A vehicle honks right behind me as I walk down Route de Rufisque, the main road outside the SIL Center where I live. A couple weeks ago, the honk might have startled me. But now, I know the sound doesn’t mean what it does back where I come from. Without turning around, I know it’s a taxi driver simply announcing his availability to a (white) pedestrian whose walking capability may be doubtful in his mind.
Sounds here don’t always mean what we foreigners would first think. Vehicle honks are commonplace in this part of West Africa and usually not, that I can tell, rude or threatening. They are only rarely accompanied by menacing looks or gestures. It’s mostly a communication device, like the honk of the available taxi driver. Or of the truck driver entering a roundabout announcing to the approaching drivers that his wheels are higher than theirs. Or of a driver signaling to a pedestrian crossing the road that his vehicle is close to the spot where he is walking. In fact, it would be considered rude of the driver not to honk and give fair warning in that situation.
I’ve been sprouting a new set of ears and eyes here in the part of West Africa where I’ll be living and working. By this I mean that I’m learning to recalibrate the way I experience my surroundings. I’m learning to ignore a lot of what my senses would have told me while living in the US, in order to make more accurate meaning associations with the sights and sounds here.
Another example: bus stops. My American eyes were completely blind to them for the first week. Now I know that a group of people standing beside the road, with or without a sign, is a bus stop. And the wooden signs that mark certain bus stops may or may not be clearly and accurately numbered. But bus stops can be found if one has the eyes to see them.
Then there’s the new sound — off in the distance or right nearby depending on one’s neighborhood — that is heard 5 times a day. There were times when it sounded to my American ears like the fog horn of a large ship or like the howl of a coyote, but now I’ve learned otherwise. It’s the Muslim call to prayer, sung or chanted and amplified from the local mosque. One will often hear it from several mosques at once.
Or what about that structure at the street corner behind the center, the one that my American eyes told me was a shack when I took my first stroll? Well, it turns out to be much more; it houses a local business. It’s one of the neighborhood boutiques where one can purchase household staples: matches, oil, rice, tea, dish-washing liquid, powdered milk, etc. A similar-looking structure down the street is the place where a woman makes home-cooked meals and takes orders, though my American eyes would have never told me that. Her yassa poulet is known to be delicious.
Do you see and hear all the things I’d be missing with only my American set of senses? Even these initial sight and sound discoveries will continually be revisited and re-evaluated as I spend more time here. I have so much to see, hear, touch, smell, taste of my new surroundings.
Of course I’ll never completely shed the eyes and ears that I came with; I don’t think I’d want to. But my American senses aren’t enough to live here, so I hope that the discovering and sprouting never stops!