A story for a Senegalese friend

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The phone rang on a Friday afternoon several weeks ago from a woman I knew from work. She is Senegalese, a manager in a logistics firm responsible for handling a large part of the rice imports (and other soft commodities) into the country, and I’m the rep of a French survey firm contracted by the insurance companies insuring that merchandise. The nature of my job puts us oftentimes in antagonistic positions…it is my duty to call her and let her know when merchandise is improperly handled, calls which are often followed by the formalities of emails and official letters of protest. It is easy to dislike me in that role, understandably so, yet despite all of this a friendship had kindled between this manager and I from the very start. We were able to quickly see beyond our work responsibilities and to look directly at the women that we are. She is friendly, curious and open-minded just like me and we speak the common language of generally happy, young people interested in the world and finding our place in it.

As a foreigner in Senegal I get asked every single day (many times a day!) about my experience of living in Dakar as the people around me want to hear of my positive experiences of their homeland. Ironically, I am almost never questioned about my experiences in Canada (or in Haiti, Spain or Poland where I have also lived) and how things work over there. Considering that the majority of the Senegalese population harbours the dream to leave their country, to build a “better” life in Europe or the Americas…I find it surprising that they don’t want more information of the outside world when meeting a foreigner. I imagine there are many reasons for this; nevertheless, I find it strange. In over a year’s time living and working in Senegal, no local had asked me to detail what I know or understand of other places to them. At least, not yet.

I answered the phone that Friday afternoon expecting a business call, as had been our habit with this manager so far as we had known each other.

“Hello, Katalina? I’m wondering if you can spare a few minutes. I have a few questions for you… it’s nothing related to work this time.” She sounded eager and excited on the other end of the line.

I was intrigued. I had the time for the call. Friday afternoons (especially after the men get back from afternoon prayer at the Mosques) are generally relaxed in the office in Dakar. I agreed, and she promised to call me back in a few minutes for our chat.

She proceeded to tell me that her husband, who works as a lawyer in Dakar, had found a way via his personal connections to get both himself and his wife work in Quebec, in Canada. She confirmed what I already know to be the frustrating reality of many, that their current jobs pay very little (consider a generous monthly wage in Senegal to be around 300 Euros) and with their two young children they felt pigeon-holed into a reality that allows them to survive month to month and do little more beyond that. She was concerned about their children’s future, their education, and her own opportunities for growth. She asked me what so few ask me in Dakar, she asked me about my experience of Canada and my opinion on her moving there – if not for forever, at least she would go there with her family for a certain time.

My first thought was that I too am an immigrant to Canada, as my family is Polish and I was born in Poland*. I laughed with her over the phone over how ludicrous it is that I could be categorized at the same time as an immigrant (in Canada) and as an expatriate (in Senegal), all based on economic status (perceived or actual) and the reasons for migrating.

Canada is a clean, well-organized country much more receptive and accommodating to immigrants than Western Europe. We talked about this for a while. The Americas in large part are based on people of various backgrounds leaving their homelands to build a better life in the New World – immigration is the backbone of society. This is not at all the case in Europe which has been settled and fought over for many centuries already; it’s a contributing factor to their ongoing problems with immigration in my opinion. I told her how much I love my second, adopted country especially the diversity of people living and working together in peace and relative prosperity. It’s a pretty harmonious mishmash of races, religions and backgrounds which no other country that I know of can parallel. I count myself as one of the luckiest on this planet given the amazing childhood and education I received. I had flashbacks of school field trips to the forest to draw and study the birds and trees and the large, open spaces we have in Alberta: my elementary school has a lawn and sports area the size of a professional football field.

Then she paused in our conversation to voice a question that I’m sure has been on her mind since the day she met me…”But what on Earth are you doing in Senegal…if Canada is such a great place to be???”

Great question.

