Last night my sister asked me to come with her to the boutique in our neighborhood to buy bread for dinner. I put down the book I was reading and bounded down the stairs two at a time, aware that she was already halfway out the door. I reached our front door and just as I was reaching around to close it I realized something. “Tabara,” I asked, “Est-ce que je peux porter des shorts?” (Can I wear shorts?) “C’est pas grave,” she said with a smile (it’s not a big deal.) “T’es sur?” (You’re sure?) “Oui, c’est pas grave” she said again (yeah, it’s not a big deal.) Until yesterday I had never worn shorts outside in Senegal, and definitely not Nike athletic shorts that stopped well above the knee.
For the first couple of minutes of our walk I was hyper-aware of myself. I wondered if everyone was staring at me, if people were offended by what I was wearing. Tabara was wearing a short dress, too, but I reasoned that she was Senegalese. “You stick out,” I told myself. In the midst of all my worrying, a friend passed by on a motorbike and said hi to me. I had a conversation about the heat with the woman at the boutique. I talked about my hometown with a neighbor while I waited for Tabara to buy Nescafe. And just like that I started to feel more and more comfortable, less like I was breaking an unspoken social norm.
For reference, before I came to Senegal I was told that I generally should not wear anything above knee-length, as women usually wear long dresses/skirts/pants. This has held true, for the most part. You will rarely see older women in a dress or a skirt that is not full-length. People wear pants in 105 degrees Fahrenheit here in Kaolack (though I have seen some girls my age wearing short dresses and mini skirts. Who can blame them? It’s hot.)
I’ve been very conscious about the clothes I wear. In Dakar I only wore the few above-the-knee articles of clothing I brought with me if I was going out with friends at night, like every other young Senegalese person (Dakar has a great fashion scene, by the way.) I’ve done everything I can to fit in with Senegal’s more conservative dress code. But I’ve started to wonder: what is it that allows a person to integrate himself or herself well into a society? Does what I wear really set me apart, making my identity as an outsider more obvious? I haven’t really felt like an outsider: I’ve had two Senegalese host families, and in each I’ve felt like a member of the family. I call my host siblings my brothers and sisters, my cousins. I have Senegalese friends. I speak some Wolof. I can greet people according to the standard Senegalese greeting, using French, Wolof & Arabic. I incorporate Islamic phrases into my conversations. I wear wax cloth outfits. I love Senegalese food. I have a Senegalese name. I feel at home in Senegal.
But yet, I’m not Senegalese. I am a very obvious foreigner. I came to terms with that fact my first week here. There is no way for me to hide my physical appearance and several other integral parts of my identity. I was raised in a strong Protestant family; I doubt that I will ever be Muslim, or Catholic. My cheeks get red when I’ve had too much sun. My accent is foreign. I can’t eat the spicy pepper customary to many Senegalese dishes. I have an American passport. On many levels, no matter how hard I’ve tried not to be, I’m different here. Would anything change that? If I converted to Islam or Catholicism would I be more Senegalese? If I was fully fluent in Wolof? If I didn’t own a short pair of Nike shorts?
I think the answer is that I don’t need to do any of these things to feel like I belong here in Senegal, to feel like a member of the communities in which I’ve lived. I would love to be fully fluent in Wolof, and if I had time I’d convert my entire wardrobe to wax cloth. But I’ve come to feel so at home here because once you get past the physical, cultural, religious, etc. differences between you and another person, you realize that you’re both human and you both want to get to know each other. You want to know what kind of music the other person likes, and if they’re more of a strawberry or chocolate or vanilla ice cream kind of person. If they have trouble sleeping in the heat like you do, if you use the same color of nail polish, what they think of your religion and what you think of theirs. Connecting to others despite obvious differences has been one of my most valued lessons here. I should note, too, that Senegal has made it fairly easy. Senegal has a special knack for welcoming you in with open arms.