How I Did Not Have the Senegalese Experience

Marta Shcharbakova - Senegal


March 29, 2019

14.01.2019

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