Wednesday, August 10, 2011


There are a lot of good things about life in Dakar, and some thing that are not so good. And then there are quite a few aspects of the life here that are not better or worse than life in the village, just different.

No one farms here in Dakar, and there's not much animal herding either. Even newer neighborhoods like mine, where there are still many empty plots and unfinished buildings, there's not much open space here. My neighborhood does have a small herd of cattle floating around, but that's about it. I always hated the cows out in the bush; whenever I walked to my site mate's village just a few kilometers away from mine, I would be a little nervous about surprising some one-ton cud muncher into forking me with those insane curved horns they all have. So it's strange to run across them here, too, where they occasionally pass by me peaceably as I walk to work.

But no farming, none at all. So I guess I have no right to be upset that there's not much of a rainy season up here. Dakar has its own microclimate, so we get a lot of humid days when we can see clouds on the horizon in every direction and unrelentingly uncomfortable nights when everyone stumbles into the office the next mornings looking like they've spent the last eight hours stewing in a puddle of their own sweat instead of sleeping. Here, I miss out on the pleasure of feeling the cold wind blow a storm right up to my doorstep, the satisfaction of watching the rain fall on my host family's fields of millet and peanuts, the adrenaline and fear and reckless joy of riding out a violent storm in a hut I knew was made mostly of mud and sticks.

There are other things that come with the rain here. Our apartment floods a little bit. I don't mind mopping the floor for half an hour after each sparse rain, especially because there aren't going to be many of them. But it does feel like a petty move on the weather’s part. Really, storm clouds? My hut made it through all those rainy seasons without collapsing, but these bullshit raindrops are going to form a stinking greasy puddle around my trash bag?

Overall, though, this is good. I like our neighborhood. It’s a three-minute walk from the Peace Corps office, which is handy. There’s a vegetable market right outside our doorstep, where Senegalese women sell carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage, grains, bissap flowers and even meat. For our higher-maintenance moods, there’s a well-stocked grocery just behind the office, and a variety of restaurants within walking distance too. There are even a couple reasonably seedy, non-touristy bars.

As I sat with a friend on the front patio of one of these bars, sweating out the final hour of the late afternoon and wishing desperately that the miserable portion of the Atlantic ocean we were staring at would offer up a breeze to lift away the blanket of humidity, a skinny, sad-looking Senegalese man walked up to the bar with a cage full of birds. Tiny birds, making lots of screechy panic noises, apparently for sale. A Senegalese man at the table next to us, who had been nursing the same beer and talking quietly with his friends for as long as we had been in the bar, stood and demanded how much money they cost.

The skinny man with the cage looked three parts dead. I didn’t think he had it in him to rise above his exhaustion and answer, but they negotiated and exchanged money, and then the skinny man handed over the cage to the bar patron. Without hesitation or a single glance at any of the rest of us, this man stood up, opened the tiny door to the cage, and started shaking it up and down, side to side. Birds spilled everywhere, shooting off into the sun. I stared and stared. Everyone in the bar must have been staring. When only a few birds remained, too shocked to find the way out of their bouncing, shaking cage, the man stuck his hand in to flush them out.

“Leave them, don’t shake the cage, and they’ll fly out on their own,” I shouted in Wolof. As if I had all the experience in the world with this type of thing. Jesus.

“No, it’s fine,” the man replied, not even glancing my way. The last bird flew away, and the man handed the cage back to the bird seller, who didn’t even seem to have noticed what had happened.

I was still gaping at the man openly. I wanted him to make eye contact so I could ask him why he had done what he had done. I wanted to know what the birds were to him, what raw, jangling nerve their captivity had touched in him. His action must have meant something, but I never found out what. He went back to his table of friends and his beer. From as much as I could hear of their conversation, they never brought up the subject of the birds. I didn’t understand at all. This is our local bar.

The electricity at our apartment is mostly on, the water mostly comes out of the taps when you want it to. The roof doesn’t leak, but then, we’re on the second floor. One neighbor on the fourth floor is a fellow American, and next to him lives a Senegalese family. Below them, there’s a family from Cote d’Ivoire. And then there’s us, and then the guard below us. There’s a sort of inverse balcony that cuts through the building, a big open space that allows the sound to travel freely from apartment to apartment. I hear the guard waking up before dawn prayers to take his first meal of the day, which is his last for 14 hours, this being Ramadan. I hear a girl or young woman on the floor above me singing during weekend afternoons. She sings like she’s alone in her apartment, her large family all gone for a few hours while she has stayed behind, perhaps to sweep and clean, perhaps to sing.

The work is good, too. I’m proud of what I’m a part of. It is refreshing to be able to embrace a task without cynicism, with hope and passion, with comrades. I come home exhausted and emptied out every early evening, and it feels honest.

Even just that three-minute walk home is something satisfying. Even as a white girl, my relationship with my neighborhood is different because I speak Wolof. The construction workers and guards around here know my name and greet me as I pass, as does the elderly lady who presides over a small boutique. She is losing her eyesight, but she writes down every purchase and sale she makes and she knows where all her grandchildren and relations are at every second. Her name is painted above the boutique counter in big, bold print. She has a domain, and passing by her in it makes me feel a little like I do, too.

This is not the village; it is not home. But the village was not always home, either, and I had a few miserable days in the beginning when I didn’t understand that fact. I remember with perfect clarity the day early on in my service when I realized that it was a place I would come to love, full of people I would come to love. I’m not saying that’s going to happen here. But I like knowing that it might. And until I have that feeling again, either here or somewhere else, I can live here, and greet the people I know in the street and be a part of this world and feel like I understand it and fit in it and belong to it. If I ever get too comfortable, I can go back to that bar where I saw the man let one hundred tiny birds go free, and remember that there are also always mysteries and experiences left in the world, and that there’s always something to do and somewhere to go tomorrow.

Love and guts,



  1. Jessie, reading your blog inspires and humbles me.