Dakar Survival Guide for the Everyday Toubab

The Hell is Dakar?

Dakar is the capital city of Senegal, a country on the west coast of Africa. I studied there from January to March 2018. I understand that this post is hugely belated. Well, here is what happened:

In April, UChicago kicked my ass.

In May, UChicago kicked my ass.

In June, UChicago ended!

. . . and I flew straight to my internship in LA. Which, unsurprisingly, is kicking my ass.

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The Hell is Toubab?

Wolof is a spoken language you’ll meet in Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. If you’re hanging around Senegal’s capital, you’ll encounter a city-fied version: Dakar Wolof. This flexible city dialect is ever-evolving—every day, it loses words to the past; every day, it gains words from the present. With Dakar Wolof, you’ll get modern-day French and English tossed in like baby croutons. If you want the purer, more traditional linguistic salad, you should travel inland, in which case, SHAMELESS PLUG, read my post about how I failed miserably at traveling inland. If it’s not obvious yet, I’m hungry and would love a salad. Please wire cash directly to @Angela82 via Venmo.

Since Wolof is a spoken language, you won’t find much of it online. Here’s a good ol’ down-low:

  • Salaam maleekum // Maleekum salaam.
    • Peace be unto you // Peace be unto you, too.
  • Nanga def? // Mangi fi rekk.
    • How are you? // I am here only.
  • Naka wa kerr ga? // Ñunga fa.
    • How is the family? // They are there only.
  • Jërëjëf. // Nokk o bokk.
    • Thank you // We all share it.
  • Waaw. // Déedéet.
    • Yes // No.
  • Bëgg uma ko.
    • I don’t want it.
  • Naka America ak Trump? // Bëgg uma ko.
    • How is America and Trump? // I don’t want it.
      • I made this one up.

And most importantly:

  • Toubab
    • White person (i.e., Foreign person who is rich and probably conceited by mere virtue of being foreign)

Try not to be a toubab. This is the key. However, this is also impossible. Toubab is your face. Thus, toubab is forever.

The best way to navigate this situation is to be a culturally aware toubab:

  • Remember that Africa is a continent.
    • Africa has 54 countries,
      • 54 unique countries,
        • In which there are languages, landscapes, histories, and cultures that are different—but just! as! complex!—as yours or mine,
          • And absolutely cannot (and should not) be dumbed down to brilliant red sunsets, safari animals, pregnant women with baskets, rhythms in the soul, and whatever else Western society has BRAINWASHED us into thinking is “AFRICA” via The Lion King, stereotyping, etcetera.

TL;DR: Africa is not a country.

Senegal, on the other hand, is a country. A history lesson in fun-size: France colonized Senegal in the 17th century. This is a generous euphemism for France fucked Senegal over in the 17th century. France has since granted Senegal independence, but the aftershocks rage on. Politically, financially. You can’t stick your thumb on a functioning society and force them to do things your way—the “better” way—then retract said thumb centuries later and expect society to function properly again. And then blame the society for struggling post-independence. You can’t.

The least you can do is be a culturally aware toubab. Africa is not a country. Senegal is a country.


The Hell is a Survival Guide?

W E L C O M E !

Dakar is wild. It’s like Rome, Beijing, and Chicago mashed into one dense New-York-Never-Sleeps vibe. Street vendors patrol the roads and highways with racks of sunglasses, peanuts, SIM cards, and fruit. Locals stride along in sweeping traditional garb, or maybe just Adidas and skinny jeans. There’s a good mix of briefcases in hands and baskets on heads. I’d say Dakar is equal parts familiar and unfamiliar to a visitor’s eye.

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Photograph by Alex Weinberg

The landscape’s peppered with mosques and plastered with religious imagery—get used to Amadou Bamba, the poster boy for Senegal’s majority-Muslim community. And politics is a sport: the names of presidents and campaigns emerge on crumbling walls amidst murals and graffiti.

 

Driving along the highway, you’ll find scores of exercise equipment planted on cliffs that overlook the sea. Walking on the beach, you’ll pass soccer games that scramble in and out of the waves. If you’re me, you’ll accidentally walk through one and nearly get killed by an airborne ball. Or an airborne human. You may wonder how it is possible that someone with my sprawling dearth of common sense has survived so many trips around the globe. I wonder that too. I wonder it all the time.

