The Charming (and not-so-charming) things in West Africa

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There are so many small things that happen, insignificant moments, that I find so charming here. I remember arriving in Ziguinchor with my cousin Villi and him asking “what the hell is that sound?” I hadn’t thought twice about it since I’ve heard it before, but the sound of hundreds of frogs croaking in the dark actually sounded more like a dozen choirs of bass singers burping over and over. It’s not deafening, but it’s louder than some background cricket noises. Then a few hours later, there was a cricket on his head, and Villi kept explaining that he thought the crickets were so loud and close. But it took us a few minutes to realize why I didn’t quite feel the same, though I thought it was just my fault again for being used to the sounds.

I think it’s amazing how the cows and goats roam the streets and bushes, seemingly wild and free, but each and everyone has an owner who knows who and where they are. I love the way the women, of all ages, strut with such lazy confidence. It’s as if the heat keeps them soft, slow and supple their whole life, and their movements are all fluid enough to balance anything on their head. I love the timelessness of everyone’s skin, the unified shade of perfect black that shows no wear or tear. Wrinkles and white hairs are rare to see, even on people over 60, and the hairless arms I’ve touched are all baby soft. But then I caught myself smiling when I saw a little boy with a band-aid on his head – they’re not made in skin color for Africans! Only our beigy-pinkish shades of band aids are sold, even here, defeating the purpose of making them skin-colored.

I like the way the kids run around barefoot, or even naked, having so much fun playing with rubber tires or empty plastic bottles. Life is simple, but I guess too simple since those same kids rarely go to school and spend their later childhood begging or selling things on the street. I can just as easily reflect on all the things I won’t miss about Africa, which includes the young boys begging with tin cans for money to take back to their religious leader at some Islamic center. Also the Mosquitos. Potholes. Squatting toilets. 40•c and no A/C. Buses that always take twice as long. Buying warm bottled water. People staring at me just because I’m not black. But my skin color is something I cannot change and I’m kind of over it by now…

But it’s funny how the things I find not so charming and utterly annoying are just a matter of my cultural perspectives. I get angry every time I ask how long a bus takes, and it never arrives the time I’ve been told. And the next bus driver I try to get the right answer from him as if I can bribe him with my ticket unless he tells me. But who the hell am i to change the system?

Then at each hotel, I expect to bargain the price down when there’s missing water or limited electricity, as if it’s the receptionists fault they live in a country without guaranteed supplies of either. And a dirty bed or missing mosquito net is just my problem to deal with, I’ve learned that by now. At the restaurant I ate dinner last night I ordered chicken, and got half a chicken cooked with no meat on it, and what there was was burned to the bone. I thought about sending it back to the kitchen, as if they’d be able to find a fatter chicken to slaughter and cook for me in their little village. Yeah right.

I catch myself talking to myself a lot, small internal pep talks to get me through the weird stuff. I’m usually convincing myself “this is okay” but end up just dictating “Katrin – deal with it.” Sometimes I argue back “I just can’t deal with this,” but then I always do. So, keep calm and carry on, as they say.

It’s funny to try and explain what it’s like here without sounding like I’m a little bit complaining. It’s not like I’m trying to be negative but the accident of birth forces me to experience everything with my Western, white-person perspective. It’s easy to take the goggles off and see everything around me as novel and wonderful, but then it’s still impossible to describe the feelings and sensations without being slightly cynical. Traveling here is tough, filthy, and slow, but the negative connotations of those words don’t reflect the wonderful feeling of being in a place that’s different from home, and amusingly trying to thrive in a place with unfamiliar social standards and cultural norms.

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One thought on “The Charming (and not-so-charming) things in West Africa

  1. “But my skin color is something I cannot change and I’m kind of over it by now… ”

    I appreciate the fact that we will never disagree on that !

    NB I really enjoy reading your blog !

    With best regards,

    TC

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