A Proud American

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


April 4, 2011

Turn on your favorite news network. Whether you watch CNN, Fox, The Daily Show, or WalfTV, the images are largely the same. The world is falling apart at the seams, and anti-American sentiment seems as high as ever.

Yet here in Senegal I have had an optimistic encounter with my national identity. I am always sure to make known that I am American for two overarching reasons. One motivation is the desire to distinguish myself from the far more prevalent French travelers and ex-patriots in Francophone West Africa. Many Senegalese are willing to assume that even a white person who professes to understand only a small amount of French is a former colonizer, and reactions can vary from the full generosity of traditional hospitality to cold and stand-offish behavior.

A bank guard with whom I had an extended conversation even went so far as to claim that “if America, not France, had colonized us, we would not be in the mess we are in now.” I cannot say whether or not he is correct, but the sentiment certainly reflects a specific attitude. I will refrain from writing other thoughts I have heard vocalized about the French, but I will simply say it is amazing to watch a stranger’s face change to a smile upon learning that they are talking to a young citizen of the United States, rather than another country.

Another reason to broadcast my nationality is that people just seem to love America. President Obama’s face appears on notebooks, backpacks, flashlights, and anything else, and his approval rating might even be higher here than it is stateside. I am often asked if I know Barack, to which I have grown accustomed to responding, “yes, he is my good friend.” USAID and Peace Corps have significant presences in Senegal, and the USAID label, “From the American People,” finds its way onto textbooks, contraceptives, buildings, and tables.

Cultural imperialism also probably plays a role. The younger generation listens to our music incessantly—I hear the song “Rude Boy” about 100 times per day—and television shows ranging from 24, Dexter, Law and Order (here, “New York District”) to Army Wives, Gossip Girl, and One Tree Hill find their way, dubbed, onto the airwaves.

Yesterday Emily and I visited the American Embassy in downtown Dakar before traveling home to Noflaye from our monthly GCY meet-up. We had met an extraordinarily kind and welcoming political counselor earlier in March when he visited Le Village des Tortues and subsequently invited us to come for lunch when possible, enticing us with the promise that “we have cheeseburgers and diet Coke.” So we held him to it.

I threw on a collared shirt and had my papers ready. Security was tight and efficient, but Emily and I were expected and got our “escort required” badges with few hitches. We saluted the flag as we walked onto the grounds, full of pride and excitement. Several more security guards and one or two marines later, we were sitting with our new friend from South Dakota, enjoying, yes, burgers, fries, and Coca-Cola, as well as a slight prescient taste of reverse culture shock in the air-conditioned building. Note that Emily and I shared some confusion over how to approach such a strangely shaped, non-rice-based food, going through an embarrassing number of napkins.

We engaged in conversation about our respective Global Citizen Years, current events, and the work of the embassy, and got a brief tour of the building. My personal favorite part, however, was examining the photographs of every American President of the last 50 years standing with his Senegalese counterpart. In one photo LBJ stretches out his arms to an impoverished woman selling what appear to be peanuts while Lady Bird, dressed far more appropriately for the White House than for travel in Senegal, looks exceedingly uncomfortable. In another photograph, Bill Clinton stands at the point of no return, the doorway out of the infamous slave house on Ile de Gorée, looking like the most sympathetic man in the world.

I left the embassy humbled by the teranga of our fellow ex-pat and feeling as patriotic as ever. From the levels of GCY Fellows, Peace Corps volunteers, and NGO employees all the way up to political counselors, ambassadors, and the Oval Office, Americans care and are willing to devote time, energy, and resources to our friends and family in Senegal. Of course there are some here, as in all parts of the world, who hold irrational grudges or misinformed resentment. However, I hazard to say that overall, in this small corner of the globe, we are liked.

Every day I meet new people. They ask, kañ ngay ñibbi ci Farans? “When are you going home to France?” I smile, knowing what is about to transpire and start to explain, man Ameriken laa…

For photos, please see my independent blog at: http://ideaandfate.blogspot.com/

Gus Ruchman