“Desaprender lo que creo haber aprendido”: musings of a guatemalteca in Senegal

Phoebe Shea Perez - Senegal


October 8, 2018

After five weeks of living in Touba Toul, I’m proud to say that even though
kids in the streets tirelessly still call me toubab (Wolof for westerner),
my family consistently mentions I’m becoming Senegalese.

Two Fridays ago, at my cousin’s wedding in Doudoul, when we had finished
cooking a colossal amount of beñe (1) and we were all wearing the taibás ak
jipp (2) and drinking ataaya (3) under the trees, a family friend jokingly
asked me how many years I had lived in Senegal. I’d love to credit myself
for my remarkable skills at adapting to a new environment, but I have to
admit that I’ve gotten so comfortable so soon because in every corner,
sound, and smell of Touba Toul I’m finding bits and pieces of Guatemala.
Life in Senegal thus far hasn’t been about adapting to a foreign country,
but about finding home in an unexpected place.

In a superficial level, here, too, Tigo is a prominent cellular network and
Nescafé is drank every morning. Just like in Guatemala, here everyone is
expected to greet everyone in the streets, stores, and houses. I wake up
and the first thing I do after washing myself is say Salamaleykum to my
family and engage in 10 minute long discussions where I inquire about their
evening, sleep, morning so far, whether they’re at peace, and so on and so
forth.

So many of the particulars of Senegal have sat well with me. Sitting in the
floor around a communal plate and eating with my right hand come as second
nature. Squat toilets, the lack of toilet paper and subsequent reliance on
water have also started to feel normal. Drinking an arguably too sweet shot
of tea every afternoon has been ingrained into my routine and its absence
is heartily felt. Three bucket showers a day as a way to deal with the
intolerable
heat have gradually become reasonable and are now much appreciated (it
clicks once you realize how much you’re capable of sweating just by sitting
down in a room without a fan).

Against my expectations, I began noticing that the things that were most
difficult to adjust to were the ones I had previous exposure to in
different cultural contexts. Before arriving I was genuinely eager to
partake, once again, in bucket showers, the hand washing of clothes and
dishes, and other activities I most ardently complained about when I lived
in Guatemala and most deeply missed once I moved to Florida. If for no
other reason, I was happy to think that even in the midst of adjusting to
life in a country whose languages and peoples I was yet to acquaint, I
could find solace in the banal endeavors I had engaged in for over 14
years. However, when the first opportunity to wash clothes arose, I found
myself being harshly critical of the way in which it was done. The same
feelings were brought to the surface when I got to take bucket showers,
wash dishes, sweep and wash the floors – any time I did things that weren’t
foreign to me. I couldn’t help but feeling that the way in which those
tasks were done was unnecessarily complicated. In Guatemala, for washing
clothes and dishes, we have pilas and lavaderos (structures made out of
cement; the first one holds water and the second one is used to wash), but
here we only use big water containers and do everything while squatting or
sitting in the floor instead of standing up like I was used to. In
Guatemala we have big brooms, so as to be able to sweep the floors while
standing, but here we use the small ones that force you to bend and get
closer to the floor. Almost unwillingly, I found myself endlessly comparing
the Guatemalan way of life to the Senegalese one and noticed the
overwhelming amount of times I assumed the way I know things to be, to be
inherently superior.

At first, it was disappointing to realize that the things I thought would
bring me comfort due to their familiarity, were the very same ones that
brought about unpleasant feelings. But after a bit of thought, I started
appreciating them again, for, however uncomfortable, these were also the
activities that ultimately shinned light on my ethnocentrism as a
Guatemalan. After a few days, I made the conscious decision of actively
challenging those thoughts, and of finding the why behind the differences.
I still lack most of the language skills to ask such questions, but simply
through observing, I’ve been able to find potential reasons (e.g. water
efficiency, availability of resources, etc.) and to render those
possibilities their according validity.

I’ve found myself enjoying spending time closer to the floor and,
meaning-giver that I am, I’ve come to not only give it credit for its
pragmatic uses, but also to find beauty in how so many mundane things
happen close to the floor, close to la Tierra. It made me remember how in
Guatemala, we kiss the Tierra during Maya ceremonies; in Senegal we don’t
kiss the soil that carries us but we spend so much of our time so close to
it, that our relationship to it feels even more meaningful despite how
unexceptional the activities that take place in its proximity are.

These two weeks however conflicting, have also been incredibly beautiful.

For the first time in so long, I’ve gotten to indulge in my boredom. I’ve
gotten to reflect on the universality of ethnocentrism, while also
acknowledging that its universality doesn’t justify its continuity once
it’s been identified. Through broken French and an even more broken Wolof,
I’ve been learning to ask questions that are free of my opinions. I’ve
gotten to contemplate the enormity and diversity of Touba Toul from the
terrace of my house and to observe the people, the life, and the paradoxes
of Senegal passing by me from the benches outside of small stores. Perhaps
most consequential of all, I’ve gotten to unlearn the things I thought I
had learned and to embrace the varied ways in which people achieve similar
goals.

As Eduardo Galeano said, when asked about the purpose of utopias
considering we’ll never reach those idealized states, utopias are there for
us to keep moving forward. Though it is naïve to aim to one day not be
ethnocentric at all, it feels that which each day and each challenge and
each problematic thought I identify, I’m getting closer to that personal
utopia where I can interact with different peoples, traditions, and
lifestyles without holding my cultural background as the unchallenged
standard.

In honor of unlearning ethnocentrism, and just because I adore Adrián
Berra, here’s Desaprender (To Unlearn). One of my favorite songs of his,
and a particularly helpful one in processing my days and experiences and in
overcoming my biases and prejudices as a guatemalteca living la vida
Teranga (4).

(1) sweet fried dough made especially for wedding celebrations

(2) a variation of Senegalese traditional dress

(3) sweet green tea

(4) I.e. a Guatemalan living the life of hospitality, a characteristic
deservedly associated with Senegal and its people

Phoebe Shea Perez