the Senegalese experience|experiment

22 May, 2010

misconceptions: senegal vs. "africa"

This issue has been brewing in my mind for several months now. People tend to group all the countries in Africa into one lump-- the idea of Africa!: the land of lions, AIDS, and starving children surrounded by flies [see this humorous article for how to write about Africa]. While these things do exist in various parts of Africa, they cannot be made into sweeping generalizations about the entire continent. After all, Africa is pretty huge, and no am0unt of land that big is ever uniform.

My biggest problem with lumping Senegal into one big reference to "Africa" is that there is so much more to the individual country than our stereotypes realize. They have crazy, wonderful dances, their djembe rhythms are unique, and they eat foods with interesting titles. Senegal has its own president, officials, rules, and Constitution. Whether we acknowledge the individuality of Senegal or not, the fact is that it exists as an independent entity. For that matter, within Senegal there are numerous different ethnicities, all of whom have their own cultures, languages, and codes. The attempt to group all of these complicated entities into one beast known as Africa seems counter-productive. Unfortunately, the NGOs and government agencies who plead for us to "give now, and save the children" are not looking at the entire picture; not even close.

Sadly, Senegalese people are contributing to the lumping of Senegal into the idea of Africa, as well. Many times, I heard discussions of "the future of Africa," "Africa and globalization," and other hot topics, when really these people meant to discuss Senegal. People talk about the unification of Africa into one country (which would look something like the European Union, perhaps), though whether that's in the near future is another topic for another time. Still, at this time, Senegal has its own history and culture, and should focus on itself. Many educated Senegalese people-- my Gender professor, for example-- continuously refer to problems of Africa. I really don't see how that can help, when the needs and problems of different countries vary, depending on all kinds of factors.

I offer no solution to this problem, only the hope that more people will realize in the future that Africa really can't be melted into one stereotypical entity. It's only by discussing and discovering individual countries that we'll learn more about the continent.

18 May, 2010


Now that I've been home for a few days, I'd like to reflect a little bit on what I've been feeling and experiencing, now that I'm back in the U.S. It's definitely weird being here, for obvious reasons-- mangoes are $1.49, wireless at my house is consistent and fast, I have air-conditioning-- but there's other reasons that don't seem as clear. I've been trying to write this entry several different times, but it's hard.

It's hard when, just as my book predicted, most people get bored after a little while, listening to all my stories and random facts about Senegalese culture, comparisons of Senegalese and American culture, all the things I learned about myself and other people. Even the most patient friend or family member gets tired after a while, because I have a lot to say after an entire semester and their ears can only handle so much.

It's hard because I'm so far from the culture I became comfortable with, without even realizing it-- appalled by the prices in the grocery store, unable to do anything about it because we don't bargain here and that's just how it is. I'm not the girl who they say broke down and wept in a restaurant (after all, there's no bargaining in restaurants), but I'm still at the point of exclaiming aloud when I see a horrifyingly high price in the store.

Another problem I foresee is that no one I know will have gone through an even remotely similar experience; no one I know is even interested in going to any part of Africa, ever. So there's no real outlet to share experiences, and languages-- I took 45 hours of Wolof! I thought about writing to the newspaper, since I may be the first person who studied in Africa (rather than doing missions there for various Christian sects) from Hillsdale. Still, it seems a small funnel for big ideas.

In any case, it's not a massive struggle to readjust; there are just small things to re-learn in various parts of my life, and I'm still trying to do that. I'll be continuing to write in my blog about my experience in Senegal.

13 May, 2010

preparation (ii)

As I prepare to leave Senegal, I think it's appropriate to write a basic list of things I'm doing to get ready, in parallel to the list I created on my way here. Looking back on those old entries is really interesting, because my mindset was quite different then. I didn't know what Senegal would be like, really. In spite of my multiple blog readings and Wikipedia research, I truly didn't know what I was in for, and it took the semester to figure it out.

