This blog first appeared on the Everyday Ambassador Blog as a part of Wednesday Wisdom. “Everyday Ambassador is a network of global citizens who believe that human connection, even in an increasingly digital world, is the key to lasting, positive social change. Everyday Ambassador visions a world in which all travelers and volunteers approach the act of crossing borders– whether national, class, race, or otherwise–with attitudes of undistracted focus, empathy, patience, and humility towards diverse people they meet.”
It would be easy to make Sandiara, Senegal sound backward.
Sticks are used as toothbrushes. Half-cut limes are used as deodorant. Eating is done from one bowl, on the ground, using hands for utensils. There is no electricity and no running water. The left hand is toilet paper.
That is often how Africa is portrayed. So it makes sense that when my best friend Matt told the woman fitting him for a tux that he was going to a small Christian college near Chattanooga she said “Oh honey! That’s soooo wonderful!!” and when I told her that I was going to spend the year in Senegal, a country in Western Africa, her face got pinched, scared, and she made an “eeeee” sound like the one you make when you see a dog almost get hit by a car.*
But the past few months living in Sandiara, Senegal, I haven’t seen backwardness. In time I’ve come to see order and organization. Life here works. And it works for me too.
The sticks we use as toothbrushes aren’t just any sticks. They are cut by my brother from a particular tree behind my house. Much as you would a toothpick, we absentmindedly gnaw until the tip of the stick is soft enough to delicately remove the plaque from our gums.
Cleanliness is valued. We take a bucket shower at least twice a day. Not once have I smelled body odor, so the limes must work. Eating with our hands is done daintily. Rice is scooped up with our front three fingers, kneaded into a ball, and then pushed by our thumbs into our mouths. Left hand, plus water and soap, works for toilet paper. And we don’t eat with our left hands. That’s the bathroom hand. Enough said.
Three months ago when I looked at how life works here I said “they.” Today, I say “we.”
On Saturday we go to the market. Six of my Senegalese siblings and I pile onto our donkey cart and we lumber into town passing hurds of cattle waiting to be butchered and sold. The middle of town is taken over by men and women selling everything from hot peppers to school supplies. Last Saturday, my sister Awa and I were bent over underneath the stall of our usual fish vendor. I wiped some sweat off my forehead and reached down to examine the various fish below us, choosing several and looking to Awa for agreement. We bought eight fish for 800 CFA, a bad deal, and then weaved our way through the stalls dodging bundles of hanging spices and bras to another fish vendor where we bought six little fish for 150 CFA.
I was buying a small bag of pepper as Awa bought garlic when I glanced up and saw a huge canon camera. Ten tourists were posing for a picture as they looked amazed at the market around us. When the tourists were finished with their picture, they turned to their guide who was explaining some facet of the market as he gestured in our direction. I jumped onto our donkey cart, tilting my basket to show my brother which fish we bought as my mind whirled with confusion. I couldn’t figure out why the tourists were taking pictures instead of buying fish. Because that’s what we do in the market. We buy fish. I heard myself saying “we” in my head and I realized that I was part of the foreign world the tourists were so amazed by.
Living “we” isn’t easy. “We” means lumbering back home after the market on a rickety donkey cart instead of cruising back to an air conditioned hotel. “We” means trying again when I speak in gibberish instead of Wolof, eating fish three times a day, and having sore forearms from fanning myself. “We” means being misunderstood, unable to do things right, and being angry at things which are confusing. “We” means embracing being weak and living as if my way isn’t superior even when I am convinced it is.
Right now “we” amounts to nothing in international development, but it also doesn’t have to. “We” doesn’t turn into another development project which fails because I can’t be weak enough to listen. “We” doesn’t turn into #instagrammingafrica pictures because I live with the cute black child on my Instagram and she is like any other little sibling who annoys me by relentlessly tapping on me while I try to write this blog.
“We” ultimately turns into finding ways to use my education to follow in the footsteps of people like Paul Farmer, Brian Concannon, Owen Robinson, Megan Coffee, and the list goes on. Just because I care about ending global poverty doesn’t mean I have to run away from my own privilege. In fact, I can use my access to wealth and power to partner with talented people from the developing world (like the people I live with) who are knowledgeable in how to make their own lives and countries better.
Right now, this “we” is a part of my education. I care very deeply about global poverty and I have confidence that I have something to offer in this field of development. I also know though, that I am not qualified just because I care. I don’t know how or what to offer to the world yet, and that is why I am here.
So right now, I’m a baby in Senegal. I am called to share exactly what this place is like. I hope I make enough noise that the woman who fearfully said “eeee” and tourists posing for pictures in markets are offered a new image of Africa. The image I have to offer is filled with extraordinary beauty, real hardship, banal normalcy, and a six year old who is still tapping on me because she would like me to please quit writing this blog so we can dance together.
Footnote – *To be fair, when Matt and I were in liberal Carrboro, North Carolina the reactions were sometimes switched. “Well, that is quite interesting…” people would say to Matt, their eyes saying “let me keep my distance because soon that place is going to turn you into a misogynistic raging homophobe.” A reaction which, as Matt’s first few months at Covenant College prove, was just as misguided.