After working and living in landlocked countries for the last eight years, having an ocean, rivers, mangroves, and rice fields within a day’s drive or even a walk away is like a long awaited rain in a desert. But not only is the location aesthetically beyond belief pleasing, the population also meets a need for which I’ve been searching: acceptance and integration.
No matter how long I’ve spent, nor how hard I’ve tried to speak like the people, to dress like the women, to act correctly for my age and class, I’ve always remained at a distance. Surely this is my own doing as well, but it’s certainly frustrating. Particularly among the Dogon, I constantly make mistakes. Even though there are many rules I know to follow, I still wander down the wrong path, sit on the wrong rock, or say the right benediction but to the wrong person at the wrong time or vice versa. Even if anyone could forget the differences in my skin, hair, and eye colour, these actions will always remind people that at some level I don’t belong. The distance seems as insurmountable as the chasms in which I find myself lost when I walk alone in the Dogon cliffs.
Here, along the South Western coast of Senegal, I rarely even hear the dreaded term, Toubab. The children don’t follow us everywhere playing their games try to tag us or asking us for presents. Our every benign action doesn’t merit a crowd like paparazzi, let alone our odd habits such as attaching yellow straps to trees and swinging from them or running along remote paths alone. People could care less! They have better things to do than stand around staring at us like we’re their favourite television show. I can’t say enough how relieving this is. As much as I’m an attention seeking person like any other, there’s a limit.
These subtle but noticeable differences enforces my belief that there can never be a pan Africa, there’s just as there is no such thing as an African language our culture. Each country has its own distinct character, just like any other continent’s countries, maybe even more so because of its size and lengthy history. The ease that I find here is not meant to imply Senegal is better in any way than any other country in West Africa, just different. And The Casamance is different on another level as well. There’s a modernity yet a deeply traditional way of life here that I’ve not experienced any where else in West Africa. Usually it seems either/or but here both exist in harmony: the scared groves were not cut down to make way for the churches and mosques, the two surround each other just as nuns dance to music and drums played by priests-to-be and the schools and health centers aren’t drained of talented teachers and doctors because the majority of successful academics and professionals are from the villages instead of the towns and cities so they return as well. Whereas in many W. African countries to be called a “broussard” is like being referred to as a hillbilly, and thus is considered an insult, but here it’s a compliment. The opposite term “town boy” evokes negative connotations of lazy city people who steal and con. Those who come from the villages are the real workers.
Certainly there is also the fact that the those who came before me have helped to pave the road. Literally and figuratively, a base was stood in our absence with its own driveway, guardian, garden, office space, and now we have filled it with all the equipment we will ever need. It’s such a pleasure and yet another relief to have been placed within another fantastic team with whom I may collaborate on a continual basis, whether it be in our Oval Office in London or our Barracuda Base in Brin.
Thus, for reasons which are surely clear, I have decided to extend my current stay here until March, rather than to leave in just a few weeks as planned. The weather is a huge factor in this decision, since it is now ‘cold season’ which is lovely here whereas London is, well, we know London in the winter. Plus, our past two weeks of the London team’s learning of Wolof with the Senegalese team learning to transcribe in computer programs Elan and Fieldworks (one of which was spent on the beach!) can be put to use right away. That and, due to mysterious sets of circumstances certainly beyond my control, I have experienced one health issue after another since arriving which have truly prevented me from thriving in this environment as I would have unhindered. The base plentifully serves to replace the forgone Pink Palace and then a new lodge with new froleagues can be procured upon my return.
I wish you all a stupendous New Year with all the sparkles and wishes come true that I have and surely hope to continue to experience in 2015!