Senegalese Sex Tourism

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

Many Europeans come to Senegal for sex. They do it because West Africa is poor, anonymous and convenient. Fancy resorts, with their attendant communities of tourists, are few and far between here. The country’s grittiness keeps away the judgmental gaze of Western visitors.

In coastal cities like Mbour and Ziguinchor, male prostitution is common. I have observed as older white European women embrace young, athletic Senegalese men for company, and I presume, for sex. In Mbour, I’ve seen the men exercise on the beach, flexing muscles: auditioning. They later approach female tourists, who take their pick. Some men, after their workouts, have traipsed up to me as I’m reclining on the sand, hoping I might be interested. Perhaps it’s clear after I respond to them in a local language that I’m not a tourist with money to spend.

Inland, where I live, female sex work is more common. The main hotel in Kolda, a leafy oasis with a pool, a sports bar, a restaurant, and wireless internet, is the hang-out for European men and their Senegalese “girlfriends.”

These men spend their days in the bush outside Kolda somewhere, being driven around in 4WDs, walking through the forest in their camouflage-print outfits, shooting at game. On days when I use the internet at the hotel, I see them arrive in the evening with their Senegalese guides trailing them in matching camo gear dragging their furry catch. If these men wanted to hunt, they would have headed to East or Southern Africa. Here they settle for warthogs, squirrels and pigeons.

By night, the Europeans sit at long dinner tables by the pool, each of their arms slung around young Senegalese women. It’s like they are all on a singles retreat or at a swingers’ party. Everyone canoodles with everyone else.

There seems to be a lot of pretending going on. The Senegalese women pretend to be girlfriends, spending time with the men, talking, laughing and sleeping with them. While I’ve never seen money change hands, the monetized nature of these relationships is something everyone talks about. A woman my age who I teach English to after her shifts as the hotel hostess says she’s embarrassed to sometimes be confused with the other young women who hang out there as prostitutes.

Perhaps there are deeper romantic connections I’m unaware of between the European men and their Senegalese paramours, but given the attractiveness of these women, I doubt that overweight, middle-aged men from the South of France would be their ideal mates if it weren’t for the monetary and immigration issues at play.

Some say that this is a harmless win-win for everyone. Senegal’s HIV/AIDS rate, at 1%, is one of the lowest in Africa. Locals I talk to about it seem ambivalent: they seem quietly disgusted by sex tourism, but then shrug it off, unable to come up with a more viable financial alternative.
There is also the argument, propounded by some economists, that African women who choose to engage in sex work are making an extremely rational economic decision, one that could improve their lives in real ways.

All that aside, I still can’t help but be sickened by the obvious power differential between an affluent Westerner making a kept woman or a kept man out of a Senegalese local. I have a visceral reaction to this form of inequality. Sex tourism, with its explicit racial components, seems like colonialism of the most intimate and worst kind.

Rain Biking

Boy on bike, Kolda, Senegal. Click to see larger image.

I got caught in a rainstorm yesterday and hung out with the others taking refuge under the awning of the Credit Agricole Bank. We commiserated about the lack of cell phone service. The internet and electricity had been out most of the day too. I was sort of lost, just stuck in this African rainstorm, cut off from the world. I decided to take pictures.  For once, I wasn’t the one getting drenched while biking in the rain.

Ramadan: A Visitor’s Perspective

I came home to Kolda the other day to find everyone in the thick of Ramadan. I had been gone for a work meeting in another part of Senegal. Breakfast stands had vanished, candied dates were being sold everywhere, and young men had stamped out the last of their cigarettes. My co-passengers remained silent for our entire 5-hour journey, the seven of us intimately squished in a Peugeot station wagon.

When Ramadan arrives, there is a seriousness to everything.

I decided this year I wouldn’t do the dance of seeing whether I could fast like everyone else. This is the fourth Ramadan I’ve experienced while living in Muslim countries (once in Morocco, three times in Senegal). I usually fast for at least a few days.

I fasted for the entire month when I lived in Morocco (meaning I refrained from food and drink during daylight hours and consumed only at night). It invigorated me. But those were also the days when I played integration like a game, dating a Moroccan guy and doodling Arabic in my notebooks. I loved haggling endlessly in the markets, drinking ultra-sweet tea, and doing things that made me feel like I fit in.

