A Senegalese Room of My Own

Phoebe Shea Perez - Senegal


December 17, 2018

These are pictures of my room in its afternoon glory of a surprisingly
soothing Saturday in Touba Toul. This was the first day my room here felt
like my room. That morning I had gone to work against my own will – I’m
always afraid to go on Saturdays when we have the weekly market and people
from all over the region come over. It’s overwhelming to see different
spices and fruits and textiles mashed up in the situationally narrow
streets of Touba Toul and to not know the people and then to not manage to
greet the ones I do know; it’s intimidating because a walk down the road
that I usually find enjoyable becomes one that I dread. But, like every
other Saturday, I went. It was a vibrant morning. Right in front of my
house a big truck was parked and though they were selling some sort of
condiment, they had live music, stage dancers and, unsurprisingly,
impromptu ones. My cousin Yobbe was going to school in the same direction
at around the same time so I didn’t feel as vulnerable. Then, that
afternoon, after some outstandingly good céebujenn, I decided to not go to
my tailoring apprenticeship and to instead stay home to clean and organize
my room.

After sweeping and washing my floors, folding my clothes, changing my bed
sheets, and organizing my desk, I looked at my room and, for the first
time, thought it to be phoebesque. This was the day I was able to
appreciate how much our relationship had progressed. It wasn’t until my
room felt like my own that I realized how alienated I had felt from myself
in it. I’ve been living in this room since the second Saturday night of
September and up until the third week of November, I unconsciously refused
to call this room my own. I’ve come to realize a leading reason why I
didn’t feel at home in it was because it was the unexpected kind of room
for someone who was going to spend a year in West Africa. I didn’t think my
bed here would be bigger than the one I had in Apopka or that the eventual
absence of mosquitoes would render my net useless or that I’d have a
ridiculous amount of closet space or a pair of sliding windows or a balcony
right in front of them. At its core, I didn’t think I’d live in such a
comfortable environment. I don’t think I even thought it possible.

I’ll admit I’ve felt tempted to lament over what a privileged space my room
in itself is [1] as it keeps me from experiencing what I perceived as the
“real” Senegal, and in the midst of that temptation, I’ve benefited from
remembering one of my friends’ comments when we were at Stanford for Global
Launch. She was talking about how we should be taking this bridge year as
an opportunity to understand our chosen country’s economic, political, and
cultural diversity better and not as a way to live the “poor life”; about
how offensively privileged it is to romanticize poverty so much that it
gets packaged and sold (and bought) as an experience you can have for a
while without, in the long-term, being constrained by the limitations such
a socioeconomic status entails [2].

So I’m not sad nor disappointed with the experience I’m having. I think
this is largely due to my growing appreciation for being able to experience
a previously unknown side of my host country (for myself) instead of just
having the stereotype I had inevitably created reinforced. After all, this,
too, is Senegal – perhaps it is not representative of how the majority of
the population lives [3], but the exceptions, the subtleties, the
counterintuitive realities also make up this country. Of course, there are
families who have a harder time accessing water, who don’t have
electricity, who are illiterate. I know them in my community and I know
fellows who are living in such circumstances. But there’s an erasure that
takes place when it comes to seeing Senegal, and other African countries,
as modern and technological and (capable of being) wealthy. That’s why I’m
now choosing to highlight it.

I’m writing this entry hoping that it’ll help someone back home understand
why “Africa” can’t be accurately understood through generalizations; hoping
that it’ll challenge how inherently and exclusively western we understand
technology and modernity to be; hoping someone will understand that there
are problems in Senegal and in Touba Toul just like there are problems in
Apopka and Guatemala City, in Rochester and in Santa María Tzejá; hoping
someone else will realize that this country is not a problem to be solved,
that this continent is not a place to be saved.

So here’s this room. A room that at last feels like my own. A room that has
been a source of solace in the difficult times and that has shared my
moments of rapture. A room that has helped to challenge my own
(mis)understanding of this country and that hopefully is helping me to
express what I’m feeling and learning to you back home.

Senegal, like any other place, is filled with the palpable coexistence of
antonyms. Senegal is not only the increasing risk of terrorist attacks in
Dakar but also the pacifist values that almost indiscriminately permeate
the country. Senegal is the 43.8% of illiteracy among young women [4] but
it’s also the leading role the country has taken in Africa in ending female
genital mutilation [5]. Senegal is a hut house and an apartment complex.
Senegal is a busy market day and a silent evening in the terrace when the
only thing I can hear is my siblings’ giggles while watching the stars.
Senegal is the sand road and the paved one too. Senegal is the sitting in
the floor around a communal bowl for every céebujenn lunch and the sitting
around a table for a stereotypically French breakfast. Senegal is the
yellow taxi ride from Thies to Touba Toul on a Sunday afternoon after
French class and the ride on a horse-drawn carriage from Doudoul to Touba
Santr on a calm night after a hectic weekend.
Senegal is the hand washing of clothes, the impressive level of detail in
the traditional dresses, the under-resourced daaraas where families send
their children to learn Arabic and memorize the Qur’an, the overwhelmingly
elegant mosques, the local soap operas in Wolof (shout out to Wiri Wiri for
keeping it dramatic), the daily calls to prayer, the normalization of hand
holding between guys, the high levels of homophobia, and, quite literally,
so much more. Senegal is not a collective experience capable of being
understood through vague labels with a historically negative connotation
and through incomplete stereotypes.

~

At last I’m able to see my own identity in the walls of my room – to own
its peculiar characteristics, to indulge in its comfort, to acknowledge its
beauty while remembering that, nonetheless, it is a privilege to have such
a Senegalese room. It so has happened to be that I can find myself in this
room because I’ve allowed *it* to belong to this country.

[1] Please note that while my room itself is super comfortable, it does not
represent my neighborhood nor my town

[2] Important side note: GCY does put us in a wide range of households for
the cohort as a whole to have a direct and strong understanding of the
country’s diverse socioeconomic circumstances

[3] According to the Borgen Project, almost half of the population (46.7%)
lives under the poverty line –
borgenproject.org/senegal-poverty-rate/

[4] www.unicef.org/infobycountry/senegal_statistics.html#117

[5] allafrica.com/stories/201711280464.html


Phoebe Shea Perez