Café Dakar with Stefania Zimmer

Café Dakar shares interviews with real people living in Dakar, Senegal. We talk about life here in West Africa’s francophone capital. The ups, the downs, what we love and what we could do without. Café Dakar is all about diversity and tolerance; it’s about work, life, fun and whatever we feel people should know about this unique corner of Africa.

K.S.: Let’s go! [pause]
K.S.: Name, Last name. Date of birth and Social Security Number! [laughing]
K.S. Stefania…Zimmer.
S.Z.: Mhm.
K.S.: In Dakar since?
S.Z.: Fall, 2012.
K.S.: Occupation?
S.Z.: Now, I take care of the children.
K.S.: So, you’re a stay at home mom.
S.Z.: Mhm
K.S.: It’s a noble profession! Between us, I think it’s a very important job.
(…)
K.S.: Tell me about your first impressions of Dakar.
S.Z.: First impressions. Well, they were a bit [in German]. My first impressions were somewhat influenced by what my husband told me. He grew up in the Congo, and he knew what was waiting for us.
K.S. What do you mean? What did he tell you?
S.Z.: In terms of the people on the streets. About not making eye contact because this grabs their attention and they immediately go up to you, they beg for money. So at the beginning I was quite afraid.
K.S.: So you were ready that there would be many people in the streets and they would want something from you.. is that right?
S.Z.: Well no, I wasn’t. Not to that degree.
K.S.: So it surprised you?
S.Z.: Well it wasn’t so much shocking as it was new.
(…)
K.S. So your husband grew up in the Congo, yes? Which Congo…there are a few Congos yes?
S.Z. In Kinshasa.
(…)
S.Z. Yes he grew up there with his parents so he knew this life from there.
K.S. Your husband is an Austrian, yes?
S.Z. Yes. So he told me some things and perhaps I took it all too much to heart, so yes, I was somewhat afraid coming here, of what was waiting for me. What’s more, I came here in the 8th month of pregnancy. The motherly feelings and all.
K.S. Your first time being a mother.
S.Z. I was worried that if something happened I wouldn’t know how to defend myself.
K.S. Yes, I understand.
S.Z. Generally, it was OK. But in the beginning, the amount of people, when you drive the car, and the handicapped people on the wheelchairs lined up on the sides of the road. This terrified me.
K.S. Yes.
[pause]
K.S. Had you lived previously in a developing country? Or poor country… or I’m not even sure how to refer to it.
S.Z. No. Well – I had lived in Poland! [laughing]
K.S. [laughing] Well… perhaps Poland isn’t G8 but it’s a very developed country, relatively speaking. You start to appreciate that the more you travel, I find.
S.Z. Exactly. But yeah, otherwise no. I did go once on holiday to Mauritius.
K.S. Ooh yes, that’s over there, the Ocean…
S.Z. Near Madagascar, yes.
K.S. Awesome, how was it?
S.Z. Fantastic. So, yeah some things I didn’t understand then because I was on holiday. And when I arrived here I started getting a better idea of what’s going on and how it all works.
K.S. [sharing some of own experience of living in Haiti]
K.S. There’s more political stability here.
S.Z. Yes, but everywhere there are groups or individuals halting development. Here there is also something that makes me so angry. I worked in that infant child care centre.
(…)
S.Z. I felt such helplessness. I was volunteering at the infant child centre and I felt like I was getting nowhere. Nothing is ever going to change.
K.S. Yes, I’ve certainly heard those same theories. That poverty will be around forever.
S.Z. Yes, but why? Mentality, yes. But at the most important aspect: education. You know when I was teaching those young women sowing (the young women who live in a safe-house that is also part of the infant care centre).
K.S. Yes, how was that?
S.Z. It was hard. Firstly because they had no motivation. Completely disinterested. And the worst thing was that they didn’t know the most basic things. They didn’t know how to hold scissors or cut material or paper. They would take the scissors, “Go ahead, cut that piece”, she would press down and rip through the fabric. These kinds of things that we (Westerners) learn in kindergarten, things like drawing a line using a ruler. They don’t have that kind of education.
K.S. So trying to teach sowing must have been very challenging.
S.Z. Exactly, and the idea was that the girls learn to sow so that they can make some money and help in the upkeep of the infant care centre. And to show that they can also be economically active.
K.S. You know they (the centre) most likely have donors, and those donors supporting them financially most likely want proofs that the centre is making money for its own upkeep too. So there is a lot of pressure from above.
S.Z. In the first year I really struggled there.
K.S. How long were you there for?
S.Z. In total about 2.5 years.
K.S. That’s quite a long time. So you would go a few times a week for a few hours at a time..or?
