Getting Around Dakar

SENEGALESE CULTURE

GREETINGS and manners:

Greetings in Senegal are extremely important. Take the time to greet people before any transaction. It is considered extremely impolite to begin talking without first exchanging pleasant conversation about family and friends.

  • Greet everyone in the group, not just the person you know or need to talk to. Ask about their family and mention any family members that you know by name.
  • Never call someone by saying “Hey.” It’s considered rude.
  • Avoid a direct “No,” if possible, and avoid saying, “That’s not true.” Never imply that someone is lying.
  • When talking to elders, avoid eye contact. Lower your eyes if you wish to show respect.
  • Never pay special attention or stare at a pregnant woman. You should never ask a pregnant woman, “When is the baby due?” as this is considered to bring bad luck to the mother and child.
  • Use the right hand when handing something to someone or when shaking hands.
  • Avoid pointing at people or counting people by pointing.
  • Never take a person’s picture without first asking their permission.
  • Trying out a few words in Wolof, even if they aren’t perfect, will also show immense respect for Senegalese culture. Page 63 has a basic language guide for both.

RELIGION:

Senegal is a predominately Muslim country. You will often see men in prayer, as Islam requires that prayers be said five times a day. Never walk in front of someone who is praying or interrupt him or her, and never touch a person’s gris-gris. (This is a small leather pouch that is often worn on the arm or around the waist. It contains written pages from the Quran and is meant to protect the bearer). They are considered to be very private and are never shared.

CLOTHING:

Given the international flavor of Dakar, you will see people wearing everything from the latest Parisian fashions to traditional African clothing. In general, most Senegalese men and women dress modestly in both western and traditional clothing, yet more western compared to that of Muslims living in other predominately Islamic countries. For women/girls, this consists of a long skirt and blouse called a Boubou or TayBaas, and for men/boys a loose fitting pair of pants and a long loose fitting shirt also called a Boubou. Women are not required to cover their heads; however, many women wear a scarf over their hair, or a cloth headdress, which matches their Boubou. You will rarely see a Senegalese woman, even in the city, wearing shorts as it is considered inappropriate for women to expose their thighs. Men (and sometimes women) will wear shorts when engaged in athletic activities but will not wear them for anything else. In general, Senegalese take great pride in their appearance and as such, will dress up for public functions in finely-pressed clothes. In an effort to dress in a culturally appropriate manner, some American women wear knee-length skirts or dresses, long pants and Bermuda-style shorts when in public. The exception being, however, when they are at the beach, where it is acceptable for women and young girls to wear swim suits. In public, American men wear long pants or shorts with a shirt. When visiting villages outside of Dakar, it is generally expected to observe more traditional norms, and dress more conservatively.

NAMES:

People with first names such as Georgette, Odette, George, Pierre and Elizabeth are usually Catholic. “Di” is pronounced “j” in these typical last names: Badiane, Dia, Diagne, Diallo, Diaw, Dieng, Diop, and Diouf. “Th” is pronounced “ch” in the following names:  Bathily, Thiam, Thioune, and Mathiam. In last names beginning with N, the “N” is pronounced “en” ‑ NDao, NDaw, NDiaye.  Some FSNs are called by their first names, some by their last, which, in addition to being confusing, makes them difficult to find in the phone book.

FIRST TIPS FOR LIVING IN DAKAR

CULTURE SHOCK:

“Culture Shock is an occupational disease for most of us.  And although we may develop some immunity to it, the ailment does not disappear after a certain number of exposures… Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.  All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues and when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed… ” (Dr. Kalervo Oberg, 1954).

