Tutti Wolof

The first day of classes I was running late and needed to take a taxi as the bus would take too long. Here in Dakar taxis are a quasi form of public transportation and as such are always readily available. I flagged one down and stated the location -Restaurant L’Endroit Amitié trois. He responded understanding nothing, I asked him to repeat. It was when he repeated that I realized he was responding to me in Wolof. With no understanding of what he had said I gave a shrug and he responded simply by giving me a price. I knew the price was 3 times what I countered offer 1/3 of the original and he signaled for me to get in.


Before arriving in Senegal I believed that my relatively strong understanding of french would allow me to easily operate here. It is after all the national language. After just a short time here in Dakar I have realized that French will only get you so far. It is wolof, not french that is essential to understanding and immersing yourself here in Dakar.


The causes for this difference were not immediately clear to me when I first arrived however, as I have spent more time here I have begun to understand why this is. In most households wolof is the first language that you will learn and the one that you will use both in your home and neighborhood. Because of this, most elementary school education is conducted in Wolof. For many in Dakar, this is where their education ends. If one continues into middle and/or high school, they will be forced to learn french as the assumption is that they will be attending university. University courses are taught solely in French, so by the time you graduate high school you are required to be fluent in the language.


In this way, mastery of the french language is a mark of education and, in many cases, of privilege, here in Dakar. This understanding though is not complete with out also discussing the legacy that the french language has here. France colonized Senegal until 1960 and these colonial ties still ring strong. There is a large French multinational and military presence here and the tourism industry draws heavily on the population of France. This bitter and in many ways continuing legacy makes many here a opposed to the continued use of french. As I was told in an impromptu conversation on the beach “french is the language of our colonizers, we’d only be doing the favors by continuing to speak their language.” This sentiment has been expressed to me, implicitly and explicitly, many times over.


This creates what I see as a bit of a divide though. All governance and most business here is conducted in french and yet there is this strong sentiment that it dignifies France and creates an enduring tie to colonialism.


How this is navigated it something that I wish to continue to explore as I continue my time here in Dakar.