Why don’t you act Senegalese enough?

Cittely Fuentes - Senegal

May 19, 2015

“Do you seriously think all Senegalese girls only wear long skirts?” shouted my host sister from Dakar, the capital of Senegal,with a noticeable displeasure as if my question was meantto offend her or make her feel less.All I wantedwas to be more familiar with the Senegalesenight lifeand so I innocently asked her the type of clothing girls wear at parties or clubs here. There was an awkward silencefor a few seconds, then we continue to walk and the subject was nevermentioned again. But I remember that night going to sleep thinking about her reaction, in fact I felt kind of guilty since as a foreigner the last thing I wantedwas to disrespect their culture. But as I tried to justify my question I would think to myself “We are in Senegal. It’s a Muslimcountry therefore,they MUST wearconservative clothes all the time”. Unwavering, my host mother in my permanent site, a very respected and well known member of the community would always punished her granddaughter whenever she would wear the above-the-knee length skirts that her aunt from her dad side that lived in Dakar used to give her. One day, she used me as an example of how a true Senegalese girl should look for the reason that I have been covering my knees all the time. It wasn’t until late January when I went to Dakar for a weekend using my independent travel days with the purpose of simply getting away and exploring the city with more confidence.

On that Saturday night, I wanted to commemorate my old lifestyle back at home with a Senegalese touch and so I decided to go to a night club with a hope of dancing Mbalax all night.On the contrary, all I gotto dance to were the songs that were famous in the US last summer and to my surprise, all girls were wearing the same type of outfits that girls in the United States wear. I guess I commemorated my lifestyle back at home more than what I wanted. But you know what? It wasn’t until that moment that I realized my Dakar host sister’s reaction to my imprudent question. Fatou Kine had spent all her life living in the city, she attends a intercultural high school that has relations with Turkey and likes to go the mall on weekends with her friends. She lives in a different Senegal than my host mom from my permanent site. This is just an example of the daily battle of tradition against modernity that I witnessed in Senegalese society. Experiencing this helped me to stabilize my love/hate relationship with globalization that I have had all my life and it most importantly changed my perception of stereotypes along with the danger of a single story.

Let’s start from the beginning; I was born and raised in Mexico’s most developed city, Monterrey. What statistics proofs that statement?All the neighborly, kind regiomontanos assure that. We are very honored by ourresilient economy, entrepreneurial society, growing industrial sector and being the birthplace of the most important higher education systems in Latin America. However, all of those things that made us proud went down the river when the “drug war” reached our city on 2010leading me to move to the United States. My parents tried to uplift me by telling me how lucky I was to have family over there and since I come from a more globalized city I won’t have a hard time to adapt to the USA. Up until now, I can easily confess that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was never exposed to people from other cultures for more than vacation trip, I didn’t have a slang lesson on my English book and I could not understand what they were saying when they spoke too fast as I tried to remember all the grammar rules on my mind.

However, over time I learned how to adapt tothe US lifestyle, I joined the dance team in my high school and language no longer interfered in my academics. On theother hand, I still had problems on the way people perceived me. I would always get asked the samequestion, Why don’t you act Mexican?. I interpreted that question as an accusation of not being who I am. I hated that people were referred by their color of their skin instead of by what they really are.Plus,who are theyto define what Mexican really is? Most of them never been there, so confident to talk about a country based on what they see on TV!!!! I had no other choice but to accept it, I learned to not fight my stereotype and simply be myself. Personality is not boundto race.

I must say that noteverything was bad, living in the US gave me a whole different a point of view on several things. Every time I would visit a touristic city in Mexico for vacations, I started to notice that most of the owners of hostels and restaurants were foreigners while the natives, the people that SHOULD obtain money from THEIR land just had smaller souvenir shops. I thoughtabout big corporation such as Taco Bell or Chipotle while thousands of immigrants work like slaves. Why is Mexican Cinema so underrated? Butpeople will wait hours in line for a release ofan American movie.We don’t appreciate our traditions ….

That was the mindset that attracted me to the idea of going abroad. Since I discovered the wonders ofthinking in a different language,I was eager to learn another one!Meeting people from different parts of the world became one of my favorite hobbies. The way religion influences people, new styles of music, new food, traditions, sports, DANCING STYLES. All of that stuff excited me more than anything. I was so sure that throughout a different culture I will find myself and my purpose. Now that my adventure has come to an end let me tell youSenegal happens to be the country of Teranga and so of course I met many of the most caring, loving, good-hearted people, but I also found a lot of superficial souls, thatcared more about the clothes that I wear more than the reason why I am intheir country. For some reason those people would annoy me so muchbut laterI realized that just as there are people that are superficial in the United States and Mexico, it is normal for people to be that way in Senegal too. But it took me a moment to realize that because I had the ignorant, stupid assumption that since they were “Africans” they would automatically be humble people. Since I focused so much on “their culture” I unconsciously perceived them as a different species, forgetting that they are normal people like you and I.

After time, as my traditionalSenegaleseclothing took more space in my culture, Wolof was more pleasing to speak than even my first language and Ceebujen became my favorite meal. You are not going to believe what happened! The same accusations came back! “Wow Cittely you’re so Senegalese now” This time was the other way around due to the reason that mycultural immersion was oneof the major purposes of the year. But the funny thing was I would get those accusations whenever I would do things that I been doing all my life like making an obnoxious noise after I sneezed or eating everything as a sandwich anytime that I was given a bread.Guesswhat?People are people.As globalization – well, more like Westernization – keeps growing, it’s important that we don’t loose our traditions and our roots. But also don’t get attached too much to that idea, what takes away the right of Senegal country director to drive a BMW, own a Mac and buy the products he desires just because he is Senegalese? Balance is the key to remember.

Cittely Fuentes