Americans should look past violence in Senegal

By Hannah Feig COLUMNIST
On March 6, 2012

When reading of African nations in turmoil, Americans often imagine that violence is the defining mindset in the country.

News coverage of protests and war is extremely important, but the images we see represent only the surface of a vast and diverse continent.

Opening the pages of a newspaper and seeing characterizations of little-known nations, neatly fit into political stereotypes and devoid of all cultural intricacies, can be deceiving. It takes effort to see both sides of the picture: effort for which readers may not have the time or patience.

When images of protests in Senegal made their way to the default Google News page last month, it could have signaled a change: Perhaps people would start to recognize the coastal West African nation, with its dusty roads, brightly colored fabrics and smiling people. Senegal held the first round of its presidential elections Feb. 26, and the incumbent 85-year-old President Abdoulaye Wade will continue in a runoff election against the opposition leader, Macky Sall, near the end of March.

But from the news articles that made headlines, readers wouldn't know Senegal fully. Instead, it would seem like a stereotypical, falsely portrayed African nation, characterized by political upheaval or poverty. This is because the news articles flooding wires weren't the ones written by CNN's Errol Barnett about preparing Senegal's national dish, rice with fish, from ocean to platter, or the Al-Jazeera piece about Senegal's elderly voters - or even about the calm that defined election day.

They were articles from outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC highlighting protests in the capital, Dakar, where demonstrators filled a few downtown streets, burning cardboard and wooden furniture, throwing rocks and running from tear gas - the ones showing fiery riots and soldiers with guns. An opinion article in the Times even goes so far as to say that "Senegal was once considered West Africa's oasis of stability, but now it is a place of deadly repression."

Senegal would now, for news-conscious outsiders, be associated with faulty images of violence.

But Senegal isn't a nation defined by protests, though news coverage of pre-election riots can make it seem like violence is widespread. According to Al-Jazeera, during the protests in Senegal, the majority of citizens continued their daily lives in peace: going to school, working and cooking. TFM, a Senegalese news channel, even continued its weekend circuit of nightclubs and street parties.

These images show that the people there have more on their mind than politics and upheaval.

Americans reading about violence in other nations should take a step back before making judgments about the lives of people living there. News coverage of turmoil is extremely important, but there is power in digging deeper and realizing that peoples' lives are complicated, peaceful and diverse. Politics and protests define only the surface.

Hannah Feig is a senior majoring in chemistry and anthropology.

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