So this is my third attempt to write my leaving Dakar post. The last two were whiny and introspective (I mean, as is like 90% of the rest of my blog), and went to weird places where I was talking about living a life of obligation (draft one) and the study abroad industrial complex (draft two).
But basically, they came down to the same thing: I don’t know how this experience is going to be written into my life history, yet. It was frequently unpleasant, but some really cool things happened to me here. I’m fairly certain that it was a valuable four months.
So, instead of talking about the experience, I’m going to jot down advice for study abroad kids in places like Dakar. Learn from my errors, blog readership.
Really consider why you picked the home stay: I chose a home stay because my dad lived in a home stay for his time abroad. This is literally it. In retrospect, this was stupid: I can go about a week into living with my actual family before I want to murder them, despite the fact that I love them more than words. This feeling is only amplified when you’re in a house full of people that didn’t feed you when you were a newborn. My home stay is the source for my deepest relationships with Senegalese people (and I do like my family a lot), but it was really, really stressful. If you pick the home stay option, write down why you’re doing it and paste that somewhere prominent in your room. That way, after your host mom makes you cry (again), you can remind yourself why you’re doing this to yourself.
Place yourself in a house with kids: Even if you don’t like kids. I don’t, but when my various nieces and nephews (aged 2-8) were here, life was so much easier. For one, kids are way more tolerant of you being an idiot. They’ll laugh at you, but they will not make cutting remarks to your face, because they know that if they do that you will probably not play with them. (And they want you to play with them, because the rest of their family is probably going to ignore them because they’re not new anymore.) In addition, small children are still being explicitly taught the rules of social conduct by the rest of the family, and if you pay attention you can often get explanations for behavior that’s confusing or that your family expects you to know how to do without being told, because you’re 21 and not 3. Also, kids are cute and will cuddle with you. Which brings us to our next tip–
Get prepared not to be touched: People in my program started realizing this a couple months in, but it is entirely possible to go months in a study abroad setting without affectionate touch. This totally sucks. So either work out a way to become a huggy person early on in your program, or (if you are like me and the thought of touching those outside of your kin group is weird) learn some self-massage techniques/find a spa.
Find yourself a boyfriend: I didn’t do this, but as a result I also know very few Senegalese folks my own age. Those with boyfriends (or girlfriends, but homosexuality is illegal here and there were like 6 dudes in my program) got instant access to a Senegalese peer group outside of the program. If your goal is to meet host culture peers and/or up your affectionate touch quotient, consider this as an option.
Get ready for talking about poop: A popular early discussion topic for my fellow program participants and I was how we had not pooped for days. (The Senegalese diet is composed of a good 1:1 baguette:everything else ratio.) Then, this moved into diarrhea discussions as we all got various bits of food poisoning/intestinal parasites. Your intestines will be borked when you travel. Just accept it.
Be prepared for your sense of self to be crushed: Though I did not admit it to myself until late in the program, part of why I chose to go to Dakar is because I like to think of myself as badass. I am too cool for Europe–I went somewhere intense. This is totally stupid, and also wrong. It turns out that I really like creature comforts and also not having people yell racial slurs at me all of the time. Realizing that I wasn’t one of the people who thrived here also required reevaluating how I conceive of myself. It is a uniquely unpleasant feeling, and likely one that you will have to confront if you go somewhere difficult.
When this entry posts, I’ll be on my plane out of Dakar. I’m spending the next five days in Paris, where I will hopefully eat lots of good cheese and drink lots of wine in parks while looking at lots of human remains and stained glass (ie my perfect vacation). I may have some more coherent view of this experience by the time I get back, but it’s unlikely.
If I break down crying because I hear Michel Telo on the radio, though, you’ll be the first to know.
Word about not being touched. I hated having a virtually hug-less year in France, where anyone will kiss you but hugging is reserved for people you’re really close to.