I have to say that it was heartbreaking to leave my lovely apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Not only did I have a stable job with generous vacation time (in publishing, no less!), dishes that matched, a closet full of swank outfits – in short, all the things one is supposed to have – but I was even surrounded by like-minded liberal types who shared many of my own values. Oddly, however, I was dissatisfied and decided in favor of a drastic change.
The upshot? I applied for a teaching position and am now living in an apartment with cold running water only, white plastic garden furniture in the kitchen and a foam mattress to complete my bliss. The apartment – and the teaching gig – are located in Dakar, Senegal. Yes, I do mean West Africa, about as far away from NYC as you can get in any number of ways. No one, and I mean no one, could understand my decision. Was I aware that many people in the Third World were coming to the US? (Yup.) Why on earth should I choose to do the opposite? (Dunno.) And choose to go to a predominantly Muslim country, no less? Would I have to wear a veil? (No, thankfully. The Senegalese are about as secular as you can get in the Muslim world). Would I even have electricity? (Yes, in fact, hence this column). What about malaria? (For people here, it is equivalent to getting the flu. When you feel the telltale tiredness coupled with fever and muscle ache, you get a shot in the rear and are good to go within two days).
But yes, it IS undeniably different here. For example, there is no real public transportation system to speak of (I may never complain about the NYC MTA again!) – the colorful car rapide is a gypsy van of sorts used by the locals. Given the unremitting heat and the cramped quarters, it is a pungent experience as well as a scary one. These decrepit vehicles, which may be likened to tin cans on wheels, would never in a million years pass any US or Euro auto inspection, yet the drivers operate at speeds worthy of the Paris-Dakar rally. (It might be worth noting that many of the more notorious NYC cabbies are Senegalese expats). Everything in fact here feels adventurous, from sleeping under the mosquito net to using the local currency (CFAs, Central franc africaine, linked to the Euro) to battling the unbelievably huge cafards or roaches with whom I share my abode.
Given the fact that I elected to come here, you can probably gather that I am quite an independent sort, but I have been discouraged from going out alone on more than one occasion, not for reasons of safety so much as economy: white skin = tourist, and so I am told I will be gypped as soon as I walk out the door. As there is nothing within walking distance and I am not overly fond of the tin can form of locomotion, I am confined to my neighborhood for the most part, which could be worse, as I live across from a fancy hotel and the Club Med, hence in one of the more desirable (read: affluent) areas.
As I was leaving the impeccable grounds of the Meridien hotel, one local told me quite rightly that this was Europe, not Senegal — I should come and see his village called Ngor (pronounced “in-gohrr,” complete with a Gallic kind of gurgle at the end), about 5 minutes away by foot. I thought about it and then followed. After trotting obediently up and down and around a pile of debris and across a stream (yes, I was slightly apprehensive) there was really an entire village of shacks complete with barefoot children as well as turkeys, sheep and chickens grazing peacefully in the shade of baobab trees. (NB: The fruit of this tree, called pain de singe, is especially helpful in cases of acute diarrhea. I won’t tell you how I know).
Ousseynou showed me the one room Arabic school and the mosque, and despite the squalor it had a lot of dignity. People here tend to be quite tall and slender with flawless posture. The women are exquisitely and colorfully dressed, bearing large loads on their heads with grace and ease, often with babies strapped on their backs as well. We walked all the way to the water’s edge where the fishermen keep their wooden vessels, called pirogues. Thankfully my guide walked me back to our starting point, as I never would have found my way through the labyrinthine alleyways of the village on my own. He then asked me for a contribution to feed his family, and so of course I complied, but I will have to be a lot warier in future or else this fool will soon be parted from all her money.