From Europe to Africa via Asia: Tales of a young Italian expat

Expat interviews
  • Dakar
Published on 2021-07-28 at 10:00 by Francesca
Sara is a travel enthusiast and loves to discover new cultures. It has been a few months since she moved to Dakar with Djibril, her Senegalese boyfriend met in Shanghai. Sara is currently working as a volunteer in a non-profit organisation specialising in the reintegration of street children in the educational and vocational mainstream.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background?

My name is Sara, I am 23, and I currently live in Dakar. In recent years, I have travelled a lot and lived in China for about a year, first in Changsha, where I was teaching English at school, then in Shanghai, where I started my higher studies online for a year and a half. As with many other students, the pandemic halted my overseas travel plans. I was stranded in Italy, a country I never felt I belonged to, although I was surrounded by my wonderful family and my friends. After months of waiting and frustration, I decided to take control of my life, and here I am in Dakar!

What brought you to Senegal?

There are two fundamental reasons why I am in Senegal: my unstoppable desire to discover and learn new realities and my Senegalese boyfriend. I met Djibril in Shanghai and, after months of nostalgic messages and video calls, we decided to reunite. I started planning this trip based on information about COVID-19 restrictions: prohibited entry for tourism, COVID-19 test not more than five days before departure, authorisation from the Senegalese Embassy in Italy, etc. Djibril's brother works in a non-profit association and provided me with an invitation to “work” (voluntary), which made me eligible for a 3-month residence permit. Of course, I had a couple of issues, but I finally landed in Dakar on May 26th.

How was your travel experience in the pandemic era?

Indeed, the pandemic has a significant impact on travel, with more restrictions and requirements, especially when it comes to intercontinental travel. However, I think that it's always worth it, even though the bureaucracy and regulations are not my cup of tea. Regarding the current situation, COVID-19 seems to be a distant memory. I rarely see people wearing a mask, even in closed spaces (shops, offices, buses, etc.). Everything is open, there are events all the time, and it seems to me that there are no limits to gatherings. The heat, overpopulation in the city and the low infection rate probably account for this neglect.

How did you feel when you arrived in Dakar?

I had a lot of contrasting but beautiful emotions: the enthusiasm of being able to travel again and, at the same time, the fear of being part of a totally new reality. I was happy about reuniting with Djibril but worries about leaving my comfort zone in Italy. As I landed at the airport, I was overwhelmed by a different reality from the one I had left in Italy -- hardly any member of the airport staff wore a mask, and the atmosphere was much more relaxed than in Malpensa. The airport was almost empty, and in around 20 minutes, I had already collected my luggage and found Djibril.

What do you do for a living?

I am currently working as a volunteer in a non-profit association that takes care of the educational and professional reintegration of street children by offering them accommodation, food and clothing, Koran lessons, French, and various recreational or sports activities. I got the chance to set up a new English course for these children every Wednesday and Friday.

What does your expat life in Senegal look like?

On Wednesdays and Fridays, I leave the house at 9 am to take the "bus". Here in Dakar, buses with predefined stops and fixed timetables are non-existent, but there are crowded and very cheap minibuses. Besides, you can get off whenever you want, sometimes even when the vehicle is in motion. My working day starts at 10 am. When I arrive at the association, I support the other educators in their activities. At 11 am, there is a quarter of an hour break, followed by my English class for an hour usually. The children have never studied English, and, since I speak neither French nor Wolof (the local language), I try to make gestures, drawings and games to express myself. I have been working with them for several weeks, and I feel delighted: we have a nice bond, and during the lessons, there is always a lot of enthusiasm and participation.

Did you have trouble finding accommodation? What are the safest neighbourhoods in Dakar?

Djibril played a key role in finding the apartment. Searching online is very difficult to find accommodation in Dakar: many landlords here are unfamiliar with technology, and the few houses on the internet are costly. So I recommend all those who want to come to Dakar for a long time to rely on a local who knows Wolof and who has contacts because, here, everything works through networking. The apartment we found belongs to one of Djibril's acquaintances and is located in Ouest Foire, a popular and safe neighbourhood. Most expats in Dakar live in more expensive and westernised neighbourhoods like Almadies, Virage, Ngor, Fann Residence, and Mamelle, all located on the coast and where villas and houses have security services. In general, Dakar is a safe city, but it is best to avoid neighbourhoods like Pikine and Guédiawaye.

What are the most striking differences between Senegal and Italy, your home country?

Senegal and Italy are simply two worlds apart. Senegal is known as the land of Teranga (hospitality). Life is exceptionally community-based, and you don't need planning or to be invited by someone. The people will treat you like a family member and offer you a meal at any time of the day.

Timing is another interesting issue here. Opening hours are never indicated. People eat at any time, and stores close very late. Punctuality is practically non-existent here. All of this is certainly influenced by a poorly managed system: there is traffic almost all day and all night, and it can take more than an hour to travel a few kilometres. Nothing has been digitalised to there is a lot of paperwork in the offices. Roads and infrastructure are poorly planned and inefficient, and all of this leads to a slowed-down everyday life and development.

Religion is another fundamental difference. Most of the population is Muslim. People pray five times a day and are very attached to religious values. If, on the one hand, it has a positive influence on cultural and ethical growth and reduces crime, on the other hand, it has led to many prejudices and mental limits. For example, they tend to unnecessarily judge people who smoke or drink alcohol, especially women. People never speak freely and transparently about how they feel or what they think. There is an invisible filter dictated by a code of conduct that ensures that everything goes well. People show respect for the elderly without seeming vulnerable.

I want to point out that all this is only the personal opinion of a person who is far from this reality, but the population looks very comfortable with all this.

What surprised you the most in Dakar?

The cost of living surprised me the most. Considering the average salary in Senegal is around € 150, I expected the prices to be proportional. However, nearly everything is expensive -- supermarkets, pubs, fuel, internet, electricity and rents are sometimes more expensive than in Europe. Transportation is one of the few cheap things. I think it's really hard to imagine a place where you have never been the right way. This is why, despite all my research and the questions I asked Djibril before my departure, I always avoid having high expectations.

I did not come to Dakar on vacation, but to have an authentic and unforgettable experience, and I really think that this adventure will be hard to forget. It's a reality that's hard to accept and digest, especially since you cannot changing it, but it is what I had been looking for.

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