The day before I left Dakar, I stopped by the local supermarket for some last minute shopping to buy what I “needed” to bring to the village, my home for the next six months. I placed that word in quotations because my “needs” differ so much from those of the villagers. At Casino, the supermarket, this is what I ended up buying: shampoo, conditioner, soap, kleenex, and a toothbrush. I was told that these items would be hard to find.
Upon my arrival to Palmarin, it was obvious why I couldn’t buy these items here; they don’t need it. And it’s not that there isn’t any shampoo or kleenex found here. What I can’t find are the imported, brand name products like Dove or Pantene. The villagers don’t need the “Ultra-Volumtious Moisture” shampoo or the “Multi-Vitamin Complex with Aloe Vera” conditioner. They utilize the sole purpose of the products: to clean hair.
But besides from that, most Africans have a very different type of hair. Their hair grows very slowly and very curly (like an afro), while mine grows extremely fast and very straight. Most of the time they keep their hair very short or in tight, cornrow braids, meaning they don’t have to worry too much about it. But I have long hair and a lot of it, meaning I do have to worry about it. Back home, I was never one of those high-maintenance, hair-has-to-always-be-perfect kind of girls, but here, I catch myself thinking,”O.M.G. My hair is getting so dry and damaged…” and yada yada. Am I becoming a prissy?
In the U.S., I considered myself to have more of a laidback attitude. In Senegal, I feel like a princess. Besides the shampoo, there are many other things that make me realize how needy and materialistic American culture can be. For example, I have a nice-sized room, a fan, and a bed all to myself, while my family of six sleeps together in one room of the same size. My mom handwashes all my laundry for me, along with all the laundry of the family, while I only wash my underwear (or at least attempt to). Sometimes I can’t fall asleep because I feel so hot and sticky and there is sand everywhere on my bed. I need to buy bottled, purified water and can’t drink the tap.
There are so many examples that point out how “sterilized” our society has become. I can imagine that our immune systems are becoming weaker and weaker, all the while the people here are happily drinking the green well water (with pieces of algae floating around), eating with their hands for meals, have flies buzzing around their food, faces, and open wounds. So what good is it to call ourselves “more civilized” when we’re just becoming weaker and more fragile?
But although I constantly feel so pretentious, I have to realize I was raised in a different culture. I can’t help the fact that I can’t stomach well water, or stop sweating excessively from the heat I’ve never lived in before. I can’t help the fact that I grew up with a machine cleaning my laundry. I can’t help the fact that I find the billions of flies buzzing around my lunch a little disgusting, nor the fact that I constantly worry about my one-year-old sister putting sand and rocks into her mouth.
The differences in our cultures are numerous, some setting me apart from them. But consciousness is the most important first step. Being aware of our differences and accepting that “normal” is defined differently for everyone will help me adapt and become more open to immersion. I must remain conscious of change in order for it to happen.
That’s what immersion is all about. Keeping an open mind and being aware that there are other “normals” out there that differ from mine is the key to understanding a different culture.