With a week under my belt in Dakar, I have already started to grasp the rhythm of life in my new surroundings. First thing in the morning, wake up to the sound of kids hustling and bustling in the common room, the sound of the kitchen awakening with the appetites of the day. Yawning with the pots and pans, stretching with the gas flames that warm up the water for my morning coffee. For breakfast, I have a baguette with margarine and coffee. Two sugars and instant dairy creamer. Before I’ve even finished stirring my coffee, other women in the household have already started preparing lunch and the time consuming parts of dinner. And by the time I have finished breakfast, there are usually at least two meat dishes and a large pan of rice cooking on the propane burners next to the stove in the kitchen. In my house, if it comes to 11am and you don’t smell something savory cooking like fish or chicken with a generous aroma of fresh onion relish, you’ll know somethings gone wrong.
Mondays we have Cheebu Jen, a Senegalese fish and rice dish, that is served—like most meals—in a large communal bowl that can span up to an arm’s length. The ladies I eat with often have a healthy appetite and a serious penchant for spicy foods so we happily scrape the edges of the bowl until the meal is finished—all the while laughing and joking about who can take the most spice with their rice and meat. Throughout the meal at least one of us will go back to the kitchen to fetch more sauce. I always feel special when one of my newfound friends breaks a good piece of meat or fish from the bone and throws it into my side of the big, round bowl to eat.
Between and after meals, we rinse the stainless steel bowls and dirty pots and pans with water to get rid of the excess traces of food that stick to the edges of the well-loved dinnerware. All excess pieces of trash are put into a small bag or bowl by the sink that is later emptied into a trash can outside. Then we take the dishes and wash them in soapy water and rinse them again in a bucket of clear water. They sit to dry at all different angles in even larger plastic containers, awaiting their call to duty at the next meal.
… And the days seem to revolve around these meals. These communal times for discussion, debate and degustation! Besides Sundays when we usually eat something light and sugary for dinner with out own separate plates, each meal is somehow a family affair that pull everyone together. I have to admit though, that at times it’s been a bit hard for me to adjust to the frequent division between the men who sometimes take their food upstairs in front of the TV while watching soccer and preparing attaya (a Senegalese tea tradition) while the women eat together downstairs with music videos or soap operas playing in the background and children run around creating trouble. But at the same time, it also makes me realize how I usually spend 80-90% of my time in predominantly masculine spaces without even thinking about it, especially by virtue of this project.
As the night falls, my ears become more sensitive to the sounds of Islamic prayer blasting on speakers across the city and reverberating off the brightly colored walls of my new neighborhood. Sometimes, I even wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds prayer that pierce through the darkness of my room and the calm late evening / early morning silence. The street lights in the part of town don’t work, so I tend to spend the sundown closer to home—periodically hanging out by the gated carport so that I can share in the lazy evening atmosphere as people return from work and go to visit friends nearby.
Although I enjoy people watching from time to time, I often get the feeling that I am the person being watched as my brown skin and curly locks make me stand out from the general population—sometimes drawing more attention than I’d like.
"But you are Senegalese" one of the neighborhood friends of my host family said to me the other night over attaya. "You are just different than the other Americans…" he said.
Instead of pushing to understand what he meant right away or overanalyzing his comment, I decided to just take it with a gain of salt and to let time tell the real meaning of this phrase.
For now, I’m happy just getting my footing in new surroundings.
As always, more RAPtivism to come….