A Random Day in Dakar

I have been in Dakar now for 8 weeks and no two days are the same here. I had some hope that getting an apartment and starting work at the university would create some regularity, but that’s just not how things roll here. I wanted to paint a picture of average daily life, but the truth is every day is different, so I’m just going to pick one at random.

My Fellowship is very much not like a regular job. I have some days at the “host institution” (for me, a veterinary school which has no actual English program or staff), and on other days I’m working on whatever professional development projects or cultural exchange experiences I can find. On the days I’m scheduled to be at my host institution, there are no regular classes. Instead, I’m set up to run an English Clinic as part of the veterinary clinical rotation from 8:30 – 4:15 (-ish) where I’ll see each of the year 3 and 4 students a grand total of one time during the semester. It’s obviously not a “class” in the educational sense; I’ve chosen to think of it as an English Promotional Seminar, which definitely makes me feel like less of a teacher and more of a “cultural exchange experience”, so I guess that’s on mission?

Nothing in West Africa starts on time, but so far, I keep trying. Feel free to place bets on how long that lasts. To get ready for English Clinic, I wake up at 7am, bleary eyed on a Monday and wondering why anyone would choose this. Marcus Aurelius hated mornings too, so I feel validated in my preferences for sleeping late. I start trying to find a car between 7:20-7:30 but there aren’t any. I watch the ride-share apps search and search for drivers to no avail. I go out to the street to scout for taxis, but the black and yellow vehicles which make up 80% of the cars on the road at all other times of day are nowhere to be seen at this dawning hour. When one finally appears and stops for me, he flatly refuses to make the drive south to the university. Though the taxis are thin on the ground, there’s no shortage of talibés (begging children) who have been forced out onto the hot and dusty streets by the so-called “teachers” at the Quranic “schools”. I retreat from the human rights violations that make me confront the horrors of humanity far too early in the day, and return to my apartment to continue trying the apps.

When a driver finally accepts my request around 8am, I know I have to face the inevitable phone call. There are no addresses in Dakar, so you give directions for everything. The apps have GPS maps, but most drivers don’t know how to use them well. Heetch, a French company in neon pink, has an option to share location and an in app messenger, but the drivers call anyway. Yango, red for Russia, even includes a “do not call unless it’s an emergency” option, which the drivers ignore completely. The drivers speak in rapid French accented with Wolof or another African dialect. When I first arrived, these calls were panic inducing, but I’m finally getting used to it. They’re probably going to ask where I am, they might ask where I’m going, or they could tell me they are stuck in traffic. This one is all three. I agree the traffic is terrible, and I know I have to wait. Two minutes later, he calls back asking me to cancel.

I keep trying. All drivers busy. No drivers available. Eventually another driver accepts and calls. They ask where I am, even though it showed the location on the app before they accepted the job, and they ask where I’m going. They tell me how long they think it will take for them to reach me, even though the app tracks them by GPS and shows me when they are near. It’s everything I hate about talking to strangers on the phone plus language barrier – every time. The driver arrives around 8:30 and we set off. He doesn’t want to take the Corniche, even though it is the most direct route it will be a traffic jam at this hour, so instead he weaves through side and back streets. He cuts back and forth between the seaside road and the interior road. Both are choked with cars. I watch the traffic which seems to be an ongoing negotiation, drivers signaling by any means except the turn signal – leaning out of windows to chat or yell, and occasional passing pedestrians helping to direct cars when things get truly jammed up. In the early morning rush hour, most major intersections and roundabouts have an officer directing traffic. There are no traffic lights anywhere.

Most drivers know where the campus is generally, but not the veterinary school. This driver is flying blind, no GPS in sight, so when we near the campus, he asks me for directions. It happens probably slightly less than half the time that the driver can’t or won’t use GPS (phone data costs money after all), it’s not the norm but still very common. This was another source of panic in the beginning, since when I was newly arrived I had no idea where anything was nor the best way to get a place. Now, I at least know the roads I travel regularly and I have enough working knowledge of the city’s geography to use Google Maps without getting lost. I am able to direct him to the school and we arrive a little less than an hour after leaving my apartment.

I walk onto the campus greeting staff, students and faculty in a mix of French, Wolof, and English, deposit my bag into my office and head to the security guard who has the key to the conference room that has been issued for my use. Today, the room is in use by another group, but no one thought to tell me about it until I was trying to get in and set up my clinic. It’s a wild departure from both Western culture (where I grew up) and East Asian cultures (where I’ve worked the last 6.5 years), but then again, so is showing up 60 minutes late and not getting reamed, so … when in Dakar, I guess. A few other faculty members who were wandering the halls popped over to help, and soon I was placed into a new conference room, a special room usually reserved, I’m told, for the director general. The complex process of making sure that my computer can be hooked up and both audio and video can be delivered to the students starts all over again. A third faculty who is more tech savvy must be called in for this. As we begin to get the TV and speakers online, I realize that the students have no idea where to come due to the unannounced room change, so a fourth faculty must be contacted to issue a broad text message to the students.

