I never would have thought I’d register for an online dating chatroom. But there I was, sweating like a pig in a tiny cyber café, entering my age, my ‘interests’ and a Senegalese pseudonym into ‘123 Love.’ It all started with a real live chat with the girl on the computer next to me, and my attempt to explain my affinity for ‘cyber zone,’ located in one of Dakar’s poorest quartiers, whenI had sleek blue laptop poking out of my shoulder bag. “You want to talk with Senegalese people?” she asked in French. I confirmed that I did, hoping this reductive – if accurate – summary of my research project would flow effortlessly into an interview. Instead, she grabbed my mouse and entered the URL for ‘123 Love.’ “Voilà,” she said. “You can do everything on this site.” Hiding my disappointment, I proceeded to copy and paste a truncated version of my research abstract into about 25 chat conversations. Then I waited for a response. And waited. And waited... I guess ‘Dakarhottie’ and ‘Baisemoi’ weren’t looking for chats about language hybridization in the digital public sphere.
But then on the 26th paste…success! ‘AmourABC’ informed me that he was living in New York and used Facebook to communicate with relatives in Dakar, and would be happy to answer some questions. Not wanting to keep AmourABC waiting, I rummaged through my email for the French version of my IRB consent document and pasted it into the text box. Often before interviews, I worry that the lengthy and bureaucratic consent process will undercut the friendly researcher-subject rapport that many anthropologists live for. On Love 123 this worry was ten-fold. But AmourABC didn’t abandon me for another woman. On the contrary, he sent me the URL of his Facebook conversation with a brother in Italy which – I have to consult with my informant/translator to be sure – might exhibit precisely the linguistic expressions of spatiality that I want to study! But for some reason I didn’t feel like celebrating. Maybe it was partly dehydration. But As I walked out of the cyber, I got that same restless, lightheaded feeling I still get sometimes when hassled by vendors in downtown Dakar. This was strange. I had just made a breakthrough. So why wasn’t I euphoric? After some fresh air and a liter of water, I realized it was precisely the ease and efficiency of my intellectual dalliance with AmourABC that had sent me into a funk. After a month of in-person interviews, one of my most productive exchanges had come from an anonymous encounter with a stranger. What’s more, I could have performed that exchange anywhere – on my sleek blue laptop in the states just as well as the ancient DELL desktop in Dakar. The Senegalese answer to the question ‘How are you’ that I find so remarkable– Mangi fi rekk (I am here only) – couldn’t apply less to my research. Instead of being ‘here only,’ forming connections with the people around me, I was “talking” with someone in my own country.
I think it’s telling that my unease resembled my infuriated-by-pushy-vendors-and-men-that-shout-marriage-proposals-as-I-walk-by feeling. In downtown Dakar, many people look at foreigners with dollar signs in their eyes. On any given day a toubab (a term for ‘white person’ once reserved for the French during the colonial period) may be swarmed by children chanting ‘toubab toubab toubab’ and asking for money. Taximen and salesmen also flatter female toubabs with proposals to become their first or second wife, provided an American visa is included among the wedding gifts. Of course, it’s possible to get beyond this role play; refusing a marriage proposal is just as good an opportunity as any for cultural exchange (remind me to write a blog entry about playing the marriage game…). But in general, for a female toubab without fluency in Wolof, la Place de l’Independence is not the safest place to sit and chat. In downtown Dakar just as in Love 123, I will never completely escape my anonymity. So despite all those theoretical essays I read about the anthropology of “flow,” I found myself wishing I could exchange transnational and urban encounters for the kind of village community I visited on my first trip to Senegal in 2005. Or perhaps I could donn cargo pants and wire rimmed glasses and parachute, Margaret Mead style, onto an island. Somewhere where I could feel a sense of community and sense of place. Somewhere where people would call me by my real name – not a pseudonym or a generic label for my race – when I walked by. However, Senegalese hospitality can often cure the digital age blues. As soon as I walked out of the cyber café, an elderly Senegalese man in a blue silk boubou told me to sit down and handed me a glass of mint tea. I knew this offer of Ataya – a Senegalese past time involving sitting, talking, and drinking cup after cup of delicious tea – would eat up my afternoon. But this man’s face beamed warmth.
So I passed two lovely hours on the street corner outside the cyber, watching face-offs between taxis and motorcycles, laughing at an unruly group of goats on the sidewalk, and eventually, discussing the emergence of colloquial written Wolof. This encounter with a retired school teacher was just as haphazard as my encounter with AmourABC. It was also just as helpful (or almost) for my research, affirming the possibility of rapprochement in the most hectic and unruly sections of Urban Dakar. Even if I can and must do a large part of my research on the net, nothing can replace sense of connection that comes from face-to-face encounter. I might spend three days a week analyzing online texts with an informant. But our digital travel across national boundaries always ends with a lunch with the family around the communal bowl.