Some suggestions:

  • Cut yourself some slack. Don’t degrade yourself because everyone else at post seems to be so well adjusted and you feel like you’re a mess, have made a huge mistake coming here, can’t cope, won’t be happy, etc. Most of us have experienced these feelings and come to enjoy our lives here a great deal.  Acknowledge that an at‑home spouse is going to suffer from the disorientation and loneliness more and differently than the working spouse in most cases.  So talk to other spouses early and often.  A stiff upper lip is good, but an understanding ear is better.
  • Talk to us! Reach out. You are one of us now too. You are wanted here. We don’t know you well yet, and maybe you haven’t established any friendships yet, but you will. Come to the CLO’s office or hang around the cafeteria.  You are bound to meet other new arrivals who need a coffee date with a new friend as much as you do!
  • Get around. Take the time to go to a local restaurant, or visit a nearby tourist attraction. Treat yourself. You can meet a lot of nice, new people by doing so. Taxis are cheap, and they can keep you from feeling stranded without a car. See our section on taxis for more info.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WORKING IN AFRICA:

  • Africans want to know what kind of a person you are, first and formost. This is important to their working culture. This is different from the States; no matter how good you are at your job, if you are rude and disrespectful, you will not be able to get work done efficiently.
    • They also want you to show respect for them – no matter their station in life.
    • Take the time to say hello to everyone, and ask them about themselves a little BEFORE asking them for something. It is important, and the time spent is worth it.
  • Most decisions in Africa are made by forging a consensus, and all have to pass through many hands and hurdles. This takes time, sometimes more time-and patience- than you think you’ve got. But decisions arrived at in this manner are rock-solid.
    • Make lots of copies of your proposals, emails, etc.  When one paper gets lost, pull out another and start over. The same applies for emails – file them carefully so that you can always re-send a message that was “mysteriously” undelivered or deleted.
    • It is unlikely that just one person will be able to give you the go-ahead.  Even the Head of State usually has to forge a consensus of his peers.  Everyone who counts has to get a piece of the action, or it won’t get done.
    • Sometimes, two sides are unwilling to compromise. In such a case, you will need to be able to recognise the issues and identify for each side a winning proposition in order to gain support from both sides.
    • Your most precious asset will be someone who can guide you through this labyrinth and, most importantly, who can tell you when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
  • Always keep in mind that you are not dealing with individuals alone, but rather with individuals who have duties to their families and friends.
    • When an African is successful, his family and his village will expect to share in the new good fortune. It is expected of him to keep his house open and his pockets deep.
    • An African cannot refuse to help a kinsman, and therefore will always be trying to get a cousin a job, a visa, etc. It is his duty.
  • When one of your colleagues who you know is intelligent suddenly can’t seem to grasp a simple point, watch out; there is more involved than you are likely to be able to understand.
    • You have probably stumbled into something that is threatening to them culturally. Your plan, while utterly sensible in Western terms, probably undercuts an important African custom or profitable loophole. When this happens, you have to decide how important your objectives are and how much you can compromise, if at all.  Two fundamentally different approaches to life and business are in play, and someone is going to lose. Be patient.
  • Never say no outright. It is considered abrupt and poor manners.
    • Africans rarely say “no,” for the reasons adduced above. Therefore it is important to know how to recognize an “African no” (an evasivereply that is less than a “yes” but not an outright “no”).
    • But you cannot say “yes” all the time, so what do you do? Do what Africans do. Listen carefully. Try to be helpful (not necessarily agreeing to the request) and explain your own constraints. Suggest alternatives.  In short take your time to give an “African No,” rather than a quick and easy “Western No.”
    • If you say “yes,” understand that you may be incurring subsequent responsibilities beyond your capacity or desires. Anywhere from a sick baby, to the need to properly fund a funeral, to securing the education of a cousin.
  • Understand that friendship is different in Africa.
    • Asking for money is not as taboo as it is in America, and sometimes even someone you just met or is working for you will ask you for money sometimes. You are free to say yes or no.
    • We tend to invite friends over at a specific time, and lateness is considered rude. Over here, sometimes people will show up to two hours late, for one reason or another. If you really want to be friends, keep an open door, an open mind, and loosen up your sense of privacy, as sometimes someone brings along an extra cousin…or four.
  • You represent America.  Africans will expect you to play the part.
    • If you are invited to an important event – like a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a dinner or cocktail party by invitation, or an event where there is a guest of honor, speeches, etc. – DRESS UP.  The Africans will be decked out in their most expensive and colorful attire.
    • If you aren’t good at giving speeches, toasts, etc.– LEARN.  Public speaking, storytelling, good jokes, and social graces are prized and practiced in Africa. As the guest of honor at any event, it will be your part to address the gathering, so you should always be prepared to say a few words.
    • If you have a title, use it. Always carry plenty of business cards, as titles are important in African culture.
    • Serving American food is fine and you should be proud to show off our specialties (the spicier the better), but if you really want to throw a good party, include some African dishes and music; even if these are from a different African country to the one you are in.
  • Be prepared to endure criticism of American policy, society, and values.
    • Be more prepared to agree to disagree rather than to stubbornly stand your ground, as the tendency to engage in no-win arguments will isolate you. In addition, it is American custom to argue for the sake of being right, and in Africa this can lead to insulting someone very easily. Do not challenge their cultural beliefs, especially if they are someone of high status. Proving a superior “wrong” challenges their authority in ways that most Americans miss.
  • There is no free lunch, literally; when you’re invited to a party, you’re supposed to contribute.
    • At a minimum, you will be expected to tip musicians and dancers if present.  You may be put in a position where you have to “bid” in a raffle, or otherwise make a contribution to an unspecified pot.
    • When you go to a village, take something which can serve a lot of people.  A bag of rice, sugar, tea, candy, and where appropriate lots of kola nuts, or drinks (soda, not beer!).
    • Feel free to speak to people even if you’ve never met them before. Talking to strangers is not a taboo. You will also gain considerable popularity by joining in when any group-dancing takes place.