But in the end, no one is asking me to be more Senegalese. I’m not Muslim, and no one is hoping I’ll become a religious convert. The experience of fasting made me more compassionate toward Ramadan’s meaning and toward the dedication it requires. But of the things I’ve learned, one of the most important is knowing when to stop proving yourself to others, and most of all, to yourself.

Someone in the New Yorker recently quoted the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss as saying, “[I]n an encounter between two cultures, you have to find the right distance in order to really get to know each other.”

Many Peace Corps volunteers dread Ramadan and plan vacations to escape it. For those who live in villages, Ramadan can be especially rough: even less food than normal, thus more pangs of starvation. Our work projects slow down. People in our communities are tired and thirsty, so it’s difficult to convince them to help double-dig soil, start up community gardens, or give young women self-esteem building workshops. It is frustrating sometimes to feel like everything is on hold

For any type of traveler in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it can be hard to experience things as they would be normally. Businesses are closed or have unpredictable hours, making breakfast and lunch hard to find. People expect modesty, so engaging in vacation behavior, such as tanning on the beach in a bikini, is tricky.

Sometimes during this month, sunlight seems like a punishment, an examination lamp upon everyone’s movements and desires. But experiencing Ramadan, whether you’re fasting or not, can be a worthy, eye-opening cultural undertaking.

The main way to participate in Ramadan as a non-Muslim is to restrict yourself from eating or drinking publicly during the day. You feel how challenging it is to ride a bike uphill or take an all-day dusty car ride with locals when you can’t sneak even a sip of water. You may feel, even if artificially, the sense of community during Ramadan, of everyone around you sharing the same physical torment. Later, in the safety of your hotel room, you can scarf down a few Clif bars and realize what a fortunate experience it is to eat.

Ramadan is also interesting because rather than being a private religious ritual, it is evident in the very rhythms of the day. In Senegal, it is a rare month to choose to travel (both culturally and seasonally), so you’re not likely to encounter many other tourists. You’ll experience the emptiness of sundown, when the streets are vacant because everyone is breaking the fast; the chatter around midnight, when people are eating dinner; and the unusual calm of morning, when people are still dozing after their 5 a.m. snack and prayer. If you’re staying with locals, they’ll usually invite you to break the fast with them.

An outsider is bound to notice the distinctness of Ramadan—its odd schedule, the special foods eaten, the way it’s the subject on everyone’s lips—and walk away with this memory from their travels.

I’ll spend the rest of the month hiding my eating habits. I’ll be crouched on the floor of my hut cracking open cans with my Swiss Army knife for my one-woman lunch. I’ll be at the 9 p.m. dinner bowl for the odd ones out: the kids who are too young to fast, the menstruating, the ill, and me. And maybe, like Lévi-Strauss said in the quote above, that puts me at the right distance.

 

 

A version of this post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

 

Senegal’s Accidental Hipsters

Photo by Marcie Todd

My daily romp around the city where I live in Senegal affords me a view of urban fashion trends. I’ve lived here for two years and speak the local Pulaar in addition to French, but no matter how “integrated” I’ve become with “the locals,” I’m aware that I’ll always be a foreigner. Being a constant outsider, while imprisoning at times, allows me some freedoms.

Senegalese people already think I’m wacky, so I waste less time caring about others’ opinions of me. I can’t always communicate, so I spend more hours just thinking. People stare at me, so I stare at them.

In my de-facto role as an observer, I have become fascinated with the style choices I see on the street. On one end of the spectrum, there are older women, who by loyalty to convention or lack of economic freedom wear head-to-toe complets and matching head scarves. This satisfies a stereotypical vision of traditional West African attire: sculptural head wraps, quirky patterns (Obama’s face, a severed finger), and unapologetically loud colors.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are more experimental with their fashion. Men tend to do this more, often because they are granted more social freedom and have more disposable income. They wear bold hats or provocative t-shirts, at times looking silly; at other times, avant-garde. I live for the sight of elderly men ready for Friday mosque, in long robes and Moroccan fez hats, clutching prayer beads and looking utterly conservative, yet who with one touch–classic round sunglasses–are chic. Whether wearing $2 plastic jellies or a woman’s velour sweater, it’s one’s confidence that lends to one’s swagger.

For nearly two years, I found myself dying to take portraits of all the stylish people I saw around town. The problem was, taking pictures of strangers in Senegal is a sensitive act; I’ve been berated in the market for snapping a shot of fish lying on the ground. With time, I gained a better feel for people and learned that photo opportunities come of informal conversations and asking for consent, not of claiming other people’s images at the slightest touristic urge.

