Europe to Dakar: a Lithuanian's journey

Article published on April 26, 2011
Article published on April 26, 2011

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

A student at an English university takes a ten-day research trip to Senegal, playing with the question of openness and difference encountered through travelling. From the old continent, destination western Africa from an anthropological perspective. Travel diary

I'm on the plane from Paris to Dakar. It's a process of distancing myself from one country with its own culture, the conventions of life and limitations, while not yet having reached the other country. There is a time and space in-between, a potential for a certain independence, freedom from local cultures and learnt patterns of behaviour. This profound sense of ‘difference’ never leaves you. Once in a Senegal boiling at 35°, I see children playing marbles on a muddy pathway. They seem to be one with the game and the soil they’re playing on: they’re experiencing it more intensely than any other children I’ve ever seen. These kids might be less sterile or careful than children in Europe, but they get to see and know more. People share a lot here and speak openly, without excessive European politeness, but always with simplicity and sincerity.

Youth here and there

During my meeting with one Senegalese family, Omar, an exceptionally bright 16-year-old schoolboy, tells me about his future business and entrepreneurial plans, while critically evaluating every commentary I make. His friend discusses colonialism and post-colonialism with us. Clearly, sixteen-year-olds don’t necessarily have to be speaking on mobile phones and video games. While it provides us with a much needed sense of identification and belonging, the experience of being a citizen in a particular country always limits our potential for self-creation and understanding of what it is to be a humanbeing, through the self-enclosed local culture, language and national sense.

Of course there's the factor of the poverty and appalling health situation which characterise some African countries. Does banning children from discovering the world on their own not diminish their self-confidence and creativity? Maybe not having social networks and video games, some of the signs of western technological advances, may encourage their direct communication with the world. Many of our ideas about what is right or wrong or who is superior or inferior are locally constructed. They should be challenged by travelling to also provide a basis for more self-creation and self-understanding - what can we learn from what is similar to us?

France vs Senegal

The whole of Senegal is characterised by a highly diverse ethnic and linguistic make up. Twenty or so languages are actively spoken across the territory. Wolof is the ‘national’ tongue (spoken by 42%) and French is the ‘official’ language (spoken by 15% to 20% of men and 1 to 2% of women), the country gained independence in 1960. Local French is characterised by its simplicity and straightforwardness: Tu-assieds, they invite me to take a seat, Tu-aller-à-l’université?, do I study? It makes you reconsider the state of metropolitan French, whose sometimes excessive subtlety can lead to arrogance. The national feeling of pride in it follows this assumed linguistic uniqueness. The effects of French being a second language splits society and alienates from a Senegalese identity. France’s claims of being a country of culture and universal humanism cannot be celebrated too easily. Dakar also shows me the lack of knowledge in national history because of a genuinely French education curriculum.

The effects of French being a second language  alienates from a Senegalese identity

Houses here welcome the neighbours' children. In one full room a teenager lies on a mattress, watching television and humming a song in Pulah, a local language. The heat makes her light, short dress look natural as opposed to improper. Rather than limiting her movements to the norms of etiquette and ‘accepted’ behaviour, she seems to rather feel her body and move according to that feeling. While waiting for a transfer flight in Madrid on my way back to Europe, I notice a young woman looking at me from an advert poster. She glitters, her knowing posture, clothing and the whole mise-en-scène of the advert presenting a carefully constructed sexuality and confidence. Thinking of the girl in Dakar, I will instantly discount the woman in the poster. It's not the only way to be.

Images: main (cc) alessandro silipo/ Flickr