What’s In a Picture?

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This is one of my favorite pictures from the last 13 months; it represents the culmination of so many things in my life here in Senegal and it deserves to have its story told.

It was taken in June of this year in my village of Yacine Lakke at an end of year ceremony for our primary school. We can admit right up front I am the Waldo of this picture, with my white skin and blue eyes, in intentionally oversized Senegalese clothes. If you have read the post ‘Pants and Onion Sandwiches’ you will know I fall under the category of volunteer who strongly dislikes wearing complets (the skirt and shirt ensemble I’m wearing) but wears them occasionally because it makes her village ecstatically happy. As Peace Corps volunteers, cultural integration in our villages is arguably the most important thing we have to master, and half of that is dressing as our families and counterparts do. It was well past 110 degrees Fahrenheit that day and if you can’t tell by looking at it, I was sweating buckets under all that dark colored fabric. It was, however, a very special occasion and I am not the only person in the photo who is dressed up. All of the women I am sitting with are members of the local women’s group, who I do gardening work with and gossip with (usually more gossip than work). They too are dressed up. No Senegalese woman in her right mind would walk around with that much jewelry, face paint, or thoissan (the threaded gold rings framing the face) on a normal day. All the kids and a select group of women from the women’s group (myself included) dressed up and put on a play and performed dances throughout the day.¬†Senegalese women do normally wear complets, although I try to avoid them because I can’t walk in them to save my life, and most older women do still sport very real face tattoos like the ones painted on in the picture.

The beaded bowl I am holding I made myself (with the help of two eager six year olds) and it is used as an instrument; there is even a hilarious video someone took from later that day of me dancing with it. Ironically, the tablet in the woman’s lap to my right is not mine, it is her 18 year old daughter’s. She shares it with all of her siblings and it is a gift from their father who works in France, whom they haven’t seen in two years. Young people here are increasingly technologically savvy (although the kids referenced don’t have Internet on their tablet, they only know how to play games and take pictures with it) and that was something I didn’t expect to see coming to Senegal. Senegal is changing and modernizing in awkward leaps and bounds and the ceremony we were participating in is a way of respecting and celebrating the past. It is for this reason this picture is so special to me. It was the coming together of three thousand people to remember their heritage, and after committing two years of my life to living with these people in their village I was grateful to be there, counted as family.

This picture opened up an unending discussion on the stereotypes surrounding development and what it means to be white in a foreign country. But it’s astonishingly complex; even the ‘developing world’ into which we arrive is not always what people said it would be. My time in Senegal has taught me just that. This picture represents to me the past and present of Yacine Lakke converging and my small place in it for two simultaneously challenging and rewarding years. It represents to me all of the things I’ve had to learn and overcome to be successful here (complets and Pulaar I’m looking at you). It also represents the friendships I’ve made and the unreserved welcome I get each and every day. For me it is proof that life can be beautifully unpredictable. For me it is home.

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4 thoughts on “What’s In a Picture?

  1. Erika, I’m the mother of a new PCV–Taylor Lucey, an agro-forestry volunteer who has just found out that her site will be in the far south of Senegal. She won’t be anywhere near your village, but I hope she will get to meet you–you sound incredibly brave, smart, and generous, and you’re a lovely writer as well. Thank you for sharing your experiences in Senegal with the world, and for sharing yourself with Africa.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Holly. I had the opportunity to meet Taylor during her first week of training and she impressed me with her level headed and open approach to the overwhelming culture shock that goes on in the first few days. She will be an asset to her community and I’m sure I will make it down south sometime in the next year to see the progress!

      • I’m so glad you two had a chance to meet. I loved reading about your reentry to Washington DC, and I’m so glad you’re blogging about your experiences in Senegal. You sound like just the right kind of mentor for Taylor. I will continue to follow your work with great interest and best wishes, Erika!

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