Senegal, you’ve deepened my understanding of the world I left behind

Written by Elise Liese


I can’t remember clearly what I imagined you to be; what stereotypes I inadvertently packed in my suitcase alongside my solar charger and all-polyester clothing and water sterilization device. Vibrant saturation of color, drums beating deep and low, sun-scalded dirt roads, lions — I’m ashamed to admit it now, but that was the basis of our acquaintance as the airplane lifted off to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The hard part to telling the story of my time here is that stereotypes sometimes have truth to them. Wandering through Tiwaone streets, women hawk scarlet, ivory, emerald patterned fabrics. On Sundays, I sit back in awe at the beautifully tailored complets of the women lining the church rows. Christmas and New Year’s and every celebration in my community are accompanied by biliim music tap, tap, tapped out on large cooking bowls or drums, and the lazy midday lunch hours this week will not fall beneath 100 degrees. There are lions prowling the savannas — albeit in Kedougou nature reserves.

The problem with stereotypes isn’t always that they’re utterly false. It’s that if we let ourselves be satisfied with them rather than searching further, we let our curiosity stop the moment we have a person, or a movement, or a country defined into a box. Stereotypes don’t allow for contradictions. By their delineated nature, they eliminate the uncomfortable process of assumptions and reassessments, the messiness of immersing into another culture — and the ability to simultaneously love and be lost in a place.

The Senegal I am leaving in less than a month is so much more than any stereotype. When I tell about my time here, I won’t mention lions — because I didn’t see any. Instead, I’ll relive the acidic sting of 100 CFA NesCafe from tiny plastic cups burning the roof of my mouth. The brightly wrapped Klas cookies — six to a pack — filled with chocolate spread and covered with nutrition labels in Arabic script. Street omelets fried in oil and wrapped in ancient newspapers, barrada teapots brimming over with burnt sugar and cheap Chinese green tea, handfuls of rice ravenously inhaled, and fish bones gingerly spit out from between my teeth.

I’ll hear the scrap metal siding of the village pickup trucks rattling as the farms blur together through the bars and more and more women pile in until we sit in a jumble of arms and knees and the occasional chicken or sack of rice. Or imagine the neon blinking lights of the horaire bus rumbling into my village before the sun comes up on its way to the city and the murmured morning greetings from its passengers.

I’ll know the acceptable price for a kilo of bananas — 800 CFA — and how to turn my back on a taxi driver only to be hastily called back to drive a reasonable bargain. The “toubab, toubab, toubab!” ritual shouted from sprawling markets and passing motorcycles and the mouths of children has become an accepted part of life. Quite unfortunately, the Wolof lyrics to Vivian Chidid’s No Stress will remain irrevocably etched into my long-term memory, as will the dramatic love theme music to KUSHI, the Indian telenovela that is a nightly family ritual.

You have left me with more than stereotypes.

My head aches with the blurry aftereffects of swinging Simon, my little cousin, around in circles until he no longer begs to be lifted into orbit. My fingers slip easily into the one two three rhythm of braiding weave onto my sisters’ heads. My feet trace my daily path to buy bread by heart; out the metal gates of my compound, past the rambunctious kids kicking a futbaal around, past the elderly grandmothers selling vegetables under the village baobab tree, to the bitika where I pass a coin across the counter to De Ele in exchange for my breakfast. And as the sun falls behind the mosque, the call to prayer echoing into the darkening sky, my eyes flicker over notebooks as my siblings and I finish their English homework. A little piece of my heart breaks when I think of leaving you behind.

The Senegal that I have loved and cried and learned in over the past seven months is a country that is filled with all sorts of contradictions and subtleties — in religion, politics, society, in my everyday life — that stereotypes cannot and never will do justice. That realization, like much of my gap year, cannot be left when I leave. If anything, seeing the diversity and ranges of experiences here has made me conscious of the single stories I accepted in the U.S. and how much I have to explore in the society I always took for granted.

How many stereotypes shape the way I see my world?

Senegal, you worked in ways foreign to me. You forced me to ask questions as my mouth went dry with discomfort, not knowing how to unscramble the dots without asking uncomfortable questions. I was wrong about simple things — LOTS. Without asking those questions, though, I never would have even known I was wrong. The stereotypes in my head would have stayed lazily intact, not having to deal with being flipped around and added to and transformed.

That’s why, when I step on the plane home, I will have an opportunity few ever get: the chance to view my country with a degree of separation instead of the acceptance of familiarity. It will be challenging. Not excessively fun.

Important nonetheless. Because the stereotypes for which I have settled have caused me to miss out on the deeper reality, at home and abroad. I may not be returning to find a reality filled with contrary donkeys and curious siblings, cups of attaaya and crowded public transportation, but Senegal, if you have given me anything, you’ve left me with the ability to deepen my understanding of the world I left behind.

Senegal, mi ndorokanda, namanaala — I’ll miss you. You were not what I expected. No, you were so much more. Expectations and stereotypes will always be there, yet you showed me how beautiful and confusing the reality can be.

And for that, I will always be thankful.

A girl named Mame Dome

This piece was published by MinnPost on March 23, 2018. 

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