Gallatin Travel Course: “Postcolonial Urbanisms: Development, Environment, & Social Movements in Senegal”
Senegal, Summer 2018
While I aim to have an integrated, culturally enriching experience when traveling, I am not interested in travel abroad fueled by romantic idealism nor superficial political correctness. I am interested in grappling with the implications of colonialism and the effects of white hegemony on the culture, language, environment, and urbanization process of former colonies. My language proficiency in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese are immediate gateways that allow me to understand the multiple narratives that exist regarding racial and gender structures and sociopolitical climates.
In my experience, Senegalese culture was more loving than that of their former colonial power. The solidarity amongst the Senegalese and their willingness to accommodate others was seen during everyday encounters. The solidarity amongst the Senegalese, and therefore Muslims, was evident to me during Ramadan.
As the sun began to set, opaque, gray-pink clouds covered the sky. My friends and I called for a taxi, and after some bargaining, we agreed on 3,000 francs. As our driver approached a roundabout, a man reached his hand into the car. Our driver extended his right arm and collected a handful of dates without saying anything. He continued to drive ten more feet, when someone else extended their hand to give him a baguette. Our driver received his food silently and continued to drive. His bread rested on his lap as he ate his dates. I realized then that it was time to break the fast, as the sun had come down.
As we drove past the illuminated Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, I was in awe of not only the scenery but the solidarity amongst the Senegalese. I marveled at the Wolof language and how it implements a positive outlook on life. The positivity is even evident in their customary Arabic greeting, “salaam maalekum” (peace be unto you), which fully acknowledges the other person.
I am a strong believer that the way you think shapes the way you experience the world. For this reason, I favored the structure of the Wolof language. I got the impression that words in Wolof orient the people to have a calm outlook, especially with the influence of Islam. An example would be mangi fi rekk, which means “I am here, only,” as a way of saying that all is well. Another one is jamm rekk, meaning “peace only.”
The positivity in the language is also evident in the fact that people do not say “no.” I learned that they will maneuver around saying no, with something along the lines of xaaral ba mu am rakk (wait until it has a younger sibling). There are also the words, ñoku boku, which is how they say “you’re welcome.” The literal translation is “we share it,” because the culture is structured for people to share and care for each other.
The most remarkable experiences I had that highlight the Senegalese sharing culture were the meals with my host family. Like other cultures, the Senegalese eat around one large plate. In this intimate setting, family members and friends of all ages reach toward a single plate of food. I was always encouraged to lekkel (eat) even when I said, “Suur na” (I’m full).
My family members always made sure I had enough to eat by adding more food to my section. Usually my mother did this, but one of the younger siblings, Boury, would cut up the chicken and made sure everyone around the plate had some. It was beautiful to see that even at such a young age, the Senegalese are cognizant about making sure everyone’s needs are met. I find it especially funny that when my family had me “taste” a food or a drink, they give me a full serving. Another way in which my family accommodated me was by providing me a dress to wear for Eid so that I could join them in the festivities. That made me feel a part of the family and made me feel included in their intimate, religious celebration.
It also pleased me that the children were comfortable around me. They all wanted me to play with them. When groups of them would see me, they all greeted me joyfully, using my Senegalese name: “Nanga def! Bonjour, Boury!” Even if the children had seen me walk by them five minutes earlier, they would greet me with the same enthusiasm.
Though these beautiful mannerisms shape Senegalese culture, there are remnants of white hegemony. One obvious one is the French language. Another is the croissants and baguettes that the Senegalese have for breakfast. However prevalent the French influence is, though, it has of course been reappropriated into the Senegalese culture. This highlights how people are non-linear, multi-faceted and multicultural.
Despite my keen interest in understanding the world and the concept of race in a global perspective, the intersectionalities of religion, gender, and socioeconomic identities made it difficult for me to navigate the perspective and lens through which to see Senegal. For one, I was unsure how to interact with women. It was men, for instance, who more likely asked me to take their photo. On one occasion, I asked a woman for directions, and she told me to ask a man. This led me to ask myself: are women more pious?
My host family was mostly women, though, so I learned to how I should interact with them—with respect, above anything else. There were five women and three girls, but this multiplied, because friends would come in and out. Thus, there could be up to 20 women and girls in the house at one time! This made me truly happy, as it allowed me to see what it may be like to be a Senegalese women, since these spaces are mostly intimate.
All photos taken in Dakar, Senegal, by Shirley Reynozo (@dtba_)