It has been nearly two weeks since I came back from my winter break trip to Saint-Louis, a city located in Northern Senegal. I kind of miss being there, everything became so familiar and cozy in such a small amount of time. I left feeling like if I had been living there for years, not just for a month. It surprises me how easily I adapt to new places, making them a special temporary home in my mind very quickly. On the one hand, it does take away the excitement of going on a new adventure abroad, but on the other hand, it allows me to feel comfortable and truly experience the place where I am. I have learnt that a tourist mindset is important to understand boundaries and privilege as a traveller, but it can prevent you from fully immersing yourself in where you are. That’s why I try to combine it with a resident mindset, trying to act as locals do and not stand out too much.
Though it was over a month ago, fresh in my memory is still the flight to Senegal and the drive from the brand-new airport Blaise Diagne, near Thies, to Saint-Louis. I felt very relieved when I arrived to the West African country, even if two days after my planned date. I was affected by an strike in the recently-opened Senegalese airport days before, which led to me staying two days stranded in a hotel in Casablanca airport, from where I departed. It was a very stressful situation, but fortunately, it was solved quickly with some insistency. My biggest issue was that I was separated from my luggage, as it had already been checked-in and was being kept inside the airport (I originally flew from Marrakesh, Casablanca was the connecting flight). Fortunately, I found it among many other luggages in Blaise Diagne airport, just after some minutes of searching anxiously in an area full of bags and suitcases from strike-affected passengers.
A private transfer driver picked me up from the airport in Senegal (he had a sign with my name and everything, I felt so important!), so I had no problem to find my way around. The driver was nice and helpful. He spoke French, so I had a bit of an issue conversing with him as I’m not fluent in that language, but we managed to understand each other most of the time. He drove me directly to my place of residence in Saint-Lous from the airport, only stopping to buy water and fruit after kindly asking me.
That 4-hour car ride was my first ever real encounter with Sub-Saharan Africa. I was knackered from the flight, but I still looked with curiosity through the car windows, glazing at the savannah landscape, a mix of desert and grassland ecosystems. The car occasionally went through small settlements and towns, with people selling food and artisanal objects on the sides of the road. At some point, everything became dark outside, as I arrived on the afternoon-evening, and I began to fall asleep (without ever fully falling sleep). I only bothered to look outside again once we arrived to Saint-Louis: the bridges and rivers we crossed through the city caught my attention (the city Saint-Louis is on the coast, made up of bridge-connected islands and some mainland) as well as the lively atmosphere outside. Neverthless, I couldn’t see much, due to my tiredness and the darkness outside.
Till that moment, my image of Senegal, and of Sub-Saharan Africa, was created just by media, books, articles and family stories: though ethnically from West (and Central) Africa, that was the first time I visited the region, and only my second time in Africa (I am currently living in Morocco as an exchange student since September last year). As weird as it might sound, I didn’t have any strong personal or emotional expectations, concerns or illusions about my trip. Just some superficial excitement when sharing with people where I was going. Almost certainly my most important travel to date, not even the personal relevance, being Senegalese from my paternal side, made me feel something other than emotional nothingness and my typical interest in new environments.
This might sound cold, but rather than detachment, it was a self-defence mechanism. Prior to the trip, I had spent months mentalising myself about certain things: “Firstly, this won’t be a sweet return to your so-called homeland, you are going mainly as a visitor to a place where you don’t know anyone and have never been before. Secondly, independently of your parents & grandparents being Africa-born, and you being black, you are Western and not immune to the colonial or racist mentality. Thirdly, you didn’t grow up submerged in your ethnic languages or cultures, you are gonna be an outsider in every way, act as such as. And fourth, take this as a chance to learn and understand while having an enjoyable time, don’t try to cling to painful and nostalgic fractured connections with your heritage.”
Born and raised in Spain, my ties to Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, DR Congo and Equatorial Guinea (my main ~backgrounds~) are weak. I didn’t grow up with my family, who still was very assimilated into Spanish/European culture. While I don’t consider Spain or Europe my home, only claiming either places during invasive passport controls, I have a hard time saying, “I’m Senegalese, I’m Equatoguinean etc.”: I feel like if I’m appropriating something that isn’t mine. It is hard to shake off that feeling. I wouldn’t wish to be anything other than West and Central African, the more I learn about my heritage, the prouder I’m of it. However, having studied tonnes of post-colonial theory and being an international development student in a radical-leaning institution, I know too much about issues of power, belonging and privilege to claim any titles easily. It is complicated.
