Recently, I’ve been getting countless Facebook messages and e-mails, “So, what is Africa like?” “Are you helping a lot?” “Do you confront the issue of AIDS on a daily basis?” “Have you seen any voodoo ceremony?” And so on. Even though I live in SENEGAL, and more specifically, THE DAKAR REGION, a very small portrait of Senegal, or let alone Africa, I’ve decided to debunk some stereotypes, and prove some, to the best of my ability. Of course there are exceptions, but these are MY stereotypes, in response to yours.
1. Despite the poverty rate, hardly anybody starves in Senegal. In fact, most of the volunteers have put on weight since being here. And the diabetes rate is through the roof. Why? Because the culture, and especially in the villages, is aimed toward the community and everyone is invited to each family’s meal. Welcome to the country of hospitality. However, malnutrition is a huge concern; not because there is not enough food, but because people generally prefer oil to carrots.
2. Despite the French efforts to “combat AIDS in Senegal,” the AIDS rate is extremely low, and almost non-existant in the villages. Senegal is a 96% Muslim country. No sex before marriage means its a little difficult to spread AIDS throughout a population. However; in Dakar, and in the legal prostitution rings found within the “dance houses” AIDS finds its target, of course, much as it does in the United States, Canada, and France.
3. Families are huge. Partly because of religious ban of birth control, partly because of culture and the agrarian economy, women have a lot of kids, and men have multiple women (sometimes, not always, and less frequently in Dakar). For example, there are three wives in my family. I have maybe 25 brothers and sisters, but its too hard to keep track because everybody, yes everybody (nieces, nephews, ect.) lives in the same compound. Try remembering birthdays.
4. Although the animist religions still exist, Islam, a mainstream religion, takes precident. There is however, some blending of traditional religions with Islam. For example, traditional doctors are also Maribouts, and “traditional medicine” involves Koranic verses. There is no animal sacrifice, with the exception of Tabaski, a Muslim holiday.
5. There are no warlords in Senegal. There are no wars in Senegal. Despite petty street crime (e.g. marijuana and theft), I don’t see the Wolof ever partaking in a violent effort.
6. White people aren’t Senegalese. In regards to the mean girls quote to which Lindsey Lohan had just explained that she came from Africa, “but you’re white,” the stereotype rings true in Senegal. I have never met a white born in Senegal (although there are some rare metise exceptions), and most of the whites now living in Senegal moved here from France for either business or marriage. This gives way to my most-highly-detested-racial word in the Wolof language, “Toubab,” which means outsider, foreigner, and white.
7. Cuisine is not crazy, experimental, or exciting. Senegalese food sure is yummy, but “ethnic” is not the word I would use to describe it. It uses the same spices for each dish, in the exact same amount, and it is cooked in the exact same fashion. Sounds like American food, right?
8. Sending countless mosquito nets to Africa will not effectively combat malaria. During my highschool career, I worked on the annual “Nothing but Nets” campaign to send impregnated mosquito nets to Africa. I read the facts to each passerby: “Malaria kills this many children every year in the developing world.” “For just $10, you can send a net to Africa.” However, I didn’t take into account that people just generally don’t like using bed nets or that the sleeping situation and room setup sometimes makes it impossible to use a mosquito net. In fact, upon leaving, I’m having trouble finding a new home for my mosquito net (which I, honestly, have not been using) because even though Senegal has one of the highest malaria rates, everyone I’ve talked to has a donated mosquito net.
9. Africa has no technology. Not true, but often times radioactive. In fact, Senegal has more and sometimes newer technology available for lower prices than in the United States. For example, when the power goes out, my family uses solar-powered lamps, which make me envious of the fact that I don’t own solor-powered lamps in the United States. However; the reason for the surplus is because it is “tested” here by the Chinese, meaning it is often easily-broken, poorly-crafted, or cancerous. I must admit though, I really do like the applications on my $10 phone: flashlight, emergency call, prayer times, fake call, and of course, the infamous “B-button.”
10. Children in Senegal are not deprived. Possibly deprived of parental supervision because of the surrplus of children, but not of play, food, or trouble. In Senegal, if a child crys for a lollypop, someone will buy it for him. If he hits an adult, he will not be hit back. And he has a special snack plate before dinner because his tummy just can’t wait that long. Not what I expected from the “Save the Children” commercials and the classic, “You should not waste that because there are children starving in Africa.” Thanks, mainstream African stereotypes.