Preface: “Nit Nepp Jangalekat Lanu” means “Everyone is a Teacher.” My apologies for no sounds/pictures this week. They are getting edited and there should be much more available soon!
I’ve never had a great relationship with teachers. I did well in school and, sure, there were one or two professors along the way that I deeply admired. And, yea, there were plenty that inspired me and open my eyes. However, most of the relationships I’ve had with my teachers have been tensely neutral or slightly negative. You see, teachers have always struck a very defiant, rebellious nerve in me. It’s an arrogant and childish quality I’m still learning to grow out of. However, it’s also motivated me tremendously, at least academically. ‘Why are all my teachers white middle-aged heternormative Christian men?’ I asked myself at age 14 in boarding school. ‘Moreover, why are all the authors, composers, scientists, mathematicians, anthropologists, philosophers, and sociologists we study also white middle-aged heternormative Christian men?’ I think you see where I’m going with this; before I knew it, I was writing my bachelor’s thesis: “The Hits Keep Comin’: A History of Violence in Popular African-American Women’s Song Forms.”
You can be sure that there were faculty members at Columbia that told me I couldn’t/shouldn’t write about this. There were faculty members that invalidated the subject matter’s value in the academic world. This pushed me even further into the topic and, In the end, I think my work paid off beautifully. These few moments of triumph have led me me to hold fast to my willfulness, skepticism, determination, and rebellious nature. And, yes, a bit of arrogance as well.
But, now, I’m in Senegal. Not accepting the teachings of others could be a fatal mistake. Moreover, places this foreign tend to rapidly chip away at my insecurities and flaws, which are more often than not the same things, and it seems this aversion to teachers has recently been placed under the microscope. I feel as though this quality of mine is getting dissected day in and day out by those who want to be my teachers. For example, my friends Sahad wants to teach me all his spiritual knowledge, explaining that his authority comes from the two years he spent in the dessert examining his Sufi faith. He’ll only teach me in bight-sized doses when the time is right, according to him. We can’t just have a conversation about it. It’ll come when he feels up to it – when I am expecting it the least. But it’s not just Sahad. Kine and Astu, my neighborhood ceebu jen ladies, want to teach me how to dance. Mo Fia wants to teach me how to love, to be open to the world, in a way only he believe he can. Tij wants to teach me how to go with the flow, how to let him take control to my benefit. Ndongo wants to teach me how to be weary of certain Senegalese people, and trusting of others, with caution. MoMo wants to teach me how to ride a motorcycle. All these lessons have value. All the relationships I’m forging by taking these lessons with humility are invaluable. But, at times, I can’t help but feel belittled. Honestly, it’s a bit spiritually chafing after awhile. Can’t anyone just be my friend? Meet me as an equal? Isn’t there anyone who feels we can mutually learn from each other?
This particular line of questioning leads me to one of the first lessons I learned on this trip from Sahad: there is nothing for nothing. People aren’t teaching me solely out of the love and generosity in their hearts: there is something to be gained for them. For Kine and Astu, it’s the fairly benign desire to see the comedy of a toubab (light skinned person) trying to dance like them. But, even with them, and certainly with the others, there is some element of control that is also desired. I have to teach myself how to discern how valuable the lesson is for me versus what they gain from me in return.
It is exhausting to constantly be thinking this way, but I do get relief from one person in particular: Alec. Alec is a 22-year-old belgian korist and guitarist like me. His parents live and work here. Visiting his home is like visiting a western oasis; it’s equipped with a washer and dryer, oven, toilet paper, good coffee… all those things taken for granted that suddenly disappear when you arrive here. Alec and I have discussed that his family lives better than some of the most well-known and wealthy Senegalese, and he is quick to mention that he is not accustomed to the situation he has occupied here in Senegal.
Alec has no desire to teach me anything. Instead, he shares with me and has become my only in-person outlet here in Senegal. Having ears at my disposal for once, rather than the other way around, I often tell him more than I should. Ironically enough, however, Alec may have the most important lesson to teach me right now. You see, when Alec is with the teachers I’ve mentioned above (i.e. most Senegalese people), he is relentlessly open to what they are saying. He is so in his element at the will of someone else’s whims. In fact, he hitchhiked from Belgium to Senegal with very little on his back, so he often didn’t have a choice but to be at the mercy of someone else’s will, and he describes it as the best time of his life.
Being constantly at the mercy of someone’s will, whether they are actively trying to teach me or not, is a struggle for me. However, I can’t walk the streets alone at night. I am thereby subject to someone else’s will if I’d like to go out after sundown, and I’ll never see music if I don’t go out. While my language skills and knowledge of the city afford me some independence, I don’t think I or anyone else would get anything done without relying on others here. It is one of the sharpest contrasts from New York City, where it is possible to go about your whole day without speaking to anyone. Here, everything is done cooperatively. For example, car rapides (sometimes referred to as ‘rolling coffins’ in wolof) are small, packed, colorful busses that ship people quickly up down the peninsula. To take one, you often have to hand your money into the crowd of people, to be handed back to the conductor, who rides hanging off the back door. Senegal daily life and it’s survival requires daily interaction and trust.
I so badly want to learn how to be open like Alec, to defy my childish ways. However, while there is certainly improvement to be made, I can never be as open as he is. Why? Because I am not a white heternormative man of faith. Alec may not be all these things either, but he certainly passes, and the world just isn’t as dangerous for him as it is for me. I can’t afford to surrender control the way he can. His identity aside, if he doesn’t return home at night, his family will immediately know. If he feels lost or confused, he can instantly return to all the comforts of home. He has a certain type of wealth that affords him an openness I can never have.
Still, I will continue to persevere in my learning of how to learn. I will continue to persevere in my growth as an individual who is less arrogant, less stubborn, less defiant. Ironically, to top it all off, I’ve been hired as a substitute teacher in the music department at the International School here in Dakar. I may also give presentations on music once a month. A nice extra boost of money from time to time is going to help me with my work a lot. But I can’t help but think I am somehow betraying my childhood self, even though I do love to teach. I suppose the best way I can honor that self is by defiantly learning as much as I can from my students.
Until soon I hope,
earlier: a Muslim Christmas