BARGAINING:

Markets are an integral part of African life, and bargaining is expected and necessary when shopping in them. You can bargain with just about any purchase besides food, which usually stay around the same price. However, when shopping for art, clothing, souvenirs, etc., bargain and bargain hard, especially at artisan shops. A couple tips:

  • Don’t point or touch objects or articles when you have zero interest in them. Indicating at a certain object gives the impression that you are interested in it, and the vendor will come over and start asking you questions, or even show you seven more like it, even if you didn’t care about it in the first place. “Looking with your eyes,” will make your shopping go faster and you won’t get hassled as much.
  • Decide what the item is worth to you, and whether you’re in the mood to spend time bargaining BEFORE you ask the price. Ask the vendor for the first price and then start at about 1/3 to 1/2 of what YOU are willing to pay.
  • There are two price brackets: one for Senegalese and one for tourists. Many vendors feel justified in asking for more from tourists, as not all westerners are familiar with bartering, and most just go with the first price that they give to them. Prices may vary from day to day depending on the vendor’s mood, your approach, whether you speak French or English, or whether a major holiday is approaching.
  • Try to keep your sense of humor in the process and be constantly aware of your surroundings.
  • If you feel something is too expensive for you, don’t feel obligated to buy it! You can walk away, even if you spent a long time there bargaining the price. (sometimes pretending to walk away will make them lower the price more!) However, there is a point at which a vendor will go no lower and become unyielding if you persist.

Learning to bargain well comes with time and practice. Don’t get discouraged if you get overcharged your first time. A lot of people dislike bargaining, but it can actually be fun if you talk and joke with the vendors and aren’t in a big hurry.

BEGGARS:

Americans are often surprised by the number of beggars in Dakar. However, remember that almsgiving is one of the pillars of Islam and an important part of Senegalese culture. No stigma is attached to begging and it is even required of children or adults who are studying in Quranic Schools. The children you see begging with empty cans are called “talibes” and are begging to earn their daily bread. You will also see “bifals,” young men dressed in brightly colored clothing. They can be quite aggressive and will step in front of you jingling the money in their bowls. If you are not inclined to give, just step around them and walk on. There are two Wolof phrases that may be useful to you:

  • Sarax sa agg na (I have already given today)
  • Ba benen yohn (next time)

Upon hearing these phrases, beggars will usually wave or nod and back away.

TAXIS:

Newcomers often have problems with taxi drivers and the rates they are asked to pay. Negotiate the price BEFORE entering the taxi! To help assure that you are not “taken for a ride,” the following list will give you an idea of a fair rate:

  • Airport to Downtown 3,000 – 3,500 cfa
  • Les Almadies area to Downtown 3,000 cfa
  • Les Almadies area to Ebbets Field/Mermoz 2,000 cfa
  • Mermoz area to Downtown 2,000 cfa
  • Mermoz area to Point E 1,000   1,500 cfa