S.Z. I initially was teaching cooking and sowing.
K.S. Was cooking easier to teach than sowing? Did the girls know more?
S.Z. [pause] They were more open.
K.S. Interesting. And after how long did you feel at home in Dakar?
(…)
S.Z. It took about a year and a half. It took so long because I had a small infant at home. So I was quite tied down. I was able to relax and enjoy Dakar more after having my second child. So it’s not really related to being here, more with my own situation. Because I was set on going to Africa to start a family!
K.S. Aha, so this was your intention coming here?
S.Z. Yeah. I figured I wouldn’t be working, I don’t speak French, and so I would focus on my new family, on my children.
K.S. Yeah, I understand. So right now you’re in a time in your life when you’re taking care of your children.
(…)
K.S. What did you do professionally before you became a mom?
S.Z. I worked as a massage therapist, finished my training to become a cosmetician. Then I went to Austria, I worked as a nanny, learned German, completed studies in translation. In the meantime I did lots of jobs like waitress, hostess while I was studying.
K.S. Tell me about your best work day as a stay-at-home and your best work day working professionally before. One of those days when you go to bed and before falling asleep you think to yourself – wow – that was a truly exceptional day. Let’s start with your life now, as a mom.
S.Z. When my kids are healthy! I wake up in the morning, none of the kids are sick. Nothing is broken at home, and I don’t have to supervise anyone who is trying to fix something that’s broken. A day when I can go out for a coffee, have some time for myself.
K.S. Very much like today then! You’re suggesting that today is a great day [laughing]
S.Z. Absolutely!
K.S. I’m very glad.
S.Z. So yeah, in addition it would be a day when I can workout a bit. But really the most important thing is that the children are all alright.
K.S. OK, so describe your best work day before becoming a mom.
S.Z. It would be a day when I don’t have to commute from place to place. Like on a weekend, perhaps a lot of stress, but I was feeling fulfilled at the end of the day, like I got something done.
K.S. Feeling accomplished.
S.Z. Yes.
K.S. Tell me what is your favourite thing about Dakar. If you were to leave tomorrow, or in a week, what would you miss most.
S.Z. The stores with the African materials.
K.S. Ah yes.. textile. Stores… you mean the stands at the market.
S.Z. Yeah.
K.S. You mentioned that you love sowing and you sow a great deal and oftentimes for presents for others. I have it on good account (from Sister Grazyna at the Infant Care Centre) that you are a master seamstress! [laughing]
S.Z. Don’t listen to her, she’s lying! [laughing]
K.S. Sorry, but in this case I’m more likely to believe her! [laughing]
K.S. I imagine you’ve spent quite a bit of time in those stands where they sell materials, “wax”.
(… discussing prices of African materials…)
K.S. So what is your least favourite things? What would you gladly change?
S.Z. You know what else I love. Those cafés along the beach on Almady. They are wonderful.
K.S. Oooh yes, I know exactly what you mean.
S.Z. What really bothers me is the heat. When it comes. The rain comes.
K.S. Like now?
S.Z. Right now it’s OK! It gets really bad. It gets hot and humid and I hate that feeling that everything is sticking to your body. Nonstop. You can’t control it.
K.S. All you can do is surrender to it.
S.Z. What I don’t like, in the people, is when they try to take advantage of me. Trick me or cheat me. They think that they can trick me. That they are intelligent enough to get the better of me… and that’s when I get really angry.
(…)
K.S. I’d like to talk a bit about Islam. You mentioned that this is the first time you’re living in a predominantly Muslim country. What is that like for you? As a woman, or as a Western woman?
S.Z. I’ve never had any issues with it, as a woman. I’ve never felt like someone is looking down on me or judging me. I never felt like I’m being treated worse because I’m not Muslim. Never.
K.S. Did you study Islam a bit, does it interest you?
S.Z. Never studied it, but yes I am curious. You know I have learned a bit from the Polish women here, those that are married to Senegalese men. I wonder do they have troubles in a mixed-culture marriage or not. It’s not easy, but it’s not as if in a mono-cultural marriage it’s easy!
K.S. Right. I feel like as long as the marriage is founded on love and respect, I figure it has as much chance of surviving as the next marriage. There are so many variables! Who knows which way it may go! [both laughing]
S.Z. You know when I really started feeling at home here. I just remembered this. It’s when I come back from my holiday. I’m usually absent about 2 months. And the people on the street, you know around my home, the seller at the shop, people in the neighborhood – they are all genuinely happy to see me when I come back, they are so happy. In Poland no one greets me in this way! They really show happiness when they see you again. You know I’ve never given them anything. They are just happy to see me.
