Since arriving in Senegal on October 17th I “lived” in 4 different places in just three weeks. I have struggled to reach the most basic level of the famous hierarchy of needs which includes food/water/sleep and have been very touch and go with tier 2: shelter and safety. I have to say it is absolutely wild how much your mental focus shrinks to encompass only these things when they are at risk. Today, I’m writing about how my world got sucked down to the tunnel view of food-water-sleep because I think its important to reflect on the ways that insecurity over food/water/shelter can grind a life or even a whole population to a halt.
The original draft of this week was far too long for a single blog post. Anywhere you see an asterisk* that means there’s some extra details in the part 2 post of side adventures and footnotes.
Some Words About Maslow: the hierarchy is old, and the details are outdated. I don’t personally think “reproduction” or “sex” belongs on tier 1 because we aren’t going to die as individuals without it the same way we will die of starvation, dehydration, asphyxiation, or exposure without food, water, air, and climate control (shelter, clothing, fire, a/c, etc). I would put it in tier 3: love and belonging. The debate rages on in the dark corners of incel internet -just, not in my blog. So when I talk about the tier 1 physiological needs I mean the things we die without: food, water, breathable air, and enough control over the climate/our own body temperature so that we neither freeze nor overheat. Tier 2 is “safety” which includes things like having a reliable long term source of income, having decent health, having stable housing, and of course not being in danger.
Some Words About Comparative Suffering aka “It Could Be Worse”, aka “The Pain Olympics”: Nope. Individual reactions to different levels of stress and trauma are, you guessed it, individual. One person may respond to the same trauma or challenge different ways at different times in their lives. Two people may experience the same exact traumatic event and react totally differently based on their own past experiences and states-of-being at the time it happened. I have comparatively more resilience for dealing with culture shock and unexpected international adventure related obstacles than a person who hasn’t got my experience. I have comparatively less resilience in dealing with Dakar, Senegal than locals or expats who have lived here for years. All of our experiences relating to the challenges of living here are valid. So I don’t ascribe to “you think this is hard for you? the locals deal with worse conditions every day of their lives, so you can suck it up for 10 months”. I follow a “This is hard for me and wow, the locals deal with worse conditions every day of their lives, that is also terrible, no one should have to in these conditions” kind of mentality. No Pain Olympics here.
The Last Disclaimer: I am relatively safe and healthy here. I have not been without food, water, or shelter in the time since I arrived. I have simply had to focus far more of my mind, time, and energy on them than at almost any other point in my life. I still have an enormous privilege as an educated, white, American that I can afford to just book myself a hotel room and pay for the taxi to move my belongings. I can order delivery food or take a taxi to the grocery store. I do not have to walk around after dark in unsafe neighborhoods when the car breaks down. This hasn’t been about my needs not getting met at all, it’s about the fact that as said privileged, educated, white American I spend 95%+ percent of my life never even having to give more than a passing thought to how to get those needs met and for the last three weeks, it’s almost all I’ve thought about. I acknowledge that it is echoes of “poor little rich girl” (though I’m actually poor by US economic standards, I am definitely seen as wealthy out here in Senegal). It’s more than a little cringe in that respect, but don’t look away. This is how we learn and grow.
When Last We Saw Our Intrepid Writer
At the time of my last post (Monday, October 31), I was in hotel #2: a complex of furnished apartments that billed itself as a hotel. I was supposed to move from the unit I was in with the broken shower to another unit when it was emptied out on November 5, but shenanigans. I told you in my last post that the shower was fixed, I was incorrect. The building manager took the shower head away and cleaned it and put it back and showed me that water was coming out of it and then left. When I was just taking quick rinses to get the sweat and dust off me, I didn’t notice, but the next time I went to shampoo my hair, two problems arose almost immediately. One was the lack of hot water. (I’m starting to learn that hot water is actually a rare thing here, and mostly probably not a big deal because it’s hot all the time. I just really like hot showers.) But worse, the newly cleaned shower head projected water all over the bathroom. Enclosed showers are not actually common in many parts of the world. I haven’t had one in ages. Not even a curtain. The shower is just in the bathroom, there’s a drain in the floor. Some set ups are better for keeping your toilet paper dry than others. This one was sending so much water to the far end of the room that there were puddles on the counter between the sink and the wall. Nothing was staying dry.
I don’t know if the shower alone would have been enough to send me packing, probably not TBH, I could have worked around it. There’s more. The weekend 1-5am disco/nightclub that I mentioned in my last post continued on past the weekend and crept up its start time earlier and earlier until it was going from 8pm. The volume wasn’t just heard, it was felt. I was waking up so many times a night there’s no way I was getting a full REM cycle. I’m dealing with dust, and bugs, and cheap flimsy breaking stuff, but I gotta be able to sleep (tier1!)*.