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(Honorable Mention)

It’s a bustling city of people, chickens, cars, street stalls, buses, cats, goats, and horses. Mainly goats. In the morning they yell at the birds. At night they yell at each other. During the day they yell at Jesus. Probably 85% of my study abroad experience is just getting yelled at by an ever-rotating cast of angsty goats.

Featuring copious amounts of dust, wind, sand, and car exhaust.

 

I lived in Sacre Coeur, a relatively affluent neighborhood, with my spectacular host family:

  • Mama Amy Sall, who taught herself Arabic using the Quran,
  • Papa Mamadou Sall, who traveled the country teaching French,
  • Macire (Papi) Sall, a 28-year-old architect who tells fart jokes like no other,
  • Adja Sall, a 26-year-old sweetheart who puts all other sweethearts to shame, and
  • A blur of friends, relatives, and neighbors who came and went so frequently, it took me three weeks to figure out who was and wasn’t part of the family.

My roommate Soulet and I ate dinner with Papi and Adja every night. These were evenings of jokes, culture convos, arm wrestling matches, and storytelling wars, sprinkled with the moments of jubilant revelation that accompany each dig at the language barrier. These were evenings of pain and despair, as I slowly realized that college has flabbed me out to the point where my abdominal muscles can no longer handle more than 10-15 consecutive seconds of laughter.

One night Papi asked matter-of-factly, “What is the word for—how do you say—how do I—what is the brother of poop?”

I suppose that I am now a grown-ass woman, being 21 and all. In fact yesterday I was even able to order a cocktail without getting carded. But let me tell you. The moment we found out that Papi was trying to say fart…

I nearly asphyxiated myself with a forkful of yassa poulet.

 


Preparation

All it takes is a trip to the doctor’s. Or even the Internet. There’s a list of vaccinations you may or may not already have. If you do not already have them, i.e. the yellow fever vaccine, you must subject yourself to day of impalation. I got four at once and had to be escorted out by a nurse:

  • Nurse: Are you okay?
  • Me: Yes.
  • Nurse: Are you sure?
  • Me: Yes.
  • Nurse: Do you need to sit down?
  • Me: Yes.
  • Nurse: Are you going to pass out?
  • Me: Yes.

The rabies shot is optional. Here is how my doctor put it:

You can choose to be subjected to excruciating pain right now. Or you can just not touch animals when you’re in Senegal.

I did not take the shot and did not touch any animals. Except for a house parrot, which I cautiously poked once. Spoiler alert: I did not die.

You will also have to take malaria pills. I chose Malarone. This is the one that does not induce hallucinations that have been known to drive men crazy enough to kill their wives. Malarone just gives you weird dreams. Would you rather have weird dreams or kill your wife? Let me know.

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Food/Drink

Welcome to Senegal. Welcome to fish, onions, fish, and onions. Welcome to the national dish ceeb u jen, which is fish and onions (in a special tomato sauce with copious amounts of rice, veggies, and hot peppers). Welcome to alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, during each of which you’d sell your soul to have the other. When you’re constipated, you pray for diarrhea. 48 hours of diarrhea later, you start craving constipation. Stop me up, you’ll pray, dear God, end the suffering.

And God answers, and you’re constipated.

Buy some fruit for thirty cents on the side of the road. Buy some peanuts, and eat them whilst reading the 193039248 articles we were forced to read about the Senegalese peanut trade. Buy oodles and oodles of Kirene, the Dasani/Aquafina/Evian of the region. Since you cannot drink tap water, you will consume these cups, bottles, and eventually multi-gallon jugs at the speed of tipsy frat bros given cheap beer before a crowd of tipsy college students screaming “chug, chug!”

There are plenty of bars and dance clubs. However, keep in mind that Senegal is majority-Muslim. While you are free to drink, it is considered impolite to drunk. Do not wander the streets like that.

One of the best parts of host family life was dinner, on account of (a) I’m a glutton, and (b) meal-sharing. In Senegal, meals are taken around a communal bowl. Saves a lot of time and water. Generally there’s a bed of rice or couscous, with meat in the middle and veggies (usually onions) sprinkled around. Family members will carve up the meat and flick it evenly around the bowl. The flick involves great dexterity. It also involves strategy, as the person doing the flicking must establish where the flick will land. Often you may wonder, what is happening inside the bowl? Did your sister finish her chicken already? Did your brother surreptitiously begin eating outside of his invisible boundary? What is the situation inside the bowl?