After I started shooting, a friend pointed me in the direction of the guerilla-style fashion site Accidental Chinese Hipsters. On it, contributors post photos (often taken furtively) of Chinese people wearing outfits that at first glance seem awkward, yet upon further reflection could be construed as hipster. It dawned on me that maybe what transfixed me about Senegalese men’s style was a certain fuck-you attitude toward clothing, a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it otherness that conveys humor and that people might aptly describe with the overused term, “hipster.”

Thus, my fixation on the accidental hipsters of Senegal, the people who wear the detachable hoods of ski jackets as hats and who zero-in on t-shirts with wolf illustrations in the thrift markets. Their look is refreshing because it’s not over-calculated–they just like what they like. One of my favorite outfits was a woman’s complet with a retro floral design and gold zippers. I couldn’t get her picture; she was on the back of a moto, speeding fast ahead.

The fashion I’m witnessing is the result of a shift taking place in Senegalese style. Much of it is due to the global used clothing industry. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, used clothing was the 5th largest import to Senegal from the U.S., clocking in at $7 million as of 2009, the date of the most recent data.

Used clothing is shipped to Senegal and many other African countries by middlemen who specialize in sorting and exporting clothing bought by the ton from places like the Salvation Army. It winds up in the fookijaay in every market in Senegal. Fookijaay, the Wolof word for “thift market,” literally means “shake out” and “sell.”

Snippets of Americana, stamped on t-shirts and paraded as everyday fashion, are part of the landscape. As I bike around, I see “Bacon Eating Championship 2005,” and “I’m a Jesus Freak” advertised unwittingly by Kolda’s Muslim, non-English speaking crowds. I see men wearing “Real Women Have Curves” or “Glenview High Ladies Ice Skating Team” t-shirts. They exhibit cultural dissonance, and they own it.

Many point out, however, that the global used clothing industry is destroying local textile production all across Africa. Some mourn the trend away from people taking pride in beautiful local fabrics and toward an approximation of Western style. I admit I’d be dismayed to see my tailor go out of business if traditional fabric disappeared and American hand-me-downs took over entirely.

But for now, witnessing the negotiation of Western thrift and old-school African style is what is fascinating. It’s clear that Senegalese people love the thrill of injecting artifacts of foreign clothing into their wardrobes. They love being the only one out of their friends to have a certain bag or a specific shape of dress. They do this without apology, and thus, panache. I think they’re onto something.

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

Mango Season

Right now is the hot, dry season. My garden is anemic. It hasn’t rained in at least 6 months. Heat rash is common. So is taking repeated bucket baths and staring mindlessly into the distance. It’s also the season of mangoes, of the fruit thudding on my roof, of people marching around with 20-ft bamboo poles to tease ripe ones from the tallest parts of trees. I have a mango tree in my own yard. I sleep under it every night due to the intolerable heat indoors. In this season, the impossibility of napping in the daytime means I sleep more drunkenly at night, impervious to the possibility that mangoes might pummel my face and to the dinosaur noises of nearby donkeys.

There is this mystique of otherness around mangoes: tropical, exotic, imported. The thought that I could reach my hand up 3 feet, eyes unwavering from my book, and produce a mango inspires jealousy in some of my States-side friends. Mangoes connote places of green abundance and brown people. But Senegal right now is lethargic and arid. Mango trees, which take years to produce fruit, have deep taproots which siphon moisture from the water table several meters below ground. This is how, long after the rains have ended, and right about the time the landscape is colorless, mangoes sprout copiously. The arrival of mangoes marks a welcome injection of life to cut the barren mood of dry season.

The distinctness of the seasons here is at once comforting and monotonous: from March through May I’m certain I can sleep outside and not get rained on, yet I know every day will be the same sweaty, mind-sapping slog. I believe that the human brain liquifies with heat. I often find myself motionless in my room, knowing that there’s somewhere I have to be or something I should do, but my mind is paralyzed by heat. Then I look at my L.L.Bean digital clock/thermometer, and see that 40 minutes have passed and it’s 106 degrees in my zinc-roofed room. Granted, 106 degrees can be bearable in the land of air-conditioning, 7-11s, Slurpees, electricity, fans, ice-cold lemonade, showers, and put more simply, moments of escape. Here, the heat imprisons you everywhere you go.

