How I Did Not Have the Senegalese Experience

Marta Shcharbakova - Senegal

March 29, 2019


Once, I was sitting with my family across my house by the fruit stand. It

was the day I got my braids done. We were just chilling and talking as

usual, and my sisters were playing with my new hair. Soon, a passenger

stopped by next to us and greeted everyone. He was trying to ask for the

directions, and, after looking at me, started a conversation. I was in the

happiest mood possible, but for some reason he asked me: “Senegal dafa

metti xana?” (Isn’t it difficult in Senegal?) And after the short pause I

said: “No”.

Ever since the first day here, I hated being called a Toubab (basically the

French but works for any outsider) by my family members because for me

personally it highlighted the inerasable difference between us. I didn’t

want my family to remember me as a white person, so I figured that my

biggest mission would be to become as Senegalese as possible. To do

everything the way the Senegalese do, and become the part of the family. I

tried to be a good citizen of Keur Madaro: whatever it means to be a good

daughter, sister, a teacher, a farmer and a learner. It’s been 5 months,

and it’s indescribable how fast I have actually learnt to communicate with

everything around me. I learned to understand and adapt to the Senegalese

culture. Despite the huge gap that’s still remaining, it doesn’t feel

foreign anymore, and I stopped describing Senegal as “another planet” like

I used to do. I have the people around me so inspiring, and I already can

speak to them almost about anything. It might sound obvious (or crazy for

some), but it truly feels like home.

And as I walk around like a fish swims in a lake, I’m used to being the

only white person in the village. I am the only white here who used to be

the weird one, but the village is getting used to me more and more every

day. So, on one of those happy days, as I was working with my friends in

the garden, the two well-dressed Turkish (as I found out later) men walked

in to buy flowers. And I still remember how me and my friend Alseniy looked

at them enter, from behind the bush, as if they were aliens who came down

from the sky. And I should say the Turkish men payed me back with the same

kind of looks. Alseniy decided to encourage me to come over and say hi, but

I just refused. I didn’t want to switch from my “local bubble” straight to

the “hey-I’m-also-a-foreigner-here” reality. I didn’t want to belong to

that reality. Yes, our experience here was not the same, but it still

didn’t make me more Senegalese than the Turkish men were.

Soon after Muhammad told me “you are almost Senegalese”, and I asked him

“what’s missing?”. I looked at him and he did the rubbing motion to point

at his skin. I did see where he was coming from: Senegalese are black, but

it felt like it was a deeper metaphor. It meant that both of us have

something important that will never be the same. I realized that I was

almost thinking of myself as a Senegalese, as if I was born here and I

belong HERE.

It might be obvious if you look from outside but the core identities and

the histories we have – those will never match. My situation here isn’t the

same, and it will never be. And I will never know how difficult it actually

is for the people in the garden to work here everyday for 8 hours without

breaks. How difficult it is to live inside the garden for years, away from

home. It is a joy for me every time I come, because I have the privilege

of skipping as many days I want, as much as I want and not EVEN having to

ask to be payed, because I have enough money on my own.

Going back to the start and explaining my confusion with the question

“Isn’t life in Senegal hard?”. I swear for me it’s not. Because I chose to

fly here, with a privilege of choosing to enjoy the things I want to enjoy.

I take the bits of the country that I like and leave out the confusing and

unpleasant ones. I’m privileged so much that in order to “learn and grow” I

put myself in the conditions that so many people here are trying to escape,

and I can quit at any point of time.

This paradox has been bothering me, because I made myself once believe that

I am having the true Senegalese experience. I am so happy to be here,

relearning almost everything I knew, but I should never let myself become

delusional. I will never take this for granted, and I send love to all the

people here who made me feel home.

Marta Shcharbakova