I signed the job contract before looking at a map or having any idea where Senegal was actually located. Then I made a list of things I did know about the country, which turned out to be not much longer.
Gabriel, the geography major and social studies teacher, was a bit more educated—but only a bit. Our transition to West Africa was unexpected, and our expectations after landing in Dakar were few. What we did know was this: life in Senegal looks a little different.
Each morning, a string of notes pull me out of a deep sleep—a haunting melody carried upon the stillness of a sleeping city as our neighborhood mosque calls faithful Muslims to pray. I rise and tip toe to our window to listen to the world outside. A hint of the sea greets me, sometimes wet and humid, sometimes dry, depending on the season. But always salty, comforting, and now familiar.
Below, I see our neighbor’s guard shift to the ground in response to fajr, the early morning call to prayer. Gathering the fabric of his traditional boubou, he kneels on a worn, sandy mat, faces Mecca, and recites a prayer to Allah.
Within minutes, everyone in Dakar is awake. The dull hum of cars zipping along the highway catches my ears as the business class makes their way to open offices and stores. Next, the shuffling feet of their workers come, crunching gravelly sand along the streets of our neighborhood. And finally, the sound of my own coffee maker gurgling to life as it brews some much needed caffeine.
Despite living in a 94% Muslim country and a city with hundreds of mosques, we cannot always hear the call to prayer throughout the day. But when it does make itself heard over the roar of this city of 2.4 million, it is a reminder for us to also pray.
Dakar boasts a unique cultural blend of West African, French and Arabic flavors. It is a city of striking contrast, where local markets sell secondhand wares in the shadow of office buildings and horse-drawn carts intermingle with newly imported European vehicles on dusty, African roads.
Here, fashion varies from traditional to modern, both unwaveringly modest by Western standards. Even in the hot season, when temperatures surpass a sweltering 103ºF/39ºC with 100 percent humidity, women wear long dresses and men wear pants or traditional boubous.
The traffic is always chaotic. We live 20 minutes from everywhere on the narrow peninsula, yet joke that we live 3 hours from everywhere, due to traffic. It gives you time to catch up with friends while you are running errands.
Pedestrians run across highways and Dakar’s iconic car rapides swerve in and out of lanes, kicking up dust in a choreographed dance of disarray as they dodge horses, scooters, peddlers, herds of sheep and heavy vehicles—all of which haphazardly dart across the road.
Host to 74 embassies, Dakar is a hub of culture for the international community. Our work at Dakar Academy brings us into relationship daily with students from more than 30 countries! It is a warm environment where students are encouraged to share about their own culture, while learning about others’.
A simple errand for dinner is not so simple but requires 2 to 3+ stops for needed ingredients. If you’re lucky, the errand can be completed on foot to the neighborhood markets, although it can total a 2 mile walk. If you’re not as lucky, you might have to drive an hour across town for that missing ingredient (and pray the store has it when you arrive).
First stop: the produce stand, where ripening fruits and vegetables are protected from cooking in the African sun by a canvassed frame. A kilo of peppers, tomatoes and onions runs close to 4,200 CFA, or 7.50 USD.
Next, off to Mary Market for dried goods and bread. Although our favorite is pita, French breads are typically more available—remnant recipes from colonization. When we’re looking for freshly baked baguettes, we head to see Tapha, a kind and gentle Senegalese man who runs a stand on a corner in our neighborhood.
Our on-foot shopping excursions often carry us to Prixdoux, sometimes Auchan, but most often Casino, the market nearest our apartment, where we buy refrigerated items. Living in a port city means that Dakar regularly receives shipments of cheese, yogurt and butter from France and Spain. But being only a few hours’ flight from Europe also has a drawback: we pay European prices for much of our food.
Back at home, we bleach our fruits and vegetables in the sink, leaving them to soak in a strong-smelling solution. It kills bacteria and germs that could cause major sickness. Not that we haven’t avoided sickness—Sarah contracted malaria within two months of landing in Senegal, while Gabriel suffered an eye infection caused by the heavy concentration of sand and dust particles in our desert air.
We have a new appreciation for water. A filter contraption composed of two large buckets sits on our kitchen counter. We pour the silty, yellow water that comes from the tap into the top bucket, where it drips through a filter and into the bottom bucket. It is a slow drip before the water is clean and clear in the bottom bucket, ready for drinking and cooking. We have to plan ahead to have enough filtered water, not only for daily use, but in case there is a water cut and we are without a tap for days.
There’s this piece of art in our apartment, we call it The Kitchen Window. Its frame and scenery stay consistent, day by day. But the piece’s colors? They change hourly, an undulating wave of light moving back and forth across the visible spectrum, reflecting Dakar’s current mood.
In the dry season, that mood is more often than not: dust. But on clear days we can watch the sun rise and set, a spectacular display of rose golds and airy blues, weighted down by the dark shadows of our neighborhood palms.
Although we dedicate most of our time to our work at Dakar Academy, there’s no shortage of things to do in Dakar. On our days off, we ride our motorcycles along the beach or up to Lac Rose, peruse new handcrafted masterpieces at the local artisan market, and discover bits of Senegal’s rich history. Sometimes, we even get to go on a culinary excursion for Dakar Eats.
Life in Senegal looks a little different. It doesn’t always make sense why we like it here—it’s miserably hot for an extended season, we don’t speak the language, it’s expensive to live here, we don’t always have the comforts of home, it's hard being away from family, and some days are really difficult as we try to navigate the culture.
Yet we love our work at Dakar Academy and come home each night with that satisfying feeling of exhaustion—the one that tells us that we gave the day, and our students, our all.
Life in Senegal looks a little different. But we wouldn’t change a thing about where we are.
Like reading about our life in Africa + other travels?
Help us to continue sharing about cultures around the world.