At the point I realized that I was not going to be able to stay in that building, I was able to get in contact with a local realtor through the Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants). One of them had stayed in Dakar earlier in the year and her host mom was also a realtor. In many parts of the world, realtors are needed for rental agreements as well as property purchases. It was the same in Korea. Anyway, she had contacted me over the weekend to say there was a potential place that seemed perfect for my needs and budget in the same building where her parents lived (reassuring). At the time, I thought I’d get to see it on Monday or Tuesday. This was not to be.
Tuesday: When I Realized Things Had to Change
I was going not-so-quietly insane from sleep dep by the time Tuesday, November 1st rolled around. There was a program wide zoom meeting* with any Fellows who could attend and a few program coordinators in DC. They asked us how things were going, and I replied that there were some struggles for me. When they asked me to elaborate, I tried my best to be “oh haha, isn’t it funny, culture shock and new experiences” about it, but around the point where they realized I wasn’t getting sleep, they had a kind but firm “not ok” response. This alone was a bit shocking as my complaints about not being able to sleep in the room due to power outages the week before had been greeted with crickets by both my contact at the university and the Senegalese deputy RELO at the Embassy. It was a solid relief to have someone validate me about the housing problems for the first time since I arrived. They encouraged me to move as soon as I could, to contact the Embassy again, and said that they would also send a message about it.
By Tuesday afternoon, I got news that the realtor was at the hospital visiting family, but had no timeline on when she would be available or whether the apartment she proposed was still on offer. I went home from my meeting and started the search to move. I was only looking for something short-term, thinking once more (possibly with foolish optimism) that I was days away from a real apartment. My social sponsor (aka university contact) wrote me from South Africa to say that I could either move to a floor above the nightclub (he knows I can’t do that because of the stairs) or take the unfurnished apartment, and I again reminded him why that wasn’t possible (see previous post for details) and asked him to plan to help me start looking again when he got back to Senegal.
Wednesday: The Longest Day
Wednesday morning I awoke to find a response from the deputy RELO at the Embassy giving me approval to move to a new place and with some actual suggestions for how I might take the long-term housing into my own hands. Unfortunately one of the suggestions was the realtor I was impatiently waiting to hear back from already, and the other was a place that would not be available until January. I quickly logged back into Booking and Airbnb to search for a new place. I resolved to find a location where I could be safe and comfortable for a week while we kept on home-hunting. It’s increasingly difficult to find reliably good places online. Shocked Pikachu Face: people lie. People especially lie when money is involved. Desperate people really really lie when money is involved. So, Booking and Airbnb are full of places with fake photos and reviews by their own friends. You have to actually read what’s written to make sure it’s authentic and not a bot or a buddy. I’ve gotten good at this over the years, I’ve learned how to pick out places that will be ok for me and avoid the places that are likely to have problems. Years of detailed international vacation planning on a budget has prepared me for this very moment. I found a good looking place with an 8.9 rating on booking, a plethora of good authentic reviews, and confirmation of a functional elevator, but it was only available for 4 days. I needed to go, though, so I booked it starting that very day, hoping that an extension or a move to a nearby room might be possible after I arrived.
The complicated thing about moving in Dakar is that there are no addresses. When I arrived at the airport, the hotel sent a driver for me who knew where that hotel was. When I moved from hotel #1 to hotel #2, my social sponsor got a friend and a truck and drove me there. Now, I had move to hotel #3 all on my own. To make matters more fun, it was not a named hotel. It was a furnished apartment in a building on a main road, but didn’t list the name of the building on the booking site. There was no way for me to know which building, or what floor, or any specific information on where to go by website alone. I messaged the manager who gave me some cursory directions, said to have the taxi driver call him for more detail, and agreed to have someone meet me to help with my luggage.
Next, I went to check out of hotel #2*, and the lady at the front desk was rather sad about it. I think they liked having me because I didn’t make a mess or noise, and also didn’t need the cleaners in every single day. I told her about the nightclub music, because that was really the deal breaker, and the offer was once again … more stairs. I used my translating app to let her know that I had a health issue that made stairs difficult for me, and to her credit, she was amazingly sweet about it. She worked to minimize my time on the stairs when she was helping me with my bags, which shows that there is at least some cultural awareness of invisible mobility/disability issues.
She also helped me negotiate with a taxi to get all my bags to the new place. I have been largely avoiding taxis, because the expat ladies of Senegal tell me that their taxi experiences here are not unlike the ones I had in Saudi (for those new, or who don’t recall, there was some very gross and skeezy stuff). I have installed and used a car share app called Heetch (similar to Lyft or Uber) because there’s no haggling over price, you can put your pick up and drop off locations in the GPS, and there’s an added layer of security because they are registered with the company so if they sexually harass me, I can report them more easily.