Ultimately, my method of detachment proved to be the best choice. My first days in Senegal made me realise that ethnicity and belonging is much deeper than skin, heritage and family. Wherever I went, Senegalese people thought I was American, before I even opened my mouth. “Are you American?” I was asked in streets, shops, cafes and restaurants. I replied “no” and smiled, followed by other guesses, normally French or British. Sometimes I even got Malian and Nigerian. But, nobody ever said Spain or my parents’ countries. When I finally said I was born in Spain, most people were surprised. They were probably thinking “oh, black and Spanish?!”. I don’t blame them, even white Spaniards and, probably the rest of the world, think the same. Sometimes I did say that my father is Senegalese, and that my mother is Equatorial Guinean, but it was kind of useless. I was still a Western outsider. ‘Toubab’, as the Senegalese say.
It felt weird because in Spain everyone saw (sees) me as a foreigner, as the homogenous African, even with my obvious Spanish accent. In Britain I always tick the ‘Black African’ box (sometimes I tick ‘Black Other’, it depends on my mood) in the ethnicity forms. But there in Senegal, in my supposed “real/original homeland”, I was a foreigner too, not really from there. This made me realise that I wasn’t just being pessimistic and nihilistic when claiming mentally that “I’m from nowhere”. It is true. I’m from nowhere. I have no homeland. Identity is often seen as a form of self-identification, but truly, it is mostly defined subjectively by others. How (or not) you are ‘othered’ truly determines what you are and what you are not. This realisation doesn’t make me feel sad, but it does make me feel a bit emptier in a way. I just wish I was born in one of my parent’s countries, or that I at least spoke fluently one of their indigenous languages. It would make a significant difference.
Despite these identity issues, I would be lying if I said Senegalese people in Saint-Louis where anything other than welcoming and nice. The questions about where I came from were pushed by benign curiosity and interest, rather than malicious distrust I have encountered in other places: many locals tried to speak to me in Spanish and/or English after I revealed where I was born and where I normally lived, to show their competencies and hold conversations with me. Often dialogues were softly redirected to me buying something from their local businesses, but this didn’t incommode me. I was often happy to buy things, and when I didn’t, people didn’t get angry, bitter or too pressing.
Saint-Louis, mainly the island of Ndar (where I was most of my trip), was very calm and peaceful. After a day of being there, I had no problem going out alone and exploring on my own. The city has a very characteristic colourful, old and vintage architecture, with a lot to see and do. It is a very tourist and art oriented place, with many art galleries/shops and hotels. Sometimes the environment can be very dusty, as there is a lot of sand on the floor, but normally it is alright. I went out every day, mainly because I needed to eat something, and I didn’t want to cook. I ended up frequenting the same three establishments normally to eat: the Creperie Saint-Louisenne, the café Mouquets and the restaurant La Linguere.
The three places where within a walking distance from where I stayed. Mouquets, a bakery which serves drinks and meals, was my to go place for lunch and breakfast most of the time: I only went to La Linguere now and then to eat Senegalese dishes, which I couldn’t eat much because I have very low tolerance to spicy food. I loved going to the creperie on the afternoons for dinner, which served both sweet and salty crepes (I normally went for ham and cheese, chocolate spread, or just sugar/nothing). My favourite discovery from eating out was bissap juice, a delicious sweet drink made from hibiscus flower. I also became a sudden fun of chicken sandwiches, my most common meal. Both Mouquets and the Creperie were operated by women, who were always nice and helpful. I normally spoke with them on French, but sometimes they spoke to me in English, and towards the end of my stay, I started using only Wolof, which I had been learning for a while.
I guess that at this point you are probably wondering what I was doing in Senegal for a month, other than having an identity crisis and eating nice food. No, I wasn’t just on holidays doing nothing but exploring. I’m not into that type of travelling, nor I can allow myself to do that. I was taking part in an open residency program by Waaw, a Finnish artistic organisation in Saint-Louis, running my own independent research project and taking part in cultural workshops. Fear not, my time there was more interesting than my personal musings, this was just an introductory post for my new blog series, “Waaw Open Residency in Ndar”. This series won’t just contain written posts: there will be beautiful photo sets too. So, stay tuned for more. I hope you enjoy it.