After some tasty food and drink in a cute alleyway, we hopped back on the Metro to catch our evening flight to Dakar!!

Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is situated on the westernmost point of Africa.  A former French Colony, Senegal’s national language is French, while Wolof is the language most prominently spoken in Dakar.

Touching down in Dakar after speaking French to the Senegalese man sitting next to me for five hours, I couldn’t have been more excited and at ease. Driving through Dakar that night, my head out the window, smiling cheeks enjoying the night air, my mind full of enthusiastic anticipation, I finally started to feel like this was all real.

My host mother, Jacqueline Gomez, greeted me at the Brioche Dorée, a bakery at the center of our neighborhood; Cite Assemble, Oakam, Dakar.  Her arms open wide, I immediately felt comfortable and at ease. Having worried that arriving at 2:30am would awake the family, I was surprised to find everyone still up; Aida and Maman Thiam, my 27 and 21 year-old sisters, my 24 and 14 year-old brothers, Gorgui and Sherif… everyone was up and awake except for Baby Couree, my mother’s 6 months old granddaughter who lives with the Thiam family while her mother studies in Washington DC.  I would soon learn that staying up until 2:30am is habitual for this family, and that “going out” for Senegalese youth means returning home at 5:00 or 6:00am! They care for me like I’m truly their sister & daughter, and I cannot imagine a better fit for me.

I learned more during my first full day in Dakar than perhaps any other so far, and I spent most of it in our house. I think everyone can relate to the feeling of waking up, having arrived somewhere new in the dark, and feeling completely surprised and renewed.  I woke up to Senegalese pop music blasting from the main room, under my blue mosquito net, and smiled as I greeted my new reality. I have a small room and my own bathroom in which there is a bed, chair, shelf for clothes, locking drawer, toilet, sink, and shower. The shower is cold, but honestly, I wouldn’t want anything else in this humidity. Emerging from my room, my mom took me on a brief house tour, showing me the boys’ room, girls’/her room, living room, hallway/hangout space (where we spend most of our time), 2 small outdoor courtyards for cooking, hanging out, and dishwashing, and the tiny kitchen.  The front room of our house, which opens to the street, is lined with colorful garments and serves as my mother’s tailor shop. Next, she took me to the roof where they keep 7 goats. I get to hear and smell them constantly throughout the day. The house is small and simple, but a perfect size for my family and the many visitors they host as they pass through daily. That leads me to discovering the atmosphere of “Teranga” here in Senegal.

Teranga refers to hospitality, an allusion to the warmth of the welcome.  It’s a Wolof word that comes from the word Teral, or the word Earth, signifying arrival. To this they hold true.  It took me a few days to figure out which of the guys sitting in my house was actually my older brother, because there are 5-8 friends & neighbors in our house at all times. In addition, it is unacceptable for someone to enter without individually greeting every person in the room… but aside from that, come and go as you please!  Hence, I was given a very warm welcome not only by my own family, but by the whole block.

Because it was my first day, my sister Aida made Thiéboudienne (chéh-bu-jen), the national dish of Senegal, which consists of red rice (made with tomatoes and vegetables), fish (traditionally “chof,” but not so available today due to overfishing), cassava root, carrots, eggplants, cabbage, and peppers.  This dish truly embodies the concept of “teranga.” It is served in a large, round bowl, rice on the bottom, fish, veggies, and sauce on top, around which everyone sits. One uses their right hand to pick the fish off the bone, break off a piece of vegetable, and/or scoop up the seasoned rice, squeeze it into a ball, and mange!! Having been a vegetarian for the past few years, I found myself struggling with the meat, but as everyone eats, people take it upon themselves to break off chunks of meat, sometimes tugging the chunk between two people with harder meats, and distributing it to each person’s portion of the bowl.  I decided to put my vegetarian diet on hold while in Senegal, and boy was that a good idea. Not only do they eat meat for just about every meal, but these dishes are to die for! They are hearty,saucy, spicy, and you just can not overeat because everyone is sharing from the same bowl. I’ve found it to be the perfect amount per meal, and although I sometimes crave more vegetables than I get, I couldn’t be more impressed with the cooking.

That evening, I accompanied my sisters to nearby boutiques (small corner shops where you can buy anything from cell phone credit to ice cream), and went on a brief neighborhood tour with the other 15 US students living in Oakam. Our neighborhood lies in north-western Dakar, bordering the Atlantic. It’s only a 15 minute walk from our area to the beach, which is truly a gift! Walking to the beach after a long, HOT, Dakar day and swimming in the Atlantic could not be more refreshing! There is a small restaurant at our local Mamelles Beach, and a beachfront perfect for swimming, football, or watching the sunset.

Aside from the beach, Oakam is famous for an enormous monument to the African Renaissance and a hilltop lighthouse.  La Monument de la Renaissance Africaineis a solid copper statue built in 2010 that commemorates the Rebirth of Africa and Senegalese independence.  It is 49m tall, and atop a hill of approximately 100m, therefore, climbing the stairs and taking an elevator to the top guarantees quite the panoramic view of the Dakar peninsula.

I can thoroughly say I am pleased with my neighborhood placement, fellow students, and family in Dakar.  There is a dirt soccer field next to my house, a nearby beach, incredible food, interesting and genuine people visiting 24/7, and Wally Seck and Maitre Gims playing in my house all the time.  Yes, it is hot, and Dakar is definitely an adjustment, but I am feeling positive and like I adjusted relatively fast. Quality time socializing is an enormous part of the lifestyle here, which gives me the opportunity not only to become close to my family and neighbors, but to practice French all the time! I am grateful for all my French teachers and classmates in the past who helped me build enough ability to successfully communicate my needs, and to engage in more than surface level conversation with Senegalese family and friends. French is the official language of Senegal, however, everyone in the capital and surrounding area speak both French and Wolof. Learning Wolof has been slow thus far, but I hope that through my class sessions and full immersion, my understanding will continue to grow.

I called my Dad on face-time the other day and found myself saying, “I was born to live in Senegal!” Obviously, Dakar is only one small peninsula and CIEE has provided me a very smooth start, but I thoroughly love it here.  With every day comes an adventure I never could have anticipated. I look forward to many excursions, my classes, and beginning my Internship at the Ministry of the Environment for the Senegalese Government!