Monday, October 6, 2008

Arriving in Africa for the First Time: Remembering the Smells of Senegal

I'll be headed back to Senegal in a few weeks, and that got me thinking about when I first went to Africa just over 11 years ago, in October 1997. I was a newlywed, ready to study at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop as a Rotary Scholar. Back then, we had to shuttle back and forth from our apartment in Dakar to a cybercafé, which was one of maybe two cybercafés in the capital city of over 1 million people. Now in 2008 it seems there is internet access on every street corner.

One of our first memorable emails home to our friends and family in the United States was about the smells of Dakar. Those smells haven’t changed much in 11 years, but I am used to them now, in a sense. In our first few weeks back in 1997, we stayed with a Senegalese Rotarian, who introduced us to the delicious odors of Senegalese food cooking at home, and the fresh aroma of fruit being sliced (mangoes, oranges, apples). I don’t think I had ever sliced a mango before arriving in Dakar. A more noxious smell we welcomed was that of our mosquito spray to lessen our chances of getting malaria. But in that first week back in 1997, the smells outside the house were so “exotic”, at least to us!

As we walked around, whether in downtown Dakar, or out more in the suburban sprawl which is still densely inhabited, we encountered many new smells. First was the subtle roasting smell of peanuts harvested here in Senegal. They were heated in their shells, in metal bowls sitting on the dusty ground. Next to that, goats were tied to the tree on the corner, crying, bleating or shouting at us. They remained stationary all day long, and I really didn't know why they were there. Maybe they were for sale. Or maybe someone tied up their goats on the corner while they worked at roasting their peanuts. In any case, the goats left a special earthy smell as they do their business where they are, of course. The smell of exhaust fumes was ubiquitous in this city, which seemed to somehow have more vehicles than people. Certainly in a rather poor country, this was not the case, but that’s what it seemed like at first. I arrived in Senegal with a sore throat, and the fumes felt like they were scraping my throat dry. You could taste the diesel fumes.

In downtown Dakar, or the centre ville, we passed by Lebanese restaurants which make chawarmas, hot, sliced meat with a few grilled onions inside, wrapped in a pita. That was a really welcome smell, much better than that of the garbage in the gutters. And the gutters are usually dampened by the men and boys who urinate wherever they want. Amusingly, sides of buildings are sometimes spray-painted with "Défense d'uriner" (No urinating) and maybe it works, to a degree. Some of these also threaten a monetary fine equal to an average person’s daily wages. I've yet to see anyone choose those places as preferred locations for urinating…

Despite the fact the rainy season had just ended, some water remained on the street in stagnant puddles and attracted the worst of smells. The garbage was something we had to get used to. Small plastic grocery bags are everywhere, as well as small plastic sandwich-size baggies. The smaller ones are sold with tap water or a red juice called bissap inside. Anyone who buys these bagged beverages sucks the liquid right out of the bag from the bottom (they're closed at the top) and then throws them on the ground. Sometimes I wished we could “adopt a street” and clean up the trash, but which one would we choose??

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