When I first got here I was extremely reluctant to dance, actually I was extremely reluctant, hesitant, and/or scared to do much of anything. But I’m going to focus on dancing, as it can easily be extrapolated out to represent more broadly my immersion. When I first attended any kind of get together there always came a point where drums drew near and I was in some way invited to dance. At first I cowered, self conscious and embarrassed, I went for the tactic of, maybe if I don’t make any sudden movements I will be forgotten and left alone. Some time passed and I gained a bit of footing, per say, watching when others danced. I picked up a bit and when music was around the next time I hesitantly tested some child level moves. I then began being told to dance, which immediately made me feel like a show animal, this foreign shiny toy being put on display for the enjoyment of those around. When commanded as a foreigner, “tubaab,” to dance, I vehemently refused; I am no Princess Leia Sir Jabba the Hut.
People soon began to know me, my neighbors and friends quickly learned my dislike of both the term tubaab, and of being commanded to do anything, especially by young men. I am now called Daba, my name here, and I have become a person, even a member of the community. I walk into town and am proud of the time I must allocate to greet all those I pass. My heart is warmed by my little friends who run up to hug me. I smile as I pass compounds and am always told that it’s been too long since they have seen me, even if I visited yesterday.
When asked to dance now my name is used and a smile adorns the faces of those who call me over. I join in and bust my moves, which quite honestly are still not much to brag about, but that really doesn’t matter. The importance is the confidence with which I make a fool of myself, as I reach out of my old comfort zone to join hands with the new me.
I realized this all as I watched a video that was shot of me dancing at a celebration among students from the school I volunteer at here. I saw in the video my friends and town, the background holds the fabric/luggage store where I have run to get an extra meter when needed for an outfit, the salon where the mom of a student, whom I have nicknamed Zoe (from Sesame Street) ever since she sported adorable high pigtails, works, the tailor where my host dad first took me to get my outfit for Tabaski, the big religious holiday that happened right after I got here. I was reminded of the day the video was shot and the fun I had getting my makeup done crazily by the teachers, my friends. I remember the kids, nearly all dressed up as the opposite gender, laughing at one another as their moms brought them to school. I pictured the big parade through the town, my town, full of dancing, laughter and fun.
I then saw the video for a moment as if I didn’t know who I was or how far I had come. There is some “traditionally” done up white (well kind of white) girl dancing to “African” drums, sticking out like a sore thumb as she experiences “village life” among young black children. All those observations, though indignantly stated, still hold true once you know who that (kind of white) girl is and her story, but the perception changes, the reality and degree of immersion is what matters.
I often wish when people see me here there was a way I could immediately convey that I am not just a tourist, a way I could share that I live here, I have a family here, friends, a life. Part of it comes in a way, I must admit, to both you and myself, from wanting the acknowledgment of the challenge I faced in moving here and the difficulties I have overcome to be where I am and who I am now. But most of it comes from wanting people to view me as equal, as a member of the community, a friend. Foreigners, or tubaabs, as they are called here, are often, I have found, put on a pedestal. This pedestal analogy is twofold, in one aspect it places westerners above people here, often both in monetary status and knowledge/intelligence, but on the other side tubaabs, once raised up for everyone to see, are often mocked and seen as distant aliens. I don’t want to be thought of as superior, because I am not, and I don’t want to be thought of as crazy different, because at the core I am not.
I have struggled against these preconceived notions throughout my time here and feel that while I may not of changed the view of all of Sandiara I have made an impact, especially with the kids, that will effect the future. It is in small things, like sitting on the floor with a family instead of taking the chair they bring over, using my hands when all others do, always offering to help, being respectful, greeting people, sharing. Nothing makes me feel more cared for, or in lots of ways successful, than when my little friends and students correct and explain to other kids that there is no tubaab here, that my name is Daba.
Will I ever be completely one with those here, no. I can’t be. Not only do I still stick out like a sore thumb (I haven’t tanned that much), but I’m not Senegalese, I never will be. Although I may be far from a typical tourist, I am still just visiting, and soon I will be gone. I spent a lot of my early time here feeling useless, floundering for a place, comfort, acceptance. I felt alone, and where I was able for reflect inwardly in positive ways, which I am grateful for, I also had space to wallow. It took time for me to learn language and culture, to grow comfortable with my new situation and the challenges it presented. But I did it. I am here, mangi fi, mexe meen.
I do feel I have found my place here, my own niche, somewhere between tubaab and Senegalese. Senegal will always be a part of me and I am proud to feel that I have made connections with my community and family that will let me be a part of Senegal, even once I am gone. Which I’m not sure I am ready for, but that’s a blog in and of itself.
I guess that’s the eternal irony of Global Citizen Year, at least mine.
When you have time to be here, you think of home, yet now that here is where you want to be, time is the one thing you don’t have left.
For a long time I was reluctant to dance, but now I do.
Forever a little bit, and most certainly now, my name is Daba Beisse and my home is Sandiara, Senegal.