African American, Alice Kaplan, boubous dress, braids, Buenos Aires, buzzed hairstyles for men, CIEE Council on International Exchange, cornrows, Dakar Senegal, Dreaming in French: Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Susan Sontag and Angela Davis, Iberia Airlines, Marché HLM, Marché Sandaga, Marrakech, New Yorker magazine, Ouakam Senegal, salons de coiffeur, Senegal, St. Catherine University, taibas traditional dress, TESOL, tresses, tresses Américaines, West Africa
(French) After switching planes three times before takeoff in Minneapolis, I missed my flight in New York City and spent the night at an airport hotel without my checked luggage. The next day, I pleaded with an Iberia Airlines agent to revalidate my ticket for the connecting flight to Madrid, Spain. Another flight missed. I was exhausted. Did I make the right decision to study abroad in Dakar, Sénégal? I wondered. No turning back now. I was no longer registered on campus and I had quit my job.
Finally, I was really on my way. As the plane taxied on the runway, my heart felt as though it would jump out of my throat. Excitement coursed through my veins. My stomach was tied in knots.
My seatmate, Mamou, whom I met on this final connecting flight from Madrid to Dakar, Sénégal, helped me navigate the airport in Dakar which was an experience quite different from what I was used to in the U.S. Mamou, who was originally from Sénégal, was returning home for a visit from his home in Italy. He helped carry my bags down the stairs and across the tarmac to the shuttle that carried us to the terminal and stayed with me until we cleared customs. Mamou fended off more than a half dozen people waiting at the baggage claim, who follow Westerners like me, to help with luggage. They search the carousel, grab your bags and sometimes refuse to return them until you pay an exorbitant sum of money, he explained. For unsuspecting Westerners it is a rude welcome to West Africa.
Outside the terminal, Mamou looked at me with a silent question, is it okay to leave you? We both saw the man holding a CIEE sign who would take me to my final destination in Dakar. I had explained to Mamou that I was a student studying abroad with the Council on International Educational Exchange, CIEE. Together, we had reached our journey’s end. Mamou did not want to leave and neither did I. We said bonsoir. I thanked him, and we parted ways.
The man with the sign who greeted me was middle-aged, tall and thin. He wore a gray, long-sleeved-dress with white pointed-toe slippers and a round, flat-topped embroidered hat, also in white. Outside the terminal, we pushed our way through a crowd of at least 150 people who yelled in French and English, Madame, Madame! Echange de l’argent! Crédit Orange! Vous avez besoin d’un taxi? Taxi! Right this way! Let me help you with your bags! Madame, Madame! Viens ici! He drove me from the airport to a local hotel in Dakar where other exchange students and I would spend a week of orientation.
I am African American. A French student. And, I chose to study in Dakar, Sénégal, because I wanted to explore a non-Western culture and its perspective. In anticipation of my trip, I had a romanticized feeling of a homecoming. Or, at the very least, a deep meaning, once I stepped foot on African soil.
I did not know much about Sénégalese people or their culture before I arrived, but I hoped that my African ancestry would transcend our differences and provide the sense of connection that I longed for but never felt in the United States. The sociological term for this feeling is “permanent displacement.” In the United States, African Americans are home, but we are never “home.”
It did not take me long to realize that Sénégal would not satisfy my inner longing for a connection to the African continent, my ancestral home. But instead of focusing on my disappointment, I tried to let go of my expectations and enjoy what each day had to offer. I remember my mom telling me repeatedly, “Cherish every moment because pretty soon this will be a memory.” I can see now as I look back that it was this surrender of expectations that facilitated the changes I experienced while living abroad.
Before living in Sénégal, I struggled to see the external beauty that my friends and family insisted I possessed. I grew up in the city but attended suburban private and public schools, so I was not able to fully relate to my urban African American peers or my white suburban classmates. Caught between two worlds, I thought of myself in terms of the qualities I lacked.
