In my now-beloved garden/office for one last posting here in Senegal. My flight leaves Friday night at 2:30 (ah, the boundless brilliance of the Senegalese transit system) and I plan to spend the day catching up with a few local friends and bidding a fond farewell to the staff at the two hotels I called home for the bulk of my time in Dakar.
Wednesday and Thursday passed in a whirl of activity: reporting Wednesday from the garden at the Fann Hospital AIDS clinic, and Thursday from Thies, talking to the women who were the first in Africa to publicly abandon genital cutting. Both incredibly profound experiences, in their own ways.
Anything I can say about leaving is bound to smack of cliché (I can’t believe how quickly the time went; how long do I need to keep taking this malaria medicine?) so instead of wallowing in ever-deepening tristesse related to my imminent departure, I will sign off with the following thoughts on life in Senegal (in no particular order).
1. There is no such thing as a quick hello in Senegal. If you see someone you know, even in passing, you’re in for at least five minutes of greetings, beginning with hearty handshakes and culminating in lengthy inquiries into the health of your family, your friends, your great-great-uncle, etc, etc. It took a bit of getting used to, but now that I’ve slowed down a bit and accepted the pace of life here, I am going to sorely miss the genuine warmth of daily interactions.
2. If you visit a Senegalese village, and encounter a celebratory bout of dancing, you will probably be asked to dance. This will be embarrassing even if (unlike me) you are a good dancer, but there is nothing you can do about it. Just get up and shake it. Everyone will laugh, but remember, as I have tried to do, they’re laughing near you, rather than at you.
3. Senegalese men love to jog. They’re out on the roads every night, chugging along in their dusty sneakers. Senegalese women, on the other hand, are never seen jogging, at least in public. Probably because they’re at home doing all the work.
4. Horse-drawn carts have been unfairly and unduly eliminated from modern life. There is nothing more pleasant than waking up in your hotel, the sun streaming through the windows, and hearing the clippity-clop of horses on the street below. Granted, when you’re stuck behind them in a traffic jam, you don’t get quite the same thrill, but let’s not quibble.
5. Speaking of traffic jams, Senegal embraces a seemingly endless calendar of pilgrimages to various holy sites, usually located in one of the country’s transit hubs, each providing a new and exciting opportunity for everyone and their brother to line the roads and smoosh themselves into already overstuffed vans, cars and horse-carts, which then proceed to drive haphazardly (on the shoulder, in the middle lane, through sundry back alleys). This weekend, for example, a mass of humanity is leaving Dakar for a town in the east, to celebrate Mohammed’s birthday. My personal feeling is that if Mohammed was as great a prophet as he’s said to be, he would have foretold the traffic disaster precipitated by his birthday, and would have let his followers know that he was fine with them celebrating his big day in the comfort of their own homes, rather than in a 50-mile snarl of unmoving traffic and police barricades.
6. Traditional Senegalese food is fantastic. My favorite dish, by far, is a spicy rice and fish combination called thieboudienne. Unfortunately for me, it’s remarkably hard to find traditional food anywhere but the smallest and most out-of-the-way rice shack. I’ve happened upon a few of them, but on my reporting trips I’ve often found myself in lunchtime situations where I am hoping for a giant plate of red-tinged rice and fish and a handful of spoons, and my gracious host/hostess has gone out of their way to prepare something they consider more Toubab-appropriate. Like grilled fish. Which, of course, I consume with great gusto, but there’s always a corner of my stomach that’s still holding out for the bracing heat of a good thieb.
7. It’s good to be an American in Senegal. We enjoy an uncommon level of popularity here, which I suspect is attributable to the fact that very few Americans actually visit Senegal.
8. This country’s political system is even more screwed up than ours. After listening to some Senegalese friends rant about the blatant and ongoing corruption of President Wade and his cronies, I have a newfound appreciation for the relatively decorous corruption of Washington. Sometimes, it seems, ignorance is bliss.
9. There are a lot of amazing people here, locals and ex-pats alike, doing truly remarkable things with their lives, without the slightest interest in publicity or acknowledgment or praise. I haven’t gone a single day in five weeks without feeling overwhelmed and awed by someone’s kindness or industry or single-minded dedication to a cause. Even if that cause is, occasionally, convincing me to pay far too much for a taxi ride.
10. I feel enormously lucky to have spent a bit of time in this country, and I will always be hugely grateful to the people (Rokhaya, Mor, Angela, Arthur, Cheikh, Diack, Molly, Dinah, Alfred and many others) who helped make my visit so productive and such a pleasure. I hope I will see you all again soon. Inshallah.