It sounds strange to try to sum up an amazing experience like this into one word, but I think a good way to describe much of what I saw and experienced in Senegal is community. What sticks out most in my head about my trip, however, is the apparent contrast between what I see as the more traditional Senegalese culture and the more westernized culture. The streets are a perfect example of this. A typical road will be busy with cars packed bumper to bumper blasting their horns with horses and carriages carrying food and supplies and women with baskets on their heads going home to feed their families, mixed in with street vendors walking in the middle of the street dodging the cars and horses.
I think this mixture can be seen in the home too. My family often watched TV, which surprised me because it seemed to me a very American concept. But at the same time, the Senegalese culture was always apparent. Every member of the family acknowledged everyone else in the morning when they got up, when they to work, when they came back, and at bedtime. There was always a sense of family and friendship. I saw this culture also in the way the family ate. Our family ate with silverware, although many Senegalese families do still eat with their hands. Even so, the mother always ate last, after she was sure her children had had enough. She also considered the three of us her children. I feel like another big part of the culture is that she would feel obligated to feed any guests we might have decided to have over for dinner, even if there was not enough food to go around. The Senegalese culture is based on sharing and giving what you have.
I think the language is interesting to look at from this perspective too. If you look at French as the western language and Wolof as the Senegalese language, you get a very clear idea of this idea of the mixture of the two lifestyles. My family mostly spoke Wolof among themselves always French with us. Everything official is French; even when our family spoke Wolof, it was always mixed with French. This seems like a perfect example of my experience. Everywhere I looked there was the mixture of the westernized traffic jam and women with baskets on their heads, the westernized TV and Senegalese ideas of family, friendship and community, the French language always spoken with a few words in Wolof or vice versa.
In seeing this mixture of lifestyles, I am forced to wonder whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Part of me feels that the Western world has polluted the rich vibrant culture that they once had. I feel like instead of being a family or a community, they sit in front of the TV all day. However, I realize that even when they watch TV, it is as a family. They are talking amongst themselves with the TV in the background. They are not “zombified” by the TV. Even in the streets there is a sort of community. There are no lanes, so everyone just makes room for each other and it somehow works out. There is some kind of non verbal communication, a common understanding between them. I think this concept describes very well what I mean. Despite the TV and cars and how built-up Senegal may become, there will always be that sense of community underneath, mixed in with whatever else is happening.
This experience has also made me appreciate what I have and what I take for granted. When I was younger I dreamed of being rich and living in a palace with a pool and a stable and everything else I could ever want at my fingertips. But after living for two weeks with no running water I realize that I am rich. I used to wish I had a huge house with marble floors and golden decorated walls. But after two weeks in Senegal I am thrilled to see running water – hot running water at that. Now I consider myself lucky with a roof over my head and food on my plate.
Living in America, we think too much about material possessions. We always want more. If we have a hundred dollars, we want a thousand. If we have a thousand, we want a million. But in Senegal, they have family, which is all they want and all that is important. This concept is easy to see in appearance too: Americans want to be thin and attractive, while Senegalese want to be healthy. They want you to have a jaayfondée, a big backside. They keep telling you to eat and asking why you are not eating. In America, so many girls are too thin to be seen as attractive, but they are not healthy. I feel that the Senegalese don’t live in this fantasy land of wanting things to be perfect. They don’t spend all their time upset because things are not the way they want them to be, they say accept the way things are and try to be content with what they already have.
I think this attitude promotes a great deal of community. Many families don’t have much, but they do have a family and they have learned to appreciate that and embrace that.
The amount of trust also struck me. It was not uncommon for one of us to not have exact change and since the stores rarely do, we would just promise to pay the merchant back the next day. This was not a problem. In America, they would look at you like you were nuts, but it was a common practice in Senegal. The Senegalese simply don’t cheat each other. I think this also represents the great deal of community in Senegalese culture.
I also think this sense of community can be seen in the batik and dance sessions. It was a wonderful way for the instructor to share the culture with us. I think it also gave me a sense of community to be able to dance together or do batik together without any thought of race or religion or background. We were just having fun. This is the same sense of community I got throughout Senegal. The rich and poor live side by side and the rich don’t feel the need to pretend the poor are not there. The poor are just people like everyone else. The Senegalese don’t pay that much attention to background, unless you are trying to make money off a rich American, we’re all just people.
Overall, I thought this was a great trip. It was a great way to experience another way of life and another world and make friends while we were at it. I also thought the internship was a great way to look at an aspect of Senegalese culture and understand it better. My internship was on female genital mutilation (FGM). I went to a center that teaches African countries about democracy and human rights. Later they ask the country what it feels it needs to work on. Countries choose to work on everything from FGM to starting businesses to make more money. I think talking to one of the heads of the program helped me to understand the reasons that this practice has not stopped. It has opened my mind to the fact that even if many people do feel it is wrong and want to stop, they can’t because that would mean condemning their daughters to a life of celebacy. I think I learned a lot more in Senegal than I am even aware of. I learned about the culture, but also about America and about myself and life in general. And most importantly, I had fun too.