Unnatural Desire

Christian Gath - Senegal


October 27, 2015

Unnatural Desire

In Dakar I had repeatedly seen a commercial advertising a to me unknown product. The short clip showed a black woman with light colored skin and straightened hair leaving a beautiful mansion, outside she is awaited by a handsome white man in an expensive car, while slow piano music plays in the background. Then the emblem of the brand blends in with a slogan in French that translated to "makes your dreams come true". Weeks after I had seen the commercial for the first time and close to the end of my stay in Dakar I recognized the brand's product in a store and until now I am struggling to understand its controversy.

Colonial history gives no Senegalese person a reason to like the white race. Fought over by the British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French Senegal was of great interest for the colonial powers due to its strategic position in the slave trade as the most western point of Africa. Today memorials on Gorree Island (the Slave House), colonial structures in Saint Louis, and a seemingly random establishment of borderlines, including a single anglophone county in whole francophone West Africa, among many other things remind that this land was once ruled by a white minority. 

Nonetheless, as soon as I arrived in Senegal I felt welcomed by its people. "La Taranga" (hospitality) struked me the moment I steped off the plane. But as I became more comfortable in my new environment and started looking for social contact with local people in my neighborhood in Dakar, I noticed that many of my neighbors acted slightly surprised when I offered to shake their hand when greeting, made attempts to speak Wolof rather than French with them or intended to engage in a deeper conversation.

At the same time I perceived a lack of diversity. I expected Dakar, a city of four million people at the shores of the Atlantic with an important port, to be filled with people from all over the world, but except of in the city center I would only occasionally see a curios tourist taking a picture of the fruit vendors or an exchange student on their way home from language school. Due to Senegal's political stability since its independence in 1960 many countries had located their embassies for West Africa in Senegal, and so had many international organization, hence it was not a question of existents but rather finding the expats of Dakar. And as I had oriented myself I started seeing them: on my morning runs along "La Corniche" (ocean drive) dropping of their children at the international school with ocean view, in the only mall, next to the five star Radisson hotel, with american stores and a food court that sold pizza and burgers making you forget you were in Senegal for a moment. I saw them at the private Olympic sports club and behind the tinted windows of their SUVs. I found them, found them excluding themselves from the rest of the populations, living a high class life they afforded with the western salary they earned in a developing country.

But my time in Dakar was limited and three weeks later I moved to my village away from the exclusive expat communities. From the moment my three year old host sister saw me she started crying and anxiously hiding behind her mother. And she was not the only one, small kids as well as elders reacted with anxiety to my presence. My host brother confirmed my suggested reason that this was due to me being white. Despite another volunteer I was the only white person among the 2500 inhabitants. It seemed like their anxious reaction was an intuitive response repelling something that seemed unnatural to them.

But how do exclusive espats, crying toddlers and a posh commercial connect? The answer is whitening cream. The brand advertised a skin bleaching product. A hazardous cream especially used by woman to lighten up their skin.

The image of beauty here as everywhere else in the world is in my opinion blurred by wealth and success rather than true physical beauty, caused by the whites' exclusion and isolation in luxury. Light skin is due the many relatively rich internationals a synonym of wealth and power and hence a desired attribute, causing thousands to bleach their skin accepting the great health risks that come with it. Intuitively rejected as unnatural by children and in a country where the white race has done more worse than good the desire of lighter skin seems contradictive to me.

Christian Gath