Background Noise (and Unnerving Silence)

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Tonight is the first night my host house has been quiet since I moved in here three months ago. This happened only because the power company decided to cut our (and only our) power for the evening. As the angry Wolof phone conversations have finished, this has left is more-or-less complete silence.

It’s very weird.

This is one of the things that no one thinks to tell you when you are moving abroad, particularly in regards to a host family. My family (and, as best I can tell from other students, most host families in the program) has some sort of noise going constantly. The TV is frequently left on as background noise, and if the TV isn’t on the radio is. Frequently multiple radios or TVs are turned to different stations at the same time, both left loud enough to be heard in the central room. My host mother sleeps the whole night through with the TV or radio (occasionally both) in the background. Senegalese music (including the snapshot above from an Independence Day festival) is like 90% Very Loud Drums.

If the electronic noise isn’t enough, there are frequently Frolof conversations going on the background. Particularly if you have small children or large numbers of people in your house (much more common here than in the US), the people noise builds up. Even with just a few folks, things get loud–Wolof is a language that is primarily yelled, regardless of emotion. Particularly in the first month of living with a host family, this is terrifying.

Up until moving here, I had not considered that preferred level of background noise was a culturally-learned thing, but it certainly seems that it is–most of the American students in my program find the constant TV in particular distressing/irritating, despite our fairly diverse backgrounds. I walked in on my host cousin studying intently with the TV on yesterday, so I suspect that many urban Senegalese (or Mauritanians, in his case) actually find complete silence kind of unnerving.

I’m interested to see how I view the different urban noises that I’ll be encountering once I move back. It was certainly jarring on the shift to Dakar, and now that I’m used to it I wonder if it will be strange to move back to American TV levels, siren frequency, and conversational volume.

Three more weeks!

Postscript: Literally 30 seconds after I spellchecked this entry, the power came back. First thing my host dad did? Turn on talk radio.

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