The New “Mariage à la Mode”

Years ago when the French first arrived in Saint Louis du Senegal, male colonists created transient marriages with local women while in country and would return to France, leaving everything, including any relationship title, behind. Going by the name of “mariage à la mode”, these relationships were used by locals to advance themselves through associative power transfer, in the very least gaining status by their connections with the white colonists, and at the most “escaping” to western civilization. Though many details have changed, a modern day marriage à la mode can still be seen in existence in present day Senegal.

Last week I was eating breakfast at the family restaurant, and in walked Marga (or Margia while traveling). She is average height, mid-thirties, not very sweet on the eyes in the kindest way possible, a Dutch philosophy teacher for first through twelfth graders, and happens to be in Senegal for sex. Specifically with Ibrahim, who is twenty-two, intelligent, speaks seven different languages, and is perfectly beautiful. While Ibrahim was fetching her breakfast, we found common ground in the fact that we both speak English better than French, and then began to discuss our reasons for being here: me with my studies, and her with Ibrahim. It turns out that she had met him on the beach of Kumba Diallo after she had become sufficiently fed up with all of her Baye Fall flings. Our areas converged on the topic of development, for what does this burgeoning sex and escape trade mean for a country today?

Tourism, peanuts, and music are the current industries floating Senegal along the upper tier of developing countries. Tourist come here and spend their money, be it on trinkets, transportation, lodging, guides, food, flights, or “buying some love” (a direct quote from Ms. Margia). Economics says that when there is a market and demand, no doubt a supply will be found. With its developing status and constant search for new economies, it is no wonder that Senegal has caught onto this trade. Unemployment is rampant here, even for those with college degrees. With the uneducated and graduates sitting side by side on a bench drinking tea, and a constant need for money to supply and infinite list from school to food, most will do anything for even the scent of income. This is set in contrast to the excess of the west, where surplus everything is much more common.

With respect to relationships, Toubabs (whites, or foreigners) offer three options today. The first option is the quite clear cut prostitution. The locals make a profit, the foreigners get what they want, and its over in whatever amount of time. Option two is the in country relationship. While here, the local will essentially be have a liaison with the foreigner, traveling, and eating, experiencing, ensemble. They may get gifts or expenses taken care of, but the most that comes out of this is a status high that many hold in a possibly warped proportion.

This is only a lead up to the third and final option, which is also the goal many, not just those involved in enticing tourists on a regular basis – a real relationship and escape. The thinking being that if you make a foreigner fall in love with you, they will take you back with them, and you will have a better life and more opportunities, and hopefully send aid back to family in Senegal. Talk to any local, and presenting a migratory option will be the number one impact they think westerners have here in Senegal. Stagiaires (interns) have come to the Village des Tortues and swept up workers, my host father talks of western women who cannot find eligible bachelors in their home countries coming here for prospects, and that doesn’t begin to explain how readily people acknowledge this certain foreign effect.

In a culture that supports the export and exploitation of its own people as a means to a better end, what lies on the unfortunate side of the business? Obviously the spread of disease is an ever present roar, especially with beast of AIDS in much of Africa. Beyond that though, there is the future of the people involved in this undependable commerce. Once their youth is gone, there is no saying what they will do. Yet, that just leaves them in the same situation and hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. What is to say that this is a good or bad thing then? Does the government even address it as a problem? Essentially, who cares?

Westerners are still coming to Senegal and creating fleeting status propping relationships or taking some back with them, extending the marriage à la mode fad to the current day. When Marga was exiting with Ibrahim, she parted with wishes that I have a good life. Left with a feeling of moral confusion at her actions and the obvious good person she was, my feelings mirrored the issue at hand. From the outside I can say these marriages à la mode feel wrong, if only for the exploitation, but I’m not the one looking for a hope in passports either.