During the month of February, I was in what felt like a constant state of travel, shuttling between Dakar and Thiès for equal parts work and fun. In Thiès, I attended my In-Service Training (IST), where I learned about permagardening, microgardening, organic pest control, ornamentals, drip irrigation, and the Jesus-like miracle tree Moringa. I also spent time in Dakar for the West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST), a five-day-long excuse to party like Spring Break Cancún under the guise of community-building sportsmanship.
Since Peace Corps volunteers from several countries (Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, et al) come to WAIST, Peace Corps arranges homestays for all of us with American expatriates who have spacious homes in Dakar. Some are assigned to the American Ambassador’s house, or to people who work for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Two friends of mine got to stay in the backyard cottage of Adam Nossiter, the New York Times West African bureau chief. I ended up splitting my time between two different families and got an interesting view of what it is like to work, live, and raise kids in the American bubble within Dakar.
One family I stayed with works for the U.S. Treasury Department. They live in a roomy, chilly air-conditioned apartment with slick white marble flooring. The furniture (couches with red-and-gold stripes, armoires with glass panes to display fine China, presumably) is American presidential style and is the property of the Treasury. The couple, who met as Peace Corps volunteers in Saõ Tome & Principe and have three young children (one a newborn), said that the décor and size of their home is so antithetical to their taste that they don’t even recognize themselves in it. They explained to me that the Treasury insists on supplying them with its own expensive, new furniture rather than just give their employees a shipping allowance to bring over their own belongings.
The family drives an SUV equipped with car seats. Their kids attend the international school where all the other expat kids from South Africa, England, and other countries go. As their newborn slept in a bassinet next to the dinner table, they explained how mosquito bites are a worry because the baby can’t take malaria medication. We ate tacos and salad and spoke American. For moments, if I didn’t glance out the window to see the unfinished construction projects, dirt roads, and trash on the street, I would forget I was in a little American ivory tower and think I was in America itself.
The home of the other expat family I stayed with felt even more like home. The father works for Voice of America and the family was able to ship nearly all their furniture to Senegal. Their kitchen, like the one I grew up knowing, was overstuffed, homey, and a family gathering space. It had cabinets from Ikea and colorful kitchen utensils hanging over the counters. Like the other family, this one had far more space than they ever had in the States, which in this case meant a 3-story home with countless rooms, a pool, a garden, etc. It is an ideal house to have an outrageous Christmas party in. On the first morning I woke up there, the mother offered me toast and leftover quiche out of the freezer.
I joined them for their weekly pizza night at a local restaurant with another American family (they have Peace Corps Mauritania to thank for their meeting; the wife now works for UNICEF), their kids, an Ethiopian-born doctor recently uprooted from Baltimore, and an English radio journalist en route to Nairobi. I got totally lost in conversation, trying to imagine myself in their world. Parts of the evening felt thoroughly American (pizza, beer, and mostly American accents), yet the company was of that international milieu where everyone’s from somewhere else and their reasons for being in that restaurant, in that city, at that moment, are all different. That’s the flavor of the expat life.
. . .
To some extent, all expats—Peace Corps volunteers included—create an American microcosm for themselves abroad. For Peace Corps volunteers, it’s at the regional houses where we go every once in a while to do things like bake cookies and wear shorts. It’s a way of staying sane. For expat families in Dakar, it’s much easier to live a pseudo-American life. It’s not even necessary for them to speak Wolof. The parents acknowledge that it’s unfortunate that their kids are growing up in a sort of gated community, learning French and spending weekends at the American Club pool. As much as they may try to integrate, they are already a cohesive unit—a family—and as such they already have their own habits and rhythms. It is much easier for a single woman like me to dive into local culture. But when you have small children and a career to maintain, the novelty of exploring Senegalese customs in all their intricacies simply wears off.
Yet in many ways, these families had to make tougher decisions in committing to such a move. It was hard enough for me to put life in the U.S. on hold (my cell phone, my bills, my apartment, my relationships), and to not know exactly when I would be leaving until 6 weeks beforehand. Imagine going through all that with a mortgage, a career, and children to whom you have to continually convince that this crazy move “is going to be ok.” I don’t know if I could do this again—to unsettle myself—when I am settled down. But no use worrying about it, that time is a long ways away.