On the whole, the African continent hasn’t had a hugely fair deal in terms of its place in the British press. As a white suburban teenager growing up in the naughties, the only time you’re likely to have seen it referenced in the mainstream media was next to the words famine, AIDS or refugee. Something that was reflected by the avalanche of jokes I received this summer after breaking the news of my travel plans to my close mates. Who are, no prizes for guessing, a bunch of white suburbanites.
Despite the predictions of my closest compadres, so far since arriving in West Africa I haven’t been attacked with a machete, been kidnapped by a character from Blood Diamond or even been savaged by a rabid dog. Pretty boring I know, but it just serves as a reminder of how little we really know about West African culture.
I’m not pretending to be any kind of an expert on this topic, and this blog entry is definitely not where you’ll find the answers. I’ve simply been living in the southernmost city of Senegal, (Zigiunchor), for six weeks now and here’s what I think I’ve learned along the way…
Things aren’t as different as you might think and once you get past the obvious contrasts with the U.K, like the lack of rubbish disposal, obvious presence of military personnel, lack of roundabouts and abundance of farmyard animals roaming the city streets at will, you begin to notice the similarities. Work sucks, and people take pride in enjoying themselves after they clock off. As a 95% Islamic country, alcohol isn’t a cornerstone of cultural pastimes here and public drunkenness is very much looked down upon. But as in the U.K, people are just looking for good vibes and a chance to get a party going.
As an Englishman it’s hard to contemplate that the act of dance can take place before 8 pints of real ale, but the Senegalese seemed to have cracked the code on this one. Their ability to create some moves and rhythm on the dance floor is also a far cry from the British dance style of flailing like a wet salmon with 10,000 volts put through it. Any chance to get a dance on is a chance well taken in Senegal. Something which serves as a constant reminder to the myriad of inhibitions we’ve built up for ourselves in Western culture.
As already mentioned, I was born and raised in England. Consequently I obviously don’t speak any foreign languages, especially French. So I’m buggered really. Generally you get by as best you can with trying to pick up the local dialects (Wolof and Joula), or in true British fashion you speak loudly and point at stuff. Other than that, the language barriers aren’t really too much of a huge obstacle in everyday life. Having a smile and a positive persona, no matter how much it pains you, can go a long way when making friends in here.
People are hugely welcoming and willing to help you out regardless of if they know you or not. The word ‘Toubab’ meaning ‘clear skin’, or ‘wealthy traveller’ takes some getting used to. It’s not usually a term of insult, more a term of intrigue and it’s mainly only little kids that will stare and repeatedly shout ‘Toubab, Toubab, Toubab’ in your general direction.
The only thing that matches the Senegalese passion for dancing (aside from football) is the Senegalese passion for rice. They eat a tonne of the stuff. Ideal for solidifying the less than solid bowl movements of newly arriving Westerners suffering from a downgrade in water hygiene standards, but not so ideal when your usual diet consists of maybe one rice serving a week.
The struggle is truly real when you’re faced with anything up to 14 heavy rice based dishes a week and you’re living with a host family intent on fattening you up before your departure back to the U.K. The Wolof word ‘leckal’ meaning EAT! is constantly mobilised at dinner time as you try to live up to the expectations of being a strapping man with the appetite of Adam Richmond.
Despite their massively inflated expectations of rice consumption, my host family are the nuts. If there’s one thing our generation in the U.K can learn from Senegalese culture, it’s the importance of cherishing your family. In my experience, you’re seen as a bit of a wet lettuce if you’re living with or spending a lot of time with your parents and family once you’re in your mid 20s in Britain. I’ve come to realise that this is basically a pretty sucky view of the world. Some people just don’t click with their family and that’s fine. But the stigma against spending too much time with ‘the fam’ after some predetermined age is pretty much bollocks in my view.
Speaking of bollocks, I don’t know what they’re putting in the water here but to say the local male livestock are well endowed would be an understatement. This provides a constant source of childish entertainment amongst my Senegalese-based U.K friends. The affectionately named ‘little Tommy big balls’ is a Tom cat who resides at our favourite cafe in town. The little chap has earned that name for good reason.
Animals generally get a pretty bum deal in Senegal. From my experience so far they’re either used as food or tools and as a liberal-minded Westerner it’s been a struggle coming to terms with the lack of respect they’re given. My host family’s dog is a pretty lovable mutt, but I get the feeling that he’s a guard dog first, cherished family pet second. We’ve been called a nation of animal lovers in the U.K before and that label has never rung as true as it does now.
In danger of sounding too high and mighty, let’s leave the animal welfare topic for another day. Or not at all.
I hope you enjoyed this mini blog entry. I hope to write again soon.