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Seen in Senegal

Seen in Senegal is a new monthly column by Hannah Feig, a recipient of the study-abroad Gillman Scholarship. Feig is studying in the French-speaking African country of Senegal, and details her experiences there.

“Il faut bien manger.” You must eat well.

It’s what I hear every night at dinner with my host family in Dakar, Senegal.

They want me to eat more so that when I return to the U.S., people will see that, here, there is plenty of food. We sit on a rug at about 9 p.m., four to eight people, sharing one large plate of rice, lettuce, pasta or couscous with vegetables and fish.

I finish my portion, but the matriarchs just keep piling more into my area, taking from their own portions or the children’s.

“Suur na,” I say. I am full. It is truly impossible for me to eat more.

Senegalese culture is all about sharing. Food, clothes, utensils, cleaning, time – none are individual experiences. The only alone time one can really get here is on the toilet or in the shower, or when sleeping.

This is my third week in Senegal on a study abroad program through the School for International Training (SIT).

Senegal is the westernmost country on the African continent and Dakar, the capital, is a place full of red dusty sand, unrelenting and unregulated traffic, beautiful fabrics, beaches, art and music.

Here, I am learning the culture and art of Senegal, as well as the languages of its people – French, the colonial language, and Wolof, one of the native languages.

Most importantly, in Dakar, I am learning about sharing. Individuality and selfishness are looked down upon.

Public transportation here is an amazingly real representation of this community mindset.

On the bus, the Dakar Dem Dikk, we pack into the center aisle like sardines, embracing for at least a few minutes the body heat – it’s actually cold and windy at the bus stop in the mornings.

Coins, 150 CFA (USD $0.30), are passed from the front to the back of the bus where the conductor sits. Change and a ticket are passed back down the line.

Returning change is a sign of camaraderie and trust. Change can be passed through more than 10 people before reaching its destination, and people are honest because they understand that they want the same to happen with their coins.

As the ride continues, everyone moves up – “avancer.” You try to stay near an open window for a little breeze. At each stop, people squeeze by through the nonexistent free space to depart, but everyone understands.

It’s an economical and mostly trustworthy form of transportation, but the buses are slow and the system is run by the government.

For most people, the better option is car rapides – brightly decorated, very old, reconstructed vans with about 25 seats and standing room for passengers, and only 50-150 CFA (USD $0.10-0.30) depending on the distance.

As a car nears its stop, a man, the apprenti, jumps off the back and yells a destination. He helps kids inside, collects money and hangs off the back of the van for the duration of the ride. He is a skilled mechanic and fixes the car rapide when it breaks, which is often.

Earlier this week, one broken-down car rapide was pushed by another through my neighborhood. Taking the car rapides seems to keep the money in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of the government.

Politics are important but subdued here in Senegal, where people feel like the government is not spending enough money toward the right causes. The electricity goes out nearly every day, and every time the groans of the people in my neighborhood fill the air.

People are frustrated, but they also know that elections are soon in 2012.

Power cuts can definitely be a problem, though. It always seems to cut at the worst times: during a shower, at night, in the morning when you need to wake up and it’s still dark outside, while getting ready to send an important e-mail or just before eating.

This week I will stay in a village, so power cuts won’t be a problem because there is normally no power. The experience will likely be much different than life here in Dakar, which is a fairly modern city.