Much has been written about the culture, omnipresent in Senegal, of asking women you have just met if they have a husband, or if they would like one. Paige recently wrote a lovely post about the many unexpected benefits this can bring, and about the importance of focusing on the positives of this phenomenon we’re unlikely to escape any time soon. I agree strongly with everything she said about this culture of friendly, light-hearted harassment. It is indeed friendly, and it is indeed light-hearted. It is still harassment.
It’s harassment on a minor scale, practically harmless and with few consequences. But as much as I try to follow Paige’s example and enjoy this chance to strike up conversations, I can’t always pull it off. There are times when I am irritated, and turn away from people waving to me on the street. There are times when I keep interactions short and clipped, rather than trying to develop a friendship, for fear that someone I see everyday will become a source of discomfort. There are times when I resent Senegalese culture, because it normalizes and tolerates men treating me differently because I am white and a woman.
“Tssst, toubaab kaay!” is something all the girls have heard many times. “Tssst,” a sort of combination hiss / holler, is used to get someone’s attention; “toubaab” is a foreigner; “kaay” means come, in the imperative. Walking down the streets of Yoff, it can be a constant refrain. People usually just want a conversation, to talk to you and joke around and maybe get to know you. They’ll probably ask if you have a husband. It’s one of my least favorite phrases to hear, much less preferable to the more ubiquitous “tssst, toubaab!” I hate the “kaay” at the end. We’ve been here for nearly five months, and I have yet to be able to consistently find the beauty in being told to come over by strange men. I reject the premise that people I don’t know have a right to my attention and my time because I am a woman.
Race undeniably factors into the equation as well. I am noticeable here; I stand out. I do not look like most of the people at my work or in my neighborhood. I am a minority here, but a privileged minority. I do not experience racism, although I am often treated differently because of my race. There have been many times I wished I could blend in and escape the responsibilities of my race (which is not to say that Senegalese women don’t experience much of the same harassment, without my ability to leave it behind in a few months. The male perception of having a right to a woman’s attention is not bound by color or religion). Although I had no part in enacting the complicated history of colonialism and racism that gives me much of my privilege today, it is impossible to escape that context when you’re white and living in an African country. My passport alone lets me stay in Senegal for up to six months, no visa or registration required; a Senegalese person who wishes to visit the US for even a long weekend must apply for a visa, complete with an interview and an application fee. The same applies for France, a country that continues to profit off its former colony, as well as for every other Western country. I am aware that when men ask me to bring them back to America (or when people hand me their babies and tell me to take them home with me) that the joke is underlaid with very real issues of neocolonialism and racism, and that despite having had no say in history before my birth, I occupy a position today that requires me to acknowledge and accept the responsibility of my privilege. I don’t blame men for thinking constantly toward their futures, or believing the stereotype that America is a land of boundless opportunity and wealth that we’ve worked so hard to propagate; it still bothers and saddens me that that is how I am sometimes seen here.
The constant, light-hearted harassment I experience reminds me daily that culture is incredibly complicated. There are things that I love about Senegalese culture, things I wish and hope the US will one day adopt. I have been inspired and enlightened by the culture of hospitality and friendliness, of the ability of people here to infuse every situation with a genuine respect for the humanity of others. I have been awed by the fluid interplay of traditional culture and religion, and by the bright ideas for the future of the country.
And yet there are also many things I don’t like. There are things about the culture here that I think are oppressive or outdated; there are things about the US I would like to see implemented here. Here, basically all women cook. Most women stay home, to manage the house and take care of the kids. Marriage and children are expected. As someone who doesn’t much like to cook, and with a different vision of what I’d like to do with my life, I feel lucky that the culture I grew up with had different expectations.
Senegalese culture is beautiful and rich, and it is just as complicated as any other culture. It is at times progressive, at times traditional; at times accepting, at times exclusive. There is at once good and bad, and much of it is mixed together. Any one practice can have advantages and disadvantages, often for the same group of people. Developing nations, Senegal included, should not be praised for being “not the West” in the same way that the West shouldn’t be praised for “being the West.” There are things that can be improved here, just as there are things that can be improved everywhere.
I have been given this wonderful opportunity to learn about a culture as an outsider. I am able to get to know people here, to truly understand their beliefs and history. Hopefully I am going in with an open mind and an open heart, ready to genuinely grow and change from what I learn. But ultimately, this is not my culture. In four months, I go home. I’ll spend at least the next four years back in US culture, and regardless of where my future takes me I will never not have grown up in the US. I can make these observations, and experience this minor discomfort, with the knowledge that at the end, I’m going home. There are many women here who aren’t leaving, who are stuck with the light-hearted harassment and the expectations for their future. It is therefore all the more important that everyone looks long and hard at their culture and decides what must be protected, and what ought to go.