The 230 day program cycle is coming to an end and although I am not in the States yet, my life has already swung full-throttle back to American time. This means the constant hustle to do better, be better, and make better.
University orientation, family gatherings, various events and dates with friends have already solidified my schedule until late August. I am ready to return home and see familiar faces and have plenty of conversations about where these last seven months have taken us, but I am not ready to be pegged with the question: “how was Africa?” Because, I can assure you, it is bound to be in every conversation. And unfortunately, in every conversation, I will disappoint because I sincerely cannot feed into common African stereotypes that people expect to hear.
To clarify, I am in Senegal and I have never left this country. I am more than willing to share my experiences here, with my very limited understanding of the culture. I cannot tell you about “Africa” because, frankly, I have no idea what those other 53 countries have to offer.
When I get asked these questions, I will gladly share my personal experience in the country in my host family, town of 55,000 and travels throughout. But, my personal experience may not align with what other Fellows have found their version of Senegal to be. What is mine then?
My Senegal is not tribal dancers and drummers with rhythm deeply ingrained in their souls. It has people like my charismatic host sister who gets too nervous to dance because she does not know which step to make next.
My Senegal does not offer lions and cheetahs and vicious wildlife in rolling grasslands. It offers the sheep in my backyard that my host father refuses to slay for religious holidays because he loves them too much and treats them as his pets.
My Senegal is not filled with people searching for any possible way to emigrate out of their nation. It has people who jokingly tell me everyday that Senegal is better than my home — America — and share joyous moments that would make them never want to leave (and I am inclined to agree with them there, too).
My Senegal does not have starved, pot-bellied individuals sitting at every corner. Instead, it has large family meals cooked by my host mother full of rice and fish and fresh vegetables. It welcomes guests and shares food with anyone who may not have gotten just enough.
My Senegal does not have disabled people unable to do anything without some new wheelchairs sent in from Westernized countries. It has healthy, able-bodied people like my host grandmother who is over 115 years old but does not look a day over 70, or my little host brother out playing football with other neighborhood kids until the family demands that he come inside to finish his homework.
My Senegal is not dirty, ripped clothing with only one other outfit to change into. It is beautiful men and women dressing up every single day in their unique, recently-tailored clothing and walking around in full confidence because they know how great they look.
My Senegal is not a place that “survives” because of foreign services and Western intervention. It is a place that recognizes the problems it has and fixes them because it has educated, conscious people who are capable of doing things unaided.
My Senegal is not deep red sunsets that fixate just right over a baobab in a large, open field. It is also cities and towns that have buildings that may block the light that marks the end of each day.
My Senegal is not filled with despondent or emotionless people without stories or backgrounds. It is filled with people of such diversity — ethnically, socioeconomically, geographically — all with a fascinating life to share with someone who will really listen.
So, in advance, I apologize that my Senegalese experience does not meet your African standards. But I can assure you it is more complex than you could ever imagine.