People need to see that, far from being an obstacle, the world's diversity of languages, religions and traditions is a great treasure, affording us precious opportunities to recognize ourselves in others.
BLM—#BlackLivesMatter. The three-word acronym has become one of the most intense and powerful socio-cultural and political icons in the recent months. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, then there was George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, have now become dark shadows in a long list of brutalized African-Americans by the “white race” since the BLM movement’s birth in 2013 and prior, since the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power movement and Anti-Apartheid Movement of the 1960s, not to mention the much unspoken horrific genocide bombing by decommissioned WWI aircraft over African-American neighborhoods in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921—thousands of homicides perpetrated by racial segregation in the socio-ethnical history of America and the world.
While by definition it is ethically accurate to state that not only the African race, but also all other ethnic minorities (Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and others) have been painful objects of spiteful discrimination in every visible corner of human society, the media infiltration of George Floyd’s gruesome death has ignited the height of human anger, frustration, despair, misery, and exhaustion right in the middle of a global pandemic.
Nevertheless, the real question is not why shouldn’t “black lives matter”, but why we still have to be reminded of it today after the rebellious cry for libertarianism in support of the abolition of slavery in the 18th century; and after over 62 million human deaths had been sacrificed by the blood of racism, tribalism, nationalism, colonialism, caste system and white supremacism in the last 100 years. Parallel to these are civilizations of religious, economic and political wars that have clearly carved the perennial division of not solely race, but also labor rights, gender, age, religion, autonomy, law and socio-economic structures. Perhaps, the imminent mental framework needed today is not the vain struggle for the unification of these parameters, but entirely the reverse: the social and civic acceptance of Diversity without prejudice. Racism is an absolute testimony of abusive power to divide—a power struggle (by the self-proclaimed authoritarian), which ruptures when the mind misinterprets difference as an evil denomination that pushes its moral rights towards equality, and therefore, it creates a destructive defense mechanism to “unequate” the authoritarian and the oppressed. Every human soul is born different by natural laws of individuality, yet this disparity deserves no condescension or physical torture of any kind for that single reason alone.
Perhaps, I can consider myself “lucky” as an Asian “minority” to have experienced a unique life with the other “colored minority”—like two peas in a pod of co-existence. The current overexposure of rage and empathy for color segregation that the media has been revealing without boundaries has made my thoughts return to the two memorable years I had lived in Senegal, West Africa. I have been reminded of an unambiguous country at peace with its culture, neighbors and foreign people of dissimilar color who posed no aggressive threat to their well-being. I remember the spectacular scenery of the Sahara Desert from the plane, crossing over the Black Sea en route the borders of Spain and Morocco. From above, Africa, being the second-largest continent in the world, covering 6% of the earth’s total surface and 20% of its land area, appeared nothing short of astonishment. I remember the sharp smell of humidity on that first night of my arrival at the airport in Dakar. I remember the naive discomfort of mosquitoes, the pungent air of human density, neglected litter on the streets, thick dust and strong winds between October and March that swept the sands away from the Sahara into the city.
Yet, I also recall the many seeds that Africans sowed and fed the world with: coffee (from 10th century Ethiopia,) mathematics (oldest evidence 35,000 years ago from Swaziland and Uganda), cobalt (half of the world’s reserve from Congo for manufacturing your mobile phone’s batteries, art (from 77,000 year-old artwork in Blombos Cave, South Africa), writing system (sub-Saharan Africa, 5000 and 3000 B.C.), language, medicine, mining, cooking, and many others including, of course, the most popular known origin: jazz. Encapsulating all these wonderful gifts the African culture has given us, would it not suffice to recognize that Africa matters? Thus, it came to no surprise to me why African life had showered my experiences with richness, vitality, purity, color and substance.
Senegal, on the farthest boundary of West Africa, fronting the enormous Atlantic Ocean, is considered to be the glittering gem of this part of the African continent. Perhaps, this is owed to the French colonial influence spanning more than 400 years since the 15th century, including penetration from Portugal, Netherlands and Great Britain. While the outsider’s portrait of Africa paints deserts, jungles, safari and the animal kingdom, Senegal boasts of its beaches, golf club resorts, and one of the most exotic territories of internationally assorted cuisine: French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Carribean, South American, and naturally, African. Senegalese cuisine was a luscious discovery of maafe (peanut and tomato based beef or lamb stew), poulet/viande/poisson yassa (spicy dish with onions and marinated poultry, beef or fish), boulette (fried fish balls using emperor bream), the national dish thieboudienne (thiof or white grouper fish, rice and tomato sauce cooked in one pot with palm oil), and the sweet Senegal brown tea and red bissap from bissap flowers. I had been spoiled by such culinary delights, whether with local folks who ate with their hands from a common bowl, or in cozy, seaside restaurants rushing in the dry breeze from the Atlantic Ocean. As I savored fresh seafood, I relished the photographic backdrop of women getting water from the sea or rivers to wash themselves and older gentlemen sitting by the bank, throwing fishnets for the day’s catch.
