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Reflecting on our perceptions of Senegal

Senegal is a beautiful country with beautiful culture. I came to Senegal with the expectation that it would answer all my questions. I was a typical ‘soul seeker’ expecting a truly profound experience that would shape my opinion on culture and race and poverty and so on… Then, after twenty-eight days, I would get on my flight to JFK and return to the West and its privileges with my new unique perspective. I am blessed to have had the Dragons program fall into my lap. I know with complete certainty that I would have ended up in Senegal but without Dragons I could not imagine getting here so young.

Senegal is a beautiful country with beautiful culture. The first thing I noticed about Senegalese people was their kindness and hospitality. Children would often greet you with a smile and a wave, affirmations that you could, despite your differences, enjoy each other’s company. Senegal is replete with these types of experiences; however, there is an aspect of Senegal that cannot be ignored. It is poor. The streets of cities like Thies, despite there beautiful people, are covered in trash. Small children, sometimes sent from neighbouring nations such as Mali are forced to beg. There is a striking duality here. Unprecedented kindness coming from people who are truly suffering economically. A common response to the observation of this duality is to romanticize it. To take these two separate sociological signifiers and quilt them together under the title of Senegalese culture. This ‘Culture’ is than romanticized as a whole. This is why I found a certain charm in the dirtier parts of Thies. I was looking at it through a romantic lens instead of a critical one. I was quilting all of the positive and negative signifiers I was being given without the proper context.

My first real experience on the streets in Senegal was on my third or fourth day in the country. Two of my friends and I were given a group of tasks to do in the streets of Thies, almost all of which involved interacting with people in some way. It was an exhilarating process. I stepped out onto the streets and I finally felt like I had made it to where I had to be. The place I had dreamed of. The scavenger hunt in itself was a great way to start my journey in Africa. I loosened up very quickly and started to understand the rhythm and reason of the city. I was pushed to use my limited French skills as I negotiated the ‘challenge’. Despite my enjoyment of this challenge, in hindsight, parts of it struck me as somehow wrong. The idea of going and giving money to a Talibe or playing Baby-foot with some local children in order to check an objective off of a list felt strange. It was a challenge that was dependent on non-participants. Real interactions with real people reduced to objectives to hastily check off of a list. Although I was able to recognise this, it made me wonder what effect this practice could have on someone else. It could easily give someone the impression that these people are here for our entertainment.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Senegal is the idea of Taranga, the culture of hospitality and sharing. I think it is important to, instead of just taking this at face value, analyse why Taranga and similar cultural phenomena exist throughout the Global South in some the most impoverished countries on Earth. I think it is important that we do not just blindly idealise these types of phenomena without understanding the true significance of the colonial and neo-colonial influences.

In the end of the day, I do not believe that all trips to this incredible country or to the Global South in general should be accompanied by extensive lecturing on the political, social and economic complexities of these countries. I would much rather Westerners blindly romanticize these places than fear them or somehow be disturbed by their existence; however, the best outcome for impressionable travellers is to understand the depth of these issues. The most important thing for us is to at least grasp our place in the world as truly privileged – but not special.