Francophone Africa: Between Tradition and Modernity

For my STEP signature project, I participated in the Francophone Africa: Between Tradition and Modernity study abroad program in Senegal, a West African country that many people would have trouble spelling or locating on a map, for five weeks. While there, I learned about a culture and lifestyle that greatly varied from my own by staying with a host family in the country’s capital Dakar, attending lectures that were taught by nationally and internationally renowned intellectuals and historians, and going on field trips to cities that are culturally rich and play an important role in the country’s complicated history.

The first day I spent in Senegal, we drove from its capital to an arts compound 45 minutes away and I was stricken by the small towns and villages we saw on our journey: the restaurants, barber shops, and clothing shops were dilapidated, clearly hand-build by inexperienced civilians, and very small; mass amounts of litter covered the ground; and dogs and cats covered in scabs roamed freely. These observations of my surroundings differed so greatly from the towns I grew up in and visited in the United States that I had no idea what to expect from the rest of the trip. Would the people be just as different? Would I be able to bridge what I then thought of as an enormous historical and cultural gap? Was I in danger? Would I be judged? Would I fall into the trap of judging others based on my own Western standards? I soon found out that I had made the wrong assumptions already by judging a very diverse group of people based on where they came from and what I thought of their living conditions, and that although the Senegalese people and I may have grown up in differing environments, we were much more similar than we were different. As an anthropologist, I am familiar with the concept of cultural relativism and the temptations of judging a culture by how much it deviates from my own, but learning this first hand while conducting my own interviews, forming my own observations, and personally participating in rituals and daily routines forced me to form my own perspective on the world as a young adult. This trip also served as an opportunity to confront any previously unknown biases or prejudices that formed within my previously ethnocentric-based perspective. Why had I thought I was in danger simply based on my surroundings without ever having contacted the people who I feared, and why had I thought they would not accept me? This trip allowed me to question these Western thought processes and ideals, and not only correct them to reflect the diversity of the World’s population and cultures, but also be humbled by the vast majority of what I did not know.

The most important interactions I had that brought about this self-discovery and humility were those with my host family, who guided me through this new way of life and cultural philosophy. My parents taught me how to eat, be respectful towards elders, welcome visitors in their native language Wolof, wear traditional clothing, cut fruit properly, and cook, basic tasks that even my four-year-old host niece had mastered. My host brother Sodaty taught me about transportation systems, education, politics, dancing, and music, and how to wash my clothes, serve tea to my parents, and barter with shopkeepers. Being a foreigner is like being the most naïve learner, like being a small child trying to navigate a world that s/he is familiar with, but ultimately unknowledgeable about. Learning about basic knowledge and how to perform everyday tasks as a twenty-one year old from children was certainly humbling, and coming to terms with my ignorance made me a more willing learner, but observing how my family interacted with each other also taught me a great deal and was what ultimately lead to my most revolutionary discovery: humans, whether they come from New York City or the most remote towns in Senegal, are much more similar than different. Sodaty would constantly be annoyed with his nieces and nephews, and would argue with his mom over money or his curfew. My nieces loved their stuffed animals and playing pretend. My mom was devoted to her children and grandchildren, and she loved to laugh at my awkwardness and ineptitude, then correct my mistakes. They all suffered from the death of the oldest daughter in the family who died a year earlier in a car accident. My connection with Sodaty reminded me exactly of my relationship with my brother; we argued with each other, made each other laugh, and learned new things together. My connection with my nieces and nephew reminded me of my relationship with my best friend’s younger sister, who I consider family. We would tell each other about our day while eating dinner and say good night to each other before going to bed. These small actions and relationships came naturally to me; I did not have to learn how to connect with them or force this connection, and I was not confused by their grief over their lost daughter and sister. We all experience the same emotions, find joy in meeting and learning about someone new, and seek human connection. Through this experience I discovered what it is to be human, not just in Western terms, but what we have in common cross-culturally, and this discovery is essential to my furthered appreciation and respect for my brothers and sisters living in all parts of the world, walking on all different paths of life.

Outside of my host family, I was also able to observe and talk with other Senegalese citizens, leading me to another very influential and powerful discovery. Firstly, I observed the behavior of the Senegalese towards my other group members and me, which was always very pleasant, warm, and welcoming. Before the trip began, I attended several information meetings with Dr. Thiam, who lead our trip, and our study abroad coordinator, and both felt the need to remind us during every meeting of the troubled history between the United States and Senegal, which may in turn negatively affect the way we would be treated by those who live there. I never experienced a problem of this kind with anyone I came in contact with or any sort of mistreatment because of my skin color or my ethnicity. This fact, which I realized within the first week of being in the country, immediately dispelled any fears regarding my safety or my acceptance by the community and told me that the Senegalese do not judge someone’s character based on his/her skin color or his/her country’s history, which also told me a great deal about America. The second observation I made concerned the interactions between the Senegalese, and how their attitudes contrasted with the environment in which they lived. Juxtaposed with the dilapidated small shops and restaurants, the Senegalese were always smiling and laughing with each other. I never heard my host family talk about being stressed or complain about work, I never saw a customer argue with a shopkeeper or waiter, and whenever I ran into someone who I had briefly met through my host family they hugged me and wanted to know about my day. This way of living was very new to me and being immersed in it allowed me to appreciate a new way of life that does not revolve around stress, but rather around community.

The lectures were another major contributor to the reconstruction of my world perspective, considering that prior to this program I was limited by an Americanized education system, with all the biases and misinformation that comes with being taught by mostly white, male, and American teachers. During this program, I was taught by Senegalese intellectuals, artists, and historians who were not tainted by the Westernized perspective that I had become used to. They taught us about the hold France maintains over their country, about the vestiges of ancient African religions found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and about places like Gorée Island, the last piece of African land that enslaved West Africans would be taken to before crossing over the Atlantic, and Touba, a city built in protest of colonialism. These professors taught us from the perspective of experience, as descendants from those who were colonized and as people living in a country still very much controlled by Western influence. From these lectures, the true weight of slavery, globalization, and greed was unloaded onto me and I was finally felt the pain that Senegal and other formerly colonized countries endure. Nevertheless, the Senegalese did not envy me nor did they wish me harm, and it was naïve of me to think this would be the case. The Senegalese are a welcoming, joyous, and hardworking community, and to see them building themselves up while still hurting from their present and past afflictions put me in my place and helped me to realize that they do not need my pity nor my help, they need our recognition, acceptance, and support.

Traveling to Senegal was my first time out of the United States, so I had never completely immersed myself in any culture other than my own and had no idea what to expect. As a white American, I rarely feel like the “other” in any situation or group of people I find myself in because my skin color and nationality give me a certain favored distinction. Before this trip, my world-view was limited to that of a person who always felt comfortable, represented, and confident that my skin color did not identify me with an expectation or idea that is not true to who I am. In Senegal I became the “other”, the one who was prone to feeling awkward and out of place, and the one who had to learn how to fit in, an experience that I could not find in a Western, predominantly white country. I believe the cure to racism and many causes of violence in this world can be found in understanding and experiencing peoples and situations that are “foreign”, because the result is almost always coming to the realization that humans are more similar than different, that our skin colors tell us nothing about our characters, our beliefs, or our pasts, and subsequently, that this inequality that we struggle with in our society makes no sense. My passion has always been to help people, and with this trip my passion has only grown stronger and evolved into a goal: to promote social progress and uproot social institutions that promote racism and ignorance by researching underrepresented populations, educating others, and advocating for the respect and love of humans by humans.