K.S. Well yes, it is such a heart-warming feeling. I also experienced this in Haiti.
S.Z. It’s amazing. You immediately feel right at home.
S.Z. Coming back to Islam now. You know what drives me mad. The calls to prayer from the mosques. For the first 6 months I couldn’t sleep, it’s all I could hear. I think my brain got used to it though because now I don’t hear it anymore.
K.S. It’s so interesting. Everything is a question of familiarity. I was speaking with a Moroccan friend who was telling me that when he travels and stays in Europe (in non-Muslim countries) where there is no call to prayer he feels as though the city is non fully turned on, or it’s sleeping, as if someone had hit “pause” and life has stopped…despite everyone in the streets and shops going about their business. He says he misses hearing the call to prayer very much.
(…)
K.S. So you’re leaving Senegal soon.
S.Z. In one year. More or less, in one year.
K.S. And you’re planning a return to Austria. It’s going to be so different.
S.Z. With big changes like that you have to take a break. To take time to adapt, and gather your strength so that you have the energy to fight again.
K.S. Your kids speak Polish, yes?
S.Z. Yes, they are trilingual. Polish, German and French.
K.S. Do they speak Wolof?
S.Z. No. Because white children usually learn Wolof from their nanny, but our nanny is from Togo so she doesn’t speak in Wolof.
(…)
K.S. Would you like to come back here in the future on holiday or do you really see this as a closing of a chapter and you want to focus on what’s coming next.
S.Z. Yes, more so the end of a chapter. Perhaps when my children are older they will want to travel here to discover the country where they were born. They were both born in Senegal. But then maybe they would come on their own.
K.S. And when someone from Poland, or from the West, who has never been to Africa speaks to you about this, or shares their opinion of what they think Senegal or Africa is like.. what do they say? Do you correct them on the stereotypes they share?
S.Z. Yes everyone is horrified and I’m perceived as incredibly adventurous for being here and that I have had children here and that I live here and manage here. They cannot conceive of it.
K.S. What do you think they imagine?
S.Z. Well I think they imagine the reality, part of the reality, but it’s not the reality we deal with. Because we don’t live in the slums. The slums are outside. This is their image of things, and it’s not false, it’s just that we white people, we are not part of that.
K.S. There are different social spheres that are created because of it. Also a sign of development, in my opinion, that foreigners can come and live in relative comfort. We do contribute to bringing money, business and development, after all.
S.Z. Yes, and you know there are quite a few rich Senegalese also. I remembered how surprised I was when my first child went to the nursery, at the age of 18 months, and I saw very young, Senegalese children there and their rich parents had dressed them in designer clothes. Ralph Lauren belt, stylish, shirt from Tommy Hilfiger, very small children. Our European children looked poor and neglected next to them!
K.S. Complexes of poverty, I think. Once you cross over to the other side and actually make money, you have to go out of your way to show it to others.
S.Z. They invest a lot in clothing. You have to look good out on the street. And I remember seeing this in Russia and Belarus. The people there really go out of their way to dress fancy, overly fancy. They overdo it, it ends up looking tacky.
K.S. Tacky, for sure.
S.Z. Thankfully here it’s not tacky, they do have their “wax”, their African materials, it does look good.
K.S. Anything else you’d like to add, about Senegal?
S.Z. The peanuts are delicious. When I take them to Poland, and the cashews, people cannot believe that it can really taste that good.
K.S. And if you could say something to Senegal, if Senegal could be personified, what would you tell that person? Anything goes.
S.Z.: Get yourself organized. Don’t wait for someone’s help, just do it on your own.
K.S.: And if you were to thank this person (for your stay here)?
S.Z.: Well yes the previous one was advice. And to thank? I would thank that person for the sincerity and warm welcome and hospitality. What I said before – that people see you on the streets and they are genuinely happy to see you. This openness and sincerity. And I would say “Do not lose this!”…”Do not lose this on your way to the top!”.
K.S.: The Taranga.
S.Z.: Yes.
K.S.: Thank you.

Post-interview selfies

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For original interview recording (in Polish):

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