Most U.S. citizens know little or nothing about Africa. Instead, we simply imagine what the continent is like. The media, popular culture and stereotypes have created an Africa that is a timeless and exotic place, where warfare dominates, “tribes” rule and wild animals roam. As a result, we neglect to recognize the people, customs, spirituality, kinship, and beautiful, diverse cultures that one finds in the large continent.
Many also think of “Africa” as a singular place, yet Africa is a continent, larger than the U.S. and diverse. Many Africans identify in relation to their home country, not as “Africans.” We Americans must break down our engraved colonial and post-colonial misconceptions of Africa, because despite popular belief, many countries in Africa are full of life, color, hospitality and peace.
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I learned about Africa to prepare for my semester abroad, and I have now been on the continent for a week. This semester, I am living in the West African country of Senegal, specifically in its capital, Dakar. I am here to study French and the Senegalese language Wolof. Senegal is a republic and a primarily Muslim country with a small Christian population. People here are tolerant of religions and cultures other than their own. As a white man here who has experienced only generosity and curiosity, I can testify to that.
Because of its location on the Atlantic Ocean, Dakar is a major trade port. In the downtown area, one finds giant cargo ships and skyscrapers that dominate the hazy sky. In the streets, thousands of vehicles, including taxis, buses and personal cars, cram the roads, paved and unpaved. People walk along the roads, avoiding cars, passing homes, shops and food stands. Many women dress in colorful fabrics or pants and T-shirts, and men dress in nice pants and shirts or in their religious attire. Over three million people live in Dakar.
It's normal to greet people on the street when you pass them and to stop and converse with men who sit under the shade of baobab trees and drink tea. Of course, language barriers limit my ability to converse; however, I can feel the warmth and welcome from all when they smile, laugh, and genuinely attempt to engage and learn with me. Despite my privilege and the poverty that does exist in this country, I have felt the kindness and hospitality since I arrived. No, I haven't seen a giraffe, been struck by illness or witnessed violence. None of the stereotypes of Africa that I learned at home have held true.
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We, as Americans, could all use teranga, a Wolof word and concept that describes Senegalese hospitality. All those who come to Senegal are welcomed and respected, as long as they reciprocate the respect.
Because of these accepting, peaceful, and tolerant attitudes, in my opinion, the Senegalese are just as, if not more, kind, generous and open to different beliefs and cultures than those in the U.S. Sure, stereotypes still exist in Senegal, but they do not perpetuate misbeliefs that lead to malice or the degradation of a culture.
It should be our mission as Americans and college students to break down stereotypes about other cultures and to accept all. I challenge those at the University to welcome and respect all, and I encourage all Americans to be more accepting and tolerant of all cultures. Please, let's begin practicing teranga.
Alex Cateforis is a junior from Lawrence studying English, French, and art history.