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When unpredictability proves predictable

By Gina Gotthilf

Section: Features

August 29, 2008

As Brandeis students came out of exam rooms dragging their limp hands behind them, most knew what to expect from the upcoming summer.

But while many of us soaked in the comfort of home or perused around all-too-familiar Waltham, Anastazyia Vareschi ’09 was headed for Senegal, where she would spend six weeks learning Wolof and studying Senegalese film and literature. “Dakar’s one of the most developed cities in Africa, but I had no idea what to expect from that,” she explained.

The tall, Caucasian senior from New Hampshire soon came to realize that she too was unexpected. As she landed across the ocean filled with curiosity about a completely different culture, she was stared at with equal interest. “While walking on the street, I’d get hollered out by fifteen people,” she recalled.

Intimidated by the unusual attention warranted by her position as a Tubaab (white tourist), Vareschi’s initial desire to venture out into a new culture was cloaked by one of her first cultural lessons. “There’s a lot of pressure put on women to look respectable and keep boundaries up, whereas men can do whatever they want,” she explained.

But imbedded in what might seem like a culture of hostility and discrimination to the eyes and ears of an outsider, the generally religious people of Senegal value their relationships with everyone around them above most other tenets.

“It’s a really warm, welcoming culture,” Vareschi said. “You greet everyone on the street.” Yet the role of greetings, unlike in America, far surpasses that of politeness, and unlike at Brandeis, represents more than verbal diplomas indicating one’s graduation from Social Skills 101. Countless minutes are spent every day greeting each person one interacts with, and to abstain from this practice is considered undeniably rude or offensive. “Being responsible for acknowledging people and talking to them is very important,” recounted Vareschi. “You can’t stay in your bubble like in America – it’s very disrespectful.”

The value for relationships also goes beyond pre-conceived family positions. Kinship roles bleed into one another, and just as the decision to greet someone is blind, so is the attitude toward those living in one’s household.

“A few fellow-students had difficulty figuring out
initially who was their mother or sister. Many different people
lived in the same house, but also many neighbors and friends are
treated as second-family,” said Vareschi.

Not all interactions, however, are based on warmth and the desire to uphold the value of social balance. Conveying the surprising presence of vendors keeping shop at each traffic light, Vareschi recounted a humorous anecdote that portrays the locals’ characteristic desperation to profit from American tourists. While driving back from St. Louis, the bus transporting the fifteen American students in Vareschi’s program stopped for mangoes.

“When we stopped the bus full of white touristy looking people, about thirty women ran toward us with bowls of mangoes on their heads trying to sell them to us. We didn’t even have to move away from the bus,” said Vareschi.

As part of her curriculum, Vareschi took Wollof, film/literature classes. During her free time, she attended Djembe (African drum) lessons with some local musicians.

“It wasn’t at all like music lessons in the states; you sit and play,” she explained. In America, music lessons tend to be more structured. Following directions, students study music theory instead of immediately participating in joint improvisation sessions or performances. Vareschi was invited to play with the Djembe group at orphanages and even during rehearsals with a professional dance group. And while students in the U.S. usually interact with their teachers in controlled environments, following tacit hierarchical norms, Vareschi and some of her colleagues were often invited by their teachers for tea after practice.

After classes, Djembe, and tea, Vareschi would head home to her Christian host family, who, unlike most some other families in the country, did not practice polygamy. Most families in Senegal do not practice polygamy, some do, because it is acceptable in Islamic law–but it is also very
expensive to keep more than one wife.

Yet outlining the financial disparity between American and Senegalese upper-middle class citizens, she described an intriguing experience at the house. Because American tourists are instructed not to drink tap water in Senegal, Vareschi had accumulated several plastic bottles during her stay which she kept in her room. On her last day, as there was no trashcan in the house, Vareshi’s sister asked her to leave the bottles on the kitchen counter.

“My (host) mother emphatically thanked me for leaving those plastic bottles for them. She said it was incredibly nice of me,” said Vareschi. In a country where glass bottles have only been slowly substituted for plastic during the past three years ,leaving the bottles was seen as a generous act of reciprocity for their hospitality.

Other than the typical photographs, friends, and experiences most tourists bring back to the United States, Vareschi returned with a more Senegalese way of looking at her life. At home, she is now a slightly different woman than the one who left for Senegal:

“I gained more self-assurance in terms of being able to handle myself in a completely uncomfortable situation.” And that is much better than a souvenir.

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