That's one of the things I will have to prepare myself for. As I said to one of my fellow students yesterday, Facebook pictures and anecdotes won't really be able to put my friends and family in my shoes. They'd have to actually visit Senegal in order to understand what I mean, take in Dakar with all of their senses, along with their brain and emotions. Showing them my pictures and telling them my stories will give them some idea of what I've been doing the past four months, but... it's mostly going to be on a superficial level. So I'd say one of the biggest things I have to prepare myself for is a lack of understanding (don't take this personally, everyone-- it's just how it is. And I'm sure you've experienced things where showing me pictures of it won't make me understand, either).

Another thing is that the United States are extremely different from Senegal in many ways. I've gotten used to buying fresh fruit on the street here on a daily basis, for about 40 or 50 cents per fruit. I've gotten used to buying a cup of Café Touba (with milk) for 30 cents. I've also enjoyed bargaining for everything-- clothing, jewelry, and taxi rides, to name a few-- and felt that, in general, I've gotten good prices. When I go back to the US, I'll have to accept whatever prices the shops set-- there won't be an opportunity to say "waañi ko" [lower it] and convince the shopkeeper that I should only pay $5 for this t-shirt, instead of $8. I like to think I've gotten pretty decent at bargaining, and going back to a country where you have to accept prices as they are will definitely be hard.

My packing and other semantics like selling my phone almost seem peripheral in comparison to the impending reverse culture shock. Still, they have to be done, whether I like it or not-- my 50-pound bags (hopefully not more than that, with all the things I've bought here) will have to be carefully loaded and carted out the door. I will have to sell my credit, or give it away. And, eventually, I will have to double-check my room and lock it for the last time. These things are important, too.

Juggling practical and altruistic needs will definitely be a challenge. In my last few days in Dakar, I'm hoping that I can get everything done and still have time to enjoy these moments with my friends (and family, if they're willing-- though in a way it's easier to leave since they usually aren't). I've really enjoyed making memories in Senegal, and now it's time to go home.

[P.S. I think I appear a little less overwhelmed than I actually am, particularly if you're reading other people's blogs, and seeing their intense reflections on their time here, and how hard it will be to leave. You can definitely ask me in person about my experience, and I'll tell you that these days are getting more and more difficult. But this is just who I am. I really hate goodbyes.]

05 May, 2010


I'm currently procrastinating on a paper for my Islam au Sénégal course, so I feel that this is an appropriate time to bring up the topic of religion in Senegal. An oft-cited statistic on religion here is that the country is around 94% Muslim, 5% Christian [Roman Catholic] and 1% native religions. So, while Senegal is overwhelmingly Muslim, they still manage to incorporate the Catholic population without too much (public) conflict, as represented by their motto "Une people, un but, une foi" [One people, one goal, one faith].

I live with a Christian family, which mostly translates to lots of crosses, chalices and a picture of Mother Theresa in the dining room. The main active concession to Catholicism I see, however, is my 18-year-old host sister crossing herself before she eats. From what I've witnessed over the course of my time here, Christians aren't particularly vocal about their faith.

On the other hand, Islam is omni-present (if not omni-benevolent-- I had to move from my first host house because we were right next to the mosque, and the call to prayer began at 5AM). The five prayers throughout the day begin early in the morning, and end around 8 at night. Anywhere you go in Dakar, you will hear the mosque speakers blaring; in the street during prayer time, you will pass multiple people on their prayer mats, pressing their noses multiple times against the ground. And of course, inch'allah (if Allah wills it) and alhamdoulilah (praise be to Allah) are a regular, non-ironic part of Senegalese conversation.

Something you may have noticed about the statistic I gave above is that there is no room for agnosticism or atheism or even humanism in those percentages-- the religious population adds up to 100%. Being non-religious myself, it's occasionally awkward when people ask me the question, "Tu crois quoi alors?" [So what do you believe?] On the occasions when I've responded, "Je suis aucun religion" [I don't follow any religion], I receive awkward silence, or an attempt at conversion. Not wanting any of these things, I've occasionally stated that I'm Protestant-- which is, while not common in Senegal, at least the first step: belief in a higher deity.

Religion for Senegalese people seems, to me, to be a lot like breathing-- it's a vital part of life, though you don't necessarily think about it that often. Several members of my host family, for example, state that they're non-practicing believers. And that, for them, seems to be enough.