The Nutella Question

Charlotte Benishek - Senegal


December 21, 2011

I wrote this blog entry about three weeks into my stay in Senegal, while I was still in training, living in Dakar. It was lost in the bowels of my computer, but it is now found and posted, three months late, for your pondering:

Nutella. It’s a personal vice. Not just any Nutella – the European variety. The North American version pales in comparison. Guess which variety Senegal happens to import? I needed to get my fix. The other day after school was over, I walked to the nearest Casino – not a “casino” in the American sense, but rather a Western-style supermarket here in Dakar, intent on procuring a jar of chocolatey goodness. After my visit to the village, I “deserved” a Western luxury, right? However, I was seriously conflicted as I gazed at the price tag on the small jar I was eyeing. It was about the equivalent of $4.50. Of course I could afford it, but my question was not could, but rather should I buy it.

Upon reflecting on this situation, I realized that this is just the most recent example of a dilemma I’m confronted with on a daily basis. It’s a topic that people love to shy away from – privilege. I can buy that Nutella, but I could also buy bread – a whole lot of bread – to give to the talibes (children who go to Koranic school and are sent out to beg ostensibly as an exercise in humility). Is it not a bit ironic that I am willing to pay a premium for imported Western luxuries in Dakar while I’m here to learn about development?

However, this dilemma is not as simple as it might initially seem. In the US I would pay $4.50 for a latté and a pastry at a coffeeshop (a similar luxury) without a second thought. What’s different in Senegal is that I am reminded of my relative wealth daily as I buy bottled water, elect to take a taxi instead of public transit, or pass talibes on my walk to school. Does the fact that I’m seldom forced to confront the frivolity of my spending in the US make it any more “excusable?”

I don’t think it’s necessarily “bad” that I ended up buying the Nutella. After all, I would do the same in the US. However, it demonstrated how hypersensitized I have become towards my extreme monetary wealth in comparison to many Senegalese, or even the global population. My daily life in Dakar, very rich alongside very poor, breaks the privilege taboo that I am accustomed to in the United States. Will I retain this newfound awareness when I return to the US, making me painfully self-conscious of my spending habits? Or will the culture of the United States lull me back into my previous mindset? Regardless, I think my “Nutella question” is one that every wealthy person should be forced to consider sooner rather than later, if for no other reason than that they realise that from a global perspective, they are very privileged.

Charlotte Benishek