It all started with an enduring curiosity.
My parents planted those seeds, likely without an intention of leading me to Africa. As young Black Americans, many of our families expose us to varied semblances of “African” culture and history—the colorful prints, museum visits, and Kwanzaa celebrations. We learn about our roots and develop a connection to the continent and one-another because of our shared past, yet the Western world teaches us a distorted view via a dark catalogue of images, documentaries and organizations “fighting hunger and poverty” on an obscure continent.
How could this be a true story?!?
A place with a romanticized and revered past yet a bleak and obscured present? And during my childhood, a well-rounded truth wasn’t even available. I had never seen a single image of an African city or even a person contently living their everyday life.
I was determined to find the TRUE story for myself.
In college, I timidly pursued the opportunity to study abroad in Senegal. Yes, timidly. Despite my enthusiasm in learning about West African history and culture, the idea of traveling to the continent felt foreign, unsure, and risky! My family was not international travelers, and I was afraid to venture so far from home on my own... but I did it! I still remember how accomplished I felt getting on a plane by myself. I recognize my privilege in traveling to the Motherland through a guided program, but that did not diminish my self-celebration of the follow-through and fearlessness in finding a path there!
My time in Senegal literally changed my understanding of the continent and myself.
What I Saw
The most alluring and striking promise of Senegal was it's immersive Blackness. TV shows and advertisements were Black. Policemen and law makers were Black. Patrons of the finest restaurants and owners of small and large enterprises were Black. Neighbors, construction workers, beach-lazers, and all-night-dancers were Black! Not to say that "others" weren't present (often in positions of economic prowess), but the power of the country rest in the hands of it's Black citizens. To experience representation unaware of itself is completely foreign to Black Americans. I found comfort and validation in observing a BLACK society.
Observing Black society also caused me to appreciate the diversity underlying the word “Black” and revealed what a monolith the term truly is. We are united under the moniker, but our varied experiences are effectively erased. In Senegal, you better understand one of the definitions of Blackness and that there are so many more—which reinforces the beauty in our unification. In 2009 there were no ancestry DNA tests to reveal Black people’s heritage. This allowed me a freedom to choose Senegal — to feel accepted by a culture and attach to a unique Black experience.
What I Understood
In Senegal, I found home in a place with a culture of hospitality and respect. My Senegalese friends and family lived this concept called Teranga (“hospitality”) with pride and expressed it by always extending their hands to welcome and help me. Senegalese cultural values engendered an open spirit in me. They place value on time spent interacting and sharing and it's evident even in simple interactions such as greetings. There was no concept of greeting someone “in passing” as people are intentional with their sincerity.
It felt novel, outside of a family context, to emphasize people and community before possessions and productivity. With less emphasis on and access to things, I found myself appreciating the "simpler" aspects of life. But these values are not simple, they are complex and foundational. They ground and nourish but are threatened by other structures laid over top of them. So, I found myself in Senegal, learning a society without distractions, at its purest and most exposed.
How can you not love something that shares such vulnerability with you?
What I Felt
These two things, Black social immersion and identifying with people-based cultural values, caused me to change fundamentally. My mental and physical health improved, making me realize the negative effects of living in a country where individualism and productivity set the tenor for everyday interactions. I’m just not a Type A, time-is-money person, so Senegal felt much more natural and less stressful. My time in Senegal made me better understand the toll of race-based aggressions, misrepresentation, and systematic oppression (of course) on my psyche. Those things can easily materialize into hopelessness and fatigue. Escaping the US for those 4 months helped me understand the depths of peace and assuredness possible. Even further, watching Black people contribute in all aspects of society showed me exactly how representation motivates and validates.
By connecting with Senegalese people, culture and environment, I learned so much about myself. As a descendant of slaves, I felt like I got to touch my history, and then it was no longer a nebulous concept. It was real, and specific. It grounded me in the present while opening me to new worlds of possibilities. Today, I continue with the same enduring curiosity, and I find something exciting and endearing with each new country. I am learning Africa's true story piece by piece and always seek to share with others so they can find their peace and history here as well.