“Ami! Aminata! Viens ici! Come here!” My 18-year-old Senegalese sister Aicha, calls for me, then, unsatisfied with my speed, pulls me from my room and plops me down in front of the television. “You won’t believe this” she tells me in French. A documentary is playing on TV, narrated in hushed tones by a solemn French actor, featuring a loin-cloth clad band of people sporting some of the most extreme body modifications I have ever seen: earlobe gauges the size of oranges, neck-stretching metal coils, and wooden plates inserted in the women’s bottom lip, forcing each wearer’s face into a permanent, wildly exaggerated pout.
As Aicha and I take in these fantastic images, I glance over – her expression, a mixture of fascination and amazement, mirrors my own. I don’t manage to catch the name of the tribe amidst the golf-whispered narration, but I do glean that they live in Ethiopia. I recall the benign but indicative supposition of a friend in the U.S. that, because I was living in Africa, I must be huddled in a thatched hut somewhere, ostensibly surrounded by starving people with AIDS or malaria, people who look like this televised tribe. I look around the comfortable living room where Aicha and I sit, at the overstuffed armchairs and cabinets of knickknacks and the imported French documentary on the television – though there are many major differences between my life in Senegal and my life in the U.S., I’m not exactly roughing it here in Sebikotane. I mention to Aicha that many Western people picture something like a scene from this documentary at the mention of Africa. She is shocked – not only has she never seen anything close to this tribe in her life, but, (like most Americans), she’s not even entirely sure where Ethiopia is.
It’s important to remember that although disease, hunger, and unusual tribal traditions undoubtably exist in Africa, we cannot reduce the entire continent down to these few elements any more than we can categorize America as a country solely comprised of rich, obese people. Like every other country in the world, Senegal has major problems that need fixing. But it seems a pity to me that its beauty and incredible richness of culture should be overlooked simply because it’s a part of Africa.