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

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

Confusing the ‘American Dream’ for the Good Life

Today A Life Overseas welcomes Jody Fernando as a guest poster. Today Jody writes an insightful post on the ‘good life’ and the Christian message and it’s guaranteed to generate some good conversation. You can read more about Jody at the end.

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Chasing the wind

A deep bass beat rippled through the darkness of the dance club.  Strobe lights flashed outlines of bodies, some clinging, some flailing, some just sitting and staring.  A newly arrived English teacher to Burkina Faso,West Africa, this wasn’t exactly the way I had anticipated learning about a new culture.  However, my new West African friends had mistakenly assumed that because I was American, this would be the scene in which I felt most comfortable.  I am neither a clubber by personality nor a dancer by ability.

I ordered a Coke and did my best to play wallflower – not an easy task for one of two nasaras (white people) in the room.  Pondering the scene, I realized ironically that I was the only person in the room not donning the “American” uniform of jeans and T-shirts.  As the beat shook the walls, we abandoned our attempt at conversation and coolly turned our attention to the crowd, all the while Solomon’s warning about chasing the wind thundering through my head (Ecclesiastes 1 & 2).

With tight Levi’s, smooth moves, and Coke bottles, the clubbers of the night chased their imagined version of what they dreamt the abundance of the West must be like. I recognized it as the unspoken ‘American Dream’ – the relentless pursuit of riches for oneself, comfort, materialism, image obsession and endless entertainment.

In class, my Burkinabé students echoed similar assumptions, believing that American streets were literally paved with gold.  Consequently, it wasn’t difficult to understand why a ticket to America was their dream come true (especially since most of the roads in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, were not paved at all).  This mentality recurred throughout Ouagadougou – American flags on T-Shirts, pictures of American movie stars on billboards, or American rock classic playing in restaurants.

As I grew to love the warmth of African hospitality and graciousness, I also grew increasingly fearful that such cultural strengths would be blown away by the very winds they were chasing.  

“This isn’t what you want,” I challenged my students one day as we discussed the opulence of American culture, “I know it appears enticing, especially in comparison to the poverty, hunger, and injustice people here face on a daily basis.  But what I see being chased – the pride of “image”, the greed of materialism, the selfishness of “independence” – is a façade.  It won’t get you any further than where you are now.  Financial poverty in America is limited, but spiritual poverty is widespread.  Not many go hungry for food, but droves starve for love, recognition, and success.  The injustice to our own is not as blatant as what many countries see in their leaders, but there are still many left unfairly forgotten, neglected.”

Living in America, I know full well the great gifts offered by my homeland.  Yet both Americans and the world alike need be cautious to mistake the American Dream for an authentically good life.  The good life in America is not, as many movies broadcast, a big house, flashy car, and fat paycheck.  It’s not even a trip to Disney World or luxurious day at the spa. In contrast, it lies in the richness of relationships, the depth of meaningful callings, careers, and passions, and the sweetness of community known throughout the whole world wide.  While it may take on a different flavor, sing in another key, or follow different rules, the good life knows no national boundaries.

Complicating matters even further, because the world so often views America as a Christian nation, it can be easy for those from other countries to assume that this materialistic, indulgent version of a ‘good life’ is also tied to Christianity as well.  This association hurts the gospel we carry forward, and leaves many with a broken interpretation of what it truly offers.

Like some of my West African friends, many Americans waste valuable time chasing the wind.  Sadly, we are not alone in our misguided pursuits.  The realities of globalization necessitate the world-at-large to exercise greater caution, discernment, and wisdom in embracing which aspects of our worlds we export to each other.  For Americans, surrounded by such abundance, the line between needs and wants becomes indistinguishable at times.  Yet an authentic life, one that chases more than just the wind, works hard to flesh this distinction out.  Both in America and across the globe, may the faithful not confuse the flashiness of the American dream with the rich blessings of a life well lived.

What does a ‘good life’ look like where you live?  What are effective ways to help people around the world separate the notions of the abundance of America/the West from the message of the Christian faith?

Jody ALOSAbout the author: Jody Fernando does a lot of living between worlds.  A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean.  Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents.  She explores the ins and outs of intercultural living on her blog Between Worlds, helps amazingly resilient immigrants learn to speak English, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry

 

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