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When the Abnormal Becomes Routine

Right now, there are thousands of sheep on the streets of Dakar. Thousands.  Some of them wander aimlessly amongst the dusty streets, followed by boys with sticks to keep them in line. But most are corralled together in makeshift pens awaiting their eventual slaughter for an annual festival called Tabaski (this is Eid al-Adha, observing Abraham’s binding of Ishmael, and the eventual ram slaughter).  This temporary zoo/meat factory, to me, is completely and utterly normal.

When you live three years in a developing country, there are things which, when you first arrived caused double and triple takes, but now seem perfectly routine.  Like cows walking in the middle of a traffic circle, clogging rush-hour traffic for half a kilometer. Or like using kilometers to measure distance. 

When I first arrived in Dakar, I marveled at all of the differences.  We (and by we here, I mean expats) can’t help but compare our current home to our previous country of residence.  “Back when I was in (fill in random city here)…” is the common refrain for the first six months of expat life.  It becomes so cliché, “This one time… at band camp…” So yes, I marveled, eyes wide, taking in all of the sights and sounds and smells Dakar offered up.  Three years on, and I hardly bat an eye at the taxi held together by string, duct tape, and faith. 

I have been chronically bad at updating this website since we’ve lived in Dakar. I could blame it on being busy, which would be an accurate, albeit very lazy excuse.  The truth is, I don’t write as much because I feel like I don’t have as much to say.  My day goes something like this: I get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work and sit in front of my computer in my cubicle and return home in the evening to stream some Netflix to unwind. What’s so interesting about that?  However, it occurs to me, especially following a long sojourn in the U.S. this summer, there are things which now seem perfectly common place to me.

My day starts in the car. Senegalese music radio stations play a seemingly random combination of Senegalese hip hop, French pop songs and 80s glam rock.  But the hip hop they choose doesn’t necessarily need to comply with FCC regulations.  Now, I’m all for people freely expressing themselves, and I may have even wrote a high school essay vilifying Tipper Gore, but the F-Bombs and N-Bombs dropped made me blush… especially when there are younger ears in the car.  Senegalese hip hop artists do not hesitate to use any of these words and worse, to the point that a few years ago the US Embassy brought a hip hop artist from the states to speak with a collective of Senegalese artists to mainly say, “hey guys, you don’t need to say nigga in every song.”  I’m not sure the message got through. So now I just listen to podcasts.

On the road, there are numerous obstacles to watch out for.  Most of the main roads in Dakar are paved, but a good portion of the smaller roads are dirt and sand, and during the rainy season these are littered with potholes.  A friend once shared with me the dog quotient of development; that is, in developing countries, the dogs could care less about an SUV barreling down the road towards them, which would send an American dog scurrying towards the bushes.  A Senegalese street dog could give two shits. And at first I would call from behind the wheel to the dog, “MOOOOOVE! Move out of the way so you don’t get hit!!”  Now I know: this dog fears no car. However, something that I can’t get used to are humans with the same mentality, something that is more prevalent here than one would expect.  “Take your time, bro!” as folks lightly saunter from the middle of the street to the middle-right side of the street to give the appearance of avoiding an unpleasant brush with my side mirror.

The lack of concern about being hit is not exclusive to pedestrians. Other cars drive as if they are looking for a few extra dents before they reach their destination.  When I first arrived in Dakar, this would stress the hell out of me.  Now that I’ve been here a while and (probably more relevant), now that my car has a couple of dings, I try to take a Zen approach to traffic; we’ll get there when we get there. If this car feels the need to zoom ahead of me, risking a head-on collision with a donkey cart just to get to the traffic circle 15 seconds before me, so be it. Serenity Now!

When I do get into work, it takes me about 10 minutes from when I walk into the office until I’m sitting at my computer working.  It isn’t that my desk is a kilometer from the door, nor are our computers running Windows 95 (give the USG some credit…), it’s that in Senegalese tradition, it is polite to go around to all of my colleagues and say hello.  Greetings in Senegal are immensely important.  When a stranger comes into a room, he or she will routinely go around giving salutations and handshakes to every individual.  It took me a while in country to realize how very cool this tradition is. Yes, it does take longer to get the first email out, but it also means that everyone in your office has a chance, at least once a day, to interact and have a friendly exchange with everyone else.  It is truly amazing how many times a day I say, “Ça va? Ça va.”  It’s like every day is a Flight of the Conchords episode (especially the last line).  It is so polite and wonderful to great everyone, and yet… I sorta wish a new phrase would pop up. I try to add in new ones, (“En forme?”), but “ça va” just cannot be stopped.  

Some might find living in a country that is 95% Muslim strange, especially for a Jew like me. Those folks would be WAY, WAY off.  The Senegalese are so tolerant of other beliefs, so friendly with their Christian neighbors, and so steadfast in their devotion to hospitality that the only place I’ve felt more comfortable with my Judaism is in Israel. I enjoy hearing the hauntingly melodic call to prayer at 5:30am. I love how on Fridays, every one of my colleagues dresses to the 9s because they go to the mosque straight from work.  It is refreshing to joke openly about religion with friends at work because we know where everyone stands and piety isn’t something to be ashamed of.

So as we come up to Eid al-Adha (aka Tabaski), and as those sheep move closer and closer to doom’s day, I am trying to be mindful, and even thankful about these small differences I am experiencing.  We are in our final year in Senegal.  I really only have 10 months to cherish these rare sites before we are off to the next adventure. So bring it on Dakar! Show me your strangest feats, your oddest behaviors. Make me take a second look. I want to remember all of this for years to come.


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