“The Untouchable Solitude of a Foreigner” …home visits in Dakar’s poorest communities and my first “causerie.”
It’s a strange thing to be an “outsider.” I have been traveling abroad ever since I can remember. I’ve even lived abroad for extended periods of time, so the role of “stranger” is one that I am very familiar with. Regardless, it is never a comfortable feeling, and for me, it has always been one of the most difficult aspects of traveling. I have never worried about finding my way around a new place, I’m not afraid of public transportation or overcoming language barriers…my philosophy is to, “figure it all out when I get there.” And while this might not be the wisest idea, (I don’t recommend anyone else do this) it has worked out pretty well thus far. Instead, I spend a considerable amount of time wondering if I will be able to overcome that feeling of being an unwelcome outsider…
This was definitely something I knew I would have to face when I came to Senegal. Whether real or imagined, I was sure at some point, that insidious feeling of being an intruder would creep up; particularly because I am relying heavily on photography and film to document my year here. Still, since arriving I have been shown incredible warmth and hospitality, especially by Aminata and her extended family. And it wasn’t until we started doing home visits in some of Dakar’s poorest neighborhoods that I became distinctly aware that I was definitely viewed as an “outsider.” And rightly so, as I was a stranger, with a camera-I think the hardest part of that role, is being fully cognizant of the fact that I would not be able to establish a sense of trust with the families we were visiting-at least for now (I am hoping this will change with time, and a better grasp on the language).
Needless to say, the home visits and causerie were some of the heaviest, and most troubling experiences of my first week here in Dakar. The first visit I went along on was to a makeshift slum village called “le mecanicien.” The “homes” are basically makeshift shacks, just random pieces of tin, tied to sticks, the roofs are held down by tires that function as weights. Children in various states of undress run amidst piles of trash, scrap metal and puddles of stagnant water. We were in “le mecanicien” to let one of the women, Fatoumata, know that we would be back later to hold a “causerie” on malaria prevention, and to ask her to encourage the other men and women in “le mecanicien” to join.
“Causerie” comes from the French word “babble.” And the intention is to hold informal, but informative discussions to encourage women’s health and education in impoverished communities-the idea is to work from the ground up…even if it means helping one girl at a time.
When we (Aminata-who is also a nurse, and Sarah) returned to le mecanicien later that afternoon for the causerie, we learned that there was a young boy-probably around nine or ten, who had fallen ill that morning with a high fever. The women were afraid it was malaria. When I looked at him, lying on a crowded mat, weak, feverish, surrounded by flies and screaming children, I knew that I would never experience human suffering anywhere close to what I was witnessing. And in that moment I realized I should be channeling the energy I waste worrying and feeling insecure about being an “outsider” into positive actions.