"This is the world... We must live in it."
Feeding sheep, reading Kierkegaard, and writing about Senegal as a White guy.
I didn't know how to write to y’all about Africa until I realized I'm not writing about “Africa” at all. I'm writing about myself.
I'm a straight, Southern White guy, writing from the country of Senegal, in the city of Dakar, living with my wife in the neighborhood of H.L.M., staying in an apartment in a family townhouse, drinking Cotes du Rhone on this balcony overlooking a courtyard where a group of kids are playing soccer.
Too many White writers have pretended to write authoritatively about “Africa”, and I don’t want to be one of them. See, “Africa” doesn’t exist. It’s a continent with 54 countries that are as different from one another as France is from America, with people as different from one another as y’all are from your neighbor.
That is to say, completely different and not different at all.
These days, the ideas of ‘difference’ and ‘identity’ seem to be the main focus of ‘public discourse’, and I get just as confused as y’all do when engaging in those conversations. I’ve been especially self-conscious when it comes to sharing my travels in Senegal. However, I’ve found some clarity by feeding sheep, remembering geese, smoking my pipe, listening to our Borom Kër, and reading Soren Kierkegaard. I’ve been able move beyond ‘discourse’ to focus on my personal relationships, and I hope sharing this will help y’all do that too.
Arriving in West Africa while the World Changed Overnight
The moment I looked out the window of the plane as we approached the Dakar airport, I was in awe. In retrospect, I doubt there was anything particularly striking about the red and green landscape, aside from the fact that I hadn’t slept on our eight-hour flight, and it was hitting me that I was “in Africa" for the first time.
This was the morning of February 25th, Dakar time.
Amidst the hustle of deplaning at the Dakar airport, my wife managed to check her phone and said, "Russia has invaded Ukraine".
That news felt like it came from “a world away”, as I’d arrived in a place literally across the world from Atlanta. Yet, as a good many people living in Atlanta or Harlem can tell you (especially my former students), Senegal and places like it are anything but “a world away”. And, if y’all ever walk down the street in Dakar and see a BMW cruising alongside a donkey-cart, while a guy wearing Versace shoes avoids bumping into a sheep as he checks his I-phone 13, y’all will realize that you’re just as “in the world” as anywhere else.
(If you’re from Senegal, or a place like Senegal, please, just bear with this tobaub for a second.)
Meanwhile, I was experiencing “White guy visits Africa for the first time” syndrome. All I could focus on was this exciting new place, simultaneously feeling ashamed for seeing it as “exotic” and “different”. For the moment, geopolitics was the furthest thing from my mind.
“Wide-Eyed White Guy”
The airport is outside the city, so we had a roughly 45-minute cab ride and all I could think as I watched Senegalese hills pass by the window was, "This is so different, yet I've seen this before".
The hills outside of Dakar, dotted with cinder-block houses and chic glass high-rises, look like those spots in the South where the pines have been cut away and the rain has erased the grass to reveal Georgia clay. It looks like the stretch of Georgia’s Highway 20 that runs from my hometown McDonough to Covington. The only difference is that the dirt is dry here. It’s also formed from the Sahara-desert.
When we arrived in our new neighborhood and the asphalt gave way to sanded streets lined with Fords and the occasional Mercedes, in between tightly packed beige apartment buildings with folks selling purple-paisley fabrics out of shops covered in corrugated tin, pulled into the courtyard bustling with voices I couldn't understand, we were greeted by our UC Berkley-educated hostess.
After getting our luggage upstairs, taking hot showers, and getting the Wi-Fi password, I paused to smoke my pipe. Standing on the terrace, I started taking pictures of everything I saw, posting a few to Instagram, and then figuring out which ones I’d send to my friends and family. Yet, each time I snapped a picture, I worried that I would reinforce those stereotypes about Africa. I felt like I had to get the ‘right’ perspective on where I’d be living for the next six months. If I saw “Africa” with a “White-gaze”, I would just be another good-for-nothing "Colonizer". …And y'all know that nothing hurts White folks worse than being called "racist”. However, the fact is that I have eyes and I’m always going to see the world as a White dude. Period.
Trying to get it “right” about “Africa” in the “discourse”?
For me, there’s a strong link between my personal life and “the discourse”. I'm familiar with ideas like “positionality”, “White privilege”, and “decolonizing the mind”. Like y’all, I see them on Instagram memes and on television shows, bu those ideas affect my life in tangible ways. My wife is Black, and we will have mixed-race children. A world that values racial-justice is a world that will be better to my family. It’s a world that will be better to my friends, my students, and to people who have been kind to me in the places I've called home; Harlem, McDonough, and now Dakar.
