Breaking Down The Stereotypes Of West Africa: What I Learnt In Senegal
The blazing sub-Saharan Africa sun beat down, beads of sweat drip down my neck. Giant flies slice the air in front of my eyes, while taxi drivers, one after another, trying to get a few dollars faire from my friends and me. Senegal is a peculiar place, hugging the sliver of Gambia on the west African coast. The four days in Dakar were among the most stressful I have experienced in my time abroad, but these were also the four days where I learned some of the most important lessons while abroad.
In Dakar, I experienced major culture shock. Even though I had spent time in Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Morocco beforehand, Senegal was the first time that I really felt out of place, and that my status as a traveler was easily read. It felt as though the locals took advantage of this sometimes. Taxi drivers flocked outside the port gates, waiting for students to let their guards down. Most people from Dakar we came across had a product or service to sell, and they were desperate to sell it – to the point that a man followed us around for 15 minutes trying to sell us a necklace after we repeatedly said we were not interested. To make the situation even more stressful, shortly after, a group of four men flanked my friends and me, and took my friend’s wallet right out of his pocket.
After refusing to buy a product, or attempting to ignore these people, they would often shout things like, “Why do you hate the Senegalese people?” or, “You don’t want me to feed my family!” It was impossible to even sit down on a bench and not have two or three people try to sell you jewelry or key chains or even the shirts off their backs.
It was in these moments where the things we learned about Senegal in our classes became apparent, like their low GDP per Capita and struggles to thrive as a nation since gaining independence in 1960. At the same time, it was easy to judge these people because their customs and manners of conducting themselves seemed so different from those back home and in the other countries that I have visited. Labeling these people I met in Senegal as rude, disrespectful, and even dangerous became the easy thing to do, rather than try to understand how culture and circumstance entwine to make a person do certain things.
It was not until I took a step back and looked at my surroundings critically that I began to understand. I asked myself, do I really think these taxi drivers want to just be taxi drivers who have to harass college students to feed their families? Do these people really want to go out of their ways to bother us and ruin our days? I reminded myself that they are humans too. And just like the rest of us, they do what they feel they must in order to survive.
While the days I spent in Senegal were stressful, one of these four days was the best day I experienced during my semester abroad. My friends and I went to an elementary school to speak with the head master and meet the children. When we got there, the children and teachers greeted us with such great kindness and hospitality. We spent the entire day singing, dancing, and playing with them. While we could not really communicate them with our different languages, we knew that we had all experienced love and friendship, and found a place where peace on earth really did exist.
I look back at this and wonder what would have happened if I would have given up on Senegal and stayed on the ship for the rest of the day (yes, my study abroad program took place on a ship!). I am so grateful that I took this plunge, unlike some of my peers who literally said, “Why would I want to go out there? It’s Africa.”
Because it is Africa, where beautiful cultures, wonderful people, and awesome food are found. These negative stereotypes of African nations exist because not many people take the time to forget stigmas and see these places for what they really are. These places and people are just like places and people all over the world, all searching for the same thing: security, love, and peace.