Senegal tells a story like no other place in the world. And I’ve taken it upon myself to listen to that story with patience and an appreciation for what the often-forgotten country offers in its own right. Religious coexistence, interethnic peace, colonial dynamism. Seasonal rains, a shifting desert frontier. Countless variations of fish and rice. Even baobab trees, for instance—the most bizarre tree I’ve ever seen, and it defines and distinguishes the Senegalese countryside.
I published these words in a blog post called “An African Easter Travel Philosophy” for Let’s Go Travel Guides. At the time, after a frustrating bout of food poisoning and general discomfort in Senegal, I wrote this story to instill a fresh wave of patience and purpose.
“The discomfort is an added bonus,” I later wrote. “It keeps me consciously in the moment.”
Exactly a year ago today, I had taken only the first few unsteady steps on what would become a five-month-long slippery path. I can sum up my time in Senegal with one word: struggle. I don’t mean that in the physical sense, though Michael Maltese and John Favini can attest to that sleepless night at a hostel in Joal-Fadiouth – where I exhausted myself in a feverish fit, keeled over in the corner of our cramped room, violently relinquishing any chance of ever again enjoying a serving of yassa au poulet.
Senegal challenged the knowledge I believed I had acquired throughout my entire life of traveling to Africa with my family. I admit, I didn’t enjoy this challenge. No cultural orientation or African studies class could have adequately prepared me for the complexities imbedded in this country and myself. I walked into that country a year ago, feeling like I knew much more than most. I left, five months later, knowing hardly anything at all. Or at least, I had become more aware of what I did not know.
In a book titled Ignorance: How It Drives Science, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein endorses the pursuit of a “higher-quality ignorance” within scientific research. The best exploration renders questions that in the beginning you had never thought to ask. If your goal is concrete knowledge in the form of hard-written facts, you’ll be shocked to discover that the best questions we can ever ask render not an easy answer, but (at least) ten more questions.
In the same way, a struggle to fully understand any given place is a lost battle from the start. In Dr. Firestein’s thesis, the words “scientific research” can easily be replaced by “travel.” Travel breeds ignorance, not knowledge. But could this ignorance be embraced? Could stepping off the ledge into the lapses of our knowledge, rather than remaining with the answers we’ve already procured, bring us further into understanding?
The world is full of such paradoxes. In this sense, my struggle with Senegal – much like a bone-chilling fever in the mangrove swamps of the Sine-Saloum delta – was an experience I needed to have.