ACCRA, GHANA. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so uncomfortable. It wasn’t as if this was the first time I had witnessed tourists being bitten by the “exotic trinket mania” bug. There are entire markets in my city, Accra, dedicated to the trade of replicas of ancestral masks and carvings- a chaotic mix of animals and other more abstract entities, the ubiquitous curvaceous form of the woman carrying a pot of water on her head, or a baby in her belly, or both, pouting gods and toothless gods and terrifying gods, you name it! These copies are sometimes impeccably done, but for the most part they act as mass-produced attempts at packaging “authentic” culture into items small enough to fit into suitcases, keepsakes of that one time you “found yourself” in a dusty African market. Maybe if we close our eyes tightly enough, we can wish away the fact that most of the precious indigenous art pieces and sacred items can now be found on display in museums around the world, the stolen spoils of colonialism. (Why does everything have to be so political? Unfortunately, it often is.) The point I am trying to make in this roundabout, sarcasm-laden way, is that I should be used to tourists fawning over items whose cultural significance has long been forgotten.
Nevertheless, it was heartbreaking for me to sit in silence as some of my classmates and friends gleefully indulged in massive market hauls every week, with an obsession that far surpassed the usual levels of touristic curiosity and desire to keep some reminders of a successful trip. I watched with surprise and mild despair as they trekked to salons and got braid extensions put into their hair “à la sénégalaise” and took beautiful wax printed fabrics to be made into traditional ensembles with modern elements- also “à la sénégalaise”. I too was falling in love with Dakar during this study abroad experience, but I couldn’t explain why I was so unsettled by the others’ actions. Was it not offensive for me to suggest that I could get away with donning Senegalese-style outfits because I’m black and could blend in with all the other Dakaroise, while my white counterparts could not? Who was I to claim ownership over a culture that was also foreign to me in many ways, despite some very striking similarities?
I was ashamed of these feelings of disapproval and unsure of their source, until a number of events cleared up the haze that had surrounded this issue in my mind. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want my classmates to enjoy and familiarize themselves with Senegalese culture, but that I felt as though some of them were choosing the superficial elements that they wanted, opting to ignore any deeper knowledge and understanding being offered to them. The directors of our study abroad program were very well-connected in Dakar and organized many fascinating lectures with filmmakers, activists and experts on Senegalese culture and history. However, despite the plague of “vax”, -wax printed fabric, very common all over West Africa,- and braids sweeping across the program’s participants, most people seemed more interested in their phones and Facebook profiles than they were in the information being shared with us.
There is no way to speak about this matter without seeming like a self-righteous buzz-kill, but I do believe there is a real problem with fetishizing and appropriating a culture one is unfamiliar with. I felt as though certain people (definitely not all, mind you) sorted and picked the cultural aspects they found aesthetically pleasing like a customer in front of a tomato vendor, while making little effort to practice French or Wolof for that matter, and engaging very little with the society that had opened a little door for us to peek through. I myself often felt fetishized, one example being a certain point in time when a new obsession with beads worn around the waist sprung up within the group. I wear these beads as a private yet constant reminder of home and have done so for many years, but in Senegal and in many other African countries including my own, these beads hold a strong sexual symbolism for the wearer. I had to pause and reflect on the privilege some of my counterparts exercised, one day at the beach when they felt it appropriate to reach over and touch my exposed beads without permission. As an African woman, I too was on show and open for business, in a cultural sense.
There is indeed a privilege to be found in the ability to put on the external trappings of a society without actually having to live permanently as one of its members. My printed dresses and handbags may be très chic, my elegant braided hairstyles “to die for”, but it is not so trendy to bear the additional burden of being a black African woman considering the constant societal, psychological and physical threats to our humanity. A few months is definitely not a long enough period of time to understand all there is to know about a culture, but one must at least try to do so with as many aspects as possible, not just the ones that will look cool in your latest selfie.