It’s surreal, for lack of a better word, to find yourself trekking through landscapes and villages that look vaguely familiar and yet are so foreign to you at the same time. Sitting on the back of a pickup hurtling down a dirt road, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at just how idyllic the setting was in so many ways. Wind whipping my face, dust leaving a faint brown cloud in the pickup’s wake, splashes of vivid color from the wrappers of women carrying water along narrow paths through the bush. All that was missing was some background music, an original score composed by an obscure “world musician” of African descent. Was this the “real” Africa sought after by so many people? Our tour guide, a veteran in ecotourism in the southeastern region of Senegal, seemed to think so.
The first day we met with him to go over our itinerary for the first couple of days of our spring break trip, I was very impressed with his professionalism and his knowledge of the Bedik and Basari ethnic groups, whom we would have the chance to visit during our treks through several villages close to the town of Kedougou. You can imagine that I was a little taken aback when he went on to assert that he wanted to show us the authentic side to Africa and how “we” really live. He explained that we may have all the comforts imaginable in Dakar, including swimming pools at home (to which he made repeated reference although one has yet to materialize in my homestay :) ), but that it was important for us to see what Africa is really like. These seemingly harmless comments immediately threw my mind into a frenzy for a variety of reasons. Initially, I was trying to keep calm and appreciate his commentary as his own personal opinion to which he was entitled. I had come to realize that “traveling in Africa while African syndrome” had led me to become a little defensive and argumentative every time I felt someone was being disrespectful or narrow-minded with regard to Senegal or the African continent in general. After all, this land does not belong to me, and I have no right to demand everyone to love and respect it the way I am growing to do.
But why had this comment incited such a whirlwind of emotions within me? As I looked around the group, I got the impression that no one had registered what he said in the same way from the attentive expressions on their faces (unless of course they were great actresses). Perhaps, I needed to stop being so oversensitive. And yet, a part of me persisted. Who was this “we” he referred to? Was I to consider myself as less than authentic because I hadn’t grown up in a small compound of huts along the banks of the tranquil Gambia River, by which we were currently standing in the hopes of spotting a hippo? Was I just being dramatic, or would I have to call into question my entire existence and identity as a young African who has only known the urban lifestyle? I realized that my discomfort stemmed from a place that was bigger than the self-perception of one insignificant African student. I reacted so strongly because I felt that our guide was carrying on the narrative that has long been maintained about Africa, that huts and unending roads covered in red dust are all that is “real”; all that the continent has to offer. I did agree that it was important for us to gain another perspective on what it means to live in Senegal, outside of Dakar, but I also felt that he had just erased in the process all the experiences and narratives of people who shared a different reality far from the rural, or somewhere in between.
Over the next few days, I would come into contact with the “real” Africa, and I encountered many situations that did not always affect me in the same emotional way but led me to reflect deeply nonetheless. I felt that it was almost voyeuristic and impolite to show up in a village, sweaty and dusty from a steep hike and expect to be allowed to just look. To just stare at everything and listen to a few general facts about the livelihood and cultural practices of the people we were staring at. On the first day of our trip, we visited two remote villages located in the mountains that were both inhabited by members of the Bedik group, and our guide encouraged us to enter the huts and to look around. I chose to stand to the side, not as some sort of sign of righteous moral superiority, but because I felt uncomfortable barging in on someone’s life and watching them go about their daily business before disappearing back down the mountain once more, never to be seen again. It didn’t seem to make me feel any better that they had welcomed us there (accompanied with a small monetary gift from the tour guide); I just couldn’t put my finger on why I felt so ill at ease. It didn’t help to see some of the friends I was travelling with picking up the children in the village who were so excited and intrigued by the presence of strangers, as children will be. The fact remained that if we were in the States, in a yard of excited children it would not be acceptable to immediately pick them up, photograph them and go on to upload the pictures onto social media where a waiting audience of friends and family members at home would gush over how amazing you were for playing with these children for five minutes on your way to something else. Again, I wondered, was I over-sensitive if the children themselves didn’t feel disrespected? Who was I to be offended “on principle”?
The excessive number of rhetorical questions I have posed may give you a clue as to how conflicted I was feeling. In the midst of seemingly endless treks (one of which led us to a village that was technically in Guinea!) and showers under the stars, I had inflicted on myself this internal debate of what it means to be a visitor, a polite guest, a tourist. I came back to Dakar with a lot of these kinds of unanswered questions which didn’t subside the more time I spent living and travelling and experiencing Dakar with the other students in my program. As part of our classes at CIEE, especially “Contemporary Senegalese Society and Culture”, we went on various field trips to facilitate what we were learning in the classroom. We visited an exposition called “Qui a dit que c’était simple?” (Who said it was simple?) which showcased the portrayal of LGBT issues in Senegalese media over the past few years. It formed part of a yearlong human rights initiative to highlight the discrimination faced by members of the LGBT community within Senegal’s conservative society. We also visited a daara, which is a Quranic school were young children (talibés) are sent to study the Koran with a Marabout, a religious leader and teacher. The children’s living conditions can be far from suitable to say the least, and they usually spend all day begging for alms in order for them to know suffering and humility while devoting their lives to the study of the Quran.
It was hard to take in the information being displayed in the exhibit or to listen to the marabout’s extremely politically correct answers to our questions, but it was even harder to listen to all the appalled gasps of “How could they do this?” and “This is unbelievable” that were flying around my head. It’s always jarring when my peers remind me of this constant “us” and “them” dichotomy that seems to have haunted human civilization since a time long before ours. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Am I to consider myself a part of the “us” or the “them”? Does this depend on which continent I happen to be on, and who’s asking? I had to pause and reflect, how selfish of me to make such a serious issue all about me and my ever-fluctuating identity! However, I have come to realize that the source of my discomfort and emotional reaction to these type of situations is the underlying condescension that is implied by suggesting that someone else’s way of life is inferior to your own. Echoes of words like barbaric and backward come to mind. I don’t see myself as someone who excuses discriminatory and harmful practices with “culture” and “That’s just the way it’s always been”. However, I believe it’s important to have some respect when evaluating a culture that is almost entirely unknown to you and to realize that it is almost impossible to gain that profound understanding just from a few months of travel. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to stay humble, and to keep the “theys” to a minimum.