Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Becoming Maymuna

I am about one paragraph into my first paper of the semester and what better time to write a blog post than when you’re looking for a way to procrastinate, n’est-ce pas? It is Sunday night which means that my journey to Senegal began exactly one week ago. Every day this week (and every hour of each of those days) I would have written a completely different post had I had the time to sit down or the necessary internet. It is true that life in a new culture is a rollercoaster—emotions change at least every hour and what you thought you just figured out is challenged even more often. But one thing remains constant, which is that I am kind of, sort of head over heels for Senegal. As many of you know, I was apprehensive about coming here, wondering why I chose to go to Senegal when I had never once showed any interest in West Africa. But now that I am here, there is something very internal to the Senegalese culture that makes me feel at home. I think a lot it has to do with how being here seems to contradict the fear that people have about moving to the “Third World.” We talk about it as if it is a sacrifice, when in fact the reality of it has taught me that it is a give and take, both in terms of material processions and cultural ways of life. Yes, I don’t have internet at home (gasp), the electricity goes out multiple times a day, my shower faucet is a trickle of cold water, the roads would make a worthy ride at any amusement park and I’m pretty sure there is a colony of beetles living in every corner of my room, but something about the context of being here puts all of these things in perspective: they are small and quite simply, c’est la vie.

I have certainly gained much more out of my week here than the relative comfort I gave up. I will start from the beginning: After arriving in Dakar on Monday morning (at 6 am!), we spent the day (my birthday!) kicking off orientation. The students that had just arrived met up with those that had been here for the month long pre-session. We ate Senegalese food for the first time, danced, talked and got a quick introduction to what to expect in the coming week. The day felt like a few days in one, what with jetlag and sensory overload.

The next day, we moved in with our host families. I was kind of shocked that it was happening so fast, but now I am very thankful to have jumped right in. My host family is composed of a 75-year-old woman who doesn’t look a day over forty (I hope I can age like the Senegalese!). She is a very calm woman, asks you “ca va?” every other sentence and always matches her sunglasses to her scarves, which also match her dresses perfectly. We don’t have the easiest time understanding each other, but we are slowly getting to know one another. I also have a “Tata” (aunt) who works a lot, but whom I see most evenings. Her grandchild is staying with us for a few weeks and he is seriously the most adorable kid I’ve ever seen. He’s four ¼ and considering his age and the fact that neither of us speaks the other’s language, we talk in funny faces and lots of stuck out tongues. My host mom’s brother also lives with us, but he is very sick and stays in his room all the time, so I haven’t really talked with him yet. I would really like to make more of an effort to get to know him, but I don’t know how to go about it. Also, in Senegalese culture, most families have a girl living with them whose job it is to take care of the house and cook, but who also becomes integrated into the family. The girl that lives with my family has been working here for 18 years (she came when she was 11). It’s insane, but taking girls out of villages to support their families at a young age seems to be one of the solutions to rural poverty people have found here.

My family lives in the Liberte 2 neighborhood, which is about a 45 minute walk from school and about the median distance from school as far as where the other students live. Our house is very nice and I have my own room and bathroom (which is quite the luxury I am learning). So far, my daily routine includes being woken up by my host mother who yells my Senegalese name, Maymuna, throughout the house until I yell back loudly enough, eating a breakfast of baguette and tea, then walking to school with another exchange student who lives less than a block from me. Together, we navigate the busy streets, cracked sidewalks and piles of sand, dodge cars (honestly, I will probably get hit before I leave this country), pass the dozens of children begging on the streets and usually run into a few other Americans doing the same thing on their way to school. Last week we had orientation, which was conducted in a very Senegalese way—slowly, very confusing and with a lot of time to relax in between sessions. We took a trip out of the city to Goree Island, which was the largest port for the slave trade. It was a very emotional experience to see the reality of what we had only read about in history textbooks. On this trip, we also visited the women’s history museum and the beach! Our other excursion was a tour of the city, stopping at the most significant sites, like the Presidential Palace, the largest bronze sculpture in the world that is currently being constructed, the most Western point of Africa, the Mosquee de la Divinite and the downtown market, among other sites. Other than these two trips, we spent a lot of time at WARC, which is our host institution.

In the evening I will walk back home in time to break the fast with my family. They are observing Ramadan and the tradition is to drink a sweet beverage and eat a little bread at exactly sunset. After this, they pray and we eat dinner. Dinner is always delicious and always eaten with our hands. There is a real technique to it that involves balling the rice in your palm and scooting into your mouth. I have quite mastered it yet, so they make me eat with a huge napkin over my lap. One day though, I will be good enough at it to teach you all, inshallah!

Well, there are endless things to write, but also a long time to do so. I’m starting to feel guilty for the procrastination, so until next time…


  1. Oh, Keren -- if you learn to eat the rice the correct way, maybe you can transfer the skill to eating injera without using a dozen paper napkins for one meal. HAHA -- I've been trying to learn to eat injera since 1983, but I still need the multiple napkins!!!

    Anyway -- thank you so much for the post and the details of aspects of your life in Senegal. It sounds like a wonderful experience and much learning already. Just be careful to keep dodging those cars!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    With with all my love -- Mom

  2. And what is the connection between Maymuna (a beautiful name!!!!!) and your regular name? Mom

  3. Well Maymuna, I don't want to hear about any bruises, broken legs or necks, due to chrome toxicity!!!!!!! What we call being hit by a car at the clinic. Do be careful, for your own sake, not to mention everyone wanting to learn how to eat rice balls correctly. Thanks for the update, now........pictures!!! Much love, Amy

  4. Happy belated birthday, Maymuna! Sending francophone love your way from Barees :-)