First, a disclaimer. I know one country such as Senegal is not representative of the whole of this vast continent, which comprises 54 countries and is large enough to accommodate China, the US, Mexico and Western Europe.
And yet, Senegal is typical in that it has a colonial history, comprises many different ethnic groups and shares many of the regional challenges : not so much governance, as this is a democratic and stable country, but economic weakness coupled with strong population growth – fuelling the exodus of young men in search of a better life – poor infrastructure and a lack of public services, notably in education and healthcare.
Why a strong brand matters to developing countries
With these challenges so widely reported, it’s not surprising that Africa has an image problem. What I found, to my surprise, is how much my own view of the continent was coloured by the deluge of bad news and the paucity of good news. In marketing terms, it all amounts to a tarnished brand – and brands matter enormously. Take Brazil, for example. The Latin American giant is beset with problems, from poverty to corruption, inequality and violence. But it also has marketable assets, such as carnival, the city of Rio, samba and bossanova – which amount to a brand that radiates across the globe and gives the country tremendous soft power. So strong is the allure of brand Brazil that even its shanty towns have somehow managed to be chic. This not only attracts tourism, it also helps sell Brazilian exports, from Havaiana flip-flops to coconut water.
Senegal has none of this star power. That’s why it was all the more surprising to witness the sheer joy of life and friendliness of its people. Senegal prides itself in being the country of “teranga”, of welcoming strangers, and on our travels, has always lived up to this claim. How can the unaffected warmth and heart-felt sincerity of the Senegalese people have escaped my notice?
That Senegal is a largely Muslim country may well add to would-be tourists’ wariness at a time when Europe and the US view Islam with so much fear and suspicion. As a gay man, I can’t deny that I’ve shared some of these concerns. Perhaps this is why I never travelled – or aspired to travel – to a Muslim country before: I assumed it would be hostile territory. And yet again, I was wrong. If I can generalise about the Muslims I’ve met at all, I can only say that they have been remarkable hospitable and always willing to share what little they had.
Yes, Senegal is more conservative, with a way of life that often assigns women a place in the home, away from public view. And yes, its attitude to sexuality is traditional and rigid. Still, at no point have I been made to feel unwelcome. Nor have our female travel companions ever felt they couldn’t carry and express themselves just as they wished. Instead, we were all received with a warmth that puts us in Europe to shame.
Coming here, I became aware of my unconscious bias and prejudices – the drip-drip of negative news from Africa colouring my awareness whether I liked it or not. It’s a strange form of knowledge that still leaves one with so much ignorance.
The real Senegal – and, I suspect, the rest of Africa – has so much more to offer than we know. There are countless positive stories to be told, which this blog attempts to do. There is a sense of community, an importance placed on friends and family, that we seem to have lost in the West, where we battle on, isolated in a competitive universe that values people primarily in accordance with their economic success.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many Africans don’t necessarily aspire to imitating our societies as they develop, but to forge a path that allows them to retain all that is best about their way of life.
So, are things looking up for the region? There is every reason to be optimistic. Social media has made the world come closer together. We can forge lasting friendships to exchange ideas and inspire each other. China is investing in the region on a scale that puts Europe to shame. And more than that, energetic individuals like Yass Diallo – one-man NGO and founder of the social business SenExperience+ – play an invaluable part in providing practical help and encouragement where official institutions are conspicuous by their absence.
While we in the West are lucky to have been born into material abundance, Africa is abundant too – and in a way we can learn from. Perhaps we need to understand again what it means to be truly wealthy.