November 27, 2007

Asalaa Malekum Cornell!

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Two weeks into my semester in Dakar, I began to appreciate my new urban landscape. I began to notice little (or big) details that epitomized how I would come to describe the city. I established landmarks for myself, while shortcuts and familiar faces at fruit stands emerged in my neighborhood. These two anecdotes, very early in my stay, are some of my favorite (and archetypal) images of my trip.
Amusing Anecdote #1: Finding my way home
In order to get home to my house from my Wolof class, I learned to turn left after the big herd of sheep in the small park that divided the two sides of the road. Then I walked past a mosque that blasted the call to prayer out of several megaphones placed on an elegant minaret. Across the street from the mosque was a recently demolished shantytown that was beginning to be built up again, and I continued walking until I got to a street with a fruit stand where I often bought grapefruit or bananas on my way home. Here I turned right and walked through a field (really just a bunch of sand) where the neighborhood carpenter had his whole shop set up outside under a small grouping of trees. When I arrived at my house, I stopped to speak some broken Wolof to the boulangier (the man who sells bread) right outside my front door and then went in to greet the family.
This walk, although it only represents a minute part of Dakar, describes life there better than I could with any kind of elaboration. The landmarks were always changing, as the herd of sheep got smaller and disappeared, replaced first by teenagers playing soccer, then a few kids playing drums, followed by a man selling colorful pants and shirts that he hung on lines attached in a giant square around the trees and finally by a large cow with his front hoof tied with rope to one of his giant horns. The rotating spectacle in this small park became less and less spectacular to me as time went on. I stopped and considered buying pants; I recognized the large cow from other spots along my habitual walks around town. The shantytown got bigger and more populated every time I walked past it. By the end of my stay, I was frequenting tailors and vegetable venders that had established makeshift shops in front of the homes that were growing behind them. My fluctuating surroundings were a perfect picture of the living, breathing city I inhabited. Constant rebuilding and people using any space they could to produce or sell or live was one of the most beautiful things I remember about my semester, and this reuse was also one of the more mundane and constant parts of my life in Dakar.
Amusing Anecdote #2: Dancing my pants off.
The second vivid memory from my first weeks in Senegal is of a Sabar festival that I went to with some friends. A family that one of the people in my program had made friends with through a mutual acquaintance in the States invited us to join them. They were griots, people in charge of caring for and passing on the oral and musical traditions of the culture. My friends and I were invited early for dinner. When we got to their house, we were led into a bedroom where we all sat in a big circle on the bed and were served giant platters of mutton, rice and freshly made fries. We lounged around, making conversation and tea and waiting for the festivities to begin. As people began to gather, one of the women in the family collected all the girls and took us into her room. In her room, she pulled out boubou after boubou and dressed us up so that we looked like real Senegalese people, cooing over our authenticity. We emerged in our outfits to what seemed to be a giant block party with plastic chairs set up around a small stage and open street. Finally the music began, and we were overcome by the most incredible drumming and dancing that I have ever seen. This moment was my first exposure to Senegalese music and performance, and it infected the crowd as people jumped out of their seats to show off their dance moves. One of the women came over us (a group of awed white kids dressed in Senegalese attire stuck out like a sore thumb) and asked if anyone wanted to dance. Everyone else said no, but have I ever been anyone to turn down dancing? So, inspired by my blue and black patterned outfit and the racing beats, I went up and told her I didn’t know how to do it but that I would try. She led me to where she was sitting on the other side of the large circle, and placed me on her lap where I watched while other people danced. Then, before I had prepared myself, she pushed me up into the middle with everyone watching and we danced together. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did my best to imitate the jumping and twirling limbs of the other women dancing with us. I don’t think it looked half bad! When we stopped dancing I was out of breath and completely exhilarated. At that moment, I confirmed to myself that the only way to live in Dakar was to jump right in and join the dance.