Independent of Our Skin

A Celebration of the Fourth in Senegal

On July 4th, as an American, I had the distinct pleasure of celebrating our nation’s independence in Dakar, Senegal. Knowing our family would be in Africa during the holiday, I had purchased a bundle of clothing from Old Navy for our group, men’s t-shirts ranging in sizes, women’s shirts ranging in style. All meant to outfit my husband Mark, and I, our teenaged-son, Davis, daughters Cheryl and Kaitlyn, Chris, our future son-in-law, and our daughter Shannon, spending the summer as an intern for U.S. State Department in Dakar.
The night before the Fourth, I had invited everyone but Shannon, who was out salsa dancing, to our hotel room to make their selection of patriotic gear.  Was I certain they would all wear it the next morning? No. Not at all.
I dressed the next morning, unsure of what to wear but pulled on some red shorts, leaving out a few items for Shannon to make a selection. Mark dressed to somewhat cover his American Distillers tee, concerned recent events in Egypt, ousting the Morsi government, might translate to American hostility in Senegal. Senegal is the same country which three days before had welcomed President Obama.
Chris and Cheryl, ever the performers, rose to the occasion to don their red, white, and blue bandanas.  Kaitlyn and Davis came dressed in their modest decisions. And a slight grin passed over my face when they all appeared at breakfast, with many of the restaurant patrons smiling too.  Shannon joined the mix, her America the Beautiful a natural choice for someone becoming more patriotic, the more time she spent overseas.
Our day began with a quick, hot taxi ride to the Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine in Dakar. The monument, standing 49 m tall, and situated on one of two hills in the city, is not without controversy. It was commissioned by the previous president of Senegal, built by the N. Koreans, gifted to the Senegalese.  The cost, the style, the revenue have all contributed to riots, disputes, and general dis-ease with the statue, such that its name should be changed to Le Monument de le Resistance.
My family, nattily dressed down to bandanas as neck scarves, light-up sunglasses, and metallic beads, are always reluctant to be part of organized photo ops. I hadn’t planned one, but an older African boy had been standing at the top of the monument steps with his family, using a camera more expensive than mine. As tourists, we often hesitate to ask others for photo assistance thinking someone might run away with the camera, but in this case, his equipment was far superior. 
I pointed at him a few times, positioning him where he could take a photo of our group.  He continued to stand in the foreground of what would be my picture, and smiled for quite some time before he understood I wanted to be in the picture, and needed him behind the lens.
After that drudgery, the family scattered like the fierce breeze around the monument.  Shannon was explaining the controversy with the monument, in that the woman in the statue is scantily clad, and the man’s face, which belonged to the outgoing president, did not correspond to the muscular body, while the baby the man held pointed his hands away from Senegal, Africa. 

Ever the optimist when it comes to someone else’s life, I mentioned seeing something else in the monument. The mother was pointing backward, hand rooted in the “motherland”, while the baby was pointing out over the seas, towards the future.  Shannon offered back, “You should work for the tourism department for this statue. They could use a few more ideas.”

Immediately thoughts of capitalism swirled around in my head, rock concerts overlooking the sea, and a rotating restaurant at the top. Developers in the U.S. would kill for the panoramic view. Yet, there we stood atop one of the most precious views in the country, we and a dozen other tourists contemplating the purpose of the monument.
Shannon next took us on the route she runs with the Marines, the road behind the statue.  We marched in line, a la The Von Trapp family, dressed in coordinating outfits, walking single file on rocky, dusty paths along the road towards Shannon’s neighborhood.
Our path continued past large foul-smelling garbage heaps, and several groups of the talibe, child beggars, out on the streets. They often stopped to unload from the Alhamdoulilah vans, and begged aloud for money.  Interspersed with the noise of taxis and buses, No merci, was our anthem repeated often that day.
We stood in line at a bank machine, where an armed guard kept the line at bay. He offered some discussion to Mark and Shannon, and gave them the old “se bon?” as we walked away. Yes, “se bon!” 
In turn, we stopped at Shannon’s apartment, to see her place and meet Rasta, the dog she was watching, attended a party at the Embassy, ate Asian food, drank Castel beer, and ended the night bowling, a truly American feat.
As we had paraded through the streets of Dakar, at times, we were the only white-skinned pedestrians for what might have been miles, or meters.  This fact did not pass through us without reflection.
We had undertaken all this freely, without fear. Our young women walked around without burqas, or long flowing sequined robes. Our son salivated over the soaring height of young men on the local basketball courts.  I yearned for the beautiful, uninterrupted skin and bright eyes of the local women.
But the true spirit of Independence Day had shone through earlier in the day before arriving at Shannon’s apartment. As we hiked down a main thoroughfare, past U.N. buildings, embassy housing, and Lebanese restaurants, we made a sudden right hand turn down a dusty street, with clucking birds hopping as they were chased by taxis. A boat builder was sanding his work across the street.
We had been so consumed by the craziness on the streets, at the crossroads of culture, when suddenly, we came upon four Senegalese men, relaxing beneath the partial shade of a tree outside of Shannon’s building.
When our group parted for Shannon to lead, the men recognized her, immediately jumping from their positions, holding their arms out wide, and chanting, “Ah Shannon. Ah family!” 
We were greeted warmly in French and Wolof (local language). As Shannon went inside her apartment briefly, each man in turn offered us a wooden bench or stool to sit and rest. They pointed at, or inquired about our shirts, as we discussed Independence Day back home. Kaitlyn practiced her French and we shared with them a little of our Wolof knowledge (si si for ladies man) and found instant friends.
The highlights of that day continue to reverberate within me, now that we are “home.” Glow bowling in a foreign country.  Embassy parties.  Cocktails by the infinity pool with two young Peace Corps volunteers, who wished us Happy Independence Day.  But my favorite scene from that day was in our approach to Shannon’s apartment.
In a world 4,000 miles away from the U.S., a young, petite, American woman had been embraced, respected and watched over by these men. They cheered for us as we advanced. They wished us well when we left.
I was not at all taken by the celebrity-like reception, but the fact that this outpouring can happen, did happen. For that, we have our children to thank, for learning French, wearing the tees, traveling to Senegal, demonstrating when we step outside our skin, color no longer matters.


One comment

  1. Beautiful, Annette! What a fabulous experience for your entire family, but especially for Shannon! I so admire her bravery–or, maybe it's just her youth that I envy!

    Read backs: beautiful, uninterrupted skin
    We marched in line, a la the Von Trapp family, dressed in coordinating outfits

    Also LOVE your interpretation of the monument's significance


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