Since arriving in Senegal, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the concepts of privilege and luxury, and how drastically their definitions can change depending upon one’s environment. Personally, my perception of what constitutes a “luxury” has shifted dramatically since my immersion into Senegalese culture. There are material aspects of of this duality of luxury, of course; back in the U.S., tangible signifiers of wealth and privilege are frivolous excesses like champagne, caviar, and gas-guzzling Ferarris. Here even toilet paper is a little bourgeosie, and regular garbage collection? Nearly nonexistant.
There are also nonmaterial aspects to consider, however. Is it a luxury to be able to walk down the street without being catcalled constantly? Or to live in a country where your taxi driver doesn’t have to pay bribes to get past randomly erected police “checkpoints”? Are we, as Americans, privileged to have presidents step down at the end of their terms without resistance, and an absence of monarchical nepotism within our government? I think so.
In terms of political transparency, social services, and economic development, Americans have it pretty great. But as I’ve made note of the nominally “higher” standard of living enjoyed by those living in the developed world, I’ve simultaneously noticed so many beautiful elements of this society that daily life in American conspicuously lacks. For example, everyone greets each other here; on my 20 minute walk to Wolof class each morning, I stop and speak to at least six people per day, from the kids playing soccer in the road to the security guard in front of my bank. The street culture here is incredibly vibrant – everyone has somewhere to go, something to do, or someone to see, and nothing is going to get in their way. To others, perhaps, the uneven roads, hawkish vendors, ramshackle buses and abundance of farm animals present in Dakar would cast some serious aspersions on the integrity (and cleanliness) of the city as a whole. But to me, these qualities simply signify that life – real, gritty, tenaciously-executed existance – is taking place. Already, the grey, sanitized steel-and-c0ncrete of the typical American city seems almost disingenuous to me, surrounded as I am with a 24-hour inundation of chaos and confusion, color and sensation. I love it here. And I wouldn’t trade my new life in Senegal for all the champagne and caviar in the world.