I’ve been in Dakar for two months and about a week. After spending nine months writing a book in a small village lapped by the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal, I decided to take another risk (writing the book in itself was a risk, what with all the insecurities I harbored about my writing abilities, but that’s another story). I’d lived on my own in New York for two years, so I thought, why not try doing the same in an African city? Sure, I’d spent most of my life in Accra, Ghana, but that was under my parents’ roof. I wanted to live like I’d had in New York: pay for my own place, develop a group of friends I’d go out to brunch with, take public transport, splurge on dinner, find a media job and yet do this without the comforts a place like New York offered. Besides, Dakar seemed like a little Paris, with its patisseries, organized downtown and French architecture. So, in July, I pushed back my ticket home for another five months, all set for my adventure.
Here’s a checklist how far I’ve come:
-Pay for my own place:
Before I moved to Dakar, I flipped excitedly through apartment listings, imagining the kind of place I’d have: a nice one bedroom, with French doors, overlooking the Place d’Independence in downtown Dakar, with a view of the sea, with easy access to the patisseries, from which I could pick my pain au raisins… Reality check: I opened the listings and gasped. Sure, these were not New York’s outrageous prices, but they were still preposterous. For a one bedroom, the average price was 150,000 CFA Francs, the equivalent of about 300 dollars. And these places were far, far away from the Place d’Independence with its patisseries. I hadn’t even lined up a job, so to be coughing that amount each month, was out of the question. Eventually, a woman I’ll call my guardian angel, offered me her house. For free! All I’d have to do was pay for utilities. I can’t even begin to explain how that happened, but it’s one of those miracles I’m going to be talking about for ages.
-Develop a group of friends I’d go out to brunch with:
Three years ago, a friend of mine studied abroad here in Dakar. She told me it was impossible making girlfriends and yet, with guys, well … she got marriage proposals everyday. What can I say? How right she was! It just has not been the same without a group of girls to bond with, whether it was at the Ghanaian restaurant in Harlem, or at a random, totally unplanned girls night out, with the imbibing of several…um…beverages.
Take public transport:
Dear diary, you must think I’m crazy, but I find the New York subway one of the most fascinating places on the earth’s surface. It is a place for people watching, coming up with stories or anthropologic theories about people, playing fashion police, staring at beautiful people, wallowing in misery and being completely ignored.
Dakar, luckily, has quite a decent public transport system. There are big blue and yellow buses with numbers that I still haven’t quite figured out yet. There are small blue and white minibuses, of which, bus 34 is the only one I care about. There are white Ndiaga Ndiayes, and car rapides—painted a kaleidoscope of colors, also known as moving coffins—a staple of many African cities (trotros in Ghana, matatus in Kenya, if you need a reference).
After realizing that the yellow and black taxis were driven by people looking to cheat a non-Wolof speaking foreigner under the guise of “gas prices,” I decided to learn to take public transport. One of my Dakar guides suggested the blue and yellow number 6 bus. Every morning I’d walk fifteen minutes to a buzzing highway, flag down the number 6, squeeze my body between the other morning commuters, some swathed in nice fragrances, others in need of a good shower and dousing in cologne (just like in NY!), get off at my terminal, walk another 20 minutes to my workplace and arrive, drenched in sweat. It just wasn’t cutting it! Finally, someone at work suggested the small blue and white minivan. It was cheaper, less congested and took me much closer to work. Unlike the New York subway where everybody and their grandmother has access to the trains, these buses screen out crazy, so there’s less drama to watch. I still get to play fashion police and develop crazy stories about people.
-Splurge on dinner:
Did I say I splurged on dinner in New York? Well, I lied! I learned to cook for myself, and maybe once or twice in the year, I’d go all out and then splurge. Well, I’m sort of doing the same here, because Dakar is an expensive city! Let’s look at why: Senegal imports more than it exports. Tomatoes, bananas, oranges … they are coming from some other country. Just the other day, I tried to buy a few mandarins. Four measly fruits cost more than 2 dollars! Well, down the drain went my vitamin C requirement for the day.
-Find a media job:
Well, it’s not a job-job. It’s a three month internship, but just what I need, commitment-phobe that I am. I’ve been reporting, editing, producing radio programs with a bilingual radio station. I find that certain subjects that were no-go areas in my jobs in New York are out on the table here: religion, for instance, and interestingly the office is half-Christian, half-Muslim.
So, here I am, two months later, still not sure if I made a wise decision, but at least improving my French, learning Wolof, learning to bargain like crazy, and trying to fight the tears that well up anytime I’m misunderstood … wait a minute … that happened in New York too! Well, that’s it for now…