Aside from a general concern over my African sun exposure pre-qualifying me for skin cancer, few things give me more pause than the prospect that my brain has atrophied due to malaria medication and extreme heat. The sun has bleached my hair, endowed me with freckles, and guaranteed me a year-round tan. I no longer get sunburned. My newfound blonde highlights are moderately attractive; will early onset senility be also?

I suppose the physical investment of living far away—far culturally, physically, emotionally, infrastructurally—is just part of the experience. It’s woven into the adventure of exploring one’s human capability. Am I less healthy now that I eat less protein, drink well water, expose myself to parasites, get baked by the sun, battle staph infections, play with grubby kids, and regularly ingest chemoprophylactic medications? Or, am I more healthy now that I get full nights of sleep, bike daily, eat fresh local ingredients, take spontaneous vacations, laugh more easily, and have a job that allows me to set my own schedule entirely?

In this far away place, where mangoes mean heat, seasons are predictable, and health is relative, I’m happy to leave most questions unanswered and simply pass out under the stars. But I can’t wait until rainy season.

 

 

 

 

Approximations of Age

After dinners like this one, Boubacar swings by for the leftovers.

Boubacar is about ten years old. He has scraped legs and wears oversized shirts that hang like dresses. He visits my house almost every evening, a nightly trick-or-treater, calling at the door, “sakur almudo,” (which I gather to be Arabic for—essentially—“trick or treat”). The homeowners he visits either tell him to bug off, or invite him inside to fill his jack-o-lantern—in this case, his emptied tomato can—with leftover food. He then recites a thank-you prayer in Arabic, to which the hosts reply “Amin, amin,” (like “Amen”).

I say that Boubacar is “about” ten years old because even he doesn’t know his real age. He is a Peter Pan, stuck in glassy-eyed childhood, malnourished and physically stunted. He has been denied access to school, knows little French, and speaks only his maternal tongue Pulaar. Boubacar is a talibé, meaning his parents willingly loaned him to a religious leader so he could lead the life of a street beggar, nominally learning the Koran, sleeping on the floor of a religious school, and combing the city for coins and food scraps.

Boubacar will someday outgrow talibé-hood, and enter adult life without having had any schooling, rendering him unqualified for most occupations except hustling and stealing. The talibé system has played a cruel maturation trick on him, as he visibly grows yet remains mentally young.

•  •  •

Like Boubacar, most Senegalese children blush when I ask them their birthdays. Of those that remember, they retrieve the cold numbers from the recesses of their minds, as if they had warily memorized the digits of Pi. Many of them do not have birth certificates, or else had the documents fabricated by village authorities years after they were born so that they could attend school.

At a ceremony, these children are like age transvestites.

To them, age is an approximation, a birthday an arbitrary series of numbers conjured to correspond to one’s physical size. Age isn’t an all-encompassing identity to most Senegalese people, it seems, as it is in the States.

I remember turning seventeen, and feeling like it was such a landmark, perhaps because at that point I could read Seventeen Magazine and finally get all the references. At seventeen, I felt I had achieved the perfect balance of being on the cusp of adulthood without having to give up any of my youthful proclivities. I considered myself wholly different from my friends who were sixteen, and from those who were eighteen.

In the United States, age is cultural numbers game, compelling some to lie and still others to self-punish. Consider the societal trauma created around turning thirty. While it has no inherent meaning beyond being a number, “30” somehow inspires in Americans a referendum on career progress, the specter of marriage, and the destructive preoccupation on what it means to be “old.” We repeat this ridiculous mindfuck for ages forty, fifty, and so forth.

There is a certain freedom in Senegal around not having to lie about one’s age; after all, if you are truly uncertain of your age, you cannot lie about it. Birthdays often pass uncelebrated, partly because this is a less affluent, less “me-centered” society, and also because life is not seen as a series of ticks on the age-o-meter.

Even adults have a loose relationship to their ages, citing the age they think they are, yet conceding that it has been manipulated in official documents. Many kids have a real age and a “school age.” My host brother Mamadou, 19, was adopted and started school a few years late. In order to remain on the right educational track, his “school age”—the age on his official school documents—is 14, putting him in the same class as my 14-year-old brother Lamine. This manipulation of age is not exactly seen as dishonest; it is simply an adjustment made to allow life to go on.

Same school age, different real age. Lamine, left, and Mamadou are in the same class at school.

Certainly, Senegalese people still feel age-related pressures, such as a need to get married and have kids. Yet these are less numerically based and more inspired by a general comparison against one’s peers and relatives.

