The daily grind in Dakar is something akin to a life-sized game of Candy Land. Your outlook can change on a dime-one minute you’re strolling down Gumdrop Lane, and before you can say “Lord Licorice”, you suddenly find yourself flailing around in the Chocolate Swamp while the four year old beside you is smugly prancing through the Peppermint Forest at the finish line.
To confess that I have fleeting moments of complete irrationality in Senegal would do an injustice to the total break from reality I experienced just four short days ago, when without the slightest warning I found myself wallowing in the Chocolate Swamp.
I know. It doesn’t make sense. …but if you’d only lived in Senegal as long as I have, you’d understand why some of the cultural nuances that once struck me as rather charming-or at the very least, pitiable-now leave me daydreaming about medicating the entire country and corralling them into a padded room with a ping pong table and hand puppets.
Crumbling mascara and crumbling composure are a part of the job.
Truly, I ought to celebrate our cultural differences. And I know it. But there are days where I simply cannot laud-and indeed, can barely tolerate-Senegal’s less-than-charming “cultural differences”.
And last Thursday was just such a day.
I was on my walk [the little legs that couldn’t are still working up to the running thing], making my way towards the beach. I was ambling down one of the approximately three existing sidewalks in Dakar-my face blankly arranged into an expression of competent invisibility that seems to off-set some of the attention a white girl wandering through a third world African city tends to attract.
Now, hold the phone. If you’re not familiar with the traffic situation in Dakar, take a stroll down memory lane with me and read this little gem. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll become entirely convinced that I will never again step foot onto American soil.
[And you will probably be correct.]
So there I was, strolling determinedly down Gumdrop Lane [the sidewalk], IPod blaring, dark sunglasses firmly in place, staring blankly through the curious stares of everybody around me.
Honking. At me. The pedestrian.
Would it be repetitive to remind you that I was on the sidewalk?
Hello, Chocolate Swamp.
The driver [a twenty-something Senegalese man] hung his head out the window and started scathingly hollering in Wolof. Now, I don’t speak Wolof-but I didn’t need to. You idiot white girl-what are you doing on the sidewalk?! The SIDEWALK of all places!? What do you think the sidewalk is FOR? For the love of Allah, move.
It was a little thing-just the sort of cross-cultural moment that happens a thousand times over during the course of a normal day in Dakar. The sort of thing that barely captures my attention any more-and normally, I would have deftly stepped out of the way without so much as an eye-roll.
But that day, it was simply the tip of the ice burg. And something inside of my western little body snapped.
Because where I come from, pedestrians have the right of way. In fact, pedestrians own the sidewalk! We have glorious contraptions like stoplights and cross walks and speed limits-and you know what? It’s the way the world should be. God bless America.
So there I stood, frozen. Staring down that [still moving!] bus driver with every ounce of stubborn tenacity in my little body, utterly convinced in that moment that allowing that bus to pass would usher in the fall of human civilization as we know it. Indignant patriotism welled up inside me-I had an almost irresistible compulsion to throw my hand over my heart and belt out the Star Spangled Banner.
It didn’t even occur to me to move. It was me against the bus-and standing on that sidewalk, I was entirely prepared to end up dead as a testament to the sheer stupidity of s system in which there are no rules. Death would have been. so. worth it. I was going to teach Senegal-no, the WORLD-a lesson! Give me liberty or give me death-but either way, give me my sidewalk.
Heated sparks flying from my eyes as I tried to look larger than my diminutive 5’3 frame normally allows-standing resolutely [and very much alone] in the middle of that sidewalk with an expression that suggested I do things like bench press refrigerators in my spare time. Nobody puts baby in a corner, and nobody tells me that I have to move. Cars slowed to a grinding halt and stared, passer-bys stopped in their tracks and started shouting at me to get out of the way as the bus steadily crept towards the lone white girl girl staging a silent protest in all of her ugly-American glory.
And then, it hit me.
Not an understanding of just how ridiculous I looked, or a healthy dose of cultural sensitivity.
And I walked away.