After some trial and error, we get the computer, tv, and speakers all talking to one another and I’m able to begin class around 10am. Just 90 minutes later than scheduled. Of the 14 students expected to show up, 10 are seated around the conference table. I breeze through the introductions and ice breaking games with the students, all but one of whom are uncharacteristically shy. I myself am particularly low energy having spent my weekend on an exhausting but interesting road trip. Perhaps were I less tired, or the students were less shy, we could buoy each other up, but instead, I declare a break after our second game.

Returning from the break, we charge through the listening comprehension activities and then break again, this time for lunch. I feel like I’m missing a part of the picture of how things work here and that I’m scheduling the sections and breaks badly. The students never act like I’m doing things the normal way. When I ask the one member of the faculty that speaks English well, he assures me that they are just being students trying to get out of work, but also points out that sometimes the teachers offer to skip breaks/lunch in order to finish early. That sounds exhausting, and I’m hungry. I need breaks too!

I walk out the back gate, passing the cows that no longer startle me so much, watching the pied crows drift lazily between the fences and the trees and listening to the calls of raptors riding the thermals above. The sun is oppressive. Despite the fact that it’s early December, and the temperature in the shade with a breeze might even be considered pleasant, the sun feels like it’s trying to eat my skin. It feels like reaching into the oven when the heating element is on, but everywhere. The faculty restaurant is nestled in a lush garden and in perpetual shade. During October’s heat wave the shade was not enough to make the outdoor dining bearable (and there is no indoor option), but today it’s fair enough without the hungry sun.

I like the faculty restaurant because it’s close, cheap, and fast. Most restaurants bring food out with the same attention to time as everything else here. If you were hungry when you sat down, you’re hangry by the time the food arrives. I wouldn’t dream of trying to eat at a regular Senegalese restaurant in less than 2 hours, but the faculty restaurant is half cafeteria. The dishes are cooked in advance and are waiting for the teachers to come in and order. Today I choose Thiebou Yapp, a traditional beef and rice dish served with a kind of onion chutney sauce that is a little piquant and only slightly spicy. Some days I might finish up with some attaya, a very sweet strong tea served in tiny cups, but I can see I need to leave to get back to the class on time, and I still have this lingering attachment to being on time. An attachment the students do not share.

I get back to the conference room/classroom just in time, but no one else is there. I wait and wait, and after about 30 minutes I decide to go ahead with the 5 students who have shown up. Over then next 30 minutes, 3 more students trickle in one at a time, the last returning over an hour after I asked them to. I don’t keep attendance or give grades. I will not see any of these students again inside a classroom until next spring. I understand why they might feel like it’s a waste of their time, and I can’t be upset at them for not wanting to do this ill-conceived program. I feel a lot like the school just wants to be able to say “English happened”, which was one of the biggest things I disliked at my last school. If my job is to teach, then I want to teach, not talk to myself in a room of 5 people who are falling asleep, reading their phones, or just zoning out because they can’t understand me, none of whom I will see in a classroom again for 3-4 months after our one day together.

The after lunch section is my least favorite part of the single day “curriculum”. The school asked specifically for clinical roleplay, but I’ve discovered two main problems with this. One – I’m not a veterinarian, so I don’t know what goes on in a veterinary clinic. And two – 90% of the students do not have the English ability to have a basic vet-client conversation even with a helpful worksheet. I can deal with the first part a little by researching, but nothing I do will make it possible for the students to gain conversation skills in a few hours. I desperately want to cut this section, and I am mentally preparing for how to do that, but I feel backed into a corner with it now because I need to be able to say that I tried it their way before I junk it, plus I’ll need time, energy and brain space to invent something to take it’s place (none of which I have on this day). It’s a struggle every time, and with this extra shy, extra small group of students it’s even harder because they are so reluctant to speak, but we survive. I praise them and smile and applaud and they decide to forgo the last break in favor of leaving early.

