Sunday, October 10, 2010

How to Win Friends and Influence People

With all due apologies to Dale Carnegie (who has been dead for 55 years, so I'm not sure if he needs the formality), the biggest drawback to moving to Senegal was not having any friends.  I should probably begin this entry by explaining my living situation:  I share a villa with three other professors who can best be described as:

* a 70-year old Belgian who takes a nap every afternoon so he can stay up to watch the 8pm soccer game
* a 65-year old Lebanese math professor who edits a math journal in his spare time
* a 30-something English professor from Boston who edits a journal on communism in his spare time

Given my free-wheeling Libertarian ways, we aren't exactly four guys you expect to find playing cards on Saturday nights.  Although it certainly makes for some interesting dinner conversation...

So, over the past two weeks I have been on a mission to meet people off campus.  This is not particularly easy given that I don't speak the local languages: French and Wolof.  Frankly, Wolof seems a whole lot easier to learn, but Rosetta Stone hasn't come up with a nifty 3-CD package and I'm not sure how much good it would do me to learn a tribal language. 

That said, have you ever noticed that French is pretty much a tribal language?  I mean who truly speaks it?  Some Canadiens have their version, some people in Louisiana have their version, a couple of Caribbean Islanders have mixed it with their language and call it Creole, the West Africans were forced to adopt it as a second language and there's a small part of Belgium that was formerly French but was probably lost as a bar bet over who could eat the most snails in under 90 seconds.  So, the next time you meet some snooty Frenchman, kindly remind him the entire world is English, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic and that he may as well pierce his nose with a bone and wear a grass skirt because he will soon be relegated to tribal status.  But, I digress...

The first place I went to meet new friends was the local Rotary club, which - according to their website - met at a hotel.  When I arrived, I saw a GIANT sign with the familiar Rotary emblem placed next to the hostess station at the hotel lounge.  I waited for 30 minutes directly next to the GIANT sign for someone to greet  me.  In any language. 

Finally, I flagged down a waiter and asked in my best French, "Rotary rendevous?"  He led me to a back room where at least a half dozen people gasped upon my entrance - because they all walked right past me on their way to the back room.  Given the title of this blog (see: "Whitest Guy"), you would think someone - anyone! - might have noticed me.  Apparently not, so it was off to a different Rotary club two nights later.

The second Rotary club meeting went very well.  The entire meeting was held in French, but it was a budget meeting so I was able to decipher most of the content.  They also held elections - which were much less contentious than the last elections I witnessed - and invited me to a club social dinner to be held in two weeks.  They all seemed very professional.

And that's when I remembered what my daughter's kindergarten teacher told me.  When she learned I was moving to Africa during our parent-teacher conference, she pulled me aside and whispered, "You have GOT to find the hash club when you get to Dakar."

The words "hash", "kindergarten teacher" and "parent" aren't normally used in the same sentence, so when I gave her a quizzical look she explained there is an international secret society of "hash clubs" where ex-patriate runners gather.  They also happen to meet for cool beverages after they run.  And they do not advertise for new members; this club is by invitation only. 

I knew I would have to utilize all of my research and people skills to ingratiate myself to this fine group.  I Googled and I Binged and I searched high and low for any sign of the Dakar hashers; I sent two emails to two different blogs that bounced back as undeliverable; I even phoned the U.S. embassy ("Hello?  U.S. Embassy?  I'm an American citizen looking for a hash club in Dakar....  Hello?").  Nothing.

On Saturday, I decided to go for a walk.  By myself, of course.  My attempts at becoming the Dale Carnegie of Dakar had fallen woefully short.  I neglected to bring any water on my walk and took a small detour to a local merchant.  Of course, I also realized I neglected to bring any money on my walk, so I took another small detour back to my original path.  Because of that 20 minute detour, I happened across a group of people on the route back to my home.  They all wore T-Shirts that read, "Hash Club Runners."  Upon seeing my eyes light up - and my obvious parched condition - they invited me back to their secret rendevous for doughnuts and beer.  They descended on Dakar from faraway places such as Spain, Kenya, Congo and France.  The Spaniard told me it took him nearly six months of searching before he finally found his way into "The Club."  After they performed an initiation ritual - where I correctly guessed that I needed to chug a beverage upon command (why is it I can understand THAT in French?) - they invited me to join their club.

Which all proves one thing: there are no coincidences in life.  But if you would like some sound advice on finding your destiny, you might do well to consider the Dos Equis advertisements...

"Stay thirsty my friends"

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