Graduate school allowed me study Critical Theory, so I’ve been able to understand the nuances of those words, but all that book learnin’ didn’t give me the ability to share what I was experiencing while I providing something “positive to the discourse”.
Yet, can all of our discourses, these memes and think-pieces, hot-takes and diversity trainings, create a more socially-just world? What does social-justice look like? How will we know when we’ve achieved it? How does the discourse help us go about our day treating people better than we did the day before?
The scholar of Linguistics, James Gee, defines “discourse” as:
“A socially accepted association among ways of using language, thinking, of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group". 1
Essentially, “discourse” comprises all of our topics of conversation. It’s the ideas presented in TV shows, movies, and publications. It’s the things we argue about on social media.
For example, let’s say Twitter is blowing up over whether or not its "problematic" to use “bar soap” over “body wash". The components of this “discourse" would be the idea of soap itself, that it comes in different forms, that one can use different types of soap, and the entire concept of “showering every day”. When you have any opinion about soap, you show that you understand these terms, so you are engaging in ‘discourse’.
(Before y'all get any ideas, Dove is sold in both bar and body wash form at the mall in Almadies, and the only person in the neighborhood who skips a daily shower is me.)
In fact, there's a whole academic discipline of discourse analysis, where you study the ideologies, hierarchies, and power dynamics inherent to our discourses. Some are "primary", meaning that they' re the most widely understood and some are "secondary", meaning they are less widely understood within a given society. The point is, that discourse is about thinking and speaking.2
So, that first day here in Dakar, it mattered very much to me what my friends and family thought about "Africa". It mattered even more that it seemed to my social media followers that I had “progressive", "de-colonial" understanding of "Africa". In my Wide-White-Guy eyes, I wanted to identify myself as someone who was “not racist”, had an "authentic” understanding of "Africa” and did not want to “reinforce harmful stereotypes".
Looking out over that Dakar skyline with my pipe between my teeth, I was so concerned with getting the my discourse right about the people in Senegal that I didn’t stop to think whether or not the people in Senegal gave a damn what I thought about them.
Ceebu Jën, Teranga, and Southern Hospitality.
I smoked my pipe while listening to the sound of the mid-morning prayers on the top floor of the townhouse, beside the enclosed pen where our household's sheep are kept. (They're short-haired sheep, and for weeks I thought that they were goats.) The open-air terrace looks like a courtyard with an apartment for the tailor of the atelier below an as-yet-to-be-constructed rec. room. There is a kitchen beside this apartment, and on the other side of the courtyard is a lounge where our Borom Kër relaxes by watching soccer on an HD TV.
(Borom kër is the Wolof word for “head of the household”, and that’s how I’ll refer to him here for the sake of privacy.)
Soon enough, my wife came upstairs and our Borom Kër invited us into his lounge for a lunch of cheebu jën.
It's a dish of rice, fish, cabbage, eggplant, and carrots, all slow roasted with a whole mess of spices. My wife introduced me to ceebu jën last year at a Harlem restaurant, and it’s become one of my favorite meals. I’d never had it “Senegalese-style”, that is served in a large metal serving bowl that everyone eats from. Everyone has their own spoon, so they must stick to their side of the bowl. Also, make sure you have a napkin to discretely deposit the fish bones after you take a bite. ...Damn, it’s delicious.
For me, eating ceebu jën the perfect symbol for the Wolof concept of "Teranga". This is a sacred understanding of how a host treats guests, and it’s exactly the same as our famous “Southern Hospitality”. Being offered ceebu jën, a cup of Touba coffee, or the Sultan-brand green tea is just like when your Aunt, Uncle, or Cousin offers you a glass of sweet tea at their house. Don’t refuse and know the deep implications of the gesture. Both traditions are sacred, and even the tea is served with that “too-sweet” level of sugar.
Over lunch, our Borom Kër told us how he met his wife when he lived in the States. I listened intently, reminding myself not to expect some sort of "Grand African wisdom". The conversation turned to his time as a manager of a Staples on the West coast. He believed that one has to learn the system of Capitalism, and "play the game", so to speak, for the sake of providing for the people you love, and to find your own sense of joy in life.
Then, I relented. I told him everything I'm writing to y'all now: How I did not want to conceive of Senegal in a way that was overly romantic or fetishizing, how it was important for me to present this place truthfully, and how I was simultaneously blown away by how different and exciting I found Dakar.
