The endless dunes and savanna scrub pass by, as we rumble down winding, dirt roads. Yet I’m hardly aware of the landscape’s warming morning orange and spotty green; rather, I sense only the rhythmic pounding of the rocky road beneath our aging vehicle. Most of all I feel the tranquil pulse of life in the people between whom I am wedged: women wrapped in elaborate shawls, yawning men heading to work, and timid adolescent boys commuting to school.
Lulled into a daze by the movement of the van, I begin to contemplate and to daydream. If I ignore the environment that I see through the cracked windshield, I can visualize we are someplace else. I’m tempted to envision that we’re heading towards a border, migrant workers being smuggled to plantations in a neighboring country; or we’re racing through a conflict zone, attempting to escape ongoing oppression in a province gripped by the stranglehold of martial law. Still, that would be letting my imagination run too wild. Nonetheless, besides the fact that I recognize the sporadic exchanges in Pulaar and Wolof, we could be anywhere, in a “developing” country in any corner of the globe.
Despite the distinctive customs and languages that I’ve encountered, there exists – I’m coming to believe – a certain commonality and universality to the way “impoverished” communities are coping and slowly modernizing, and to the way “poor” people make due with simplicity. Of course, there is no single story of poverty or a developing nation that can accurately speak for all the rest – which are undeniably diverse and complex. Yet to completely isolate one community’s story, would be to ignore the intrinsic threads that by now bind our stories together.
And, truth be told, I realize that rural Senegal is indeed far less of an oasis than I had previously expected. Clearly mislead by stereotypes and, more fundamentally, my lack of firsthand experience in such an environment, I have frankly been astonished by the extent to which the Senegalese community is connected to the globe. Thus, though surrounded by signs of poverty marked by meager sanitation, malnourished children, and purely-manual farming, I have a growing awareness of the individual stories that demonstrate how enwoven Senegalese society is with other nations, and how influenced by the Western- and Muslim spheres.
For one, people’s t-shirts – many of which flaunt American sports teams, catchy yet often outrageous English slogans, or bootlegged designer labels – are blatant evidence of globalization. They, like the aging Toyotas, Peugeots, and Mercedes, remind me of the cycle of exchange that brings these products to gritty coastal towns and secluded villages in West Africa – their last stop. On a daily basis, the various imported brands stacked sky-high on the shelves of vibrant boutiques, show me that I have not left one “world” for another.
Hence, when I speak with friends and family from back home, I hesitate to say, “Oh yeah, it’s a whole other world out here,” no matter how tempting it may be to simplify the diversity and new-ness of my experience in a single phrase. The sort of poverty I see or the vivacious blend of African culture may seem far away from the United States, but my Senegalese host community is by no means separated or disconnected to the point of being a different world.
In fact, as the weeks have passed, more and more concrete examples have appeared of economic, political, and cultural links. Walking into one of Potou’s roadside kitchens one evening, I bump into a Senegalese man who normally lives in Holland, having returned to contribute to an agricultural project. Driving along the region’s crumbling roads, I glance at the rusting signs of various bilateral development projects, their white surfaces emblazoned with the names of European nations, from Luxembourg to Italy. And, on New Year’s Day during an annual cultural festival, a dozen Belgian and Italian guests are in the spotlight as ambassadors of cultural exchange and financial support for the flamboyant social gathering. On a daily basis, my family members listen intently to le journal, the news, as French International Radio (RFI) informs them about the latest events in Syria or economic updates from debt-ridden Europe. Lastly, a young man – an emigrant to Spain who was recently deported – who in fact often sits across from me on the morning commute, reminds me of the dozens of youth who leave on the treacherous voyage over the Atlantic, hoping to find a better life in the warehouses or tomato fields of Europe.
However, most obvious of all is the freight port project which has threatened to invade my immediate environment, to bulldoze the land that my host family currently lives on. In fact, I’d witnessed the parade of air-conditioned SUVs that rushed through Potou, carrying representatives of a Spanish company surveying the sight of a port they potentially intend to build, displacing much of my village and tearing up its pristine beaches. For me, as my community rallies to protest and appeal to the government to halt the project, this is the ultimate sign that we are in an interconnected world. At a recent village gathering, I was even asked to contribute my opinion, and I choose – in a gesture of solidarity – to encourage them to raise their voices because, as I phrased it, they are not alone in their struggle against invasive, large-scale industrial development projects; rural, impoverished citizens the world over are fighting similar battles.
All in all, I’m caused to contemplate how the poverty the Senegalese face is at least partially based in issues of trade, politics, finance, and development that stretch across the globe and are far outside of an individual community’s power to change. Take, for example, my particular family that grows onions in a region that supplies about one third of all the onions in Senegal. What if they could compete in a global market and thereby make a greater profit, while retaining the dignity of their work and not overexploiting the environment? Unfortunately, such potential is out of their direct control. Therefore, as my peers and I continue our pursuit of global development solutions through college – and beyond – we have to realize how many factors are at play and which systemic prejudices poor communities are struggling against. We might have to critically – yet constructively – assess our approaches and inherent impacts, before rushing to blame the lack of development on the poor communities we intend to support.