Stories from Senegal: Moving in with a Host Family
Updated: Sep 13
Note: these #StoriesFromSenegal posts describe Katie's study abroad experiences from 2009.
January 6th 2009
Bleating goats outside my window
The call of prayer through a loudspeaker
Non-stop chirping birds
The scratchy sound of a broom against cement
Welcome to my new alarm clock for the next 5 months.
It's not every day you wake up in a foreign country for the first time, and it's deeply disorienting. It's kind of like HEY-WHAT-WOA-WHERE-AM-I-WHAT-TIME-IS-IT-WHY-ARE-THERE-GOATS-WH...!
Ohhhhh I'm in Senegal, studying abroad, okay...breathe...
Today is the day were are meeting our host-families!
We packed up and left the guesthouse we were staying at and had breakfast at WARC (The West African Research Center, where all of my classes will be) and it was as delicious as the morning before, consisting of an omelet with onions (and yet tasting as differently as possible from an “American” omelet), some baguette and butter, and some peachy orange juice.
When we were finished, we piled onto our bus for a city tour before being distributed to our respective host families, and it was a blast getting to visit all the various sights around Dakar, including a visit to the president's residence, some landmarks, and some ocean views.
After a busy morning, we were ready to meet our host families, and my stomach filled with a balloon-sized excited bubble. All of the students and I were both looking forward to getting matched up with our families while simultaneously worrying about whether or not we'd get along or be able to communicate easily.
Over the next hour, one of the program coordinators would stand up and announce which student was going to be paired up next, and off we'd go, bouncing around on the pock-marked roads until we reached the next sand-colored (and sand-surrounded) home.
I watched and clapped along with the others as each student walked off the bus, grabbed their luggage, and greeted a member of their host family, who would usually be waiting out front to welcome the student. In one case, it looked like the whole family was waiting outside for their student, and they broke into spontaneous dance in their excitement at her arrival.
Needless to say, I was building up some pretty high hopes for what my own welcome party would look like. I pictured a hundred ways that we'd all just be SO excited to meet each other!
Finally, after a few more drop-offs, my name was announced. I was next! OhmygoshogmygoshIhopetheyloveme.
We reached a quieter part of the neighborhood called Liberté 6 that had a large soccer "field" leading up to it (it was a giant sandbox), and then the bus stopped in front of a small beige wall.
"Is this... it?" I asked, peering over the bus seat like a reluctant kindergartner, eyes bouncing between the beige wall and the coordinator who condemned me to live here for half a year.
"Hold on, let me check," he said, getting off the bus and walking to the side of the house.
He found a hidden door to knock on. A shy-looking young woman answered, opening the door just a crack, and I peeked nervously through the window as they had a quick exchange. The coordinator popped back into the bus to confirm it was the right house and that the family was just gone at the moment, but the maid Fatimah could let me in.
(A note about maids: it's not uncommon for middle-class families to have live-in maids here, as we were told. In the US, a maid would be a sign of an upper-class family, yet here, in a home that would be categorized as "poor" by many in the US, they had a full-time maid. Our coordinators told us that it's not uncommon for young women from far-away villages to be sent to the city by their families (or to seek out the opportunity themselves) who earn just a few dollars a day and have room and board covered. It is often a better situation that they came from, even if it seems extreme or unusual from an outsider's perspective).
That nervous balloon inside of me deflated. I got up from my seat, said goodbye, and grabbed my luggage. Rather awkwardly, I greeted Fatimah, who didn't look like she wanted to babysit a 20-year-old white girl. She didn't speak French, I didn't speak Wolof beyond greetings, but it turned out she spoke some English since she was from the Gambia (where English is the official language, but she only got a few years of exposure before stopping her studies).
Despite this, after the initial greetings, we somehow communicated that even though I wasn’t hungry she was still going to make me a huge plate of rice and fish. It wasn’t going exactly as I hoped.
After sitting around awkwardly, eating awkwardly, and then sitting around awkwardly some more, I opted to just go for a walk.
Keep in mind: this was before my first smart phone; I didn't even have a local phone yet at this point. So, when I say just sitting around, it was old-school sitting around. Literally just sitting there staring at walls, the ground, etc.
So, this walk.
Best idea I’ve had since I arrived. While I was initially somewhat wary to just walk outside with no map, phone, or literally any way to become oriented, I told myself I wouldn't turn left or right, and that I'd just stick to this one street. I knew I wouldn't be able to find my way back since all the homes were the same sand-color with few distinctive features, but I also knew that 5 minutes was the maximum number of minutes I could stare at the ground while tolerating an asshole goat that wouldn't stop bleating at me.
Within minutes, my nerves were put at ease as friendly neighbors and street vendors all said hello as I walked by. Unlike in the US, many would ask genuine follow-up questions about how I was, where I was from, and why I was in Dakar. One of these folks was a guy who looked like a vendor. He was standing behind what looked like a very tall lemonade stand-like structure, and miscellaneous items for sale hung on and around and off every part of it.
"Salam Alaikum," he said, raising his hand with a wave.
"Ma alaykumu as-salam," I replied, hoping my pronunciation of this Arabic greeting was correct.
"Ça va?" he asked (French now).
This was my moment, I thought. All those pre-departure orientations and Wolof lessons...
"Mangi fi, alhamdulilah, yow nak?" I replied in Wolof and Arabic. I'm doing well, thanks be to God. And you?
"Wow, c'est impressionant!" he replied in French. "How do you know Wolof?"
My brain, my poor brain... so many languages to juggle...
"I don't, really, just a few words. I'm a new student at the West African Research Center and will be here for the semester."
And he proceeded to drag out two crates, invited me to sit on one, and we happily passed the next hour chatting about life in Senegal, culture, my own home, and a lot more.
When I decided it was time to go back to my new home to check if anyone had come home yet, I said goodbye and could have flown back, fueled on giddiness alone. It hit me as soon as I started to walk away that I had never, not even close, spoken in French for an entire hour before, and with almost no struggle. Having just studied in France the summer before, this was huge for me. Granted, people here speak much, much less quickly, almost reflecting the slower pace of life I was already getting a strong sense of here, and because it's most people's second or third language, many fewer complicated idioms, expressions, and cultural references were used, making it infinitely easier to follow and participate in a conversation.
Plus, people are just so WARM. So friendly! This was my first lesson in Teranga, which means "hospitality" in Wolof and generally just represents this human warmth so famous here in Senegal.
I was practically skipping by the time I reached the house, but it turned out nobody else was home yet. She asked me if I wanted come with her to pick of Yves and Louis-Albert, my host-brothers. I definitely wanted to start meeting my host-family, so we hopped in a taxi that seemed as though it may fall apart any minute, and away we went.
It was their grandparent’s house we picked them up from, and the kids were so excited to meet me. It was about the shyest I’d ever seem them, I later learned. Before we even left the building they had already claimed a hand apiece. I walked with them across the road and Yves sat on my lap in the taxi.
I think I grew a little on Fatimah too, because when I attempted to speak the little Wolof that I knew, she seemed to warm up and laughed when I butchered a simple greeting. Maybe it won’t be so bad.
I met my host-parents when I got back, and both were friendly enough, though I was surprised at how different they seemed than nearly everyone else I had met. They’re just a little more quiet and reserved. Everyone else I had met gets right up in your business two seconds after meeting them, in a good way. It was a little jarring since it almost felt like they didn’t care for me being there, though I later learned from my host-cousin that’s not the case, they’re just "different."
To be continued,