April 29, 2011

Je Ne Parle Pas France

There is kind of an unspoken consensus in the United States that Africa is a country. “How is Africa?” “Africa is good.”   West Africa, North Africa, Central and Southern they are all the same. Somehow Egypt is part of the “Middle East” and South Africa is the country with white people and Mandela.  This is not a dig, but merely an explanation for some of my own perceptions and faults. Ignorance allows us to become a little too entrenched in the idea that we know something or anything at all.  If A + B =C…. Just kidding I couldn’t use that analogy if I wanted to. (Too mathy for me).  In short, I thought I knew the Gambia, which in turn means that I know West Africa which in America means that I know all of Africa. This was a self deception worthy of notice and public apology.
On a recent trip to Senegal I experienced a side of West Africa that was all new to me. Senegal surrounds the Gambia on three sides (all except for the few miles at the mouth of the River Gambia). It is a snake amongst a field of grass; the grass being Senegal.  Senegal has the same ethnic makeup of the Gambia (Mandinka, Wollof, Jullah, Fullah,…) but it was a French colony so they speak French, eat baguettes (called Senfoo), ride around on little scooters and say Madam.
 Side Note:  Now I will admit I have my biases when it comes to countries. I have never been too fond of the French. They fall way behind other countries in my own personal ladder. They fall behind Canada (affectionately called America’s top hat), Mao’s China, The former USSR, and Fascist Italy. I it have no specific qualms about France or the French, but I just not a fan.  There is just some combination of wine, cheese, arrogance, fashion, smoking, the language, poetry, humanism, EU politics, and crepes that I don’t enjoy. We stayed at the same hotel as the French Military. I know right? The French has a military; yeah they do and trust me after 4,000 introductions  to men who have been in training for 4 months and all the  kisses on the cheek (an invasion of personal space if I have ever seen one) along with being called Olley my French quota was beyond fulfilled.
Back to business, Senegal is similar to the Gam. It is poor, traditional, rural based and it is still easier to drive on the side of the road than on the road itself (we think potholes in the Burgh are bad. HA). Senegal has 14 million people whereas the Gam has a little over 1.5. They had very different colonial experiences and Senegal to this day has intense connections to the French. There is also Dakar. Dakar is a real city, with real roads, traffic lights, buildings over 3 stories tall, highways. There are highways. Do you have any idea how scary highways are after not seeing them for 4 months? Scary.  Infrastructure is something that is hard to come by in the Gam, but after a few short days in the internationally renowned city of Dakar I was ready to go home. Home to my small Gambia, where I see the same people all the time and there are no highways, tall buildings, or anything reminiscent of America. I wanted to be back to the familiar, my Gambia, my West Africa, my Africa.
I might be considered some kind of expert on the whole Africa when I go back to the States. I am sure to encounter the “So how was Africa?” question. I am not quite sure how I will respond entirely and it will probably depend on my mood and level of interest in the ensuing conversation, but hopefully I will be able to portray The Gambia accurately with some love thrown in there too. Perhaps it will start with “Well ever since they broke off of Pangaea it’s been a bit lonely out there in the ocean, but then the Portuguese came and they were alright, but then came the French came with their awful cheese.”
PS. If I ever become famous for some bizarre reason, please don’t tell the French how I feel about them via this blog post. I will try to broach the topic of my ethnocentricity a bit more delicately. Also if you are French, just remember that I am a Pollock and Italian. Poles have never really done all that much for the world at large except for utilizing cabbage and potatoes and if you check out Berlusconi and that Italian situation all should be forgiven. As for my whole American citizenship thing… we can talk about that later.


Jordan Yarbrough said...

Love it! Good perspective on the differences yet similarities. And I was always baffled by how much better the side of the road was when compared to the actual road.

Holly Belkot said...

My professor affectionately refers to the ride to Senegal a "parallel universe" I am pretty sure we were actually on a road for about 5 out of the 10 hours.