Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Culture? My most serious post.

Last night, I learned how to make kin-kili-ba from my host brother Diama. This is a delicious, natural tea made from tea leaves that come from Senegalese plants. After watching how it is made and drinking the delicious tea, I came to the realization that Senegal is just so full of character and culture, a part of which I hope to embody and somehow bring back to the United States when I return. I can wear clothes that are distinctly Senegalese. I can eat food that is distinctly Senegalese. I can drink tea that is distinctly Senegalese. I feel that this solidarity, unity, and pride in a shared culture and shared tradition has not only defined my experience here, but has also shaped my perspective about the power of culture that I could not have gained anywhere else. Back home, I feel as if collectivity is defined more by family, if you are lucky enough to have such a great family as I do. But it is difficult to feel something much greater than this that unites all Americans in a truly personal, real way. There is no "national dish", unless you consider fast food to play that role (and it is just not the same). There is no "national tree", or the baobab here, which dots the landscape and has significant cultural and traditional value. We do not share out of one large bowl, but instead eat from our individual plates. We do not greet strangers in the street, or consider gift giving and sharing to be of the highest honor.

For me, this gives an entirely different perspective to the idea of what is defined as developed/first world country such as the US in comparison to a developing/third world country such as Senegal. I think that an excerpt from a paper that I wrote here pretty accurately summarizes this sentiment:
"The mentality of development today minimizes the importance of exactly the things that are most important, and the things that keep us human. As tradition is lost in our capitalist world, humans become machines where the ends justify the means, and culture is squeezed out in the dehumanizing process of the race towards wealth and power. Brewing tea is an art, a sign of respect, and a societal ritual that is kept alive by those that realize the importance and greater significance of the smaller things in life."

One of the things that I look forward to most about coming home in December is to share everything that I have learned here, and bring a bit of Senegalese culture back to the States. I can't wait to brew kin-kili-ba or cook ceebujen, the national dish of rice and fish, to share. I can't wait to wear my Senegalese clothes and bring a bit of African color back to the US.

Of course, I don't want to generalize! There are so many great cultural things about the US that still exist and are strong. However, I do feel that this is more a minority than a majority, and the mentality focuses more on progress. And this is not to believe that any sort of cultural "superiority" can exist. It is just a basic difference between the two countries, different societies that are shaped by so many different, often uncontrollable factors.

My host brother Diama probably summed it up best: "In Senegal, we kill time. In America, it is time that kills."


  1. In the US we have the simulacrum of culture provided/maintained by universal media (TV, youtube, etc.)

  2. Hi Emma,
    This post is absolutely amazing. Your insight into culture - Senegalese and US- and the way you express your views is truly beautiful. For some reason when I finished reading this post, I had tears in my eyes. I think its due to my admiration and love for you more then anything else. You are a remarkable person and I know you will be well in Joal and all of the challenges you may face when there. As I'm writing this I am drinking my ginger tea before heading to work. I so look forward to sharing Senegalese tea with you upon your return!

  3. another thought....whenever I have traveled to another country, I really feel the melting pot of the US. Maybe that is another component that fuels that individual drive. As for a national tree - in the true American consumerism sense it would have to be a Christmas tree - ha, ha.

  4. Hi, Emma. This is the first time I'm reading your blog. What an important and beautiful commentary. I have two comments to share about it. One: Now you can understand how important and countercultural Mordecai Kaplan' notion of "Judaism as a civilization" is. He thought Judaism could have those things that you're finding in Senegal and wondering where they are in America. But he also thought, and I agree, that America can and should have them. I agree with you that much of our culture/civilization has been destroyed by the commercial drive to homogneity and meaninglessness, and by the commodification of everything that destroys communities and even families. But I also think America has a heritage of great culture that it should maintain and develop. I think our founding texts are part of that culture, the Declaration of Independence with its call for equality, the preamble to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I've always appreciated your family's July 4th celebrations because they resist the trend to meaninglessness and pseudo-culture by affirming what's truly great about the day and what it represents. Also, because, as you remind us, deep culture is connected to the Earth and the particulars of place, I think we need to revive or reinvent the regional cultures in America that are tied to place. Not that the past was perfect; it was deeply flawed. But it was at least real, and that's a good place to start. Given your school location in the upper Midwest, I think of Garrison Keillor from my homestate. Although I giggle when I listen to him, I also take him seriously. He simultaneously is making a stand for a real, local culture, rooted in nasty, snowy winters, and a Scandinavian heritage, and also exposing the dysfunctionalities of that culture as traditionally practiced.
    I can't wait to see how you live your various cultures and contribute to them when you come home.
    Rav Jeremy