Max Siragusa - Senegal

February 27, 2013

Freedom does not exist.

This I hold to be a truth. We are, none of us, truly free. We are simply slaves of differing degree. Genesis decrees we lack freedom because of Man’s Fall in the Garden. The Government declares we are not free because we collectively will it to exist as a superpowered entity and are its subjects, for all that entails. Rousseau wrote most eloquently we are born free but are in chains and I hold fast to that maxim; we are not free. We all wear chains and what they consist of and what they are in number varies from person to person, from existence to existence. Every single facet of our personality, every last aspect of our conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind, every act we commit and decision we make under the impression of being free to do so, chains us. Some chains we bear willingly. Others are locked upon us by powers that be, against our will but without our resistance. Some stem from our nature as human beings and some stem from our unique Self, as being human implies we are all different and unique in at least one aspect or another. Therefore, logic dictates that some of what chains us is unique in each human instance.

We are slaves and this I hold to be a truth. But while I cannot wax eloquent on the each and every chain that humans wear, indeed not even on the ones I wear; while I cannot honestly speak to the sheer number of chains we strangle ourselves with, I can say this with the utmost degree of assurance:

The hardest chains to throw off are the ones put on us entirely without our knowledge. These chains are not simply draped over our shoulders or bound to our hands and feet. These are the links welded in place over our hearts and minds, the ones that make it difficult to find others and to relate to others outside the socio-cultural framework that smelted such chains in the first place. Sometimes, even becoming aware of these bonds doesn’t mean they can ever be sheared away.

We’re all slaves of degree. And to what degree depends in part on the socio-cultural framework we come from.

Case in point: a woman returned to my host town after having made her annual Gāmou Pilgrimage. She was ecstatic; she brought some gifts and was eager to tell us stories of her travels. She sat and had dinner with us. All the while, the television played in the background and at one point while we ate, a news report blared out a progressing legislative battle being waged in some European country over laws concerning rights to be given to homosexuals. Simply hearing the word “homosexual” was enough to shut our guest up. She put her spoon down, gazed at the television for a moment, and then proceeded to rant against gay people in Senegal, against the evil of homosexuality, and finally at gay people the world over.

To say I was disgusted by this rhetoric is an understatement. As soon as my nonplus at the sudden tack the conversation had taken faded, I began to decipher what she was saying. She might have been speaking in a mixture of French and Wolof but I understand enough of both languages now to cognate what she was wailing at us. You don’t need to speak more than one language, anyway, to recognize poisonous ignorance. For a full ten minutes, this woman and at points all of the people around the bowl engaged in a hideously vile conversation about what we ought to be doing with homosexuals and how we can possibly “cure the problem”. And what surprised me the most was that everyone in the room, except for me, shared this woman’s opinion. I spoke my mind when I was asked if homosexuality exists in the United States. More truthfully, I put a damper on my words and simply said that “yes, we have many gay people in America and it’s a wonderful thing. Thank God it’s being legalized in European countries, too. I hope that happens in Senegal.” Relative to what I wanted to say, that was a pretty calm statement. I didn’t shout it, I just directed it at the people around me. They instantly quit talking and stared at me like I had just said that I eat babies on my spare time. Our delightfully open-minded guest told me, in fact, that I am ill in the head and that she felt bad for me. And everyone else resumed talking, amazed at MY ignorance and floored by MY stupidity and malformed worldview. It was okay, though, because it isn’t as if I understand French or Wolof, right? I got up and locked myself in my room.

For two full days I didn’t leave my room except to eat, shower or use the restroom. I cannot remember having been angrier than I was during those two days than I was at any other point during my stay in Senegal so far. Everything that woman and the others had spewed out at that dinner branded close friends of mine and even a family member as trash and as toxic to society at large. It disregarded them as things that were less than human and that ought to be treated as such.

My Team Leader reminded me of something when she called for a routine check-in on the second day of my fury: what they had been saying, the opinions they were expressing, were the words and opinions that they knew. They had no understanding of alternative context, no other perspective or knowledge of any other Weltanshauung to draw from. They were expressing the convictions bred into them by their parents, friends, Islam and the rest of their society. It’s worth noting that I should not have been so flared by what they were saying- a pillar of the Senegalese life is family. Homosexuals simply aren’t seen as being people who end up having families; they don’t end up married or with kids and are seen as people who live for themselves. This is seen as abandoning, as blaspheming almost, one of the conventions that leads a person into a happy and productive existence and knowing this I can see why it could be so damnably tough to comprehend someone’s desire for a partner of the same sex.

My cultural context and personal experience has taught me that being gay is simply an aspect of who someone is, same as is someone’s innate attraction to the opposite sex. It is, in my homeland, for most a moot point if a man loves a man or a woman loves a woman. For one, it isn’t anyone else’s business to begin with. Secondly, it isn’t as if we have much choice in what tickles our fancy, not to be too brusque with this subject. Social attitudes reflect this acceptance and as years go by, our civilization’s legal codes reflect it too. I say “acceptance”, not “tolerance”: we do not merely put up with homosexuality. Some people do, admittedly. Some people even in the U.S. regard them the way they are in Senegal. But that there is an open variance in opinion on the matter speaks to a specific kind of open-mindedness existent that doesn’t seem to exist here on this specific issue.

This experience is one that has driven home the realization that we are slaved by what chains us, whether we know it or not. I will not accept this sort of socially sanctioned hatred as anywhere near being tolerable. I will not accept it as okay that anonymous individuals who do happen to be gay, in Senegal, are chained into secrecy and perhaps misery because to be who they are is to commit cultural and social suicide. To be who they are would result in their being cast off by their friends and family. Their freedom has been killed in a most Kafka-ensue way: by the resulting attitudes springing from intolerance, fear and ignorance. I will not see this as permissible in my world view. My chains will not let me.

What I can accept, though, is that we cannot always help what chains us. And if narrow-mindedness is something that chains the woman in the story, and indeed other Senegalese, I can understand that. Lord only knows there are equally intense prejudices chaining me, whether i know it or not. I’m left wondering, despite my best efforts not to think about this, what this prejudices are. What unknown shackles hold me down? What unknown shackles hold all of us down? Can we identify them?

Can we possibly break them?

Max Siragusa