I told a friend of mine that I was going to spend a week in Senegal, a small country on the westernmost edge of Africa. The news sparked a vivid memory for him. He had spent six months in Sierra Leone long ago, but his first experience on African soil took place in Senegal, in the capital city of Dakar, where his plane stopped briefly.
“I didn’t manage to get out of the plane, but the humid air that engulfed us when the doors were opened was the most exotic I had ever experienced and reeked of the adventure to come.”
His description came alive for me as soon as I arrived in that exotic atmosphere last week. My daughter, Nellie, my friend Barbara, and I were there to visit Nellie’s best friend, who is also Barbara’s daughter. Alisa has lived and worked in Senegal for the last 15 months ( see March 29, 2012 , Conversations with Maine), and was excited to share her new life with people from home for the first time. She had a full itinerary for our week – three days on the beach, four days in the city, visits to her favorite restaurants and markets, traditional meals at her workplace and with her former local host family.
At first, the powerful sensory presence of Senegal was so differfent that it was difficult to get my bearings. I could find no familiar context in which to enter the Senegalese environment, so I held a part of myself back.
In Dakar, modern amenities are juxtaposed with rustic poverty. Air-conditioned shops and restaurants might be next door to half-built buildings or crowded traditional marketplaces. Multi-lane highways and rotaries are lined with wooden market stalls selling dusty produce and other goods, while pedestrians cross lanes of traffic and clamber over the median. Goats and sheep wander freely everywhere — I watched one small herd mounting the stairway to a pedestrian overpass. Busy highways are shared by horse and donkey carts.
It is hotter than any place I’ve ever been, largely because of the humidity, which is profound and constant; one is perpetually covered in a sheen of dampness. I was initially overwhelmed by a hundred new smells, many not pleasant – garbage, animals, diesel, and heat-seasoned everything. Hard-packed dirt and piles of rubble are everywhere, creating a downtrodden appearance.
The downtrodden appearance, however, does not extend to the people of Senegal. Activity is endless in the streets of the city and the countryside. People are dressed well, in both Western and bright, traditional garb. They are friendly, welcoming and engaged in the occupations of life, with an appearance of peaceful contentment.
“It is the people that make Senegal,” said an American man who sat next to me on the flight to Dakar. He has been returning to Senegal for work and vacation every year since 1998.
Others repeated his assessment, and it became clearer to us all the time. We began to take part in the practice of greeting strangers with a friendly “Ca va?” in French, or “Nanga def?” in the local language of Wolof – How are you doing? The response is “Mangi fi,” — I am here.
I am here. It is a fitting reply, because one striking aspect of the Senegalese is that they are present. They do not rush down sidewalks, preoccupied, eyes to the ground, avoiding contact. They connect. They are here.
The exchange of names is important, and often serves as a conversation-opener. The importance became even more pronounced after Alisa assigned each of us a new Senegalese name. At first, I thought it seemed awkward, but when we saw how local people’s faces lit up on hearing our Senegalese names, we embraced our new identities.
I became “Rokhaya.” One early morning I was awakened by a 10-year-old girl sweeping the balcony outside my open window. When I sat up, I thought she’d be startled by my tousled head, inches away under mosquito netting.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Rokhaya,” I answered. She smiled.
I used the name again in many places, shaking the sandy hands of children on the beach, tossing Alisa’s toddler friends up in the air on the streets of Dakar, meeting the fruit sellers in her home neighborhood, chatting with taxi drivers. Sometimes I would meet another Rokhaya, or someone who had a relative with that name. “We are sisters!” they’d say cheerfully to me.
On the flight home, our Delta flight attendant, a 40-year veteran of the airways, told us that she flew the New York-Dakar flight as often as possible.
“The Senegalese are my favorite passengers. There is never any trouble – no drinking, no belligerence. The kids are polite; everyone is so pleasant.”
At the end of a week, I understood. I had found my bearings in Senegal. Not only do I understand Alisa’s comfort there, but I also have an inclination to return. Senegal opened my eyes to a new perspective on Africa, on “Third World countries,” and on what it means to share a hello across boundaries. If you had asked how I felt at the beginning of that exotic adventure, I would have said, “overwhelmed and out of place.” By the end, I could confidently say, “I am here.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.