The second of five articles documenting a journey to Senegal in West Africa, November 2017. To begin with the first article, go here >
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Like fish unable to see our water, we spend most of our day-to-day lives unaware of the basic elements that shape our sense of “normal” until they all change. Arriving in Senegal, finally, after more than 24 hours traveling from across the world, is a mind-warping experience. Another dimension, altogether off the matrix. To describe it is to describe all that is not present; the disappearance of all that is assumed. Synchronized chaos fills the void, somehow maintaining just enough order through some baseline law of the universe.
Thick waves of people move through the stagnant heat, along a flat horizon of dilapidated buildings, storefronts, and homes, spotted by the occasional incongruous new development. Oversized tires and other random objects clutter the streets and pathways, overflowing with taxis, trucks, buses, and private automobiles. Around them and on the margins, people weave through the sand, persistently pushed aside by vehicles honking and asserting their dominance. Outside the city center, there are almost no sidewalks… still! After more than 20 years. And yet the brilliant light of the many souls who live here ignite you with a burst of joy you didn’t know you were missing. A light that is dim in the “first world.”
In terms of the conditions that truly create happiness, Senegal is enormously wealthy in ways that most Western society is impoverished. Is it only possible to have one or the other?
The sudden disappearance of resources when arriving in Senegal hits particularly deep when the itinerary has you touring through Paris during a long layover, taking in the immense resources of a city and country that extracted from Senegal throughout its 300+ years of colonization. The disparity is so very palpable, visible, and extreme. Senegal has been trying to piece itself together and “develop” since independence in 1960. So many theories and proposed solutions I’ve explored for underdevelopment, particularly while obtaining my MPA. Most of them feel like a square-peg-in-a-round-hole superficial imposition of evolution and progress according to what has ostensibly worked for the West, and the patriarchy that defines it. When I experience the wealth of humanity that is Senegal, I see an opportunity to approach “development” in an entirely new way.
In an attempt to circumvent the permanent traffic, we took many circuitous detours through neighborhoods and sandy pathways, adding yet another hour on top of our tortuous journey. We were numb, becoming unattached to the notion of there ever being a destination. But at last it found us.
In what felt like a dream, we rediscovered the presence of our beautiful family — the sisters and brother, and new children from them. These were joined by other siblings living in Europe and elsewhere, calling in to welcome us by phone. I was reunited with “Sama Yai,” my dear, incredible Senegalese mom. “Sama Yai” is “my mom” in Wolof, the national native language of Senegal, and spoken about as frequently as French. After endless hugs and photos, and delicious food, my daughter and I were escorted to our room, which we barely took notice of. We were asleep within moments.
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