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Challenging Preconceptions in the Land of Teraanga

An American anthropologist draws on his experience interning and learning French in Senegal to reflect on what this small African country has to offer—and why it's high time Westerners pay more attention to this overlooked corner of the globe.

Rowan Glass

When I decided to intern in Senegal for two months this spring, I didn’t quite know what to expect. It would be my first time in Africa and my first visit to a French-speaking country, despite having only taken one term of French prior to boarding the plane there. And yet it was with excitement and optimism—though not without a smidge of trepidation—that I committed to two months of NGO work and intensive French study in a country that I knew little about. So why did I choose to do my internship in Senegal in the first place?

Ever since I was a kid growing up in a small, conservative town in rural Oregon which I spent a good part of my youth wishing to escape, I’ve always been curious about the people and places of the world that we Americans, as a rule, never seem to hear much about. Even as I witnessed my classmates who were privileged enough to be able to travel abroad came back raving about vacation destinations like France and Italy, my thoughts always turned to those more “obscure” corners of the globe that most Americans wouldn’t be able to place on a map. The difference, it seems, is a matter of prestige.

For most Americans, France—to pick, as an example, the most touristed country in the world—is a symbol of refinement and “culture” in the classical sense of the word, home of haute cuisine and the language of love. Merely the sound of the French language is enough to conjure up romantic visions of Paris, the City of Light. Mention any Francophone African country to the average Paris-vacationing American, however, and they are likely to imagine a generic picture of poverty, pollution, political instability, war, disease, and crumbling infrastructure—all set against a backdrop of sweltering jungle or dusty desert. According to the same popular imaginary according to which the French Riviera is the stuff of dreams, tourists don’t go to Africa; aid workers and Blue Helmets do. Here essentialism has replaced romanticism. This dichotomy emerges from a much older paradigm which positions Europe as civilized, in contrast to the regions it colonized. In other words, France is worth visiting; its ex-colonies are not, nor even are their names worth remembering.

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