Romanticization of the ‘West’

Kali Regenvanu - Senegal

February 5, 2020

Living in Senegal, it’s impossible to avoid the endless references to the so called ‘west’. Actually, scratch that. It’s impossible to live anywhere without constant reference to North America and specifically the United States. Living in Thies Noon with my host family has exposed me to an innumerable number of conversations about the greatness of Canada, France and of course the United States to name a few. 
I see air fresheners in taxis branded with the American flag. Prêt-a-porter clothes in the market with stars and stripes front and center. Wiz Khalifa being blasted through speakers in my host brother’s room. When the other fellows and I are asked where we are from, mentioning Canada and the United States, it is almost always met with “Will you take me back with you?”
Of course, this isn’t to simplify their opinions, as there is also a certain degree of criticism of France as a colonial power and a nation that has continued to meddle with their country’s affairs. However, for the most part, I personally hear significantly more praise and idolization than I hear critiques and complaints. 
This glorification comes largely from the media. As we all know and have at some point in our lives realized, the media revolves around the United States specifically. I always think it’s crazy how much all of us know about, for example, the American elections, candidates and presidents. I definitely didn’t know the same for Senegal before living here. The United States dominates international media. The news, politics, movies, tv shows, music and so many other things. This is in part because of the superpower qualities of somewhere like the United States, the metaphorical sun in our international solar system. At UWC, the school I attended before coming here, I found it hilarious that it seemed as though every student from every country had watched the TV series ‘Friends’ religiously. How is that possible? Netflix is dominated by American TV shows, with very few international shows breaking through the cracks. American music dominates the international charts historically and while more Spanish speaking artists and kpop bands are breaking through, American music is spread worldwide. English is the language to know, a language of power. Why is that when Mandarin makes up 1.39 billion of people’s native languages worldwide, and English makes up a mere 527 million? That makes mandarin more than double the speakers of English, and yet English dominates. 
Only one of those is not American! Woah. 
One of the sources of this incessant romanticization is the unemployment rate that Senegal as a whole faces. According to the World Bank database, Senegal’s unemployment rate has hovered between 7.63% in 2014 and 6.522% this year, in 2019. For comparison, as seen on the table below, the United States has hovered between 6.168% in 2014 and 3.869% in 2019. Canada has been between 6.914% and 6.057%. Shockingly to me, France has been between 10.292% and 9.099%.
I found seeing these numbers together to be extremely interesting, and a little surprisingly. I’ll admit I was certain Senegal’s unemployment rate would soar above these three nations easily. I wouldn’t have guessed that Senegal would score with Canada so closely. I wouldn’t have guessed that Senegal would be significantly lower than France. Senegal is actually not so far away from these romanticized nations. And as a counterpoint, why is employment in the United States, Canada and France romanticized so much compared with say, Nigeria? A close neighbour with an unemployment rate that was for years much lower than Canada’s and France’s. 
Unemployment was an important point to me because my host family speaks about this on a regular basis. They said they want to go to Canada, so they can have jobs. They said the unemployment here is rampant and ridiculously high. Out of curiosity, I researched this and found that it really doesn’t differ hugely, and in fact is worse in France. People around me yearn for Canada and for the United States as they are seen as lands of opportunity. The United States has always marketed themselves like that, as free and full of opportunities. It is seen as the place where anyone can succeed and gain more than they could anywhere else. The whole marketed idea of America is that everything is better and bigger there. 
One can also look at things like school enrollment for primary school, life expectancy, GDP and infant mortality rate. In these, Senegal consistently scores lower than the three other nations. This can be another draw, the numbers may suit them better if they leave and live there instead. The belief that their life will change significantly for the better is believed and clung to. 
The idea of freedom is a huge draw. The difference between the idea of freedom and the reality is quite stark, though. Looking at the numbers, hate crimes in the United States hit a 16 year high in 2018. As seen in the table below from the 2018 FBI release of hate crime statistics, the majority of hate crimes in the United States are based on racial bias and following closely behind is religious bias. 
Little do most Senegalese realize that as a dark skinned nation where the dominant religion is Islam, they would live with a huge target on their backs. The United States is well known in North America as xenophobic, and yet those outside of this still idolize and dream of being in America. 
Another draw is the stereotype, and for the most part truth of the toubab (foreigner) with big money. I mean for one, $1 USD is worth around 600 CFA. As I talked about above, the minimum hourly wage in Senegal is 209.10 CFA (roughly 0.35 USD), and even less for agricultural workers. The lowest minimum wage in the United States is Mississippi at 7.25 USD. That is 4304.86 CFA, meaning the lowest minimum wage in the U.S is still more than 20 times more than the Senegalese minimum wage. This means money from there is worth significantly more here, meaning for the most part tourists and volunteers arriving here generally have more funds than the vast majority of the population. There is a correlation that is unconsciously being made between these nations but specifically whiteness and wealth. This correlation translates with desire of these nations and ultimately the desire to live in these places. 
The idea of the volunteer here is quite complicated as well. In my opinion, I think it is met with volunteers = the privileged helping the underprivileged, which can contribute to the idea that our home countries are without problems. I mean they must be fine if volunteers can leave their homes and help somewhere else, right? Of course the United States, Canada, France, etc are littered with issues that need addressing, but this isn’t necessarily realized. 
Power is another point to look at. The United States is not just a superpower, it is a super superpower. The United States has so much control and can sway the global audience hugely. The United States makes decisions that can affect every other nation on Earth easily. There is a certain desire to be a part of that power and influence, especially when you have seen your very own country affected by this and ultimately when you see that the global voice Senegal is granted is a hushed whisper compared to the bellowing screams of the United States. 
Another thing to consider is social status. This is more a symptom of the global media and things mentioned above, but going abroad, to live or study, is seen as the ultimate goal, the ultimate success. It doesn’t ultimately matter what you’re doing once you get there, but regardless it will be seen as the most amazing accomplishment. 
And vice versa? There is definitely romanticization, but in a distinctly different way. Of course the stereotype of all around poverty and famine is somewhere in all of us. Years of propaganda and stereotypes in the media will do that to a person. There is a patronizing adoration for the ‘poor African children’ who can lead such ‘simple’ lives, and have an appreciation for the ‘simple’ things in life. This is pretty weird, considering Senegal is well ahead in a multitude of ways. 
In conclusion, I am definitely sitting in the gray area for this. There are so many facets to this topic, and it is way too complicated for me to break down. On one hand, this romanticization can be detrimental to the mindset of people in Senegal, amongst other similar countries. To dislike their own country, to yearn for something else and to be vastly unaware of the harsh realities of places like the United States. Alternatively though, there is a certain degree of truth in there being more freedom elsewhere. I see this in Vanuatu, where the movement against the so called “west” is used to condemn democracy, human rights and the right to freely express. For me to condemn places like Canada would be to discount its strides ahead of somewhere like Vanuatu for example in human rights and things like access to free education and healthcare. To say the Senegalese shouldn’t idolize places like the United States is not what I’m saying, but I would also say they shouldn’t blindly idolize it either. It is complicated, which is no surprise considering everything is. My goal moving forward is to be completely transparent about all the places I have lived in and seen, and to be honest about the realities. It is not worth it to flat out condemn or worship any of these places. To simplify all these places is an insult to their multidimensionality. 
I encourage everyone reading to hop the fence from black and white thinking and walk on the grey side a little! Thanks for reading 🙂

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Kali Regenvanu