Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dear Obama: A Short Guide to Dakar

Dear Mr. President,

I hear you’re coming to town at the end of the month, and I understand that it will be your first trip to Dakar, “The Gateway to Africa.” I’d just like to suggest some things that might make your stay a little easier.

1. Eat some ceeb u jen at least once. It’s great food, but it gets a little old rather quick, but I should warn you: eat small bites slowly because there are a lot of bones. Bonus points if you do it like the Senegalese: Sit with your family on the floor, eating from a single large plate with your hands.

2. Drink ataaya. It’s Chinese tea, mint, and sugar, but it’s some of the best stuff in the world. The trick is, you have to find someone that you can sit with while they make it, because it really is better with friends. Where I live, we have the tea every night, making the tea in a kettle over a portable gas burner. Three glasses is the standard serving amount, and sometimes it can take 30 minutes or more to prepare the tea between those glasses! But that’s okay, because it’s not actually about the tea; it’s about the circle of friends.

3. Skip Sandaga Market. It’s overrated and you’ll probably be pickpocketed.

4. Skip the African Renaissance Monument. Every Senegalese person I know thinks it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world; a symbol of national vanity under the guise of Panafricanism, and a symbol of the theft of resources from the Senegalese people. “Renaissance de quoi?” they ask me. So just drive past it on your way to the Embassy, take a glance, and then put it out of your mind. And besides, the thing was built by North Korea.

5. Get out of Les Almadies and take a drive down to Medina where I live, and say ‘Hello.’ The demographic of this neighborhood isn’t unlike that of Cleveland: many hardworking or out-of-work “blue collar” people that just want their fair share of the pie (although, don’t confuse that for “middle class”). As far as I know, everyone loves you, and if anyone could use the pick-me-up, it’s these people. (Note: I might be a little biased, as I live in Medina.)

6. Take a cab. Half the fun is the haggling part, so here’s a short guide. You’ll want to go from Les Almadies to Medina, and for an American that costs about 2.000FCFA. Walk up to the window, say, “Asalam alekum,” even if there’s a Fox News camera in your face. Follow with a short exchange of “Na nga def,” and “Yangi ci jamm?” Tell him you want to go to Medina and ask how much that costs (Nyata la?). Now, even if he doesn’t recognize you as the Borom keur du monde, he’s still going to know you’re American, so he might say 5.000FCFA, but that’s not good enough. You say “Deux mille,” and he’ll say “Trois mille,” but you need to stick to your guns better than you do with Congress, or he’s going to take you for everything. A little more Wolof should do the trick: “Bes bu nekk, c’est deux mille” ("Everyday, it’s two thousand!"). He’ll either relent – “Yeegal” means “Get in” – or argue more. If he argues more, start walking away and he’ll either call your bluff and drive off, or say, “Okay! Deux mille, c’est bon.”

7. Take a car-rapide or Ndiage Ndiaye. These are public transports of the masses, and they cost next to nothing. If you insist on packing it full of family and Secret Service, at least do it the way the Senegalese do it: five to a bench. Your American proxemics will tempt you to sit 4 (or even 3) to a bench, but resist that urge for the authentic experience. For bonus points, ride on the back.

8. Watch a wrestling match, even if it’s a rerun of Balla Gaye 2 versus Tapha Tine (which will undoubtedly be playing again and again until the end of time). Keep an eye on the hour or more of pre-fight rituals where the fighters receive tools from their marabouts (spiritual advisors) and use them to curse their opponents. It really is a fascinating event.

Well, that’s all I have for now, and I’m sure I’ll think of more. Shoot me an email; I’d love to give you a tour and talk about your experiences as the son of an anthropologist (who, by the way, was a first-cousin of one of my anthropology professors).

Jerijef and jamm ak jamm!

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