As a study abroad student in 2009, my cohort roamed Dakar in a most conspicuous group: 8 white people and me. I was rarely pointed out by Senegalese passers-by, unlike my white counterparts, and I relished it. I loved feeling unobserved. Besides the vibrancy of patterned dresses, glimmering coastline, and enthusiastic interlocution, one of the most beautiful things about walking the city was blending into the crowd. Well, unless I wore a skirt dangerously close to my knees or approached by a cat caller. Now, I’m not saying everyone thought I was Senegalese, but I was usually mistaken as a neighbor from Guinea or Gabon in Dakar the cosmopolis. And as long as black foreigners keep their eyes up and walk with leisure, they melt into the flow of melanin.
I easily felt comfort and belonging.
The idea of belonging can be complicated for African-Americans. Beyond navigating belonging to our families, communities, and culture, there is a contentious relationship with our country and ambiguity about the African part of our classification. Some feel no connection to an African heritage while others scour historical text for clues to their roots. Personally, I went to Senegal to explore and connect with a distant and celebrated heritage. Senegal made it easy to feel connected. The food, fabrics, nightlife, and access to copious amounts of pure shea butter offered familiar yet extraordinary aspects of Dakar living.
Even more important than blending-in with the crowd and vibing with the milieu, was the way Senegalese people welcomed me and enthusiastically supported my engagement with their culture. After my Senegalese acquaintances found out I was American, they (always) firstly informed me of Akon’s Senegalese origin and secondly, expressed great pleasure that I came back to Africa. This is so important because black Westerners can experience many different reactions from Africans ranging from embrace to disdain and rejection. They overwhelmingly expressed excitement about my intentionality in visiting the place of my roots, speaking the bit of Wolof I understood, getting my hair braided, and making the time to connect with people. Openness and personal interaction most effectively created the bridge between me and my new Senegalese cousins.
They told me I was “une vraie Senegalaise,” a true Senegalese woman.
Beyond the Rosy View
Just like in any new relationship, beyond the initial period of charm and infatuation, you discover the frictions. First, and most obvious, the glaring language barrier. I spoke plenty of French, but Wolof is the language of the streets and homes of Dakar. So, I was often excluded from the conversation. Even more frustrating, I realized that some people who called me a “real Senegalese woman” also considered me a toubab. I learned that toubab meant “a white person,” so the misnomer confused me. After some research, I further learned that the meaning is multilayered, and in the end, draws a boundary between true Senegalese and other. It was hard for me to grapple with being lumped in with white foreigners after embracing the idea of being une vraie Senegalaise.
In addition, being a female foreigner in Senegal is a conflicting experience. As a guest of sorts, I received special treatment. I’d look up and realize I was the only woman eating or lounging with the guys. I felt singled out. Conversely, I experienced limitations on women related to Islamic ideals that challenged my principles. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that colorism sometimes invades interactions as well. Lighter skinned Dakarians, especially women, experience special attention that can generate tension or discomfort. Honestly, these concepts are not foreign—maybe familiar yet intensified reflections of black American culture.