The Longest Day of the Year

Trip Start Dec 28, 2007
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6
Trip End Jan 15, 2008


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Flag of Senegal  ,
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Though it is just past the winter solstice, which is supposed to be the shortest day of the year, mine has seemed to continue on interminably. I have yet to feel inspired to start writing, but I figure I might as well start before it's too late. I'm sitting on the terrace of L'Hôtel Massa Massa. This place reminds me of Nate's uncle's house on Cedar Island. The group has dwindled down to consist of Rob, Dan, Tyler and me, as we discuss the woes of structured papers. There is a real chemistry in the group that I did not expect. It is amazing what a roller coaster this trip has been so far.
My journey got off to a rock start when I almost was in an accident on Philadelphia Road. I was drinking my coffee (made with egg nog instead of cream) when I skidded on the ice. The car in front of me had stopped and I swerved to avoid hitting it. I was looking forward to the warm African sun and forced myself to stay alert though my mind was cluttered. The rest of the drive was uneventful and I arrived a bit early to Grace's house. Once the Livingstone clan had assembled we proceed to Reagan National airport.
We met up with the group and checked our luggage. We lingered around, simply waiting-it seems to be a trend for the trip. Once through security we sat in a circle munching on breakfast/snacks and talking. The conversation was scattered and yet it persisted. When we were on the plane it was delayed for an hour, so we raced to make our flight in Atlanta. We panicked when Patrick was not on the plane and the flight attendants were about to pull his luggage. He arrived just in time with the explanation of having to wait in line for gum. Sandwiched between him and Michael (the birthday boy), we competed in the trivia game. My trust of its factualness was questioned when it said Charlotte Bronte (instead of Emily Bronte) wrote Wuthering Heights. Along with the answer there was supposed to be additional information ("in case you wanted to know"), yet sometime the helpfulness of these explanations was often limited to "why, it's ____ of course" or "obviously." Passing the time by playing Insaniquarium and attempting to watch Superbad, I did not get much sleep.
In Dakar, we arrived at 5 am and breezed through customs. While we waited outside a man pretended to be part of our party and offered to exchange our money. I was suspicious of the scam and felt uncomfortable, especially when he singled me out for conversation. I avoided his gaze yet he moved so that I was forced to look at him directly. My first meeting with Baboucarr was also abrupt as I made the mistake of greeting him with a "Bonjour." (As a Gambian, he speaks English and not French.) Once we loaded our luggage up on the roof of the bus, we drove to L'Hôtel Ocean. We were too early for breakfast and explored the nearby alleys before going out onto the balcony. In this first hour I took more than 30 pictures, experimenting with my new camera and trying to capture the exhilaration of actually being in Africa. We had our first breakfast with baguette and coffee/tea, though we did have the luxury of juice. We (not so subtly) observed a local fisherman and later a man defecating on the rocks. Despite such an instance, it was surreal.
We drove down to L'Université Cheikh Anta Diop. I was so excited to see posters on developing local languages (the subject of my final project), though I was not convinced that they were setting up the framework for bilingual programs. As we walked around the campus, I saw my first baobab, the magnificent trees that I was introduced to in Le Petit Prince. Surrounded by the buildings, they did not have the same presence as they did in the countryside. We toured the library and thought the facility was nice, the actual resources (books, etc.) were disappointingly low. I was not sure what surprised me more-the facilities or lack of resources because I did not have definite preconceptions. I continue to be baffled by the juxtaposition and the priorities of the projects.
We were stuck in traffic out of Dakar and the trip to Thies took over three hours. A great marabout (the khalif) had died and many were traveling to Touba to pay their respects. When we stopped for gas, the bus was surrounded by women and girls selling tangerines. They actually reached into the bus through the open windows. I was torn between pity for this desperateness and annoyance at their aggressive behavior. After a while on the trip, my patience would wear out, but this first encounter surprised me more than anything else. Eventually the lore of the new country wore off and I attempted to catch up on my sleep.
My first taste of Africa was chicken yassa (or "yassa poulet"). The table was split between orders of chicken and fish, since the waitress would not even give us a menu. I hesitated to be so adventurous and worried about the details. We were joined by two guests. I talked with the man who worked as a teacher trainer and attempted to see what he knew about a bilingual program. When I asked him if the teachers used two languages in the classroom, he assumed I meant English and French. His response made it clear that the idea of using local languages in the classroom had not even occurred to him. When we went into the market to buy gifts for the marabout we would be visiting, he helped me buy a plastic razor (which I had left at home). As I waited with the group, a man in the market touched my butt as he passed. I was incensed by this treatment and felt like an object.
Our journey to visit this marabout was blocked by a large baobab tree that had fallen. Though the girls all wore long skirts to be respectful, we all climbed over the tree before continuing by foot. Luckily it was not too far. The marabout was wearing all white and can only be described as stately. We removed our shoes before entering the room which housed two couches, and some cushions on the floor. The marabout spoke in French, his voice so soothing that it was hard to focus on distinguishing the words (a process impossible for many of my peers who did not speak French and had to rely on Professor Roberts's interpretations). We were trying not to fall asleep when they gave us soft drinks.
There was singing outside as the children learned their prayers. They were invited inside and after shaking our hands, the performed one of their incantations. I truly felt a sense of peace, especially as the marabout talked about an underlying universal humanity. This welcome would be extended by many other religious leaders and it stood in stark contrast to the stereotypes of Muslims who shun the West. Louis politely asked the marabout's opinion about the relationship between church and state. The marabout's response delicately stated that because Islam is regarded as a way of life, it must be a part of politics. This is what makes the instruction of the Qu'ran different from the other books. We took our picture with him and said our lengthy goodbyes. I experienced my first slight (though it was not as bad as others to come) when he would not shake the girls' hands.
We walked out into the dark and were relieved to find that Bakary had managed to back up the narrow driveway and find another way to reach the entrance. I was feeling more at peace than before and was delighted by the children of the religious leader. His two youngest children were absolutely beautiful. His daughter seemed to take a liking to me and would smile and wave. It was my first moment where I connected with someone there. I also talked with his wife for a brief while, but we were the only ones conversing, so we were interrupted when her husband was done. Again, it took a while for us to depart especially because we took a picture outside.
Once we got back to the hotel, Rob, Patrick, Tyler and I walked to the Shell station hoping to get some water bottles at a more reasonable price. I talked with the people in French even though it was hard for me to understand them perfectly. Patrick was able to call home, though we were forced to wait while the man went to find us change. The concept of money is so different that it amazes me. Friends borrow without any need to formalize loans, etc. Especially among sellers, the concept of money is fluid.
At the hotel, we went up to the terrace and the whole group of students eventually assembled there as we gossiped and shared stories. Overall, I am in a divided state between the moments of anger when I feel like an object or second class citizen and then the moments of intense connection. I hope to focus more on the moments of insight as I adjust to the culture shock, but it is hard with the constant traveling and meeting with leaders as I feel like I am on a roller coaster.
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