Dakar, the French-colonial capital, was my home for two years where the sights and sounds of locals that filled the streets, markets, and coastal roads were daily splashes of colorful paint on a moving canvas. The sultry heat may had been stifling but there was never a single day that Senegalese would not greet you on the streets with their warm smiles of “Ça va, bonjour!” while carrying a baguette from the boulangerie. Dakar downtown swarmed with banabana street vendors, selling the most imaginative paraphernalia I had ever seen (even coming from a developing Asian country): electric fans, plastic pails, body building sets, carpets, car mats, brooms, chair, table, bed, kitchen utensils, mobile phones, fruits, vegetables, canned goods, clothing, shoes, suitcases, and so on. It was common to be tailed by persistent vendors all the way to your home. Haggling, as well in wet markets, was a challenging endeavor for someone who had half a day to spare. Senegalese men walked around in their bubu traditional long dresses, engaged in deep discussions, sat idly on benches along sidewalks, or prostrated on the pavement during the mid-noon, afternoon, sunset and evening Islam prayer. The women supported big basins filled with wrapped fruits, vegetables, and whatnot on their headdresses while walking from the market to other villages. Watching their impeccable fashion had always entertained me: dresses in vibrant patterns and colors matched by the same fabric on their head. Believed to be a fashionable influence of the Parisian couture, their elegant attire always brightened the life quotidienne, even while they worked at the wet market, and sat on low stools amidst huge pails of fresh fish and blood from meat; the dampness overridden by dangling gold earrings, stylish hair make, and bright lipstick.
Then, there was the music. Dakar Cathedral was a religious home to a symphony of drums, tam-tam, kora African guitar and other ethnic instruments whose vibrating rhythms echoed deep inside your soul. Every day, young boys on the streets jammed with instruments, songs and dancing. At one Senegalese home where I was invited for a meal, the children more than willingly showed off the typical Wolof dance—closing their eyes, lifting the blouse, and crisscrossing the legs like in a scissor movement. At first glance, the performance felt bit frightening and somewhat erotic, then gradually, complimented the high-spirited voices, ticklish smiles and infectious laughter, which harmonized amicably with the zest of their energy. I also witnessed such gyrating bodily movement while watching the lute African wrestling in an outdoor arena. First, tam-tam drummers and dancers in tribal outfits performed vivaciously before the match began, then wrestlers poured milk on their heads as a symbol of lasting strength. They danced around the arena and waved their hands up and down before attacking the opponent. Sometimes, the hand wave lasted five minutes long before the wrestlers threw each other on the ground.
Senegalese certainly love partying. I remember one New Year’s eve at Saint Louis, Senegal’s first capital, when folks celebrated in clubs and live houses, blasted African jazz sounds, such as the Wok band, or songs from Senegal’s pride and multi-awardee Youssou N’Dour whose eclectic approach teamed him with world artists such as Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and more. Then, there were sounds from Coumba Gawlo Seck with her riveting high-pitched voice enough to pull out your eardrum, and Fabrice de Falco, male soprano vocalist whose incredible operatic voice would lift up soaring angels till the top of the cathedral dome. Taxis paraded all over town, blew their horns as Senegalese jumped, danced, and chased each other with loud raptures of “Bonne Année!” orchestrated with fireworks. At Keur Moussa, a Benedictine monastery in the vicinity of Thiès, about an hour’s drive from Dakar, known for its magnificent Arab-African frescoes, I had been honored to lend my ears to a beautiful choir of monks humming Gregorian chants with African instruments. I soon learned that with African music, the audience was the music. Anyone would stand up, wave his hands, sway his body, jerk his hips, or get up and dance next to a bass player or a lead singer without hesitance.
As an expansive land that is protected by the abundance of its forests, soil, and sands especially along the coastal highways, Senegal certainly flourishes with breathtaking nature—miles and miles of beaches along the Cornische coastal road where as you drove further, the terrain became flatter and the soil turned more red as perfect as the familiar African landscape. Saly, former Portuguese trading post in the Petite Côte region of Senegal, was also a favorite vacation destination for immersing in the sea. If you were pampering yourself with a hearty breakfast by the pool in one of the resorts, it would not be strange to be greeted by large pelicans and chickens roaming around the patio. Lac Rose (Pink Lake) on the northern part of the Cap Vert peninsula is one of Senegal’s most enthralling nature’s gifts. The pink waters are known for their 40% high salt content, of which mounds and mounds line up the shore. Salt gatherers in fish boats and women with large pails of massive stacks of salt on their heads graced the serenity of the pink lake against the blue sky. The countryside was never complete without the baobab sculptural trees, some as wide as ten meters and aging more than half a millennium old, thus, reflecting the deep-seated ancient history of Africa. They abounded in forests and national parks, such as the Parc Forestier et Zoologique de Hann where wild lions, tigers, pythons, ostriches, eagles, crocodiles, chimpanzees, horses, and other animals and birds outlined the innate African silhouette. The Djoudj National Park, World Heritage site on the northeast region of Saint Louis, impressed me with the most virgin sanctuary of bird varieties: pelicans, herons, flamingos, warblers and other species largely migrating from Europe.
Surrounded by all the overflowing nature, prosperous land, magnificent seas, sophisticated gastronomic pleasures, tranquil life, and the elegant yet simple, sparkling yet humble, hardworking yet free-spirited nature of the Senegalese people, I had learned to admire the true exuberance of the African heritage. The scars of slave trading from 15th to 19th century may have remained within the fortress of the Ile Gorée island, the first European settlement in West Africa. Yet, while the barbaric trail of more than 20 million slaves breathed throughout the fortification walls, Senegalese have paid homage to their roots by the unsullied purity of their resilience, perseverance and courage. Around the island, pastel-colored colonial houses, French shutters, shimmering red bougainvillea and pelicans hopping nonchalantly were only tiny fragments of how the people had assimilated themselves respectfully with other races. The modest gestures of affection, camaraderie, peace, joie de vivre, to understand and be understood, to accept and be accepted, to free and be freed were and as they are today, as honest, natural and plain sailing as clear crystal, regardless of color.