This past weekend was WAIST, the West African International Softball Tournament. Held in Dakar, it is basically an excuse for ex-pats and Peace Corps volunteers to hang out and drink beer. Oh yeah, and play some softball.
Ex-pats form teams from different West African countries and then all meet in Dakar for the tournament. For us as Peace Corps volunteers, it is one of the only times in the year that we are all in the same place. As we are spread out in cities/towns/villages all over Senegal, it’s a nice chance to see each other and enjoy some quality time in the magical land of Dakar.
Perhaps the best part of this whole venture is the fact that Peace Corps works with the U.S. Embassy to pair us with homestays for the weekend. I signed up with a few of my friends from the Kolda region, and the reverse culture shock when we arrived at our homestay was palpable. We had just made the long journey up from Kolda (it took us about 13 hours, which was actually relatively quick) and we arrived at the house to have their maid let us in. She showed us to the guest room, which also doubled as a extra food storage place. There was a wall filled with all kinds of American snacks, baking supplies, canned foods, you name it. We freaked out. We were in the middle of exclaiming our excitement and disbelief that such a stash could exist in Senegal when the family’s teenage daughter arrived at our door. Her parents hadn’t informed her they were going to be hosting us, and we quickly tried to explain as well as downplay our culture shock. She definitely thought we were crazy. But then she offered to show us the TV room where they have a netflix connection. We quickly gave up trying to save face and just continued to express our incredulity.
Living in that house for a weekend was like a dream. There was a fridge full of cheese, snacks, beer, soda, anything and everything we’ve missed over the past (almost) year. Hot showers, comfortable beds, a pool in the backyard. We were living the life. It highlighted once again how much I’ve learned to do without. It was almost uncomfortable to have so many choices. Our family would ask us questions like “Do you guys have any dietary restrictions?” or “What kind of cheese would you prefer?” and we would just laugh. These were normal questions at some point in my life, but now they just seemed silly. We kept reiterating that we were fine with anything.
The softball tournament was a window into how different our lives as Peace Corps Volunteers are compared to the ex-pats that live in Dakar. The ex-pat teams all had nice uniforms made, with matching shoes, hats, etc. The Peace Corps teams, on the other hand, dressed in themes based on their regions. Some of the themes included lumberjacks, hashtags, american tourists, and mario kart characters. And most of us played barefoot. Walking around, I would overhear conversations of ex-pats complaining about their air conditioners breaking, or their internet not being fast enough. Meanwhile our biggest complaint was that the beers were too expensive (Dakar prices are typically at least double what you pay in the rest of the country). Different worlds indeed.
From my observations this weekend, it’s clear that the ex-pat world is a pretty well-defined bubble. As I’ve said before, Dakar is a different world than the rest of Senegal. And most of these people, despite having lived in Dakar for several years, have never left this bubble. It made me feel so grateful for the type of experience I’m having living abroad. I feel confident that I could travel anywhere in Senegal and feel safe. We have such a deep cultural understanding of Senegal — something I don’t believe one could reach just living in Dakar.
And Senegalese people pick up on it, too. Somehow, some way, we fit in. Despite the fact that we’re American, for the most part we don’t get treated like tourists. We get better prices for taxis, we don’t get harassed as much by vendors. Maybe it’s our deteriorating clothes, our sun-tanned faces, or just the way we greet people in local language. Whatever it is, I’m proud to be treated like someone that actually lives here and knows how things are. It’s a good feeling.
Oh yeah, and my region won the Peace Corps league tournament. Here we are below, with the U.S. ambassador!