Depending on your family, you may eat with forks, spoons, or hands. Eating with hands requires a different dexterous flick of the wrist. It also involves an intricate motion of the fingers. I tried to do this once—eat with my hands. I emerged looking like I had mashed myself chest-first into the bowl.

Breakfast is hot milk/coffee and a baguette, either with butter or chocolate spread. It is entirely possible that I consumed an entire pail’s worth of chocolate over the course of the quarter. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to pale, wheedling voices moaning my name. I believe these are my arteries. I believe they are dying.

Some other staples:

  • Bouye, juice of the baobab
  • Bissap, juice of the hibiscus
  • Nems, Senegalese spring rolls
  • Street sandwiches, eggs and fries with thick spicy sauce in a baguette, or beans and mayonnaise in a baguette, or anything else in a baguette, usually featuring fries

The Senegalese diet is heavy on sugar and light on vegetables. It got to the point where I could get a dopamine rush just seeing the word legume on a menu. But it’d have to be roasted; you never know when raw vegetables in salads are washed with tap water. Tap water causes severe diarrhea. Which causes severe constipation. Which causes…

 


Currency/Shopping

The national currency is the CFA franc. It’s about 500 cfa to a dollar, so you have to start thinking in the thousands. A mojito is 3500 cfa. A cab ride is 1500-2000 cfa. A pair of tailored pants are 5000 cfa. A decent lunch is 800-2000 cfa.

Be prepared to haggle.

Also be prepared to possess useless money. How can money be useless, you ask? Most of Senegal’s transactions are conducted via cash. So you withdraw cash from the bank, which spits bills of 10,000 and 5,000 cfa. Most meals and items will cost between 500 and 4000 cfa. Most vendors and restaurants will refuse your big bills. As a result, probably 30% of your time in Senegal will be spent purchasing grocery store items you don’t need, for the sole purpose of attaining some change. “Change” in Wolof is weecit. Pronounce it way-chitt. Know this word, and know it well, because there will never be a time you are not asking for it.

You can also stop by your local bank for a shot at some weecit. But there is a 50% chance that they too will refuse your big bills. So be prepared for useless money, and be prepared for high blood pressure.

Don’t leave Dakar without walking its markets. Most notably:

  • Colobane, a secondhand market that runs along a major road in the southeast. Here, you’ll find shoes, belts, bags, scarves, bracelets, and a variety of clothes. Many if not most will be fake name brands. There is no better place to buy fake Gucci, fake Adidas, fake Ralph Lauren, and fake more.
  • HLM (pronounced ash-ell-em), a fabric market composed of hundreds of stalls, each boasting hundreds of vibrant patterned fabrics. You can buy a decent meter for 1000 cfa and take it to your local tailor, who will fashion anything from pants to jumpsuits to gowns to vests.
    • They will not, however, fashion rompers. I tried asking for a romper and it came out looking like a box with five holes.
    • Generally, women should aim to cover up down to the ankles. For your sake and everyone else’s, don’t bare your baggy flesh in a culture where it is not common to do so. This isn’t antifeminism. This is culture. As a foreign woman, you are not introducing some exciting new technology or modern movement by showing skin—you are disrespecting certain communities.
    • Swimsuits are fine, but do try to cover up.

We return to the initial notice to be a culturally aware toubab. You are a guest in the country; at least try to learn the language. Greet shopkeepers and waiters in Wolof, and you’ll be treated with more camaraderie (and cheaper prices).

 


Transportation

I mentioned already that you should be able to get anywhere in the city for 1000 to 2000 cfa. Anything more, you may attribute to The Toubab Fee. You may bargain down this fee, however, with the right combination of eyelash-batting, pity-mongering, and Wolof-spewing:

  • [With a tremble in the voice] “Am naa mil rekk.” == “I have only one thousand.”
  • [With a tear in the eye] “Am uma xaalis, désolé, s’il vous plaît, mangi dem, mangi dem Boulangerie Jaune, am uma xaalis.” == “I have no money, sorry, please, I go, I go to the Yellow Bakery, I have no money.”
  • And so on.

Be warned that if you show your taxi driver a map or address, he will more or less laugh in your face. The Dakar transportation schema operates on landmarks, not locations. The proper way to take a taxi is to pinpoint some big monument, museum, structure, or neighborhood near your destination. This is what you tell the driver. Once you arrive, you can direct your cabbie to a more specific place. So essentially, either have offline maps or have offline maps.