We began to discuss the nuances of Race and meaning of Whiteness. Then, he started chuckling. He and my wife looked at each other, and she said, “People in Dakar care as much about what Americans think of them as much as you care what someone in the Czech Republic thinks of you”.
Whether or not I was re-enforcing a "White gaze" or “decolonizing my mind” only mattered as much as it matters to me, and by extension, how much it matters in the discourses I engage with. …It didn’t matter to anyone here.
Not the “grand wisdom” I expected…
I discreetly spat out a fish bone as our Borom Kër browsed his I-phone, with the sheep braying above us, and football game on the TV. Without looking up, he said something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“This is the world... We must live in it.”
...Well, damn. I got that “Grand African Wisdom” after all, but not from some “Tribal Elder”. I got it from a guy who moved to another country, worked in a variety of management positions, fell in love with a woman, married her, had kids, then moved back to his hometown with his new family, and is raising his children in the house he grew up in. A guy with plans to remodel the terrace over the summer. A guy trying to find the best way to arrange the potted plants. And yes, he happens to be Senegalese, and Senegal happens to be a country in West Africa.
But, lawrd amighty, “this is the world... we must live in it” is so much harder than “providing something positive to the discourse”.
Sheep, Geese, and Soren Kierkegaard
In the three weeks since I heard that sentence, I’ve processed it through the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, the memory of my grandparents’ geese, and the routine of feeding the household sheep.
In Works of Love, nineteenth-century Existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard states:
“When you walk in company with God, you need to see only one single person in misery, and you will not be able to escape what Christianity will have you understand: human likeness”3
Kierkegaard goes on to say that “Christian love teaches love of all men; unconditionally all."4 Think about that for a second. There are no intrinsic differences between human beings. None whatsoever. In fact, I think that if we see Race as anything other than an invention by human beings, we take away the power from Christianity.
I believe that idea shows us that if you don’t see people as unconditionally equal, you cannot love them unconditionally, and so you cannot love them as a true Christian. Yet, I don’t think it takes misery, as Kierkegaard says, for us to see true “human likeness”.5
The human likeness in our stories
Each morning, I go up to the roof to feed the sheep apple peels, melon rinds, and anything else compostable. I smoke my pipe and remember the geese my Nanna and Pawpaw used to have in their yard. As a child in Georgia, I’d wake up to hear them squawking, just like I hear the braying of these sheep in the morning. I also fed them cantaloupe rinds.
I’ll puff my briarwood, glance from the skyline to my Instagram feed, and I see Ukrainian flags expressing support for human beings in misery. I see posts that point out the hypocrisy of how these people with lighter skin are treated better than the millions of Black and Brown refugees. Yes, this hypocrisy infuriates me. Yet, I go back to Kierkegaard. He said that the measure of a human being’s “fundamental disposition” is how far our understanding is from what we do, and the massive distance between our understandings and our actions.6
Then I think about my wife’s Hinge profile sentiment that a man’s "feminist discourse" should match his actions. The idea that our "discourse" should match our actions is “dead ass facts” (as the kids would say). Yet, it’s easier to call people out for not matching their actions to their discourse than it is to change our actions. We end up feeding right back into that loop of discourse, which is about as “useful as a two-dick dog” (as my Southern boys would say).
My discourse matters only in so far as it helps me to be more decent to the person next to me in the checkout line, whether that’s at a Dakar corner-store or a Georgia Publix, no matter what they look or sound like.
Before landing in Senegal, I would have told y’all that I didn’t see a difference between the people fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan, or Mexico and the people fleeing violence in Ukraine. The truth is that I did. I just didn’t realize it.
I can say now, with confidence, that I see no difference between Black, Brown, and White bodies. Yet, seeing and acting are different activities. A new way of seeing will impact my discourse, but I have to work to make sure that it impacts my actions.
I’ll leave y’all with what I’m learning... this is the world, with no binary answers, and I have no choice but to live it. Really live, in that I’m forming active, messy relationships, where I screw up, say “problematic” things, then figure out how to be a better friend, husband, son, and stranger. I think that goes the same for y’all. It becomes easier when we focus on human likeness, and by extension, human equality.
This looks like Teranga and Southern Hospitality. The sugar in the tea. The geese and the sheep. The story of a man falling for a woman, having kids and bringing his family home to see his mother. The stories are the same, no matter what language they’re told in.
Gee, James Paul. “What is Literacy?” Journal of Education , v171 n1 p18-25 1989
Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. Harper Perennial, New York, 2009