This morning, I received this email from a friend:
"Tonight I watched an Anthony Bourdain program on CNN from Senegal. I enjoyed learning a little about the culture of Senegal, but realize that this was a program for TV, probably not based entirely in reality. That said, I was impressed with what I saw of Senegal."
He wanted to know if I had seen it and if so, was curious to know my thoughts on how Senegal was portrayed.
M and I do not watch nor own a TV, so I was not able to view the show. But I was able to read about it here. And everything I read is familiar to me, and amongst the biggest reasons I love my country so much. Of particular resonance is this excerpt:
"So let this episode in Senegal, an African nation which is over 90% Muslim, serve as both rebuke and example. It is a country that proudly elected as their first president after independence, a Christian — because they felt, in their best judgement, that regardless of his faith, he was the best person for the job. It is a country that defies stereotypes and expectations at every turn. Emerging from French colonial times as a functioning multi-cultural, multi-lingual, extraordinarily TOLERANT society. It has managed to avoid coups, tribal wars, dictatorships and most of the ills that afflicted so many of its neighbors and remains an absolutely enchanting place to visit, with delicious food, absolutely extraordinarily beautiful music, and a relatively free and easy attitude towards intermarriage, mixed race, intertribal relationships and foreign visitors. It has a powerful and proud tradition of hospitality that endures to this day. . . .
They are predominantly Sufi Muslims, with attitudes towards behavior far removed from the more loony toon, extreme brand of Islam we see too all often on the news, is a distinction unlikely to be made by haters, most of whom have difficulty (or simply don’t care) to even distinguish Muslims from Sikhs."
It gives me goosebumps, for it's so beautiful and accurate. Of course we have our problems, but the gist of the positive portrayal was entirely accurate!
In any case, when I read the email, I felt an outrage. Outrage at this: "probably not based entirely in reality". I could not help but think that the wonder comes from the striking gap between the common accepted perception of Africa (and Islam, should I add) by most Americans as a desolate place, with hunger and dangers of all kind and the perception Anthony Bourdain shared in his piece of an African country with beautiful people, with great cuisine and an amazing culture of peace. So I ask, what do you think the reality of Senegal is? I have never heard anyone making the comment of "is this real" when watching Barefoot Contessa cooking in the South of France, or in Tuscany. I have never heard anyone questioning the extreme beauty coming out of such footage, because you know what about all of France's Poor or the violent mafiosos terrorizing people in Italy? So why then would skepticism be the first reaction when one sees people in Africa (not the animals, because unlike people, the African animals enjoy a relative perception of respect and dignity as showcased here) looking well-adjusted and cosmopolitan, with a rich cuisine (considered among the healthiest diets in the world according to a recent review of global dietary habits published by The Lancet Global Health) going on about their life in a peaceful environment and manner?
I'll tell you why. It's because of the decades of mental conditioning created by decades of reporting focused mainly on the negative sides of the continent. Most of it is true. But when we only talk of one aspect of things, de facto making it the ONLY reality, then you can now start to understand how I got such an email from an otherwise well-meaning person.
This is the reason why I say perceptions matter. Perception is the first point of entry to the other. If it is a good one, it opens favorable channels in my heart and mind to go towards the other, leading to all kinds of awesome opportunities. But if on the other hand, my perception is not a good one, it does all the opposite, because now my heart is closed, my mind is closed, or at the very least on the fence, and I am just not enticed to go towards that person, effectively closing myriads of possibilities between that person and I.
How have we come to this place of conditioning? Decades of media reporting only on the nastiest sides of Africa and its people, supplemented by decades of well meaning NGOs and organizations using the worst images of helplessness and victimhood among Africans to trigger your altruist heart into donating money and resources to them to help the unfortunate victims of the atrocities they showed you on TV, while most did not understand nor truly cared to understand the very mechanisms of sustainable poverty alleviation (aka sustainable prosperity creation) as brilliantly exposed in Poverty Inc, coming to Netflix this June 15th.
The truth is up until now the only story of Africa is the misery side, with this idea we Africans need the help of others on terms that are not ours. I do not want anyone's pity and I am not mad at anyone. I know we have all been "brainwashed" to see the same things when it comes to this. My goal in all I do, and specifically with Tiossan, is for all of us to deprogram ourselves together, and rewrite a new narrative about Africa together, more in line with our 21st Century vision of the world and each other. That will be achieved only if we work together. Everyone's story telling matters, from chef stars like Antony Bourdain and Pierre Thiam (of Senegal) to the little boy in a classroom somewhere in Minnesota to the elderly woman on a farm in Sweden, to the poet in Buenos Aires ... and all their counterparts all over Africa. We have much work to do to counter the current narrative. But what an exciting and uplifting endeavor, for all it requires is your most positive, whimsical, hopeful and happiest self! And the best is that everyone can partake in. No gatekeepers of any kind as long as we have each other... and social media :)