I came to Senegal ready to be open to it and love it. And in coming with this attitude, I have come across such pristine and simple beauty. I am enthralled by the liquid ruby crème glace making, the geometric shapes of the grains of rice that I sift my hands through, the way the cotton curtain breathes in with the wind and then clings to the iron bars. I welcome power outages at night. When the power, with its distracting buzz and light pollution, leaves, sights and sounds gain life. Sometimes I see things the way I want to see them, without paying attention to the realities.
And what are these realities that threaten to taint this fragile beauty? Power outages, though refreshing and interesting to me, are a huge burden to the Senegalese. My grandmother’s crème glaces can’t freeze, owners of internet cafés don’t have many clients, and bakers and tailors and hair stylists must buy expensive generators in order to keep their businesses going. The rice is only nice when looked at closely; on a larger spectrum, it is the Senegalese staple because it is cheap rather than because it is nutritious, it is imported from another country, and the price is steadily rising. The iron bars that hold back the curtains are to discourage burglars.
While entranced by the beauty of the ritual, I forget that my grandmother isn’t making crème glaces because I love to watch, or because it makes a nice film. My grandmother is making them to supplement her income. She sells them at 25 CFA (5 cents), but as she spent a large amount of money on ingredients (including sugar which costs 650 CFA a kilo) her profits will be minimal. In total, my grandmother has made 52 baggies, which in the next few days will earn her 1250 CFA, about $2.60. After taking into account money spent on ingredients, I doubt she’ll have earned the equivalent of a dollar.
Is it selfish of me to look at something and refuse to see anything but beauty? Is it because I have the luxury of being new here, of having money and thereby being unaffected by the worries that taunt my family and neighbors? Is it selfish of me to want to look at Senegalese village life and see only what’s so lovely about it: the sharing, the family, the respect- without seeing the poverty and insecurity that comes with it? Is it absolutely terrible of me to see the development in Dakar and the ways it has stymied those former qualities, and to wish that Senegal would stay idyllic and pastoral? Because these are the thoughts of an outsider who wants something, without taking into account what the people want. And herein lies the reason why so many countries in Africa and so many of the nonprofits that try to help it are flawed.
Does it even exist though: pure, untainted beauty?