My host father was surprised when I explained where I had gotten the recipe for the French toast I had just made. “Men cook in the United States?”
Here in Senegal, men don’t cook. They also don’t clean the house, do the laundry or care for young children. My host sister spends hours every day performing these tasks, while my host brothers and father watch TV, eat the meals that are served to them and occasionally snap at her for not responding to their calls fast enough.
“We’re looking at a number of different initiatives to improve the position of women,” proclaimed the guest speaker in our society and culture class, who, like every speaker we’ve had since the beginning of the semester, represented a Western view of social relations.
“Ah – but that’s only your opinion, isn’t it?” our program director asked in a different class when a student stated that she finds the gender relations that she sees here disturbing and difficult to watch. We’re constantly being told this sort of thing: Traditional culture should be protected because it has value, and we need to try hard to appreciate that value.
It took me about halfway through the semester to realize the contradiction. Simply put, one cannot both simultaneously protect traditional values and seek to “improve” the situation by introducing Western ones. Here, laws that give husbands sole discretion to choose a residential location and authority over children and most assets reflect longstanding traditions in gender relations. Excision, or female genital mutilation, though illegal, is an important traditional practice that continues in eastern and southern regions of the country. A lot of careful thought and 20 years of social indoctrination have led me to the conclusion that many of these practices are morally unacceptable, and all of the presentations, readings and discussions I have experienced here support that view, explicitly or implicitly.
Yet, I also do believe that there is value in tradition and social history. After all, this is the main point of studying abroad: to add to your understanding of the world in a way that you couldn’t have done having lived exclusively in the United States, experiencing only one set of cultural norms and social standards. That is certainly a large part of why I am studying here. I wanted to attain that fuzzy ideal of global citizenship.
These values don’t always have to conflict, but sometimes they do. No matter how much you value tradition, you cannot campaign to improve women’s legal rights or educate communities about the serious health risks of excision without functionally making a judgment that your way of viewing the world is better than that of the community you are entering.
And it isn’t just gender relations. It’s age hierarchy, medical strategies, religious expression, political structure and economic policies as well. Every day in Senegal I hear about and experience attitudes and practices that run contrary to my own understanding of ethics or logic. And I’m coming to the disturbing conclusion that it’s simply not possible to indefinitely expand my mind in the way that I imagined. The fact is, some of my beliefs and actions are not all-inclusive, global citizen-esque compromises; they are choices.
I am one of those save-the-world types, and here in the Council on International Educational Exchange study center in Dakar, Senegal, I’m not alone. My fellow American college students are future Peace Corps workers, nongovernmental organization leaders and diplomats. All of us, in seeking to change the world for the better, are going to have to make choices about what “better” is. Our experience here would be more beneficial if we were presented this challenge explicitly.
The messages of our presentations coincide with many of our standing beliefs, and that’s why it’s particularly difficult for us to recognize the implications of those messages. My first instinct is to leave lectures thinking, “Of course we should try to support human rights or public health or wealth creation in this way.” Or “Of course we should try to protect Africa from a cultural takeover by the West.” If our study abroad coordinators want to teach us something new and valuable, they should not be implicitly reinforcing our idea that we can always do both, that we can be infinitely accepting global citizens without descending into complete moral relativism. They should ask us, rather, to think about the challenge that comes with simultaneously wanting to improve other people’s lives and wanting to respect the way they are presently living.
We don’t need to be given an answer, but we should be presented with the question, because it’s one we’re all going to have to answer ourselves in practice, whether we recognize it or not.
Katrina Braun is a junior in the College and studying abroad at the Council on International Educational Exchange study center in Senegal.”