“When will you leave to Africa?”
“Isn’t t dangerous for women in Africa?”
“You are very brave to go to Africa.”
First, I am going to Senegal. A country IN Africa. Africa is NOT a country. Africa is a CONTINENT.
Second, Africa is a continent full of cultural, social and political diversity. It would probably take an infinity to properly discover the secrets, stories, traditions and systems of each African country. But still, the society I was raised in, merges Africa into one place, with one fate, with one culture. I was surrounded by an environment that generalises Africa into a poor region of the world where people do not have enough food and where European humanitarian aid programs try their best to safe what is left to be saved there.
No one spoke to me about the countless different languages. About the impressive klick sounds of Siswati and the beautiful Nj sounds of wolof. The diversity of the different languages represent only a tiny fragment of how much there is to understand and to learn from African countries.
No one spoke about the indigenous tribes that wrote folktales and stories that give insight to the wisdom and knowledge that this continent was forced to bury by colonialism and and slavery.
No one spoke about the resilience that each African country celebrates in their bones. The strength to fight for independence, to stabilise the country’s situations and fight back, is something the world has to learn from.
No one talked about that there is no such thing as “African Music” or “African Dances” or “African Food”. People understand that there is nothing such as “European Music” or “European Food”. But why is that? Why is one region in the world merged into one place without uniqueness or diversity?
I wrote this before I left to Senegal.
Now that I am in Senegal, I remember something I learn during Global Launch in San Francisco last week: At Stanford, we had a seminar about “Explicit Bias”. The generalisations, stereotypes and even racism one expresses without being aware of it. This ignorance results from the environment where the individual was raised in. If I, as a child, always heard of typical African safaris and wild African lions, then I adopt these opinions. When one is young, one is shaped by the way one has been raised.
Now, that I have experienced Senegal for only one week, I feel more ignorant than ever before.
I never knew about Senegalese Taranga; a kind of hospitality I have never experienced before. This starts with every Asaala Maaleikum I express and the Malaaikum Salaam that the stranger on the streets greets me back with. It does not matter if we have seen each other before or not. What matters is that I do not forget to genuinely ask “Nanga def?”, so “How are you?”. I came to realise that it differs from the superficial way I was used to ask people about their emotional state. Everyone would answer “I am fine”, even if they were not. However, here, I feel that a “I am not fine” will be respected and I will be taken care of.
I never knew about the ways in which family members show their respect to elderlies. It starts with the youngest one handing out fans to the oldest members first or making sure the dishes are washed for their grandma. It continues with oldest ones being served first at “reek” (dinner) and all other meals. Or how the oldest ones are given traditional Senegalese Tea first.
I never knew about the culture of gifts by those who have a lot, but also by those who do not have much. “Give all you can and never expect anything back.”, I heard someone say about Senegal’s attitude towards giving. My family’s and community’s humility inspires me and encourages me to be a better version of myself every day.
I did not know these things. I knew attitudes and values shaped by the media and people who had never been to any African country. I knew stereotypes that I had no proof to confirm them.
But now I have the opportunity to learn. And to look beyond my own cultural limits and embark on a new journey towards a new, more educated, more humble and less ignorant Miriam.
I am excited to meet her!