Friday, January 29, 2010

Immersion? An Analysis of Wifi Coverage, Hairstyles, Poverty and Globalization.

I’m having trouble being so connected. Trouble might not be the right word. I feel like I’ve never travelled and been so in touch with my family and friends at home. Why does this trip feel easier, maybe, less distant from home than the others?

In Dakar I spend the majority of each day at the West African Research Center, which has glorious Wifi (pronounced weefee en français). I was surprised to see the new(ish) laptop computer that my host family owns, in addition to an older desktop. And they have DSL internet in their home that they use almost daily to talk to their oldest son, who is studying in France, or multiple other relatives who live in Europe. This is a huge change from the talk of shipping in huge satellites to get slower-than-molasses connections in Kenya. Here people are connected. Gmail, skype, excel, internet-ready phones, they’ve got it and my family, a “middle-class” family, uses it all.

This raises several questions for me. The first being, how will I ever learn French if the World Wide Web in English is at my fingertips? So far, self-discipline is the only solution. It is difficult, however, to regimen oneself to the extent that I refuse to communicate in my “mother-tongue” with other American students. That’s almost impossible to prevent. And as a woman, it would be very hard to be a loner in this city and make friends on my own. So immersion feels elusive, despite being in another country. (Bubble in French is boule.)

Connectivity in Senegal has raised other questions for me about relative poverty, globalization, and the relation between the two. If we’re talking about relative poverty the best gauge I know of is observing mention women’s hair styles. Women in Dakar almost universally get their hair braided or have weaves, which displays an investment of time, money, and perhaps a relatively high value of aesthetics (but describing Senegalese fashion will have to wait for another post), or even the empowerment of women. In Kenya, all girls had very short hair. Only older women or richer women got their hair done. Even in Durham a lower percentage of black women had their hair done than in Dakar. So in that respect also, Dakar feels “richer” to me.

In 2007, Senegal was ranked 166 out of 182 countries on the human development index- in the group of the least developed countries. So why can I not see the poverty? How might the poverty here look different than that of the southern United States or a village in western Kenya? And, I must question my expectations as well, must immersion in Africa be immersion in poverty? Certainly not. Africa suffers from the problem of “poverty porn” in the United States, where the image of starving children is synonymous with the continent. Check out these other blogs for a discussion of this topic. I plan to continue learning about and reflecting on this subject.

The final issue that makes me feel, shall we say, less immersed than expected is the similarities between Dakar and the United States. There are far more similarities than I would have expected. Most of these are cultural phenomenon related to music, dress, food, and entertainment. But the question with globalization is whether it is a two way street. Yes, I’d argue, I’ve heard of Akon, who is a Senegalese rapper now popular in the United States. But I never knew he was Senegalese. The reach of the American media giants (YouTube, Google, but NOT Starbucks, MacDonald’s, or movie theatres) here is convenient for my comfort, but seems to my water down my experience of Senegalese culture. As a professor from Paris said in a lecture yesterday, the United States is dominant in all spheres except soccer. It also feels ironic that I am trying to become more Senegalese during my time here while many others are trying to become more “American”.

In short, my question is why doesn’t Senegal feel more drastically different than the U.S.? Is it my bubble in class with other American students and Wifi? Is it the constant comparison to my hut sans water and electricity in rural Kenya? Is it because Senegal is relatively rich and therefore I am comfortable? Or is it the invasion of American culture? Or just the uniformity of urban culture worldwide? Maybe I’ve begun to undervalue cross-cultural experiences, or am beginning to live like an experienced traveler. Or something else?

It’s hard to know, but it could all be because I’m in a bubble. Maybe Senegal is so different and I just don’t see it yet. I’m just hoping that I can shut up enough to appreciate Senegal for what it is, not what I make of it.

I apologize for the overuse of parenthetical statements in this post, but it was worth it to be able to use the word parenthetical. Twice.

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