DAKAR, SENEGAL – The first thing I noticed when the plane touched down in Leopold Senghor Airport (named after the first President of Senegal) was the lack of grass outside – only dusty brown sand with palm and acacia trees. After gathering our luggage, our group piled into a van and headed to temporary housing in a neighborhood called Karak. We arrived at a stone building and were each whisked into our rooms.
The day and a half we spent in the temporary housing served as much-needed transition time for me. I habituated myself to the bathroom situation, which was considerably different than we’re used to in Pawling (to make a long story short: less room, fickle water supply, and no toilet paper). I also got my first taste of delicious Senegalese cuisine. Most Senegalese, like the French, begin their morning with a baguette and some coffee. Lunch, which happens between one and three o’clock, consists of sitting around a communal bowl or plate, from which all family members, neighbors, or passers-by are welcome to eat. The national dish of Senegal is ‘Thieboudienne’ (t’yeh-boo-dee-en): rice with fish, vegetables, and a tomato sauce that can be pleasantly mild or lethally spicy. As I quickly learned, most people eat this with their hands, squeezing the rice into little balls and popping them into their mouths; at my host family’s house, however, we were furnished with spoons. Dinner happens between seven and ten, much later than I’m used to, and often involves French fries, some kind of meat or fish, and perhaps my favorite element of Senegalese cuisine – onion sauce.
Before long, it was time for me to move into my host family’s home with my house-mate Alice. The transition took most of the day, and I got to see where the other four girls were living as well (right down the street, only a few minutes’ walk). My host mother was very welcoming and showed us to our rooms on the third floor. Most of the houses we visited in Dakar were very open: all the rooms had roofs, but the hallways and foyers were left exposed to the elements, creating a courtyard-like space in every home. It all felt very sunshiny and welcoming to me. My room, for example, opened onto a long, large terrace that wasn’t quite a balcony, but rather part of the third floor. After I had unpacked, I did a little exploring, and met some of my fellow tenants: namely, four adorable goats that were living in a cage on the other side of the roof!
Thrilled at my discovery, I rushed down to find my host mother on the couch. “Oh, I’m so excited that you have goats. I love animals,” I gushed to her in French.
She nodded calmly. “Yes.”
“So they just live on the roof?”
“Yes.” She smiled at me. “Before you leave, we will kill one of them.”
“O-oh,” I managed. I was not expecting that. Nor was I expecting for the goat to be slaughtered right there on the roof at six o’clock in the morning three weeks later – but I think I’ll spare you from that part of the story, as it’s best forgotten. In fact, living in Africa for a month has dramatically, dramatically changed the way I think about our furry friends back here at home.
The idea of ‘pets’ doesn’t really exist in Senegal, as far as I could tell. I was shocked to find that, even though I was staying in the biggest city in the country, animals were ubiquitous. Goats were tied up on every street corner, dogs and cats without homes lounged on the sidewalks, and occasionally a horse pulling a cart laden with goods would trot by alongside taxis and motorcycles. All of the animals were very skinny. No one fed them or took care of them – one of the girls in my group even told me that she had seen kids throwing rocks at a dog. No one else in my group seemed especially bothered by the treatment of animals in Senegal, but for me, it became my every other thought. Around halfway through the trip, I began ignoring my group’s warnings not to pet the mangy, flea-ridden animals. There were two dogs I would regularly share my breakfast with on my walk to class each morning. Poor Alice must have been sick of how much I talked about the animals, but I really couldn’t bear it.
But the sad thing I realized is that since the beginning of time, in a thousand different cultures, this is how animals have been treated: as tools for humans. The idea of ‘pets’ is a recent phenomenon. So even though I find it disturbing to live with an animal that you’re planning to kill and eat, it’s actually the most natural and logical thing in the world. That was the Neolithic Revolution – animals were domesticated so that they could labor for us and feed us, and that’s exactly what enabled civilization in the first place. Sorry to get all philosophical, but these thoughts ran through my head every night while I was in Senegal. We’re so far removed from all this in America that we hardly even think of it, or think of how badly animals are treated in our own meat industry. I can’t say exactly what kind of impact this experience will have on my relationship with animals in the future, but I know that I’ll never think of them the same way again.
On a happier note, there were lots of exciting things in that first week. My walk to class was fifteen minutes long, and involved sprinting across a six-lane highway. Quite stimulating, in a “run for your life!” kind of way. The class itself was awesome, as we began to learn some basic geography and politics of West Africa. I was very content to be practicing my French with a group of energetic, intelligent young ladies. The people at the Baobab Center – that is, the organization directing our study abroad experience – were helpful and responsive as well. I took in so much in that first week that I felt like a different person by the time the weekend rolled around.
But there wasn’t much down-time for me to process it all, especially since a minor crisis arose at the end of week one. Alice got pretty badly sick on Saturday night, and since I’m both an older sister and an RA, I went into full-blown Mama Bear mode. After giving Alice my sweat jacket, thermometer, over-the-counter medicine, and making a bunch of phone calls, a doctor came to our house around midnight. He examined her and said she should get some sleep, keep the fever down with medicine and a shower, and then go for blood tests in the morning. Alice was a real trooper, keeping her cool in a very un-cool situation.
Thus my first week in Africa ended with me collapsing on my bed, exhausted, really hot, and worried about my friend in the next room. I didn’t yet know that next weekend was going to be the complete opposite – I’d be falling asleep excited, in an air conditioned room, having spent an awesome day with my 100% healthy friends.