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When “God” Visited Senegal

I am late to write about President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal. I wanted to hear how the Senegalese lived the event since I was heading there few days after the American President’s visit. Seeing the visit unfold on news websites and social media, I was happy that Senegal was put on the world map. For the first time, I saw a picture of an American President and an African President standing next to each other, without thinking about aid or charity. I saw two black men hug each other and it gave me goose bumps. I was glad that Obama reinforced my feeling of relief by speaking about partnership between Senegal and America, and urging the media to depict a more positive image of Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar

I am certain the increased presence of China in Africa has a lot to do with this change in US rhetoric but I am glad it has come to that. I was also glad that Obama was sensible enough to meet with the leaders of civil society organizations who contributed so much to making Senegal into an admired democratic nation.

I was mostly fascinated by the general population’s euphoric embrace of President Obama and his family. People were beyond thrilled that the American President chose Senegal as his first stop during his three-nation tour in Africa. Although I arrived in Dakar almost two weeks after Obama left, his presence was in the air. The walls and bridges were still clad with large banners of him and President Sall.


 At the weekly flea market that takes place on the canal from Liberté 6 to Castors, rows of duffle bags with Obama’s name majestically dangled from stalls. Taxi drivers, who had a hint of my “Americanness” because of some “foreigner-detecting radars” that taxi drivers and street vendors magically possess, commented on the power of “Your President” and how his visit made their job so difficult because all major roads were blocked. One of them remarked that “It was as if God was visiting Senegal!” Although the Senegalese are known for their ability to make guests feel at home as the country prides itself in being the Land of Teranga (the art of welcoming guests), Obama enjoyed a special treatment.

 I was not surprised by the level of importance the Senegalese accorded Obama’s visit. Though I have my own issues with American foreign policy, I too was thrilled that he chose to go to Senegal. I however wanted to believe that Senegalese officials had learned their lesson about inconveniencing citizens in order to accommodate an American President, as many would remember how the inhabitants of Gorée Island were forcibly sequestrated in their homes during President George W. Bush’s visit in 2003. Although this did not happen during Obama’s visit, the islanders quietly sat on the sidelines when the presidential family visited the famous slave house.

Goree awaits

On the other hand, there seem to have been some unnecessary security measures in Dakar. On a children’s radio show, a participant was asked to create a sentence about Obama’s visit. He spontaneously replied: “During the American President’s visit, we who live in Yoff could not come out of our homes.” The host was annoyed that the only thing the boy remembered about the event was his inability to leave his home.  But the boy’s answer backs up rumors that in Yoff, the neighborhood adjacent to the airport, there were weird-looking giant men in dark suits whispering in walky-talkies. My brother-in-law who works at the airport did not go to work for the duration of the visit since his office was taken over by American secret service members who apparently left no stone unturned in the building. When he returned to work few days later, he found new air conditioners and concluded that the Americans must have ditched the old ones in their overzealous security protocol. This “Yankee Paranoia” as written in Le Populaire conveys how overbearing the American guests must have been.

But this attitude seems to not have bothered the Senegalese. It was as if these were tiny inconveniences that they were willing to suffer for Obama’s sake. When Bush’s visit left many angry, people told these “#Obamatakh (a hashtag that meant “because of Obama”)” stories with a proud smile.  They commented on Obama’s swagger and how cool he looked with his rolled-up sleeves and charming smile. It is true that many people around the world are infatuated with everything American but the warm welcome Obama experienced in Senegal has a lot to do with his background. As the son of a Kenyan father, Obama is viewed as more than the first African-American President. To many Africans, he is an African who is the President of the world’s most powerful country. In Senegal, he was the prodigal son whose power and presence should uplift the whole continent. They see in him a piece of themselves and the fact that he chose to visit Senegal instead of Kenya, or any other West African nation, was monumental in the eyes of the Senegalese.

welcome-home-senegalWelcome home

This visit was also very important to newly elected (2012) Senegalese President Macky Sall whose popularity is not that great. The presidential Facebook page was updated hourly and the rhetoric was overly giving credit to Sall for Obama’s choice of Senegal.

On First Lady Marieme Faye Sall’s Fashion

There was something refreshing in the picture of the two First Ladies standing next to each other. I was happy that Marieme Faye Sall chose to wear a traditional Senegalese boubou. I personally found the outfit elegant and sophisticated.  

Marieme Sall boubou

But some Senegalese, including talk show hosts, criticized Mrs. Sall’s fashion choices, especially after the news site Guardianlv.com published an article calling for Michelle Obama to give the Senegalese First Lady lessons in travel fashion. I was outraged by such article and was truly bothered by the Senegalese media’s lack of reply on behalf of the First Lady. It is inappropriate and wrong to compare the fashion choices of Michelle Obama and Marieme Sall, let alone decide who should teach who. The cultures as well as the body types are not the same. Most Americans would not get the style choices of Marieme Faye Sall for the simple reason many Senegalese would not understand why Michelle Obama, a woman over fifty, wears over-the-knee dresses and body-hugging pants! The Guardianlv article was simply ignorant of the fact that fashion is cultural. The Huffington Post’ piece was more sensitive to the cultural implications of fashion. I find that because many Senegalese are so in love with the West they tend to see themselves and everything through those lenses. Instead of defending the First Lady and telling the world that the Senegalese would not take fashion lessons from America or any other nation, they chose to publically disrespect Marieme Faye Sall. Inviting stylists who themselves do not have any respect for African identity as expressed in fashion and body image, to evaluate the First Lady’s wardrobe choices, was also out of line. The criticism of Marieme Sall’s clothes showed the complex of inferiority the Senegalese feel vis-à-vis Americans. They probably would have preferred a first lady with an outrageously bleached skin, who wears complex outfits (mostly European-inspired) complimented with kilograms of shiny gold jewelry.

Overall, I think the Senegalese will always remember Obama’s visit as an important part of the country’s history. I am praying it will have a stronger economic impact for Senegal. Afterall, when “God” visits your house, it must mean that your prayers were heard at least.