Dancing On One Leg: The Gift of A Year in Dakar

by Editor on May 26, 2014

Today’s guest post is a gift to those who have just finished their first year overseas as well as to those who have been overseas for 15 or 30. Corrie Commisso takes us on a journey through her first year in Dakar, Senegal — a year of new words, new foods, new ways of interacting, most of all new ways to think about life. You can read more about Corrie at the end of the post but for now – enjoy this piece.

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Dancing On One Leg: The Gift of A Year in Dakar

Soo demee dëkk fekk ñépp di fecce benn tànk defal na ñoom.
If you go to a village where everyone dances on one leg, you should do the same.

(Wolof Proverb)

It’s mid-afternoon. The sun is blistering, high in the sky, a hole punched through the orange haze of dust and diesel fumes that has swallowed up the city. The humidity hangs on you like a wet blanket; heavy and oppressive.

You navigate through the crowded city streets, inching along in the sea of vehicles jockeying for position as they dodge horse carts, pedestrians, herds of sheep and goats and cows.

Horns blare. You join in and beep at a taxi in front of you who is straddling two lanes.

It’s hot. You’re tired. You’re already 20 minutes late and it’s not looking like you’re going to be arriving at your destination any time soon.

But you’re not upset. You accept the fact that you’ll get there when you get there, and when that taxi finally chooses a lane and nearly runs you off the road, it’s ok. Because he sticks his hand out the window and gives you a thumbs-up to say, “Thanks.” And there’s something about that thumbs-up that takes away your urge to share another universal hand signal. Instead you chuckle and shake your head. You think about trying the thumbs-up the next time you’re in the States and wonder how that will go over.

And this is how you know that finally, you are easing into the rhythm of life here, that all those things that seemed so strange and foreign and just plain wrong have become your new normal.

Now, when you greet someone on the street on your daily walk to buy bread, you don’t look at your watch impatiently. Instead, you begin:

— Peace be with you. 

— Peace be with you, too. 

— How are you?

— I’m at peace.  

— And your family?   

— My family is at peace. 

— And your children? 

— Yes, the children are well. 

— And the heat? 

— Yes, it’s very hot today. 

— You are in good health? 

— Yes, thank you, my health is good. 

— So, how are you? 

And you repeat this greeting, sometimes two or three times before going on your way.

You’ve stopped making To-Do lists, because you know that even the best plan of action can be thwarted by an inconvenient power outage or a blue and yellow car rapide stalled out in the middle of a highway. 

And yet you also know that help is only a moment away, no matter where you are. You know this from personal experience, from the time you decided to drive your truck on the beach only to find out a few minutes later that your four-wheel-drive wasn’t working. And when you panicked just a little because the tide was coming in and you were buried in the sand past your axles, 20 young men appeared out of nowhere with a wooden board to help dig you out.

When it comes to food, you know all the local dishes — yassa poulet, mafé, ceebu jenn —and you have a regular favorite. You don’t break into a sweat anymore when you are seated with a group of people around a large bowl heaped with rice, carrots, onions, turnips, and a whole fish on top — scales, eyeballs, fins, and all.

You’re wearing things you’d never get away with in the States…funky prints, chunky wooden jewelry. You’ve mastered the art of the fuggi jaay — which literally means to shake something out (fuggi) and then to sell it (jaay). At first you were intimidated by the maze of tents that makes up the traveling clothing market where vendors dump huge bundles of Salvation Army castoffs from the U.S., but now you know exactly how to sort through the piles of clothes, how much things should cost, how to score a mint-condition Gap t-shirt or practically new pair of Sketchers.

And when you hear the echo of the local mosque’s prayers, five times a day, you no longer tune them out like white noise in the background of your daily life . You watch as young men and old men bend over their prayer mats, and you take a moment to whisper prayers of your own.

You barely notice anymore the trash that piles up along the side of the road, on the beach, against the wall of your house. And when you do, you don’t think about how careless people are, but you think that if you had to support your family of six on $85 per month, you wouldn’t really care where the trash went, either. You recognize the problem for what it is: a symptom of the poverty that seeps into every corner of life here in Dakar.

And this is maybe the thing that you will never get used to, the thing that will never be normal to you: the dirty, outstretched hands of talibé boys forced to beg for their teachers, the exhausted mothers with babies tied to their backs pleading for bread or milk.

Can you feel it? Can you feel the prick in your heart every time you hold your palms open to show that you have nothing to give? Can you feel the weight of the poverty and the emptiness of religion? 

And in the middle of that, can you hear the laughter, the exuberant greetings, the rhythmic drumming of the djembéplayers? Can you smell the fresh fish being cooked over an open fire, the hot bread just out of the brick oven at the bakery? Can you see the wide smiles, the dancing women with their high-pitched trilling voices, the children giggling at you from behind their mother’s skirts?

Because for every difficulty here, for every impossibility, for every little thing that makes you raise your eyebrows and askWhy?, there is something else that makes you smile at its beauty, wonder at its simplicity. There is a rawness, an openness, the simple humanity of needing one another.

And because you have lived and breathed these things, because you have embraced them and come face-to-face with your own prejudices and weaknesses and inadequacies, you are forever changed.

I am forever changed.

This is the gift of a year in Dakar.

Have you just finished your first year? What gifts have you received from your adopted country? Or have you just finished your 15th year? What do you continue to love and consider a gift? 

Although she’s a passport-carrying, Starbucks-loving citizen of the United States, Corrie is also a wanderer, an adventurer, and a Delta Frequent Flyer Member who currently calls West Africa home. Hailing from Boston and a true New Englander at heart, she’s been known to occasionally “pahk the cah.” She and her husband live in Dakar, Senegal, where they work with English language students at Dakar’s Cheik Anta Diop University.

Picture courtesy of Tony Watters

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