I have managed to write nearly fifty blog posts about my experiences as an American in Senegal. But what about the other side of the coin—a Senegalese’s experiences in America? With as much as I’ve talked about the struggles and delights of cultural differences, what would those differences look like to a Senegalese person? Just over a year ago, representatives from the embassy, including the Ambassador, came to visit my site. Afterwards, they asked the health district to select someone to go on an exchange trip to America with health care professionals around Africa. Fatou Traore, the mid-wife who serves as the Reproductive Health coordinator for the district, was selected, largely for her work with Peace Corps volunteers. The trip was three weeks, and they visited DC, New York, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Los Angeles. I was so excited to see Fatou had returned this week and promptly peppered her with questions, which she agreed to let me share here.
|Fatou in New York (photos courtesy of Leah Moriarty)|
ANNĒ: What did you think of my country?
FATOU: I didn’t want to come back!
ANNĒ: What was your favorite place that you visited?
FATOU: Little Rock—the landscape reminded all of us of Africa, and we got to visit smaller villages.
ANNĒ: Was there anything that was hard for you about America?
FATOU: The situation with homeless people. In Los Angeles we went to a soup kitchen and fed over 900 people. They said that there are that many people to feed every day. I couldn’t believe that America is the richest country in the world and that there are still homeless people. Also, the AIDS situation was surprising. I had thought AIDS was just in Africa. But it’s so different there. Here, nearly all of the transmission is from unprotected heterosexual sex. But there it primarily is injection drug users and MSM. In the US, even though medication isn’t free, almost everyone who is HIV positive is on ARVs. Here, the government pays for it, and we can’t get people to get on treatment.
ANNĒ: What else did you do?
FATOU: [Grinning] We went to Disney Land, the Bill Clinton Museum, the Jimmy Carter Museum, and the Native American Museum in Washington. They organized lots of meetings for us and dinners. We met people from Peace Corps administration (I told them I loved working with Peace Corps volunteers, that they were great people who have left their comfortable lives to come and do good in Africa), and we had dinner with several women who were over 60 who had done Peace Corps in Niger and Congo. The woman who was in Congo still had not forgotten the language! I saw New York with Leah [the volunteer who Pat and I replaced) and had dinner with Fode Mady’s [Ian’s] family in Atlanta. [Ian told me that it was so wonderful for his family (especially his sister who hadn’t been able to visit) to meet someone who had been part of his experience in Senegal. As they were driving to drop her off, they passed a parking lot, and Fatou remarked, “Cars must be really cheap here.” He had to figure out how to best explain that, no, they are the same price, people just have so much more money to spend on things like cars.] We went to a small village outside of Little Rock, and they compared it to a Health Post, but it was a hospital. It was better equipped than the new [and as of yet unopened] Saraya Hospital.
|Fatou and Leah reunited.|
ANNĒ: Was there any cultural differences you noticed? When I first came to Senegal, I was quite struck by our cultural differences.
FATOU: Well, you know, here we are used to doing this in meetings. [Raises her hand and snaps her fingers repeatedly and aggressively.] You all don’t do that.
ANNĒ: Yes! I was completely shocked the first time I ever walked into a classroom here!
FATOU: But you know what really made an impression? The hospitality. [It should be noted here that Senegal considers itself the country of Teranga, or hospitality. For her to say this is a big deal.] I thought that in developed countries I wouldn’t feel welcomed, but on the street, people greeted me. I’ve heard that that doesn’t happen in the other countries, like France. If we were lost, sometimes people would stop what they were doing and help us by looking up directions on their phones and steering us in the right direction. And my veil. I was very nervous about wearing my veil after everything that has happened in America with terrorism, and I thought that I would feel ill at ease and judged. My younger brother actually told me that I shouldn’t wear it. But I did, and it was fine. I never felt uneasy and felt like people were just looking at me as a person. No, everyone was very welcoming. We were even met by a translator at the airport! And hospitality was also shown to us at the dinners in families that were arranged. I had dinner with a retired lawyer and social worker. The other cultural thing is the volunteerism. People give of their time and money to NGOs. Here, the rich do not help the poor like that. And everything was so clean! The streets, the hospitals. At the hospitals, people were always talking about hand washing. You could be driving and not see a single piece of trash. What else? Obesity. That was very shocking to see. They say it is a public health problem in the US. And diabetes too, it’s all caused by obesity.
ANNĒ: Speaking of obesity, what did you think of the food? What did you really like?
FATOU: Mexican food [which happens to be the food that is generally agreed upon to be the most missed amongst volunteers].
ANNĒ: Anything you didn’t like?
I have to say, I was surprised about some of her answers, particularly because of the questions that people ask me based on their impressions of the differences between Senegal and America gleaned from TV. I was so glad to hear her impressions of American hospitality, because it is commonly believed that we are completely inhospitable to each other in the Western World. It’s so great that the Embassy provides this kind of program. People often ask me why I can just come here to Senegal like it’s nothing, and it’s next to impossible for them to get a visa to see America. I typically say something about how long and hard the Peace Corps application process is, but really, that’s just an easy answer. It’s not the same, and I have not only access to a super easy American life but the opportunity to up and visit places where life is not easy. It’s a tough question to grapple with, like so many other questions of inequality that I constantly encounter. Giving someone like Fatou a chance to visit the US and have an overwhelmingly positive experience there, however, is a great diplomacy tool, and I hope more programs like it emerge.
It also made me even more excited for our upcoming trip home. Just two months to go until we get to stuff our faces with MacKenzie River pizza and salads, drink Montana micro-brews, hike in the Bridgers, go to a movie, sit out on my parents deck and watch the Alpen Glow, chat with family and friends without having most of the conversation be “Can you hear me now?”, dance and be merry at two weddings of dear friends, celebrate 30th and 91st birthdays. Oh, America.