Stories from Senegal: Crushing Stereotypes and Shit
Oh, how I love new beginnings. Fresh starts. The first day of school!
Oh and yes, I can hear you say “nerd” under your breath as you read this.
It’s just before 8am, and I’m walking with Théo. He's my host-cousin who didn’t really have a choice but to walk me the hour to school. When Mama G asks you to do something, she’s really actually telling you.
Since we don’t know each other yet, it’s a lot of small talk on the way to WARC, the West African Research Center, where most of my classes will be. I also opted to take one class at the local university, but more on that later.
Théo towers over me, and whenever he smiles, I see a big gap where one of his front teeth is missing. He’s a few years older than me, just finished university here in Dakar, and is struggling to find work. Like most people in Dakar.
I’m absolutely enthralled by this walk to school. I find it hard to focus on the conversation because I’m absorbing all the newness around me: the bright, warm, early heat from the sun on my skin, the non-stop honking of bumper-to-bumper traffic. The taxis are so old that you can see through their floors and actively watch pieces of them roll off now and again.
There’s the swish-swish of countless brooms being pushed against pavement and dirt, and around every new corner, a different smell - peanuts being roasted right there on the street, five cents per tiny baggie. There’s open sewage at that corner accompanied by overwhelming wafts of nauseous air. Turn a new corner. The strong, bitter scent of the most popular kind of local coffee, 10 cents a cup (and it’s your problem if you can’t get past the petroleum flavor).
My senses are completely overwhelmed. I want it all. I need to see it all. I’m so greedy for every new sight and experience and…
“Kah-tee?” Théo asks. “Are you there?”
“Ah, sorry Théo,” I reply. “There’s just so much to see. Everything is completely new to me. It’s so interesting!” I skip and wave my arms around.
“Really?” he replies, looking around us, trying to see what interesting thing I can mean. A horse pulling a cart while traveling through regular traffic takes a shit in the street, which immediately gets squished by a large and colorful car rapide following close behind.
“All I see is a lot of garbage and... normal life.” He shrugs.
“I actually wanted to ask about that,” I say. “What’s the deal with trash being such an issue here? Since we started talking, I’ve seen like, a dozen people throw their empty coffee cups or plastic bags on the ground.”
“Bon,” he says. “I guess because we don’t really have the resources here. People don’t think it’s a problem to throw trash on the ground because everybody does it.”
“So there’s no law against it, no punishment if you get caught doing it?” I ask, as someone throws an empty water bottle out of a passing bus.
Théo laughs. “Law? Punishment? What do you mean?”
“I mean like, for example, back home, if I got caught throwing trash on the ground in public, I could be fined hundreds of dollars.”
His eyes grow wide. “Wow,” he says. “That’s more than most people’s entire monthly paycheck here. We probably don’t have that kind of system here because nobody would be able to pay the fines anyway.”
I let this all sink in. It’s really hard for me to believe that people aren’t bothered by all the litter on the ground (or maybe they are?), but I guess it’s just like anything else - if it’s all you’ve known for your whole life, you’re used to it. You probably don’t even see it or think about it - it’s just second nature. I wonder what I couldn’t see in my life and surroundings for the same reason…
“So, why did you want to come study here in Dakar?” he asks, interrupting my train of thoughts.
For the horse shit, I want to joke.
“That’s kind of a long story,” I say, “but maybe it’s kind of related to what we’re talking about, in a way. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been really curious about everything, and as I grew up, that started to show up as curiosity about other people and places in the world. Like, how they live differently and why, and what can be learned from those kinds of experiences.”
“But isn’t America the best country in the world? Don’t you all have huge houses and lots of big cars?” he asks as we walk.
Something about him is different; by the look on his face, it’s like he wants me to confirm a theory he’s held for a long time.
“Um… yeah no, definitely not. Why do you think that?”
“Well, look at all the movies that come from Hollywood. That’s what we see in America. It’s not like that?” he frowns.
“Uh... no, no it’s not like that for the majority of people. Hollywood is just one city of thousands in the US. There’s only a small minority that are actually that rich, but I guess it’s what shows up in most shows and movies or something.”
He looks down as we walk, taking this in. I feel like I’ve said something wrong, like I’ve disappointed him.
My toes become gradually dirtier and dirtier as we make our way through sandy, dusty sidewalks and patchy non-sidewalked swaths of side-road. I wonder if sandals weren’t the way to go, but I can’t imagine close-toed shoes for long in this heat…
I let my thoughts marinade on what we were just talking about, and it occurs to me that it goes both ways, and I wonder if he knows how most Americans see Africa, let alone individual countries like Senegal, most of whom haven’t even heard of the French-speaking, West African country.
“Théo,” I ask. “How do you think Americans view people here?”
He looks thoughtful, and after a moment he says, “Well, I guess they must think we all live in big, cramped cities like this with trash, most people struggling to find work. Is that about right?”
I laugh and say, “Honestly, most people I grew up around - myself included until I knew better - think of Africa as one giant place. Some even confuse it for a single country. Most Americans haven’t even heard of Senegal, but if you asked them what comes to mind when you say “Africa,” they’ll probably describe villages with huts, people with paint on their faces holding spears, and safaris with lions and elephants...” I pause, worried about his reaction at these huge, sweeping generalizations.
Instead, Théo loses his shit. He’s laughing so hard that he has to stop walking for a moment. He claps his hands together, recomposes himself, and tells me, “That cannot be true. That is just so wild. Like, they think we’re still living in the bush here? That most of us are out hunting lions or something?” His smile is huge, the gap where his missing tooth is standing out more than ever now.
I’m glad this is his reaction - laughter and not anger. I had no idea if it’d be offensive or not, but I wanted to be as honest as possible.
“Well,” I say, “Definitely not everybody, but more than I care to admit. In the same way that you had your thoughts about the US and that all people must drive huge cars and live in big houses because that’s what you see on TV, Americans see what I just described to you in the cartoons we watch growing up, in National Geographic specials, and in all sorts of movies. I honestly didn’t start learning about just how diverse and complex Africa’s populations and history are until I went to university, which not everyone gets to do, so it’s no wonder such stereotypes get passed down and around so widely in so many places.”
I adjust my backpack straps as we turn another corner, feeling the sweat of my shirt pressed up against my back. My nose is telling me I should have applied sunscreen, and the dust in my toes is rapidly morphing into a mud-like substance.
Gonna make a super good first impression at school.
As we enter a quieter, tree-lined neighborhood brimming with bright orange and purple flowers, we continue to chit chat about other funny misconceptions and stereotypes. I feel like I learn more from him during that conversation than hours spent immersed in a textbook or drooling from boredom in a class of 300 students.
Before I know it, we’ve reached a shiny corner of the neighborhood - almost entirely litter-free - and we’ve reached WARC, which greets us with its beautifully-tiled entry gate area, and that’s where Théo drops me off.
“Have a good first day of school,” he says.
“And let me know if you need help finding your way back…”