Matthew Travers - Senegal

April 23, 2013

When I woke up in Dindefello, a quaint village littered with tourists in Kedougou, I felt for the first time since my arrival I was living the “authentic African experience” foreigners seek when they come to this country. A hut over my head and a digital camera full of pictures of wildlife and women with eccentric piercings, in this setting I couldn’t help but remark my overwhelming and obvious American origin. Compared to my experience in my village of Sandiara, this reality was a closer fit to the concept of Africa I had in mind. How could it be that the four months I had spent in my Senegalese home felt less authentically African than this distant village we were in to vacation?

Africa. Everyone, including myself, has images and ideas that this vague word conjures. Before coming to Senegal, I was quick to associate Africa with the Lion King, with rural living and languages spoken in clicks. As an average American myself, I know this concept rings true for others. However, as I have come to find out, this giant mass of land known as Africa is not as I imagined it back home. My experience here in proverbial “Africa” has discredited every assumption I had before coming. I live in a room with walls, windows and a door, have access to medicine, and see all those around me eating well- and my community is by no means the wealthiest. My experience in Senegal has debunked all the myths that the media and my own ignorance has created in regards to Africa.

People ask me all the time, “How is Africa?” I am hesitant to respond to such a daunting question, reminded of all that there still is to know about the world before I can truly call myself a global citizen.  In truth, I know minimal about the status of Zambia, Ghana or Kenya- I can contend only for my corner of Senegal. In the same way the U.S.A doesn’t accurately represent the cultures of all North American countries and cultures, neither can “Africa” be an all-inclusive label to generalize the inhabitants of the entire continent. This is not to say that there are commonalities between the inhabitants of the African continent. However, the cultural differences between countries are too grand for a one-word summary.

This is not to scold anyone for being ignorant or uneducated, either. It really is unfortunate that sometimes, an obnoxious sentiment stains those who have had the chance to travel, employing questions like, “What do you mean you can’t point to Swaziland on a map?” I realize that my newfound knowledge of Africa is entirely a result of my residence here. In reality, Americans can spend their entire lives without ever giving thought abroad. However, this is not to say that we should not actively pursue the truth about the world in which we live.

This is a chance to spread good news that not every child is starving, not every woman is uneducated. As Americans, we want to see the people of Africa thriving. Why is it then, that Africa is so often associated with famine, genocide, and unbearable poverty? Let us not forget our fellow humans in Senegal, holders of master’s degrees, occupants of immaculate households. Let us remember the teachers, the singers, the taxi drivers, the farmers that want to see a better future for their children and their country. Let us choose wisely the images and thoughts we associate with people we have yet to fully understand.

When I hear the word Africa, I think of my experience on this continent, one short moment in time in a relatively small country- and how even within the limits of my experience here, I have been witness to nothing short of incredible.  I think about the endless supply of “teranga” or hospitality, which this country boasts, allowing me the experiences and friendships I have made. I think of bottomless bowls of delicious food, of peanut sauce, of onions and chicken. I think of women as vibrant and colorful as the fabric in which they adorn themselves, their societal roles complicated like the embroidery of their dresses. I think of tie dye buckets used for laundry, ornate mosaic style floors, and transparent shoes which carry the soles of millions of Senegalese boys and girls.

Most of all, I think about this enlightening period in my youth. I think about Africa as more than just a safari ride or a National Geographic special. It is still a mystery to me, this continent- but now I am aware of the beauty and culture yet to be discovered.

Matthew Travers