I am currently spending four months living in Dakar, Senegal. And, despite it being Very Far Away, in all that time I don’t plan on being murdered, stricken with disease or otherwise stuck in a wood chipper to swim with the Senegalese fishes.
People don’t seem to believe me on this account.
While I was still in the US, I learned to explain my travel plan in a few sentences for the folks who thought I was traveling to “synagogue” instead of “Senegal.” It’s on the very west coast of Africa. They grow peanuts. It’s a big city and -- much like San Francisco -- the proximity to the ocean will keep it at around 60 degrees the entire time that I’m there. There is no language called Senegalese, and my host family speaks both French and Wolof.
If I didn't get this spiel out early in the conversation, people seemed to think that I was heading out to the deep jungle to, I don’t know, reenact Heart of Darkness. The most notable emotion that African travel conjures up for folks in the US seems to be fear. Africa is Scary. Bad Things happen there -- particularly to women. People that I interacted with at home -- even in passing -- were not shy about expressing the fact that in their eyes, what I was doing was dangerous.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this was a comment made by a friend's roommate. After I gave him a ride back to his apartment, he offhandedly told me that telling off possible aggressive Senegalese suitors was “a good way to get raped.” He didn't seem to understand what my (many) issues were with this statement. As far as he's concerned, it's just a fact about life in Africa -- Africa's dangerous, particularly for women.
Even my (lovely, supportive) family was bitten by the “scary Africa” bug on a few occasions. When I was packing my swimsuit for the trip, my mother very politely suggested that I might bring something like board shorts “just to be safe.” I don't think any one of the boys in my program had to explain that his swim wear is just fine by local standards -- even though they're wandering around all bare-breasted, those manly harlots.
I have had similar conversations with shop workers and dental hygienists surrounding my knee-length skirts, my short hair and my scoop neck T-shirts. Without knowing much about the country, people feel free to project their own versions of conservative femininity onto the Senegalese and -- by extension -- onto me in the guise of polite concern. The male body and the cloth used to cover it is -- in travel as in the rest of life -- not nearly so open for public discussion.
People like to project female clothing taboos onto other societies and, as a result, onto women traveling to those other societies. It doesn't matter how much I offer images showing that many young Senegalese women dress more or less like I do -- people are still worried that I might be stoned for wearing skinny jeans. This manages to be both irritatingly sexist and somewhat insulting to the Senegalese. It's an unpleasant two-for-one special!
Since arriving in Senegal, I've noticed the safety-concern gender divide even more. There have been a few riots over the last few days surrounding the presidential elections -- they're of the “setting tires on fire” variety rather than the “guns everywhere” variety, and are generally easy to avoid.
News about this development was sent to our parents in what I can only imagine was a bid by the program to completely alarm the worriers in the group. As a result, emails started pouring in to students from worried parents and grandparents asking if were okay. It's touching to know that our families care about us, of course, but I have noticed that none of the boys in my program has mentioned receiving an email checking on his safety.
It's possible that they're keeping mum about the fact that their families are concerned, but that seems unlikely. Even for a fairly unisex travel risk, girls are seen as being more in need of safety checking than the boys, despite the fact that gender has (at least in this program) no correlation to our French language abilities or imperviousness to firearms.
The gendered travel fear is reflected even in my program orientation structure. The women in the program are constantly warned not to walk alone at night, or take taxis alone,or talk to strange men. Of course, it is probably a good idea to follow all of this advice -- but it applies to the men in the program as well. However, the advice is always specifically directed at the ladies in the audience, always with the caveat that if we break any of the rules, “something might happen.” Whether “something” is sexual assault, murder or theft is never made clear to us. The women in the program are not only supposed to be afraid of things -- we're not even allowed to know what might happen should we break the rules.
Taken as individual conversations or observations, these travel warnings are either slightly awkward or sweet. But as a pattern of behavior, they reinforce the idea that young women are always in more danger than their male counterparts. How are we supposed to go through our travel experiences without being in constant fear if that's what our loved ones and random strangers keep implying should be our state of mind?
Horrible things happen to college-aged women with depressing frequency, but that’s true in Africa, in Europe, and -- what folks seem to forget -- on our own campuses and in our hometowns. Whatever dangers await me abroad (including the possibility of any number of diseases against which I’m hoping my vaccines are effective) are not greater in magnitude than the ones that face me here. They’re just different.
So no, well-intentioned worriers, I don’t plan on being murdered while I’m abroad. And even if something terrible might possibly happen maybe, I refuse to be scared my entire trip because of it.