All Rights Usurped®

You can probably tell that my mind has been all over the place since I’ve been in Senegal. Or maybe you can’t because I’m so good at acting like I know what I’m doing 🙂 In any case, this particular post isn’t entirely based on my experiences here. It’s more a collection of things over a long period of time that I’ve only recently started seeing with new eyes. Recently I’ve been writing these stream of consciousness not-really-fiction posts but I hope you enjoy reading! 

You do not own the copyright to anger. Righteous indignation is not your birthright. As far as I’m aware, no one handed you a large manila envelope, official wax seal still drying, containing a patent to that particular brand of condescension that you call justice. Thank you, the sentiments you have expressed are a “nice” gesture at best. “Nice”, like a stranger helping you pick up your now ruined papers from the dusty roadside. “Nice”, like someone saying they are sorry for your loss as they rush you off the phone, ignoring your sniffing and tears on the other end of the line. You are not the first, nor will you be the last to be appalled. “How could they do this? How could anyone let this happen? How?”

Let me tell you a secret. No, not here. Not under this sacred tree where women cried out to resolutely silent ancestors for salvation, where old men handed out  wisdom in bite-sized proverb-shaped portions, where tired farmers simply sat and sat until it was time to coax food out of the stubborn dry earth once more. You are not invited to this gathering, not welcome here. Not unless you shed your coat of “knowing better” before you arrive. I repeat, for this is highly important; you are not the first, nor will you be the last to feel the way you do. A host of others before you have come, seen and felt disgust. Bravo, you are able to empathize with your fellow humans. You are indeed, human. Here is your ID Card. Don’t be confused, this does not grant you access to an entire history. You will not immediately understand, not in a week, not in two  months, not in four years. Please try to understand this, these people are aware.

It doesn’t take critically acclaimed documentaries produced by a man in tortoise shell glasses,nor socially conscious bloggers who purchase Fairtrade everything to create awareness. Your concern is appreciated, but you do not have the right to pick and choose where to direct your outrage without bringing an offering of respect, nestled humbly in a bag of kola nuts. You do not get to apportion blame, nor do you earn the right to share in ancestral resentment leveled at former masters. Solidarity grows out of an understanding that someone’s suffering could easily be your own, and as a fellow human being you are deciding to support another human in their struggle, while respecting their agency and their efforts to transform the situation.

I imagine that you are growing more and more perplexed. How does one scold another for caring? Child, and yes, I call you child because in the eyes of this most regal and most ancient land you remain in your earliest stages of infancy. I do not condemn you for caring, again I extend my congratulations. You are indeed, human. But when your caring leads you to shut your ears to any further explanation, or to believe what UN official reports tell you, and what college professors preach as gospel, then your cause is lost. At least you are mature enough to realize that buying a pair of comfortable shoes from a “socially conscious” business creates more problems than it solves. Again, the blogs (and some common sense) have served you well.

Caring, the softest and sweetest of emotions, turns ugly when you do it the way you do. A firm, warm hand on a shoulder heaving with grief turns into a sharp slap across the face. Do you assume that the person you are attempting to comfort does not know the situation they are in? Do you presume to teach someone how to grieve, and how to move on from grieving to re-building? There is a faint waft of supposed superiority on your hot breath. You are angry. How could they? Your anger veils your eyes in thick black mourning cloth. You stuff your ears with cotton, you refuse to listen further. Instead, you decide to do your best to counteract this corrupt, broken-down system you have come to meet. You clap and sing and “Repeat after me!” and you are convinced this is going to blow away the sands of time and exploitation that have settled in the cracks of a once well-oiled machine. Your shaky hands touch wounds they have not yet been taught how to heal, reach places they should not be authorized to enter, and you go home satisfied that you have done an amazing thing.

Again, this is not an indictment on your actions. It is not your fault. Your arrival was marked with outstretched arms, with people ready to bestow undeserved responsibility on your naive shoulders. Where you were met with quiet dignity and resistance, you failed to recognize it. These people all need help, whether they know it or not. And yet you long to feel at home. The fanfare of culture entices you, as it is prone to do. Perhaps you feel as though you are peeping through the window, watching a party you were not invited to. Or perhaps you misplaced your invitation, or you misunderstood it. You wade through market after market, sifting through trinkets and fabrics and hair pieces. With the right costume you can integrate…right? Admiration or appropriation, where does one draw the line?

Come, child, sit down on this mat. You have much to learn. Come, let me show you how to tie that wrapper tightly around your waist. And you, with your sun-burnished skin, you also have much to learn. Your language rises and falls with the same musical cadence, your round hips sway to the same rhythm, but you remain a child. Come. You are welcome.