The fact of becoming old is understandably celebrated here. Senegal’s age structure is, like most developing countries where healthcare is lacking, severely bottom-heavy: 43% of the population is under 14 while only 3% of the population is over the age of 65 (contrasted with 20%/13% for the U.S.) Elders are revered and rare. When my parents recently visited, my community acknowledged it as a great honor.

•  •  •

Boubacar, in all likelihood, will not be one of the few who makes it past 65. His physical health and educational immaturity pigeonhole him into the massive youth bracket. The international community has condemned the child slavery-like situation to which boys like Boubacar are subjected. The Senegalese government has formally banned the practice, though it remains unabated in far-flung regions like Kolda.

I think back to when I first met Boubacar many months ago, on the dirt pathway outside of my house as I helped my host mother sell bean sandwiches at night. He, his friends, and I dared each other to dance, laughing and childlike, showing off moves in the pitch-blackness. I hope he will always retain his youthfulness, in the best sense of the word.

Thread Trade: How the Global Used Clothing Industry Influences African Fashion

Random t-shirts that read: “Once Upon a Time, I Met a Boy, and I Kicked His Butt!,” “Miss Evan’s Class 2003-2004,” and “I Didn’t Ask to be Princess”

You’re an American. Naturally, you have piles of t-shirts you want to give away. They are basically junk to you, bearing insignia from your company’s annual picnic, a walk-a-thon, a phone-a-thon, or any number of other mildly important events where people passed out new t-shirts like napkins. You only saved them with a vague idea of a time when you’d need to paint your house or overhaul your garden. But a few years have gone by and the shirts are taking over the space in your closet for the new clothes you got for Christmas. So, it’s time for them to go to the Salvation Army.

The t-shirt you just re-gifted, the one that says,”Garcia Family Reunion Bear Valley Ranch 2008,” will probably not end up on the back of a homeless person in a New York subway. Rather, you’ll be more likely to find it across the Atlantic, on the model-thin frame of an African woman, who in fact does have a home, and who is happy for your shirt’s relative newness.

Her skirt will be African technicolor. Her shirt will be grey jersey knit. Her wardrobe will be hybrid, reflecting a shift that the controversial injection of American t-shirts brings to African fashion.

Only a small fraction of all clothing donated to thrift stores such as Good Will ever stays in the United States. Pietra Rivoli, in The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, reveals, “The Salvation Army at one time tried to sell all of the clothing in its stores or to give it away, but the supply now so far outstrips demand…There are nowhere near enough poor people in America to absorb the mountains of castoffs, even if they were given away.” According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, used clothing was the 5th largest import to Senegal from the U.S. in 2009, clocking in at $7 million.

A vendor inside the fookijaay in Kolda

In my daily life in Kolda, second-hand clothing is everywhere. The “fookijaay,” the Wolof word for “thrift market,” is a hub of economic activity in the city center. In Wolof, “fookijaay” literally means “shake out” and “sell.” There is a fookijaay in every town in Senegal. They are all over Africa as well.

Snippets of Americana, stamped on t-shirts and paraded as everyday fashion, are part of the landscape. As I bike around, I see “Bacon Eating Championship 2005,” and “I’m a Jesus Freak” advertised unwittingly by Kolda’s Muslim, sometimes illiterate, non-English speaking crowds. I see men in “Real Women Have Curves” or “Glenview High Ladies Ice Skating Team” shirts. For all the humorous out-of-context t-shirts, however, there are even more of the mundane: “Lakeside Honors Society” tops, Hawaiian shirts, and nondescript pants, shoes, and plaid button-downs.

When my host brother Aliou needed new clothes for school, my host mom took him to the fookijaay, much in the way I would have been taken to K-mart as a kid. He came back home with several almost-new items, including a ski-worthy down jacket (for those cold African 60-degree nights), and a shirt that said “People Who Think They Know Everything Annoy Those Of Us Who Do.” When I clumsily translated this phrase into Pulaar for him, he seemed nonplussed by its snarky tenor.

It is amazing to see how all these throw-away shirts that we so easily forget about are having second, maybe third, lives in Africa. We’ve all heard the Blue Sweater Story, or a version of it, wherein an American woman donated her childhood sweater, only to find the very same sweater on a boy in Rwanda, 11 years later, when she was working there.

This supposedly uplifting discovery, of realizing how interconnected we all are, is undercut by the fact that as many argue, the used clothing industry is destroying local textile production all across Africa.

