and some growing pains
I’ve decided that now is the perfect moment for some healthy picking myself and my own writing apart, hopefully with the outcome of sharing the twists and turns of my thought processes with other people who might be working through similar issues. I recently came across some old blog posts I wrote while studying in Dakar during the spring of 2014, and the first most obvious thing I noticed was how…different some of my writing was at the time. I used clichés like “emotional rollercoaster” and repeated the phrase “for lack of a better word” instead of just…finding a better word to use in a sentence.
The aspect that I find most troubling, or at the very least embarrassing is how *problematic* a lot of my analyses were. (If I have learned nothing else in grad school, I’ve mastered the ability to deploy the P word with the same ease that I decline the company of anyone I suspect is looking for a cool Black friend). I loved my time in Dakar so much, despite the undiagnosed mental health woes and a relationship in its death throes that contributed to my not freeing myself to enjoy the city as much as I could have. “Incomplete” may be a better descriptor for some of the points I was attempting to make about my experiences in Senegal.
In the spirit of transparency and that fairy god parent of academia called “objectivity,” I must point out that I was writing for the study abroad blog of my college and as a result felt the need to keep it cute as much as possible. I waved away microagressions about my decision to study abroad in West Africa as a West African with a few airy sentences:
“But actually, yes Francophone Africa (too general of a concept in itself) is THAT different from its Anglophone counterparts. Yes, academic interest and a love for francophone African writers (a.k.a. research for the daunting senior thesis I must write in French) as well as sheer curiosity brought me here and that’s ok!”
What I would have done if I had the space to do so, was to point out how hilarious American entitlement is, with my peers daring to question what an African was doing in Africa when I could have easily asked the same of them, and their intrusive and violent ancestors. I was less inclined to mince words in real life, because most of the time I was fed the fuck up to be perfectly honest.
“I want to get braids. Do you think it’ll look good on me?”
Said while holding pale arm next to mine: “These wax prints look so good on your skin. I don’t think I could pull it off.”
Well, no you couldn’t. They’re not made for you.
Anyway, I’m here to stare in shock and confusion at my past self, because the compulsion to “keep it cute” is not enough to make up for how much I lacked in understanding and capacity to express myself in writing. After two particularly intense trips to a daara in Dakar’s Liberté 6 neighborhood, and an exhibition about discrimination against LGBTQ people in Senegal, I close one of my blog posts like this:
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
However, I have come to realize that the source of my discomfort and emotional reaction to these [sic] 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.
I won’t address the repetition of “however.” Nor will I go into too much detail about the faint whiffs I’m detecting of “We’re all one people” I’m picking up from my fixation on “us” and “them.” The thing that alarms (and disgraces) me the most is that I seem to have taken a defensive stance against my (mostly white) classmates critiquing the exploitative nature of marabouts and talibés, and the homophobia we saw glaring back from the walls of the exhibit that day. In doing so, I was also indulging in something very dangerous that looked a lot like justifying violence by insisting that my classmates didn’t understand the cultural context enough to condemn it.
What I was feeling at that time was an anxiety of “critique” from white people who had shown no indication of actually caring about the people whose realities they now claimed to be so horrified by. It was almost as if they felt emboldened to suggest that homophobia and child abuse were the preserve of Africans, as if these same issues were not embedded in their own society. I believed my classmates to be looking for more reasons to prove their superior position over these backward people.
I had watched these classmates scroll Facebook aimlessly instead of listening to the amazing filmmakers, artists and activists invited by the program to speak with us. I had seen their enthusiasm rocket when it was time to shop for fabric and beads, or to go to the beach and the club on Friday night, only to plummet when it was time to engage in class discussion about Senegalese literature. I had overheard and at times intervened the ignorant comments they made about their host families’ “superstitious” ways. I had felt rage and horror after hearing and witnessing how my classmates’ whiteness afforded them unquestioned access to take photos with strangers’ children, to even take part in medical work usually reserved for the highly skilled. I had sensed the same kind of unlooking I felt back on my DC college campus, from the kind of white people who typically wanted nothing to do with black people, now in Africa just to say they did it and to take some dramatic photos of sunsets over the desert. Ultimately, I was fixated on and prioritizing the white gaze so much so that what they were doing was more important to me than my own experiences in Dakar, more important than my own politics, more important than being in solidarity with queer Senegalese people.
Still, none of this excuses my misplaced priorities. It was easier for me to accuse my classmates for not feeling a shred of concern for queer Senegalese people, or for the talibés who often died anonymous and far from home at the impact of burning steel pushed by an impatient motorist. But how much could I say I cared, if I was more concerned with Africans “looking bad” in front of white people than with the tightly woven networks of oppression that ensure that the violence will persist?
I feel that in now trying to right, and write, my wrongs, I’m only writing myself closer to frustration. Something still feels incomplete. I’ll leave you with some reading material. Coverage of 9 children who died in a fire at a daara, and of women arrested for “acts against nature” while out celebrating a birthday.
Until next time, I’ll continue working towards this masters in pulling my head out from the sand…
(You can read the post I quoted from here. I also have some other strange assertions about class inequality in Dakar buried somewhere in those platitudes, but I’ll deal with that another time.)