Letter from a Traveler

Dear all,

Forgive me; it has been so long since I last wrote you. It has been almost 22 years, and I am nowhere near as close as I should be to knowing you. How arrogant of me to expect boubous hitched up to the shoulders, all the better to embrace me, emotional strains from the kora announcing my arrival. The warmth of your reception fell short only in my wild imagination, because you often mistake me for one of your own and treat me as such anyway. We are still the same people; Cheikh Anta Diop was convinced. We left the Nile valley together, fertile black soil crushed beneath our feet. We debated philosophy and politics in grand libraries in Timbuktu, fought vicious raiders on horseback until the death. We were separated at birth by greed and racism. Civilization was the downfall of our nobility. In fact, the frontiers that divide us are artificial, they run only has deep as contracts drawn around a table in a distant cold city.

Forgive the unnecessary romance, but the closeness I feel to you is inexplicable, inevitable, and for that reason I feel that I must write you with my thoughts. It is disturbing the amount of distress I feel when I see you living a life less than worthy of your rich history. Of course we were not all born royal, but every goldsmith and griot and servant had a specific purpose to serve. Only now, this thing called economics, or corruption, (depending on the way you interpret the graphs) has made it so that some of you are relegated to abject poverty and international ad campaigns pleading on your behalf. I want to scream, to rip my hair out in mourning every time I hear someone pity you, each time someone laments the fate of “these less fortunate people”.

I am frightened by the violence of my reaction; forgive me for losing my composure. I only mean to share with you the pain and confusion I feel, not to add salt to the wounds of injustice you face. I want to collect every guidebook, every blog and travel advisory, and burn them a hundred times over for every time they use the word “authentic” or “untouched tribe” or “quaint” to describe you. How dare they, reduce an age-old lifestyle in which every element is a symbol for something greater, to a caricature; a picture-perfect primitive landscape for the back of a postcard, or a stamp, or a museum full of stolen artifacts. How disrespectful, to believe that donating some spare change on the plane ride here is going to solve your problems. Is giving you some candy or a piece of gum and taking a few photos for the road really going to make your day?

I am sobbing hysterically, my tears carve out valleys and channels on my cheeks and I want to scream at you to stop! Stop running, stop waving, stop tugging at water bottles and shirt hems and arms. It’s not your fault; your childish exuberance is totally innocent. You’re curious. It is not often that strangers come your way. I couldn’t explain why it upset me so, until I heard the patronizing comments, saw the pictures posted online, a virtual condescension that is a world away from you, humiliation you will never be aware of.

And you, my heart sinks to new depths when your beautiful form is reduced to something base, vulgar, bestial. They don’t understand, the length of your neck soars above human pettiness and the top of your head has borne every kind of weight, emotional, financial, the firm bottom of a clay pot. I do not glorify what is quotidian, nor do I sing unwarranted praises just to prove a point. I merely state the truth, that your infinite strength, your resilience against the constant battering of time and development cannot be fathomed by a fleeting visit by a tourist group and the purchase of some trinkets. You are not a souvenir with a polished finish, carved with wood and hollowed at the top to hold candles or car keys. Your breasts are not the figment of colonial fantasies. You are NOT for sale.

To you, my heart skips a beat every time I see you approaching. I do not refer to the characteristic quickening of the pulse felt by love struck teenagers. Rather, I mean the irregular beat that precedes my heart plunging to the depths of my stomach. It hurts to see you degrade yourself like this, to see you earn the label of money-hungry, visa-chasing glutton; interested in any stranger that can help you escape debt, overdue rent, apathy, stagnant job prospects. By no means do I condemn you for falling in love with whoever you desire, but when the desperation seeps through your pores and you are met with contempt in the markets, on the beach, in rundown bars, it hurts me. It hurts me to see you shed your kingly stature, laying down your tattered robes for whoever has the most favorable passport to walk over. You were not all kings, but you regress steps down the ladder every time you think this is your only way out. You know better, your mothers ingrained in you the principles of respect and responsibility. You know better than to treat women as a go-between between airport officials and embassy workers. Get up, stretch those broad shoulders and puff out your ample chest. There is work to be done, more so on this side of the immigration checkpoint. The same goes for you, playing the exotic queen is not your only ticket out of your perceived misery by any means.

I am sorry if I speak out of turn, you have raised me to be stronger than this, more stable. Still, I can’t help the fact that your beautiful chaos moves me to emotions in battle with each other even during the most mundane of walks down any street. It is my hope that you will take me back, though I may have become a stranger. I remain yours, always.


A Traveler