Why Rooftop Yoga Makes Patriotism Hard

Elise Leise - Senegal


October 17, 2017

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I fold my legs beneath me, silently stretching my arms up and out to the edge of the periwinkle horizon, where streetlights trace a thin line between city and neverending sky. The half-finished cement buildings create a jigsaw puzzle, cut through with abstract slashes of laundry lines and dirt rectangles of futbol fields. Far below my rooftop, a gaggle of ten-year old boys sprint through the streets, chasing runaway chickens amidst the wandering aromas of rice and onion sauce and maybe a hint of midnight rain.

Like my life in Senegal, the change is beautiful, but alien.

Every day, familiar views are foreign. I see the world from a new perspective, only this time with a transatlantic view of the United States rather than the sprawling expanses of Thies. Here, rather than turning on the news to hear of the Las Vegas mass shooting, I watched footage of rebel activity in the Casamance region of Senegal. My nightly television broadcasts are filled with images of Mali and Mauritania and the Gambia. President Trump's tweets no longer grace my phone screen every five minutes.
My Senegalese rooftop is filled with moments that broaden my perspective, forcing me to think more deeply, more consciously, and more responsibly. It's not always a beautiful view from above, but I'm beginning to see that it's a more realistic, truthful, and complex version.

My America prided itself on possessing the strongest higher education system and forging groundbreaking strides in social progress; on equipping curious, intelligent young adults with the tools to shape the world. My America idolized individualism and efficiency and success. My America made it easy to be patriotic. But after spending a month and a half in the rural village of Bapate in the Thies region of Senegal, I'm discovering that a rooftop perspective challenges much of my patriotism.
I was taught to use the words America and the United States interchangably. My America was a country. America, I'm learning, is a continent: a continent of Uruguay and Costa Rica and Guatemala and Canada; a continent filled with countries that balk at our casual assumption that economic clout equals an overpowering sense of importance. America, to the non-anglophone world, is a word that refuses to revolve around the Stars and Stripes and Silicon Valley.

In my community, the United States is equally disliked and idolized. It's an odd mixture of sentiment heightened by what my family sees on television, hears about American politics, and experiences with the toubabs who secure the highest-paying jobs in Dakar and Thies and Tiwaone. Americans are seen through stereotypes and images I'm not proud to be associated with: rich voluntourists, our president, reality TV shows. Yet paradoxically, my American citizenship grants me automatic privilege. As a foreigner, I would be paid more than a Senegalese worker, simply because of the color of my skin and the nationality stamped on my passport.

My Senegalese rooftop perspective forces a revaluation of values. Here, it's a little harder to believe in the doctrine of American intelligence when almost everybody in my rural village speaks five languages. It's not quite as easy to denounce the system of trash collection when I realize the amount of fossil fuels spit out into the atmosphere from American highways is far more detrimental to the environment than the plastic wrappers my family throws on the ground. It's certaintly not as simple to believe in American superiority when every day I'm confronted with the truth of how the rest of the world views us.

To be honest, my Senegalese rooftop perspective on the States is nothing like watching the sunset light up the Thies horizon. It's complicated, difficult, and doesn't make my heart beat with amazement at what I have the privilege to witness. Yet this is without a doubt a privilege; the truths most difficult to swallow are often the most important.
My role here is not to make a difference. It's not my place to assume I know what another culture wants simply because I come from a country with wealth and political power and material success. My role, from my rooftop, is partly to add another layer to the perception of the United States.

Maybe, if my family is asked next year or the year after, instead of merely saying "In the United States, time is money," maybe, they'll mention that—

That in the United States, there lives not only the Kardashians and Donald Trump, but a girl named Mamedome who had short hair; who liked to try and dance; who learned how to cook by the end of her stay—

Who, inchallah, left behind a little bit of her country while learning about another.

Elise Leise