Dakar’s unfamiliarity isn’t so unfamiliar anymore. Dodging horse-drawn carts, Mercedes, and street hawkers to reach the cell phone vendor barely spiked my adrenaline. And I didn’t flinch when a pre-teen kid snickered at my broken Wolof.
What is more unfamiliar – if not the rythms and challenges of daily life in a rapidly developing city – is the work I’m trying to do. As an offshoot of my linguistic anthropology fieldwork last summer, I’m going to spend two weeks working with Alf@net, an initiative that uses digital media to promote literacy in indigenous languages.
Perhaps it’s another sign of my adjustment that I barely blinked when Valdiodio, Alf@net’s project coordinator, told me that the literacy training programs I was scheduled to observe don’t exist yet. “Yes,” I sighed to Valdiodio on the phone, “Dakar da fa meti!” (In Dakar life is hard! This is an all time favorite phrase of Dakarois taximen and NGO workers.)
Since I have only two measly weeks in Senegal, I will try to keep my goals modest. I hope to: 1) interview as wide a range of internet users as possible about their interest in an online discussion forum in Wolof’s standard orthography 2) tell Valdiodio and company what people said and 3) discuss with Alph@net the viability and efficacy of an online discussion forum as a tool for promoting literacy in Wolof, a language almost all Senegalese can speak but almost no one can write.
I also have a personal visit on the agenda. My friend Nabou Nyang got married on Christmas!
I met Nabou when she was 14, and I was 16, staying in her village for two nights as part of a high school trip. For a few years after we corresponded by letters hand-carried by volunteers travelling between our two countries. Then came the age of cell phone ubiquity, and I groggily enjoyed 3 am phone chats with Nabou.
Last summer, on a week long visit with Nabou and her family, I discovered that my friend had become the most beautiful girl in the village. She got so tired of answering calls from her smorgasboard of suitors, that she convinced me to field calls for her. At her recommendation I spoke English to the poor suckers so they’d think they had the wrong number and stop calling.
Yet another unsuccessful international aid mission…
All teasing aside, I’m very happy for my friend. Nabou, who played guess-what-the-clouds-look-like with me, who lay under the stars with me giggling about our teenage crushes, Nabou who can read frustration in my tiniest forehead wrinkle, and convince me that it’s OK not to love every single thing about a country that, at the risk of plummeting into a vat of clichés, I have indeed come to love.
Embarrasingly I don’t even know Nabou’s husband’s name yet. Communication has been spotty so far. But whoever he is, he’d better treat Nabou like a queen or else he’ll have me to answer to…in English!