This past week I found myself returning from another forum hosted by my internship organization in a village on the outskirts of the city. Scrunched in between two others in the backseat of an old pickup truck, I was tossed around like a rag doll every time our driver unsuccessfully tried to maneuver around a pothole. Wind whipping flyaway strands of hair around my face, I closed my eyes every now and then, pressing my palms against my eyelids to keep out the dust that threatened to make me regret wearing contacts that day. I started to feel that the car was slowing down, and the women in my car began to talk anxiously amongst themselves. I peered ahead and was greeted by the site of more than fifty people crowded around the crushed front bumper of a car.
I briefly made eye contact with a young man in the back of an ambulance as we pulled off onto the side of the road, propped up on his elbows with one leg hanging off the side of a rusty metal stretcher. Our driver got out to go see what all the commotion was about. I leaned my head out the half-open window and pieces of conversation floated by me. “Accident.” “S’écraser.” (“To crash.”) “Sante Yalla.” (“Thank God.”) Indeed, there had been an accident. Two ambulances were at the scene, and it seemed that everyone and his/her mother had stopped to help. Several large oil tankers were parked at odd angles along the road, and cars had scattered themselves in the sand. Every new vehicle that approached pulled over to stop, its passengers getting out to join the crowd.
We sat there for twenty minutes while emergency personnel lifted a couple more people into the ambulances, men lending a hand to lift the stretchers. Everyone else milled about, talking to each other. It struck me what a prime example this accident was of the collectivist nature of Senegalese culture. The idea of group-before-individual is engrained into the fabric of both the traditional Senegalese and the greater African culture. People stop to help those around them when they can because it is accepted as a cultural norm. Were all of the people who stopped at the accident being helpful? My Western perspective tells me no, they were taking up space and making the jobs of medical personnel that much harder. But my Senegalese perspective tells me yes, that all of those people’s presence was appreciated as group support. Their reasoning told them it was important to stop because it very well could have been them in that accident.
Travel to Senegal for a week and you will see how this groupthink manifests itself in daily life. A prominent example is the fact that no one lives alone. In the US, young people strive to earn enough money to be able to move out of their parents’ homes. In movies, buying one’s first apartment is celebrated as a rite of passage for the young person new to the workforce. In Senegal, young people live with their family members until they get married, at which point they either continue living with their family or move in with their spouse’s family. The Senegalese rely on friend and family connections to start business ventures, they see no reason to save money for retirement when they know friends and family will provide for them, personal space is not valued, outsiders are welcomed into the home without question, and everyone who sees an accident on the road pulls over to help. Senegalese culture is group culture.
This is not to say that embracing group culture has been a walk in the park. At times it has been very bizarre. I was raised in a culture that taught me to be self-sufficient and independent, one that teaches its young people that it is ok to put the individual before the group. Is one culture better than the other? That I cannot say. They contrast so starkly with each other. What I can say is that I hope to bring some of this collectivist culture with me when I return to the states, because it emphasizes sacrifice for one’s neighbor and kindness at all times. These are lessons that I can appreciate regardless of my cultural background.