2 weeks before my invite to Senegal to do an agricultural shoot for AgDevCo, my daughter did an oral on the topic of transport 4000BC, before the time of the wheel. We googled a few options and learned about the dugout as one of the first methods of water transport. Having lived in Malawi near the lake, the ‘dugout’ appealed to us and so we researched it. It led us to Lake Chad, where the oldest recorded dugout was found (The Dafuna dugout). We did a whole lot of research on this area and to be honest, it made me realise how little I know about Africa, despite living in it! Central, North and West Africa are parts of Africa that I had never been to. We learned how the region has changed climatically over the years, how Lake Chad was more like an inland sea thousands of years ago, we learned about the Sahel and the geography and cultures of that region. Little did I know that 2 weeks later, I would be flying right over that region and in the far distance, I spotted the river and the Lake Chad we had just researched. Coincidence or not, but I revelled in the moment, as the plane crossed this region that my daughter and I had just researched. I revelled in seeing the landscape, ( from atop!) that was only ‘text book’ theory not so long ago. It took us 10 hours to fly from Ethiopia to Dakar with a one hour stop in Mali. That alone was a surprise to me. Africa is as wide as it is long!
We flew over so many countries that I’d like to go to. But Senegal is a country that I have wanted to go to for a long time. It’s one of those ‘distant dream’ countries’ that seem out of reach. For me, Senegal is a cultural destination; its slave history, its vibrant culture, its African jazz, its people, its everyday life abuzz. There is an energy about Senegal that lifts you up and takes you on a ride!
I was in Senegal for a very short time. 5 days only. And so you must know that my experience of Senegal is just a ‘taster.’ My experience of Senegal is of fleeting moments as we drive passed a building, groups of people, a herdsman and his cattle, a man washing his feet before prayer, the horse carting children to school or a woman in the market offering an espresso glass of mint tea – a glimpse of every day life in Senegal.
Though it was short, it was enough for me to have an impression. It was also enough for me to confirm that while I don’t know much French or Wolof or the region or the Senegalese culture, I know one thing. Last week, I was in a part of South Africa that I have never been to before. I felt my ‘differentness’ more on home ground than I do when I am in a foreign country!’ This is because being South African in South Africa, there is an expectation to know my own country and to feel like I am in familiar territory. But South Africa has 11 official languages, a rainbow of races, cultures and beliefs. And to add to it, our apartheid history has its roots in ‘separateness’ and ‘difference,’ where it feeds off our fear of ‘difference’ and holds us captive in a self-imposed cage. When I was in Senegal, I was a foreigner and I was different. I didn’t think about that though. Instead, I went to a new country with an open mind and with the intention to see another way of living and doing things, without fear of difference. This is the beauty of travel. Because it is temporary and not ‘mine,’ I am not threatened by it. Instead I am fascinated by it, I want to learn about it and even celebrate it. I know I don’t have to adopt it, but I must accept it for it being it. During travel, I accept ‘difference’ without a blink! I expect it. I seek it to feel enlightened or to learn.
On the photography shoots that I have done recently, I have realised that to capture a true moment, a genuine smile or a scene in which the people I am photographing feel comfortable in my presence, I must connect with them. I must be comfortable in their presence first and I must be open for them to feel open. There are so many ways to connect with someone, but mostly, it requires us to find something in common and literally, to take the initiative to reach out to someone you don’t know. It might be with a smile, a gesture for them to go first or a comment about something you are both experiencing that moment…something as simple as the weather or a long queue! An action or comment that demonstrates that our difference is not the focus but that our humanity is.
In Senegal, their motto is ‘Teranga.’ Teranga means ‘hospitality’ in Wolof and is the backbone of their culture. The Senegalese value ‘bringing people or outsiders into the circle.’ They willingly move and shift their position to include you. They share their food in one great big bowl for all to eat from. They believe that ‘no matter where you go, or where you come from, there is a place for you.’ In Senegal, they bring the outsider in.
Though my stay was short, ‘Teranga’ was my impression of Senegal. A vibrant, friendly and welcoming country! My trip to Senegal highlighted that despite a lack of the French and Wolof language, despite our different races, cultures, beliefs and nationalities – that if I focus on our humanity and similarities, I am able to connect and capture real, comfortable moments. We are mothers, we are travellers, we all eat, we all have hope and aspirations for our future, we all need to feel safe and we all hate the mosquito! The opportunity for a simple connection is immense if we look for it. This is what I love about being a photographer and a traveler or someone in a foreign place – it highlights that our humanity is the thread that runs through the fabric of society.
In the next couple posts I will be sharing the photos I took with some captions. These photography shoots that I have been on are obviously ‘work’ focused. On this particular shoot, my focus was on ‘smallholder farmer rice cultivation’ along the Senegal River on the border of Mauritania. The area reminded me a little of Nchalo – the sugar estate on the Shire river in Malawi that we used to live on; the heat, dust, mosquitoes and flat countryside with a lazy wide brown river dotted with dugouts and lined with reeds. I had many fleeting moments on this trip that I wish I could have paused, and I would love to have stayed longer and explored more of Senegal, learned more and perhaps even improved on my very bad French and learned some more Wolof! I was very lucky that AgDevCo, the agriculture investment company that I do work for, hired me an interpreter! My interpreter’s name is Cherif Diallo who is a masters Economics student at the University of St Louis on the North coast of Senegal. Having Cherif assist me during my photography shoots was like having my own personal tour/history/communications/cultural consultant guide and also a lighting assistant!!! Cherif is fluent in English, French and Wolof and I can highly recommend Cherif as an interpreter.
” Every human belongs to the whole world, for that very universal belonging is what makes humanity human.” – Abhjit Naskar