Culture shock: that feeling of stumbling down a dark hallway and frequently running face-first into a wall. Difficult, yet thrilling. I like to think that crashing into this wall, so to speak, helps me to better orient myself to my surroundings.
I find that culture shock most often occurs when I am least expecting it. This is how I discovered that my host father has a second wife. This past weekend I was sitting next to my host sister, Fatou Kiné, at her birthday party. “Where is Papa Samba?” I asked. “He is in Thiès!” she said (pronounced “Chess”: another large city in Senegal.) “Is he visiting family?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “He’s with his second wife and family.” At that point I had been living with my family for two weeks and I had no clue. *
A few days ago I was watching TV with my cousin Lamine. A man appeared on TV on stage at le Grand Théâtre National de Dakar, one of Dakar’s largest music venues. He was standing on a large platform, cutting a purse in half with a pair of scissors. “Qu’est-ce qu’il fait sur le TV?” I asked (what is he doing on TV?) “Il coupe un sac à main de femme,” he said (he’s cutting a women’s purse.) The man was Waly Seck, a famous Senegalese musician who was seen with a woman’s purse in his most recent music video. He also published a photo holding the same purse. This act caused national outrage: people called him feminine and said that he was promoting homosexuality (vehemently opposed both legally and culturally in Senegal. Those found guilty will go to jail.) To prove that this was not the case, he got up on stage and, in great celebratory fashion, cut a woman’s purse worth more than $1,000,000 in half. He was met by massive cheering and applause. Suffice to say, that was not what I was expecting to see on TV that night.
Yet I knew before I arrived that my experience in Senegal would bring along its fair share of culture shock. Sometimes it has been funny, and other times it has been frustrating and overwhelming. But my favorite moments in this country have far overshadowed my frustrations with adjusting to a new culture. I love swinging Moutala (the baby of the house) around in my arms and watch him light up when I cover and uncover my face with my hands. He learned my name last week and now says it all the time. My favorite nights are when my cousins and I stay up late on the roof of the house talking and laughing, even though I know getting up for the school the next morning is going to be a struggle. Last week the other American student in my house and I took two of our young host sisters to the beach and watched them while they played in the ocean as the sun set (both very fashionably wearing our sunglasses.) This week my friends and I found ourselves laughing hysterically as our Wolof teacher, Sidi, explained why he had gotten fired from the Peace Corps five times (one time was because he was caught dating an American volunteer. “Elle était une danseuse” (she was a dancer) he said with a wink.)
What I love most, however is sticking my head out the window of a taxi late at night while driving along La Corniche, a long road that runs along the coast. With the wind blowing through my hair, I look up at the African Renaissance Monument that looms high above against a sky scattered with stars. Culture shock will continue, undoubtedly, but so will the experiences that confirm how grateful I am to be here.
*Polygamy is legally and culturally accepted in Senegal, rooted in a long history of religion (Islam is practiced by 95% of the country’s population.) It is a norm often practiced in families in which the husband has the financial means to support more than one spouse. It is a norm often difficult for Americans to understand, myself included. I want to stress that it is not a practice unique to any one “type” of person/family nor is it a reflection of personality; my host father is an incredibly kind and intelligent individual who held a long-standing and successful career in the Senegalese military.