A couple weeks ago, my sister came to visit me in Senegal. Her trip was a wonderful combination of seeing tourist attractions, observing my life in site, and simply spending time together. After spending two weeks with me traveling around the country, she has a better idea of what I’ve been doing here for the past two years.
Having a guest with me in Senegal was eye-opening. As I was guiding my sister through this noisy, smelly, dirty country that has become my home, I began to see this place from a different perspective. After living here for so long, it’s easy to view the people, culture, and values through a clouded paradigm.
From the crowded garages to the barren countryside to the constant bombardment of personal space, I tried to look at my world from an outsider’s perspective.
Fresh eyes gave me a fresh outlook.
Instead of seeing an overwhelming garage filled with shouting men and exhaust-spouting cars, I marveled at the organization. Every person had a job, from the young men touting baggage to the old ones collecting money to women roving around with snacks carried in buckets on their head. This was a bustling economy where travelers from all over the country pass through on their way to somewhere else.
These madhouses, typically the bane of my travel experiences, provide excellent insight into how this country functions.
Much of Senegal has, unfortunately, been deforested for firewood, charcoal, and farming. Trees and rivers have long ago been replaced by shrubs and gullies. Although this is tragic, and should be reversed, there is a certain beauty in the dusty landscape. Where I used to see only desert smattered with occasional growth, I now see the mighty baobab tree standing strong against the hot, red sun.
This land, like the people who cultivate it, is resilient to the forces at play.
Upon arriving in Velingara, my family immediately swarmed around us in curious anticipation. Your sister looks like you. What is her name? She is very white. How long will she be staying? She must be very tired. When did she get here? And so on, and on, and on.
Senegal is known for its teranga, or hospitality, and, while it often looks different than Western hospitality, my family spared no expense. Big meals that we were forced to eat until we thought we would throw up. Tea and soda until we thought our teeth would rot from the sugar intake. And children crowded around us as soon as we stepped out of the door.
After being pushed and pulled, tossed and pitched throughout my service, I was quick to protect my sister from the invasion on her personal space. But she loved all of it. The girls playing with her hair. The boys wrestling on her lap. My brother tried out his terrible English. My grandmother attempted to teach her Pular.
Instead of pushing back, she soaked it all up and took the challenge. These were my people, and so they would also become her’s.
Through constant translating and guiding, I was able to wipe some of the splotches from my clouded paradigm and see Senegal was a different perspective. My sister gave me a viewpoint that can only be seen with eyes that are untainted by previous experiences. Although every culture has its negative aspects, she allowed me to see more of the positives while she was here.
If a fresh perspective can do so much good, what else are we missing with our backward worldviews?