You see, I’m on a personal mission to understand the world, and myself, just a little bit better. The truth that I discovered is that there is no such thing as a “developing” and a “developed” country. Developed, in the past tense, as a thing accomplished and completed, does not exist**. The economically wealthy countries we deem “developed” have plenty of problems too. I’m not going to get into details here about issues like climate change, corruption in politics and corporations and religious extremist groups threatening security. What immediately came to mind are my peers in Canada. I look at the young people who are dealing with depression and suicides, and who are lost and confused and drowning in an avalanche of choices that seem impossible to make. Young people want purpose and self-actualization in their lives and at work and yet the quick-fix culture and the Internet make it difficult for many to commit, to be patient, to work hard and make their dreams come true. We live in the information age, yet many forget that wisdom is just as difficult to come by as always. We live in such levels of material comfort that we take it all too often for granted. I too shared my part in this confusion and spending time and working in countries like Haiti and Senegal shook me awake in many healthy ways out of my own self-pity and into a far deeper gratitude and sense of responsibility for my own life and the true impact my actions can have on others.
Much of this went through my mind as I answered her in a more succinct manner: “It is important for me to travel, to experience people different from myself and to see the world. It helps me to understand myself and who I am. It also helps me to appreciate Canada in a whole new way.”

Besides, I continued, my reality in Senegal (for better or for worse…) is very different from the Senegalese people in Senegal. As an expat I have an expat’s salary which is comparable to the salaries my peers earn in Europe or Canada. This paired with the fact that I am single and do not yet have any children, means that I have the time and the funds to invest in my hobbies and passions and to rest and relax. I live very well and comfortably in Dakar.

She murmured her agreement.

Try to remember that there is no such thing as an ideal place. There is also no such thing as an ideal person or a perfect well, anything. Since nothing is perfect and everything has its good and bad sides then what matters most are our own values and the experiences we choose to have in our lives. My Senegalese friend had mentioned that the work contract in Quebec required her husband and herself to come first to Canada without their children (who they could leave in the care of their grandparents in Dakar) for the duration of 6 months to a year. That could prove difficult to manage. Yet even if you are together as a family you face the reality of leaving your home country, the culture, people, customs and habits you know and understand for a whole set of new variables. It’s easy to underestimate how overwhelming this can be, yet the truth is that everything from a visit to the doctor’s office to going to the bakery will, at first, be new and unfamiliar.
I advised her to take the time for honest reflection on her own values and what is most important to her and to her husband before making up their minds. She mentioned several times that they both saw it as a temporary solution – an opportunity to earn better wages and improve their skills while planning a likely return to Senegal after several years. Perhaps afterwards they would then start their own business in Dakar.

My friend’s question and her incredulity that as a Canadian I should choose to spend so much of my time in Africa spurred me to greater reflection. I realized that a year and a half after moving to Senegal I am a different person. Time and life alone work their magic on us regardless of geography, of that I am certain…yet Senegal has played her part in my formation. There is a strength in the elements that I experience in Dakar which is new and inspiring to me, and a connection with the Earth, the sun and the ocean in all of her moods which move me to my core***. The colours of the African fabrics, the entrepreneurship and drive of the Senegalese people have sparked a whole new level of creativity. I also enjoy the experience of living in a collectivist culture…even if it sometimes drives me crazy that the locals don’t understand my need for privacy and for time alone! I also need the sun, heat and carpe diem attitude to balance out my workaholic, over-intellectualized upbringing**** :-) Senegal balances me, humanizes me, lights me up and hugs me close to my own truth every single day.

My friend had paused over the phone listening to me sharing my experiences with her.

“Whether or not any of this is relevant to you and to your family, I cannot say”, I told her, “It’s all such a personal journey.”

Nevertheless, she was grateful for our conversation and she ended by reminding me how much she appreciates my openness and friendliness. She had felt intuitively that it was OK to call me about this and ask her questions. “It’s a Canadian trait to be this friendly.” I told her, laughing to myself, before hanging up the phone.

On the beach near the Mosquée de la Divinité, Dakar 09/2017 (photography: Nathalie GUIRONNET)

*Another missive on this : https://katarzyna-maria.com/2014/10/17/la-polonaise-canadienne/

**As a side note, my father informed me this morning that Poland, according to some kind of American economy ranking, has now officially been recognized as a “developed” country – Ha!

***More on the elements here : https://katarzyna-maria.com/2016/07/06/greetings-from-two-months-in/

****yes, mom, that was a somewhat sarcastic comment ;-)

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