I spent the past semester in Senegal. Senegal is in Africa. This is the part I love. When I explain that I have been living in Africa, I get a look of awe and admiration at having spent four and a half months in such an unusual place. It sounds so foreign, as images of sand and heat and mud huts pop into people’s heads. Most people associate Africa, (not specific countries with in Africa, or even regions of Africa, but simply Africa as if rather than being a continent it represents one big nation) with poverty, war, and its unsuccessful struggle to catch up with the rest of the world. All of these things do exist on the continent of Africa, but what many people overlook are the nations, the cities, and the individual people that live there. I admit, I like the shock value of saying I’ve been in Africa, but what I really loved was just the opposite, the lack of shock I experienced when I arrived in Dakar, and realized that it was more like home than I could have imagined.
Dakar is a place where tradition meets modernity, and the result is a city pumped with energy and passion and, strangely enough, an incredible love for America! On our first weekend in Dakar, my program was lucky enough to have tickets to the biggest wrestling match of the year. The match, traditional Senegalese wrestling where there is a long warm up of taunting and throwing soft swings in a suspenseful dance of aggression followed by intense, full body wrestling, was between two very famous wrestlers: Tyson and Bombardier (Bomber). Tyson, the favorite to win, is named after exactly the person you’re thinking of. Mike Tyson, the ear biter, the American boxing celebrity. And to push things over the edge, especially for a bunch of American students trying impossibly to blend in and experience Senegalese culture, his symbol is the American flag. Everywhere we looked around the stadium, fans were standing and waving tiny American flags, and shouting USA and other accolades for the States and what they stand for. Across the stadium from our seats was a gigantic flag, hoisted into the air and held by at least 50 spectators cheering in the stands. Fans that saw us, a group of young white kids intently watching the match, would clap for us and cheer for America, encouraging their fellow Tyson devotees (obviously, because we are white, right?) to join in their cheers. I could hardly have expected that upon arrival to this “foreign” country, I would be immediately proclaiming my nationality and saluting the grand old flag.
There were some funny moments, when my host family did things I found strange, and I’m sure when I did things that left them rolling with laughter when I left the room. My first interaction with my host mother, a feisty woman, tiny with an infectious laugh, was the beginning of a great love, although I could not have realized it at the time. I presented her with the gifts that I had brought for the family (all women) – soaps, perfume, and talcum powder. Rather than simply saying thank you and leaving it at that, she proceeded to investigate each item. She sprayed an immense amount of perfume onto her hands and then rubbed it in all over. Finding that she had perhaps overdone it, she called my host brother in and proceeded to let him smell it and then rub it all over his hands and arms, both delighted. She then opened the talcum powder and plopped an enormous amount into her hand which she held up to her face to smell, and spread on her skin. What she was left with was a white powdery nose (I’m sure still wet from the perfume) for the rest of the night! Not having the heart or the courage to tell her, and not wanting to ruin her apparent excitement for the gifts I bought, I just smiled inwardly and enjoyed her pleasure at the fresh smelling gifts spread over her bed. This small woman who I would grow to adore had covered her face in powder and overpowered the room with the smell of the perfume she had sprayed all over in an attempt to welcome me into her home. In spite of my surprise at her overzealous use of Bath and Body products, I think that first day we found each other equally shy, eager, and incredibly amused by the other’s efforts to connect.
As I spent more time in Dakar, the initial and relatively superficial similarities became deeper and strangely comforting ones. Sitting with my host brother in my room, I began to sing a French children’s song that my mother and grandmother had sung to me when I was small, and he joined right in! He taught me hand motions and everything, and though some of the animals in the song had been adapted to the Senegalese way of life, in my eyes he became a child of anywhere in the world, with not a Senegalese or even Dakarois childhood, but simply a childhood. He was 7, loved to play soccer, and hated to do his homework. When I spent time in the family room, the arguments he had with my host mother were the same arguments my parents had with my sister and with me when playing outside made so much more sense than memorizing facts and practicing handwriting. Papi (my host brother’s name) was a foosball fanatic, a soccer star amongst his friends, and a future lady killer who still cried when he stubbed his toe and fell asleep on the couch after dinner, exhausted after an intense day playing in the sand and heat.
There is some fundamental connection between people, a way we all do it, no matter how much we have or don’t have, where we live, or what we look like, that becomes apparent most when things seem so different. Maybe my expectations were simply wrong, colored by news stories and movies that can’t really convey every day life in a West African city. But maybe I just didn’t realize, despite all the elementary school programs and public art, that we’re not as different as we think we are. Half way across the world, a city is a city, and kids like me are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, how to get around the rules of their parents, and what it’s like in a place far away from their homes.