I don’t mind the idea of leaving early myself, so I walk everyone through the last section, a self-study guide with a list of free resources, and introduce the final game of the day. I love this game because everyone universally gets into it. I read somewhere that first and last experiences shape the emotional memory, so I want the students to have fun at the beginning and the end of my clinic day. AGO is a Japanese card game based on UNO but designed for learning English. It never fails to arouse competitive feelings and get lots of people smiling and laughing. In this case, the students who were so eager to leave early they wanted to skip the break end up staying late to finish their games. It’s a tonic to me too, when after a long day of pulling short quiet sentences from shy and reluctant students I can see them having fun again. It rescues me from the pits of despair that this otherwise futile educational effort brings on.

When it’s finally time to leave, I have to search for another car. There are no taxis along the small internal campus road, so my options are to use the apps or walk to the main road. I sit in a small courtyard waiting for a driver to accept my request. When one finally turns up, it’s an actual taxi, … part of the reason we agree to pay more for the app cars is that they are better cars, usually with AC, while the beat up little bumble bee taxis are frequently falling apart and have no AC, fine for short trips but rather miserable to be stuck in traffic in. But what are you going to do? I sit in the back and try to pretend that the wind through the window is enough for the nearly hour of traffic back to my apartment.

While I’m sitting there, feeling tempted to complain and feel sorry for myself, I slowly realize that the ever present butterflies of Dakar have become a flurry. There are always what I as a city girl think of as “a lot” of butterflies, but today the small white wings fill the air by the thousands. It’s impossible to film or photograph because they are so tiny and move so fast, yet as I stare out the window in the heat of stalled traffic, I am transported by the pure magic of witnessing this Senegalese snow. I had never thought of butterflies as a weather condition before, and yet even the largest of butterfly greenhouses I’ve visited have nothing on the migration I am witnessing from the back of the beat up taxi. The way they drift through the air looks like cherry blossoms or snowflakes caught in a breeze, though both are sights I associate with much cooler weather. I think about how un-Christmas-like I have been feeling as December continues on, and marvel at this little whirl of white. How can I be upset at traffic or late students when this beauty exists?

At home I go straight to the shower to rinse off the sweat and dust of the day and the traffic. I prepare drinkable water by moving the boiled water to the bottle in the fridge and boiling a new kettle to cool overnight. I watch tv, eat dinner, and log into another zoom call to manage the bureaucracy. The next day, I’ll decontaminate my produce delivery to make the fresh fruit and veggies safe for my delicate western constitution, and I’ll figure out what the next step in the next project that needs my attention is. Life here is more different from any place I’ve lived in a long time, there’s no routine in my job because everything is always changing, and no routine in my life because it’s always breaking down, getting replaced or being updated. I am still not sure how I feel about this lack of stability and constant uncertainty, but I do know that without it, there wouldn’t be unexpected moments of beauty and joy, so for now, I’ll take the trade.

4 thoughts on “A Random Day in Dakar

  1. Hi, Karen.
    It’s always a delight to read your posts and see the world through your eyes. I had been following you since your Saudi days but when I stopped blogging, I stopped reading. I really need to scroll back and catch up.

    So, your finally in West Africa! I thought you’d start with Nigeria but Senegal I also a good place. You’re spot on with the the time challenge and it’s because, as you rightly observed, you cannot count on anything to be the same as it was yesterday.

    The talibes are called al-majiri in Nigeria and I’m appalled that they also exist in Dakar although I really shouldn’t be so surprised. Its also quite challenging to keep them off the streets here.

    Do make out some time to tour the rest of West Africa before you leave. We’re very hospitable to our guests!

    • Hi Khadija! (It’s Kaine, by the way, not Karen). It’s so good to hear from you again after so long! I hope you’ve been doing well since you left the site. I would love to come to Nigeria, but I have to go where the work is, and the Program sent me to Sengegal. It looks like we might be going to Tanzania in February, too. With any luck I’ll be able to stick around long enough to do some personal travel, inshallah!

      It’s a shame about about the kids, yes. I read some news that said the Dakar government was trying to get them off the streets, but doesn’t seem to be doing much good.

      All the Best!
      Kaine

  2. I’m cringing looking back at my comment with all the typos. I heap all the blame on autocorrect! Of course, it’s Kaine.

    It’s a herculean task keeping these kids off the streets giving our high fecundity + poverty rates in this part of the world.

    Anyway, do make out time to come to Abuja. It’ll be delightful to have you!

  3. Autocorrect is the worst! Don’t feel bad, though, my counterpart here in Senegal called me Karen for days before I didn’t need to correct him anymore, and we were in person!

    As much as I hope to visit more places in Africa, I’m here with a US Government program, so I can’t just travel as I like in my free time, I have to get permission to visit other countries. Sadly, this program doesn’t extend to Nigeria (probably because English is already so prevalent there), but if you know any professional development opportunities for English teachers in Abuja, it would make it much easier for me to visit on this assignment 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s