A Stranger among Strangers: A few days in Dakar

(In the event that people mentioned in this post appear in future research of mine, names have been changed to protect their identities)

It has been more than a couple weeks since I last wrote you all, so here is an entry to let you all know that I did arrive safe and sound in Kankan, Guinea. I have finished my first week of coursework with my professor from the university. Though I was told by my Bambara instructor and his brothers that Malinké and Bambara are “the same”, I was also told by an American who speaks both that they share about 70% lexical similarity. It occurred to me that those Malians could be referring to the Malinké found just west of Bamako. As I realized moving from Zarma just east of Niamey to Songhai country just north of Niamey, a switch in language name does not a complete language shift imply. The Songhai of Gao is considered by linguists to be a distinct language from Zarma, just as the Malinké of Kankan is distinct from the Bambara of Bamako. To a native speaker and linguist both are considered “mutually intelligible,” as are Portuguese and Spanish, but to an amateur nonnative they are anything but!

For me in this moment, the 30% loomed large in week one and yet is somehow rapidly diminishing! Nonetheless, the language of the Maninka is filtering into my head slowly but surely: I’ve started being able to barter with motorcycle taxi drivers in Malinké (the only kind of taxi here and more than 90% of motorized traffic) and my host family has been patiently introducing more and more Malinké into our conversations. I was a bit discouraged to discover that most Kankanais can converse quite well in French, given that my Nigerien host families’ inability to do so was a great boon to my Hausa and Zarma learning. On the other hand, as some of you know, I have had very fruitful conversations in French with a number of people in Kankan in the past week. Even so, as I am living a fairly sedentary life here in Guinea, with a fairly static daily agenda, my next couple blogposts will touch more on my few days in Dakar, which were anything but sedentary or static.

Dakar: The Hub of Francophone West Africa

Before I tell any stories that took place in my few days in Dakar, I should first set the scene. Though a few of you reading this may have been there, I don’t think most of you have. I remember asking a former Peace Corps neighbor who ended up serving in St. Louis – Senegal’s second city – whether it felt authentic, not living in the bush anymore. She rightly corrected me in saying that African cities are just as African as the African bush. I find it thus vital that I began this adventure in most important city for Francophone West Africa. I wanted to verify its status as a “hub” since Dakar and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, have traded places as the hub of Francophone West Africa for many years. In some senses, whoever hosts the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO in French), could be considered as such. Dakar hosts it now, and I just happened to meet a couple Nigieriens who work there, one of whom had befriended my Nigerien friend from Lido by carrying back money to Niger on his behalf.

Historical Reenactment

In the early days of French presence in West Africa, Dakar – or more precisely, the Ile (island) of Gorée – was a hub of slave trading for the region. The British Fort Elmina, west of Accra, Ghana, was an equivalent hub. While the Portuguese were there first, and remained involved throughout the slaving periods, the British and French were the biggest traders at Gorée. As I visited Gorée with my Nigerien friend, who I’ll call Yahaya (Quranic Arabic for John the Baptist), I was struck by how much I’d heard of the slave trade since grade school. I was hoping for something that I hadn’t already heard beyond minute details such as the fact that the entire island, the size of small village, was built out of local black rock and French red brick. Finally, our tour guide – who we found through another Nigerien who sells jewelry on the island – mentioned that Western slave traders made black strike black to instill fear and domination of whites. I had known that blacks had captured blacks, and that we can now guess that the greatest percentage of slaves captured came from the Mande-speaking lands where I will be spending the majority of my summer. The former fact was something even more dastardly and evocative than the latter, made even more so as our Fula guide (an ethnic group who primarily live in the interior) hugged the post where his ancestors may have been whipped.

Nowadays, Africans still beat up Africans, and Westerners are still involved. Many Westerners have made mistakes by trying to make up for the mistakes of their forebears. I am sure I will make many mistakes as I travel West Africa this summer, but I am doing my best to pass my nights in African households and to converse with Africans who I hope become my friends – if they aren’t already so. But this is in no way motivated by guilt, a very reactionary emotion. Instead it is motivated by a compelling call to act and to travel.

Returning back, but not returning home:

I am reading through Lamin Sanneh’s life story, Summoned from the Margin: The Homecoming of an African. Dr. Sanneh was born a Mandé Gambian Muslim and raised during British colonial rule; he is currently Professor of World Christianity at Yale University. You can expect to see quotes from his book in some upcoming posts. In his book, he tells a tale from Mungo Park’s account Travels in Africa. Park, an 18th century Scottish explorer (my Dad’s ancestors also hailed from Scotland) was one of the first Europeans into the West Africa:

[Park] describes how, feeling lonely and abandoned, he found himself surrounded by women in a village in present-day Mali. It was evening, and he was approaching bedtime with considerable apprehension when, there and then, the women, led by a young woman singer, composed a comforting song for him… ‘The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn’…Park responded, ‘I was oppressed by such unexpected kindness; and sleep fled from my eyes.’ (26)

While I am still single and traveling mostly alone, I was able to make part of my travels to Kankan with Yahaya and stayed with West African families all along the road there. Their kindness, instead of oppressing me with guilt, was comforting and paid for by simple gifts. The only lack of sleep was most likely caused by my malaria medication or the heat. And, instead of being welcomed by women, most of my conversations in Dakar were with Nigerien men. I still believe, as Sanneh explains at length, that Malians and Nigeriens still remember the importance of family and gender, especially as it has to do with human well-being.

I spent most of my first full day in Dakar walking around the city meeting Hausa Nigeriens. About half were ambling around selling phone credit and half sitting at tables under tents selling traditional medicine. Movement is very much a part of their lives, as it will be for much of my summer. But, as I’ve known Yahaya through the years, I’ve known how much he wants to spend the remainder of his life back in Niger, even if it can’t be back in Lido. He is back in Lido now, but many of his Hausa brothers continue to ply their trade, year after year, on the streets of Dakar. And though Dakar is in West Africa, it is most definitely not their home. Almost all of the Nigeriens I met, with the exception of the one on Gorée and possibly one or two others, knew next to no Wolof, the lingua franca of Senegal. As I learned from a retired American diplomat living in Dakar, many Dakarois do not harbor kind feelings for their Sahelian brethren. But isn’t that so often the case of immigrant communities abroad?

Get your credit! Get your credit!

As Yahaya and I were approaching a stadium that will most likely be the setting of my next blogpost, I was greeted by dozens of Hausas lining the entirety of a street bigger than an American city block. While I was waiting for Yahaya to finish his evening prayers, one of them offered me a Kleenex to cover my sandal sores. Just before we left them, a couple of Nigeriens grabbed my backpack from my hands, and instead of running off with it, placed it on my chest, running the straps backward over my shoulders. Grasping for my pockets, they guided my hands to my wallet and camera, commanding me to put them in my bag because of the overabundant pickpockets at the stadium’s gates. They were preparing me to meet danger as a stranger in a land where we were both strangers. We were speaking in Hausa, a language that more than couple Dakarois Yahaya and I met didn’t even recognize as African. We all have moments of strange estrangement in everyday life, but isn’t it so that those of us who have been compelled to follow a certain Issa (Quranic Arabic for Jesus as well as the Hausa and Zarma words for the Niger River) will always be strangers on this Earth?


One thought on “A Stranger among Strangers: A few days in Dakar

  1. Love reading your blog.. take good care of those blisters/sores on your feet. I hope you will be able to meet Papou and go to Bankoni. safe and fulfilling travels! Becky

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