Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dakar and Diourbel

Dakar - The Big City

Until I arrived in Senegal, all I knew about Dakar was that Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR’s West African foreign correspondent reports from there and  signs off on all of her stories with a melodic pronunciation of the city’s name.  Aside from that and a quick turnaround at the Leopold Senghor International Airport before the crack of dawn the day we arrived, Dakar and all it had to offer was a big mystery to me.  It was reportedly, the land of plenty.  Whenever anyone asked “can you get X or Y in Senegal”, referring to some creature comfort from home that someone failed to bring with them, the answer was always “yes, you can get that in Dakar”  We’d also learned that getting in and out of Dakar was a traffic nightmare.  Situated just 70 km (44 miles) from Thiès, it often took our trainers 2-3 hours to commute.

October 4th was Dakar Day according to our training calendar.  Early that morning, we loaded up in Peace Corps buses and headed into the city.  On the outskirts of town, we stopped along the side of the road to transfer some passengers; those folks that had fallen ill (a weekly occurrence during our training period) were shuttled in another vehicle and sent directly to the Med Hut (the medical facility in the Peace Corps Senegal office) and several 3rd year Volunteers who are now living in Dakar jumped on board our buses to give us a guided tour of the city.  Their commentary went something like this,
  1.  “Don’t come to this section of town or you’ll surely get mugged.”
  2. “If you want to by a sheep or cow, this is the place to do it, but get here early for the good ones.”
  3. “On Saturdays, this street is lined with used clothing for sale; you can pick up ratty old clothes donated to a charitable organization in the US and sent over here in a shipping container, however if you have the patience to pick through it you might just find something really cool.”
  4. “This is the stadium where the big football (soccer) matches are held, but we’re not allowed attend them anymore because last year there was a huge riot and several volunteers had to be rescued from the crowd by the Gendarmerie (the National Guard) after trying to flee the attacking crowd in a taxi and running over and killing someone."
  5. “Here’s a cool club where we go out dancing the first Saturday of every month and stay up until all hours of the morning”.  
Oddly, all of this sage guidance was said with the same tone of voice, as if each statement carried equal importance.  Ahh, the perspective of youth.

Our guides were quick to point out Chez Ass

After the bus tour, we parked our vehicles within the US Embassy gates and split  up into groups to tour the downtown area.  The streets were bustling with modern cars, businessmen headed to appointments, and people enjoying food and drinks at sidewalk cafés.  Tall modern buildings lined the avenues and fountains sat inside traffic circles.  It was trés moderne and reminded me of European cities I’d visited in the past.  Having spent 7 weeks at this point in interior Senegalese towns and villages, it was hard to believe we were in the same country.

A bustling city street in Dakar

A fountain in the traffic circle

From there we drove along the Corniche, the wide boulevard that parallels the coastline, and were also warned to stay away from its wide sidewalks after dark to avoid running into bandits that prey on Westerners.  After passing the recently unveiled African Renaissance Monument, we soon arrived at Club Altantique, otherwise known as the American Club.  It’s a small country club of sorts that caters to American ex-pats and their families but waives the annual membership fee for us poor Peace Corps volunteers.  It has a pool, snack shack, volleyball court, bar, and themed dinner nights and serves as a nice oasis of familiarity where we can go when we’re in the area (without fear of bandits, muggers, or overpriced second-hand clothing).  The rest of the afternoon was spent attending debriefings from the Embassy’s security and legal departments and touring our Peace Corps office before we convoyed back to Thiès in time for dinner.

Along the Corniche--brave soul or potential bandit?

A pool to enjoy when I'm in Dakar

Controversial boondoggle and the gaudiest statue in the world

Our second trip to Dakar, was less than 2 weeks later for our grand swearing in event at the Ambassador’s residence.  They pulled out the red carpet for this fête, escorting us into the city with a three cycle motorcade with flashing lights.  At one point, the Gendarmerie diverted our convey to other side of the divided highway  where we completely usurped a lane of oncoming traffic.  Our Ambassador, Marcia Bernicat (an African American woman - yeah!) resides across the street from Dakar’s Club Med.  She opened her home to us, some local dignitaries, and news agencies that came to see us be inducted.  After a formal ceremony full of speeches, pomp, and circumstance, we enjoyed fresh juices and appetizers on the patio.  From there we headed back to the Peace Corps office to finalize some paperwork and get our bank cards, then stopped by Club Atlantique for quick dip in the pool and a beer (or two) before hitting the road again.  Truth be told, I look forward to a day in Dakar without an agenda.