Despite learning to work with my physical features (feeling more confident by the time I reached high school), deep down, I still wished that I looked more like the “ideal” woman promoted by Western media: fair-skinned, light-eyed, tall and slender. One major difference between the United States and Sénégal is the amount and type of advertising. Most advertisements in Sénégal promote food or household necessities and the majority of ads feature African people. The lack of Western advertising forced me to look to my surroundings for inspiration and everyday Sénégalese women became my point of reference.
It fascinated me, in a country with 48% unemployment and where people struggle daily to put food on the table, that women and men take great pride and spend much money on their appearance. Sénégalese women often wore boubous, loose-fitting, monotone tops embroidered at the necklines with long sleeves and matching skirts accented by head wraps in a variety of colors. Or taibas, the traditional dress of patterned tops featuring off-the-shoulder or boat-neck tops sometimes with cutouts along the neckline and hem. They are made of cotton, stiffer than the boubou, and often paired with a matching head wrap, tied in such a way that creates a bow effect in the front. Men wore traditional boubous with matching pants and sometimes coupled with pointed-toe slippers and round, flat-topped embroidered hats in a complimentary color. Traditional clothing was appropriate for the workplace, as well as for running errands. Western clothing was also common, especially among teenage and college-age youth.
Another cultural contrast was the affirming hair culture in Sénégal. African Americans tend to obsess over hair type and alter their natural hair texture to obtain a sleek, straight style. Whereas in Sénégal, women wore a variety of hairstyles that flatter African hair textures: from cornrows to braids, to curly weaves to straight weaves, and twists. It was the first time I had ever lived in an environment where the hair care products were tailored to people with hair like mine. Advertisements on the doors of the many salons de coiffeur were paintings of black women with tresses (braids), or tresses Américaines (cornrows); and sometimes featuring men with buzzed hairstyles, trimmed with razors, pictured alongside. It was a complete role-reversal with my classmates; white women could not get haircuts since there was no one who could work with their hair type; white and Asian men could only get buzz cuts because Sénégalese barbers use razors instead of scissors to cut men’s hair.
My Afro-centric surroundings began to chip away at my long-held insecurities. I asked myself, if Sénégalese women can take pride in their appearance and embrace their bodies and tightly-coiled hair, despite the challenges of their everyday lives, why can’t I do the same?
Confident in my French language skills and my new city, I began searching markets throughout the city. At Marché HLM, the largest fabric market in Sénégal, and Marché Sandaga, the largest market in Sénégal overall, I purchased a wide variety of fabrics in varying colors and patterns that I could soon turn into dresses and skirts.
After having mixed results with my host family’s tailor in Mermoz, I visited a tailor named Doudou who worked in the neighboring community of Ouakam. From my projects with Doudou I became hooked on the whole dressmaking process: from hunting in the markets and waxaale-ing (discussing the price with shopkeepers), to designing my own dress styles and working together as he sewed the final garments.
I developed a sense of style that was truly my own; creating looks that flattered my body and skin tone. Without using a single pattern, I created drawings of my own designs from hours spent online researching dress styles. Near the end of the semester, I got my hair braided. My new look gave me confidence in my features, especially in my hair texture and skin color. For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.
At age 14, from the moment I learned about Sénégal, I felt there was something there for me. Something I needed to experience. Sénégal gave me more than I could have ever imagined: a sense of style and self. Stronger and more self-confident than I had known I could be, I doubt that I would have developed the same level of self-assurance if I had studied somewhere else. I expected that my experiences in Sénégal would change my view of the world, but I did not imagine that my study abroad and living in Dakar would transform my awareness of self.
Photos: Above left is a strapless, knee-length dress made from fabric purchased from Marché Vendredi in Ouakam, Dakar; above right is a two-toned dress made from Sénégalese cotton purchased from the same market; directly above is a red, white and gold dress made from fabric purchased at Marché HLM (the fabric is originally from Mauritania).
Ashley Steele is a graduate of St. Catherine University where she majored in Sociology and minored in French and Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity. She began studying French at age 12 and eventually studied abroad in Dakar, Sénégal, for a semester in 2009. She is currently living in Minnetonka, MN, and is interested in pursuing a career in retail merchandising and planning where she hopes to use her French in a professional capacity.
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Text copyright ©2013 Ashley Steele. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2013 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.