I was lucky enough to have my parents visit me in Senegal and it was a life-changing experience for everyone involved: me, my parents, and my village. They made an impression on everyone they came in contact with even though they could only speak three words.
The “dot” of a departure date, to Senegal, and a “dot” for a date to return to the U.S.
These dots are the way I thought about our trip to visit Dana in Senegal. The dots were the known points while everything in between the dots was unknown.
The “dot”, to depart to Senegal, arrived. With four suitcases stuffed with clothing, gifts, and supplies we lifted off to cross our American continent and the Atlantic Ocean. Our minds were open to the unknown that awaited us.
Dana meets us at the airport in Dakar. This airport signals a clue about what’s ahead on our travels. The arriving luggage conveyer belts twists through a crowded maze of people. Assorted bags and luggage tilt, sway, lean and stack up in thick piles. Only the luggage in front of us can be seen amongst the crowds of carts, packages, suitcases, and hurried bodies speaking languages unfamiliar. The travels ahead are somewhat the same as the luggage: in front of us awaits an experience, foreign languages of which we know not (Pulaar, Wolof, and French) and a sense of tilting and swaying while attempting to process a different culture in this new geographical location. Dana is our pillar of familiarity, interpreting and explaining the sights and sounds; helping us to remain upright and balanced during our travels through this country she has come to love.
Envisioning this developing country, that I believed I knew something about, was far different when actually seeing it and being a part of it. The travel experiences were almost surreal as there was so little to “build on” for familiarity. I found myself in awe of this country, the people, the clothing, the contrasts, the landscape, and the weather. I also found myself feeling more comfortable with the contrasts as the days ticked by. My love for this country, the people, and my daughter, grew daily, with each new experience.
Observations in Senegal:
- Trash everywhere. Literally. No waste management services so trash is piled. Goats are everywhere. Goats eat trash. Trash smells. As the days passed, I noticed the trash less and the surrounding landscape more.
- Dakar, the capitol, has hundreds of partially completed buildings as buildings are built, to lay claim to the land. When the money runs out, the building is halted. When money is available, months or years later, the building resumes until that money is depleted. This city has hundreds, if not thousands, of half built buildings.
- Thatched huts are scattered throughout the land in the villages and provide homes for thousands. The huts seen in history textbooks are still present providing a constant shelter through seasons and time.
- Vibrant colors worn by women radiate an energy and beautiful contrast to the stark reality of so many lives of those in Senegal. The predominant long dresses and matching head wraps lend an elegance and sense of time standing still. The dresses and head wraps are generational. The beauty and strength of women in this country is amazing.
- Villages have a sense of order and predictability as well as a generational sense. Women caring for children, sweeping trash and dust, cooking, shopping daily for items needed for meal preparation, carrying babies on their backs. Men wear long shirts, pants, respond to the call to prayer, work in the fields with horses pulling the plow, tailor work, boutique owners, etc. There is a sense of history with previous generations completing the same tasks and the generations to follow will do the same.
- Children are universal. Developmental milestones are universal. Fun to see this in action. For example: gross motor skills, such as pulling up on the raised bamboo sleeping mats, to a standing position and then traversing these mats. Stick figures drawn by children. The joy of colorful markers and paper.
- Children were well behaved and seemed to know their place in the community. In Senegal, children spend much time on their mother’s back, viewing the world and blending into and learning the daily routines. When children’s bellies are satisfied, they leave the communal plate. Because of this, almost every child we saw was lean and muscular. Without plates, there is no “finish what’s on your plate” approach to eating. Childhood obesity seems unknown in this country.
- Charrettes are still a leading form of transportation in villages as well as the major roads. These donkey or horse-drawn carts are important in the transport of supplies, tools, food, and people. Young children commonly guide the reins. Buses and taxis pass the charrettes anywhere and any time creating a woven cooperation and acceptance.
- Live goats can travel on top of cars and buses. They appear stoic and relaxed with this form of transportation as they calmly view the scenery passing by. Looking at multiple goats gazing at their surroundings from the top of a bus provided some humor while on monotonous sections of road.
- Boutiques are managed by mostly men and are a hub of social activity as well as a functional location to purchase the daily basic needs in a village. Boutiques are often packed, from ceiling to floor, utilizing every inch of space to provide a display of products available. People coming and going with their purchases. Freshly baked bread, for breakfast, is purchased at boutiques. Bread can be ‘sauced’ or spread with chocolate, spiced mayonaise, or other homemade sauces. (One funny memory, while at a boutique in Dana’s village, my stark white skin, made a baby cry and howl with sheer terror while he looked at me. I felt badly for this baby so I left the boutique quickly to reduce his angst.)
- Modern technology has trickled into the historic daily routines. Cell phones are prevalent as are the “phone card” vendors selling minutes and phone plans. Interestingly, the contrast of technology waiting for use was evident at a school. Unopened boxes of computers, modems, and equipment sealed tightly with tape. Classrooms do not have air conditioners, rendering the computer equipment unusable as classroom temperatures climb over the century mark routinely. Awaiting air conditioners and glass to cover the open slats of windows will then provide access to computer use (and possible exposure to the internet which will, inevitably, provide information about the world beyond villages). I felt a strong concern, for villages, with exposure via the internet, to the world. The concern for change within the villages of West Africa. The current cultural rhythms and predictable seasons provide the historical norm of time. Will exposure, via the internet, to the world beyond villages change expectations and create a dissatisfaction with the current culture?
Dana has grown in her knowledge and understanding in her new country. She has stamina unlike most. Her acceptance of and enthusiasm about Senegal made a truly grand impression. To be present, to “see” her embrace her Peace Corps experience with such commitment and love was worth the trip alone. The contrast in living conditions, learning the cultural norms and expectations, communicating fluently in Pulaar, and seeing her radiant happiness was a joy to behold. I was unable to understand any of her conversations but “words” were not necessary. To see her joy, laughing and smiling, within her village and beyond, watching people seek her out, her talking, joking, and teasing and laughter was priceless. (Sounds like a Mastercard ad.)
One basic thought resurfaced in my thoughts throughout the trip. People. People are the same no matter which continent. Communication between people is essential. Lack of verbal communication, due to language barriers, was challenging but messages were usually conveyed somehow. We felt welcome in our attempts to communicate through gestures and hand signals. Smiles and kind eyes reflected understanding of some of our messages. Meeting Dana’s family, we could not “talk” with them but there was an immediate understanding and sense of family from the start. Dana was the beacon of translation between both families, West African and American. Through her, we exchanged ideas and conversation that linked us and bonded us together. This emotional tie, bonding our families, was due to Dana’s Peace Corps commitment and her love of both families on separate continents. This love was reflected and radiated from everyone and it’s what I hold onto now that the trip is complete.
Twelve days of travel included many experiences that caught us swaying in our processing of these experiences. Dana was our pillar and guide, translating and explaining our whirlwind of experiences, leading us to a strong, solid bond of love and appreciation for a country and it’s people. The “dots” of our departure and arrival dates were known. These “dots” were connected by a thread woven of bold and colorful new experiences while in Senegal with Dana. The fabric of this memory will linger and remain with us forever.