The Ambassador's residence

All spruced up for our induction

Her Excellence Marcia Bernicat welcomes a few new volunteers.
A patio reception
We arrived back in Thiès to find out that the moment we swore in as official volunteers, our figurative umbilical cord had been cut.  No longer were we Peace Corps trainees, attached to the womb of our training center and reliant on it for all of our physical needs.  The dining hall was closed, we had access to our monthly stipends, and we were expected to feed ourselves. So we did what any group of formerly cooped up, highly dependent people would do, went out to the nicest restaurants in town and all blew a week’s worth of  living allowance in just one night.  No regrets. A plate of Osso Buco and a half carafe of red wine was a well-deserved treat after 10 weeks of intensive training, and boy did it taste good.

Farewell to friends

That last weekend at the training center was filled with good-byes.  Departures started on Saturday afternoon, with groups of newly appointed volunteers leaving for their permanent sites.  I was one of the last to leave and headed to Diourbel on Monday afternoon with three Peace Corps officials who drove me around and  introduced me to the local authorities before dropping me and all of my belongings off at my new home.  My host Mom and Dad and several members of the Eco-Village where I’ll be living greeted us with fresh-baked millet cake and cold sodas.  They’d baked the cake in a solar oven on the roof.  Making, selling, and training women’s groups on the use of solar ovens is one of the many sustainable ventures in which the Eco-Village is involved.  We’ve got a handful of these on our rooftop and in my first week here we’ve cooked, beef stew, Ceebu yaap (a traditional rice and beef dishs), baked fish, roasted peanuts, Nyebe (spicy beans), and more millet cake.  It feels good to make use of the extreme sun and heat that plagues us all day.  The temperature in this centrally located city reaches 100 degrees F daily this time of year.

Solar oven on roof

Roasting peanuts

A rooftop view of my neighbor's compound
The entrance to Baol Environnement (my new home)

This weekend, the Eco-Village will be sponsoring a solar oven workshop and I’ll participate in my first training experience, co-teaching marketing and accounting classes to the women’s group so they can promote and manage their own solar oven businesses.  I also plan to work with my counterpart (who’s also my host Dad and president of the Eco-Village) on a Feasibility Study for a Volunteer House that the city of Diourbel wants to open that will serve as a work/meeting place and resource center for volunteers from many different countries and non-government organizations (NGOs) that come to Diourbel.  This idea has been in place for some time, but it’s lacking the organizational structure for it to actually happen.  I attended an all-day meeting regarding this venture the third day I was here and it was painfully clear that they need some help on this project.  That’s what I’m here for, right?  So, one week at site, and I’ve already identified some work.  Not bad considering that I’m supposed to be focusing on settling into my community and not looking for work until after my In-Service Training in December.  I’d probably go stir crazy if I waited that long. 

I’m also doing a lot of reading for a seminar our Country Director is hosting on Development Theory and Practice.  About 25 volunteers are participating.  We have an extensive reading list and will meet a handful of times (via teleconference and in-person) over the next 4 months to discuss the factors leading up to the current economic status of the world’s poorest countries, what attempts at aid have failed and why, and what new approaches to development might prove more effective.  So far, the reading has been interesting and having the opportunity to learn more about the big picture of the poverty that surrounds me helps make some sense of it all, even if it’s still daunting.


  1. "...without fear of bandits, muggers, or overpriced second-hand clothing". Delightful, April, and as informative and entertaining as always.

  2. I am involved with the promotion of solar cookers worldwide. Would you like to write an article about your work with solar solar cookers for the quarterly Solar Cooker Review? Are you in touch with other volunteers who are working with solar cookers in Senegal or elsewhere in Africa? How receptive are the people you work with to this technology? Thanks, Pat McArdle, solarwind1@mac.com

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