Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Questions I'm Ruminating On

The trip I took to Toubacouta (a 6 to 7 hour bus ride from Dakar depending on the traffic) two weekends ago was quite a contrast from my life here in Dakar. Due the hyper concentrated cultural submersion I experienced while watching traditional wrestling, learning how to dance local steps such as the ceeb u gen and the ginaar, and passing 24 hours in a village with a host family, I've started to think a lot about what my time in Sénégal means to me. This has lead to many questions that I am only beginning to explore the answers to:

The American stereotype of Africa consists of villages of people living as large families in huts with no running water, no electricity, children dressed in rags with stomachs distended, animistic rituals, and women breastfeeding their infants in public with no shame. These stereotypes are used to pity Africans, to make ourselves superior, or to incite people to help a continent in need. The Sénégalese I know in Dakar do not conform to this picture. My time in the village, however, was very similar to the tropes Americans have, with some important differences; cell phone coverage was wonderful, my family's compound of five huts was equiped with a solar pannel to provide electricity, and everyone in my family was Muslim.
  • But how do I reconcile the fact that so many stereotypes appeared on the surface to be true?
  • Maybe the motivation for perpetuating these stereotypes among Americans is what differs from my discovery of the "reality"?
  • Did my beginner's knowledge of Wolof reveal a more accurate picture of what my family in the village's life is like?
  • Was I more keen at observing the reality of certain stereotypes because of my conditioned mindset and expectations to see these things? Did this blind me to other cultural aspects that a villager might value more than the American's obsession with naked African women and a "more simple lifestyle"?
  • How do I portray what I experienced without adding to the stereotypes that objectify the people that opened their house and hearts to me?
  • What does it look like to improve a villager's quality of life by providing nutrients, schools, and medical supplies without opperating on stereotypes or exercising power over a community?
  • What is the difference between modernization and Westernization?
Other questions surfaced about my own identity as a white woman. Everywhere our bus went, we drew stares and people waved to us on the street. One of my friends called the bus a cultural bubble; a very accurate depiction of the twenty some white people in an air conditioned bus, speaking English, listening to ipods, and recounting stories about our cultural misencounters driving through the Senegal countryside dodging potholes, passing through villages during Friday prayer hour, and following the West African coastline in search of the green mangrove forrests that welcomed us to Toubacouta (sorry if I'm adding to your stereotypes). I was reluctant to take iconic, national geographic pictures of my host family in the village, but at the same time, my host brother snapped photos of his white guest with a 35 mm camera and his newly bought touch screen cell phone, in which my photograph became his wallpaper. He also proposed to me after finding out that I have no husband nor boyfriend and I left with a ring that he took off of his finger and gave to me.
  • Why does the color of my skin mean I merit special attention?
  • I will always be an outsider, always be visibly different here, so how do I reconcile my physical differences with my desire to truly understand and fit into the culture here?
  • How do I respect a culture without denouncing the culture I grew up in?
I could go on and list a lot more questions for you, my head is full of them. But instead I leave you with one overarching question that I had to respond to in a four page paper written in French for my Gender and Development class. What is the best link between women, power, and knowledge to promote development in Sénégal? After writing my paper, I still have no clue.

This culture thing is just so confusing and complicated...but interesting and intellectually stimulating nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to enumerate all those complex "cultural communication" thoughts that we've all been having, and all those questions we've been asking ourselves.

    Everyone's experience will be different. None of us can be as integrated as we might like--but, through your self-reflection and self-criticism, you improve your life here, and daily deepen the connection you have to this culture.