Clothing comes in packages with bar codes like this

The trade mechanism by which used clothing travels to developing countries is fascinating. At first glance, it appears that the garments arrived as an extended form of donation, as if a church group dumped massive amounts of used clothing upon Africa. Some hold the misconception that the clothing is smuggled in. But once you see the vastness of the fookijaay supply and its organized packaging, it is clear that used clothing is a complex global industry in itself.

Rivoli writes of the Trans-Americas Trading Company, a large factory in New Jersey, as an example of the type of middleman that facilitates the used clothing trade. TATC purchases clothing from charities in the New York metro area, and processes tens of thousands of pounds of clothing per day. The method is straightforward: truckloads of garments arrive at the factory, which then travel on conveyor belts and are hand-sorted by employees. Some clothing is deemed vintage and is destined for European or Japanese markets. Less fortunate threads are literally turned into rags.

An active fookijaay merchant, this woman chooses to wear a Senegalese complet instead of second-hand clothing

The majority of clothing at TATC, however, is bound for Africa. African customers usually demand new-looking clothing, free of smudges and wear, in lightweight cotton. Companies like TATC ship large bales of pre-sorted clothing, stamped with bar codes and labeled descriptively (“Women’s dresses,” “Children’s shoes,” etc.) to garment buyers in Africa.

I have seen the storage room at the fookijaay in Kolda where these bales are opened for the first time and subsequently sorted through. Merchants there say everything comes from Dakar. Though I protested that it seems like the clothing has been sitting there for ages, vendors insisted that shipments arrive a few times per month, and most of the clothing is turned over in that time. The clothing winds up on massive tables in each vendor’s territory, some collections more orderly than others. Much of the market consists of chaotic mountains of clothing. The fookijaay is like one giant bargain bin—as long as you’re willing to dig, you will eventually find something you might want.

Since each item in the fookijaay is unique, it can be a thrilling, if laborious, shopping experience. It is clear that my co-shoppers in the fookijaay love the treasure hunt appeal as much as I do. The other day, I browsed alongside several young women, who were happy to fish ballet flats out of the heaps of shoes on a table. Their skinny jeans and tight, bright tank tops were probably Chinese-made and new, whereas their shoes and purses were distinctly American, guaranteeing that these particular accessories couldn’t be copied by their friends.

Color. For the low, low price of $2.

There is amazing retro 80′s and 90′s attire available for purchase. Somehow countless colorful track jackets, neon floral shorts, and snappy purses slipped through the cracks at the donation stations in the U.S. and ended up here. The 80′s vintage-like clothing I find here is in abundance, since Senegalese people tend to prefer cleaner colors and newer-looking items. Thus, I am afforded an extravagant thrift store experience, where retro-fabulous clothing for $2 or less is everywhere, a far cry from the picked-over bins in hipster meccas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

This little girl’s Snow White costume was described disturbingly to me by a vendor as a “possible wedding dress” for a girl.

Plenty of Senegalese people, especially women over the age of 40, and men over the age of 50 or 60, still wear traditional head-to-toe garments in colorful African fabric. But the apparent age divide highlights a new reality in clothing choice: the polychromatic traditional costumes are being reserved for special occasions, religious days, and old age. Young people, in step with European and American fashion, prefer jeans and tees, jumpsuits and power suits.

Conventional Senegalese attire, with its billowing fabrics, sculptural head wraps, and unapologetically bright colors, is maybe being re-imagined as too old-school, costume-like, and perhaps too psychedelic. Further, a fashion split can be seen along gender lines. Men more commonly wear Western clothing, perhaps because they have more disposable income than women and can afford attire deemed to be “modern.” Men are allowed more freedom in what they can wear, an added perk of their higher social standing. Women, who are less financially able to update their closets and are also expected to retain their collective mother/wife image, tend to wear snazzy Senegalese traditional wear, year after year.

This approximation of Western style comes as a blow to local garment industries. It also means dingier hues across the Senegalese color palette. But perhaps Senegalese consumers like the mishmash options in their markets, allowing them inexpensive access to comfy Western thrift. The infusion of American t-shirts into the fashion algorithm has no doubt brought a certain casualness and experimentalism to the über-vibrance of Senegalese couture.

(On the flipside, the American store Anthropologie is selling a $68 shirt that is described as “African-inspired” and looks unmistakably like Senegalese wax fabric that I could buy in the market here. Picture below.)

Can you believe it??