In my last article I mentioned how much it pained me to leave behind my swank US wardrobe items when I came to teach here in Dakar, but as far as fashion goes, at the moment all I can say is that I try to wear as little as I decently can in front of my classroom full of (predominantly Muslim) students. The little black NYC suits have not left the suitcase, and the idea of wearing jewelry or makeup – anything extra at all – is anathema to me. My students are no doubt convinced that I AM a shapeless sundress!
It is the beginning of November as I write, so it has ‘cooled down’ considerably from the murderously hot month of August when I first arrived, but ‘cooled down’ still equates to ’sauna-like’ (the average is about 30 C most of the year, with about 8 hours of unrelenting bright sunshine each day – and this during the so-called rainy season! It did rain, very occasionally, in short enthusiastic bursts that made my heart soar. However, the ‘rainy season’ – June through September – is now over, sadly, so the weather forecast for the foreseeable future is uninterrupted sunshine. While this would generally be considered a desirable thing, I realize, I am shocked to find myself sorely missing the thigh-high snow so characteristic of my time in Montreal.
About a month after I first arrived in Senegal, the holy month of Ramadan (coinciding with a period of truly intense heat) began. During the course of the month, practicing Muslims fast and do not drink anything from sunrise to sunset. Tempers were understandably short, headaches frequent, and malaria at its peak among the weakened locals. To those Senegalese teaching colleagues who laughingly suggested that I try to fast along with them out of solidarity, I merely responded that I liked my food and drink far too much for that. I therefore often joined in for my favorite part, namely the breaking of the fast each day at sunset with a round of dates and coffee (no, not Starbucks. If the US is the Fast Food Nation, Senegal should be dubbed the Nescafe Nation – instant coffee is the much-beloved norm, so all you half-caf-soy-milk-latte addicts beware before you buy your plane ticket! There is, however, a wonderful spicy local coffee called Café Touba that seems to be infused with cardamom or something similar, giving it a nice kick).
But to return to the heat : though I am someone who likes a hot shower, I do not even miss the fact that there is no hot running water in my current apartment. Swimming in the ocean is not only desirable but necessary after a day spent trapped in swelteringly hot non-air conditioned classrooms and offices, and even the locals continue to bathe in the sea until January or so. That is when the evening temps drop into the sixties, and apparently the Senegalese break out their sweaters. Needless to say, I can hardly wait! When friends from home write about pumpkin picking and boots and hot apple cider with cinnamon sticks or a slice of orange studded with cloves, it brings on a wave of nostalgia. Although the students here celebrated Halloween, it is somehow detracts from the spirit of the thing when you are perspiring under azure skies and hear no crunch of leaves under your feet. But there are watermelons galore in lieu of the pumpkins, so I suppose I should not complain, as they are sweet and wonderfully juicy.
Given my aversion to local forms of transport (see last column), I have taken to going on a daily walk along the beach, where I can at least enjoy the cool salt air off the water. Along the way, I pass all the exclusive nearby mansions with their sentries. The custom is to say “Bonjour, ca va?” to everyone as you pass. Often you stop, shake hands and shoot the breeze as well. Because it is hot and everyone is bored, I am peppered with questions as to my name, marital status and nature of my stay here. In Senegal, although it took me a while to realize this, sharing is caring, so if I stop to chat with one guard, it is clear that he will pass on any info received to his friends and their friends (also called ‘brothers,’ which again was misleading until it occurred to me that such large families as I was hearing about were biologically impossible, the Africans’ own jokes about their typically large families, affectionately referred to as equipes de foot, notwithstanding).
Sticking out like a sore thumb as I do, it is not as though I can pretend to be inconspicuous: the word about the “toubab” (white) schoolteacher from NY has spread like wildfire and I am now greeted enthusiastically by name by people I have never met (usually by those desperately trying to sell me everything from baskets to sandals to musical instruments as I walk down the street..!).