There are also cheaper, jankier options for transportation.

Car rapides are Senegal’s signature graffitied vehicles. They are visually stunning, but mechanically incompetent. Legend has it they drive and drive until they literally fall apart in the middle of the road. As far as toubabs are concerned, car rapides don’t necessarily have routes. You just climb on one that’s going the right direction. You hand 200-300 cfa to the boy dangling off the back by one skinny arm, then try not to breathe as people crowd onto the benches on either side of you, smishing you first into a speck, and then into nothing at all. You must be vocal about getting off when the car rapide starts going the wrong direction. Otherwise you will ride it until your death or its collapse. It is difficult to say which will come first.

Tatas are car rapides, but somewhat stabler, and also white. Likewise, young men hang off the back, clanking their fistfuls of coins against the roof, collecting money from passengers. No distinguishable route; no seatbelts. Occasionally no seats.

DDDs stand for Dakar Dem Dikk, big buses crammed airtight with people. To get to the tiny square ticket booth from the front entrance, you must be able to either swim in the ocean or survive in quicksand. These are also the only two skillsets that can get you out of the bus at your stop. I once crowdsurfed by accident in a DDD. The space was so packed, I did not see that there were stairs in front of me. I stepped off into empty air. My feet never touched the ground again after that, yet somehow I managed to slow-motion wade my way to the door. By the time I was released into the wild, I had already missed my neighborhood by half a mile.

Sept places, or “seven places,” are typically for long-distance trips. These are vehicles with seven seats that you must buy out (i.e. purchase all seven seats).

Also, expect to jaywalk across multiple six-lane highways during rush hour. This is an essential skill. Either risk death by crossing, or spend your next fifty years rotting in place on the side of that road.


My Study Abroad Experience

A wild ride. Many fever dreams. Adventure, sickness, friends, and hunting mosquitoes at 3 A.M. with my ear cocked to the ceiling and my hands palming F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Not for reading, but for killing.

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Met a competitive skateboarder. Met an Egyptian/Ghanaian breakdancer. Met my guardian angel. Lurked in the backdrop of the city’s most popular soap opera, which happened to film every once in a while in my boyfriend’s host family’s house.

 

Climbed inside a baobab. Immediately got shat on by two bats.

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Witnessed nature in marshes, on islands, over rivers, in skies—in all its magnificence.

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Got in a car crash: Lessons Learned from a Crash in the Dunes.

Met some celebrities: Tiny Tales #2: I Met Bidew Bou Bess at a Senegalese Chinese New Year Festival.

Odysseyed cross-country: 764 Miles, 3 Days, 1 Butt: My Trek Across Senegal.

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Dakar Study Abroad was a trip filled with moments of brilliance, but also moments of fear, anxiety, and brutal exhaustion. By the end of the quarter, I was sufficiently burnt out and ready for home—I wanted to eat food that wouldn’t make me sick, drink water from the tap, breathe dustless air, see sandless ground. I wanted night without mosquitoes; I wanted day without malaria pills. I wanted a healthy body that wouldn’t turn to panic attacks every time an anonymous illness made my vision go red or my ears go ringing. I turned in my final paper with the thought that I could never write another final paper again, ever, in my life. (Which is the sentiment that accompanies every final paper, but still.)

Yet the second I crossed over the threshold of the plane’s exit and re-entered America, I felt the loss of leaving Dakar. In comparison, America is so curt. It is so stressed-out. Whether people are reading, laughing, eating, or working, they are tense—time itself is a ticking bomb. Every step forward is a means to the end.

In Dakar, every step is simply a step. As my Wolof instructor Sidy says:

You Americans have the watch. We Senegalese have the time.

If you’re heading to Dakar for your next trip—have a blast!

If not, I’ll meet you there someday…

…when my bowels are back in working order and I no longer wake up shrieking at 3 A.M., having dreamt that I heard a mosquito.

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Fin copy

2 thoughts on “Dakar Survival Guide for the Everyday Toubab

  1. I am currently studying abroad in Senegal and I so relate to everything you wrote about. It makes me feel better to know that someone went through this too! And I also had Sidy as my Wolof instructor!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SIDY!!! WAAW KUMBA!!! What a small world. :’) Hope you are enjoying it out there! See if you can do a trip to Saly. If you’re up to it: Kedougou.

      Like

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