This taxi driver was not bad. He wanted to chat in French, but he used simple language and spoke slowly with me. He did ask if I was married, but when I said I was (yes, I lie for safety and comfort) he didn’t try to get me to cheat on my “husband” (yes, that happens more often than you think). He helped me get my bags from hotel #2 and when we got to hotel #3, he didn’t just drop me and my luggage on the sidewalk, he waited with me while I got the hotel to send the promised luggage assistance to us. That was a harrowing few minutes because I have more luggage than one person can move at this point (it has expanded since I got off the plane) and I was trying to keep an eye on the taxi, the porter, and all my bags in two locations on a very busy sidewalk. Thankfully, I and all my bags made it inside in one piece.
The apartment was beautiful, but the power was out. Not in the building, electricity is unit by unit, so the elevator worked and we got the bags up ok. After some awkward internet translations, the guy told me he was going to get the power back on, and it should just be 5 minutes (in reality over an hour)*. When the power was up and running I couldn’t find the remote to the A/C in my room. I sent another message to the management about it and the general helper guy (porter, cleaner, electrician, but NOT the owner) came back over. He found a remote for me, but then something very strange happened. He was messing with the breaker box and the power for the place went out again. He spent the next 15-20 minutes flipping switches and turning the power on and off. There was a French speaking foreign woman with him who seemed pretty upset, but I couldn’t understand enough of the conversation to say why. I was too hot and tired to try, so I just lay on the bed thinking cool thoughts until it was fixed. It worked immaculately the rest of my stay.
I honestly think it was the best place I stayed. The building had an elevator, the apartment was spacious with a shared kitchen, living room, and balcony (great view over the city), the bedroom had it’s own key and a private bathroom, some amount of hot water and reasonable water pressure, good wifi. The owner even came to check in on me personally that evening. It will be hard to live up to.
I tried to order delivery again, but after 30 minutes of not having my order confirmed, I decided to walk up to the local shopping center before it got dark. There was a really nice grocery store and a mini mall. I got some staple groceries and it turned out the place I placed my delivery order from was in the mall food court. They called me while I was there, so I just went over and talked to them. They actually hadn’t meant to be on the app because they weren’t fully up and running, but offered to cook me the food anyway since I was there and gave me a complimentary peach iced tea while I waited.
I slept so well.
Thursday: Adventures in ATM
The day I checked in, the guy who was dealing with luggage and electricity also brought me my bill. I wasn’t really prepared to pay at check in, so I asked if I could pay the next day after I had a chance to find a bank. There were three banks under hotel #3 building so I thought that would be easy. But no. There are no ATMs in those banks. Culture shock is not knowing banks can exist without having ATMs inside. I asked the security guard at my building where I could find one, and somehow ended up being directed across town, like all the way across 30 minute taxi ride, and I was so flustered and confused that I just came back into the room to have a cry because culture shock is also having wild emotional swings! After I cooled off and washed my face, I started Googling a solution to my problem. I eventually figured out that ATM is the name of a home goods store here, so when the helpful humans were trying to show me where to go on the map, they were showing me a shop, not an automatic teller machine*.
After using Google Maps (yes, I know it’s an addiction, they should pay me a sponsor fee) to locate ATMs in the area, I went back to the mall to find one. The security guard there pointed me to a bank across the parking lot. The ATM inside didn’t work, but the bank security guard stood respectfully by while I used the one outside. There are security guards everywhere. Saftey tip: say hello to all of them every time you pass. Cash safely tucked in my bra (yes, ew, but I’m not risking hundreds of dollars in my bag which might get snatched off me by a motorcycle thief) I went back into the mall for ice cream. On my way out, I saw an ATM inside the mall right next to the grocery store entrance. *Sigh.
The realtor wanted to meet me after she finished work to go and look at an apartment I was pretty sure I didn’t want and couldn’t afford but I needed to show willing. I took a Heetch car over to her office and waited awkwardly on the street outside for her. I’m slowly getting more comfortable walking around on my own, but lone woman standing on the street is not ideal in pretty much any urban setting. Eventually she came out drove me over to pick up the landlord and then we looked at the place. I say that sentence like it wasn’t 30 minutes of traffic and phone calls trying to find the landlord, then trying to find the person who had the key, then getting the key, then getting to the place. Nothing is fast or simple here.
The apartment they wanted to show me was very far from the school. Not walkable at all. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it is a factor. It was on the ground floor (no stairs, yay) with good security doors/walls/bars, but because of that very little light. There was no A/C in the living room which is fairly standard, but less than ideal because as I had already found out it means I won’t use the living room when the weather is hot, and although they tell me it cools down in December/January That’s still me not being able to use the living room more than half the time I’m here. Again, not a deal breaker, but a factor. Here’s the deal breaker: you had to walk outside across a mini courtyard to get to the kitchen. Outside. To get to the fridge. They wanted 700,000 CFA for this. That is $1,067 USD. I once lived in a studio where the shower was in the kitchen and the bathroom was down the hall (that’s the building hall, studios don’t have halls inside them). That was only 425$ a month, and I was a broke-a$$ college student*.
I politely declined.
When I got back to hotel #3 for the evening, I went to see another apartment in the same building up on the 10th floor. I had gotten the go ahead to find a long term Airbnb stay because the week by week hotel hopping was too much. It was listed on Airbnb but had no rating or reviews. I was unwilling to book anything sight unseen after all the experiences I had so far, but I figured it was in the same building as my very nice room, so if it was a little less nice than the one I’m in now that would still be ok. Nope. The pictures on the website were some other place. Most of the amenities listed were not present, and the “furnished” room had no bed. I don’t wanna be the picky privileged white girl, but I feel like “bed” is definitely a key component of “furnished”. I went to sleep feeling even more hopeless than before because I was in a good space but knew I’d have only 2 days left to enjoy it before I had to launch into an as yet unknown #4. I still slept better than any night in #2.
Friday: Stopgap Solutions, Meet the RELO, and a Broken Down Taxi
Friday morning I arranged with the younger teachers here to stay in their spare room for a couple weeks while the quest continued. I messaged more places on Airbnb and scheduled a viewing for later in the day. I wrote another email about my progress (or lack thereof) to the people “in charge”, and my American RELO* asked me to call her.
Despite her own circumstances*, she said she understood my needs (a/c and minimal stairs) especially since she herself works all day in the nice, air-conditioned, clean and beautiful embassy. I’m still a bit worried for her, because I feel like she should also have at least A/C to sleep with in this weather but she said it’s ok for her. She doesn’t expect me to do the same just because she is, since our needs and daily circumstances are different, which is nice. She also said that if I got stable housing by December that would be a win. So. Ugh. At least no one is pushing me to work full time (or you know at all) while this is going on*.
In the evening, I went to view another Airbnb. It’s a beautiful house occupied by a Spanish expat with excellent English skills. She’s in her 60s and renting out her daughter’s room who’s gone off to study. The house is huge with a garden courtyard, and it’s walkable to the school and shops. The bedroom is up a flight of stairs and the bathroom up there is shared with one other girl, which is less than ideal but should be ok for a month or so. The real sticking point was that the empty room doesn’t have A/C. I explained why it was important to me, and I offered to pay the offset for the electric bill while I was there, so she said she would look into what it would take to have A/C available to me*.
Saturday – Now: Breathing Room
Over the weekend I moved in with the Fulbright ETAs spare bedroom where I’ll be staying for the next 2 weeks*. There was a whirlwind of stressful emails and text messages that I don’t have the strength to recount blow by blow, but the upshot of all of it was that I got some breathing room. I received word from the Spanish Airbnb hostess that A/C would be possible and I got the required approval to book that room for a full month (through Dec 21). I got in touch with another ETA who is leaving in December and I have made arrangements to go and see her apartment on Thursday of this week. Hopefully it’s going to work. She says it’s 1.5 flights of stairs and has A/C in the bedrooms and living room, but there are some “things” about it she wants me to know before I live there. It’s vaguely ominous, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough. If that place works, the Airbnb hostess says I can extend until Jan 1 when that apartment becomes available, meaning I’ll get my housing a mere 2.5 months after my arrival.
Despite the fact that it still isn’t fully resolved, I feel a sense of relief to see a light at the end of the tunnel even if that light is 6 weeks away. I feel like the giant knot in the bottom of my stomach and top of my spine have unwound ever so slightly, enough to be able to look up for the first time possibly since I arrived here. There’s this phenomenon that happens when things slowly get worse/harder/more painful that we know it’s not good, but we don’t really know how BAD it is until it stops. That happened to me with my sleep and the night club noise, and it happened with my whole cognitive self and the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Pyramid.
I am so profoundly excited for the opportunity to live and work here in Senegal, but I was 100% not able to engage with that excitement or adventure for more than a few seconds at a time while my brain was consumed with thoughts of being able to get food and water that wouldn’t make me sick and a place where I could sleep and feel safe for more than a couple days at a time. There’s a lot to unpack in the space between an intellectual and visceral understanding of how that hierarchy of needs works, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s important to remember to be gentle with yourself and others whenever those bottom two tiers are in a state of flux or uncertainty because even the most capable and resilient among us can sucked under when circumstances change.