by Tammy Oruwariye

After working for a year following my graduation, I realized that I had a lot of unanswered questions. My mind was plagued by questions as to what my next steps would be and where did I see myself in the future. With my interest in international relations, I saw myself becoming more interested in world and domestic affairs. I was particularly upset by the racial tension that was happening all over the West. I was inundated with personal stories of friends and families of all sorts of horrific experiences that I became overwhelmed. In seeing the refugee crisis in Europe, the racial turmoil in the U.S and my personal development, I decided to take a break, a break that actually became a source of inspiration.

In June, I decided to go to Dakar, Senegal to experience a different Africa from what I knew as a Nigerian born in America. I chose Senegal to not only practice and improve my French but to expand on my knowledge of Africa. I stayed in Dakar for two months while working on a social enterprise project and occasionally volunteering at a motherless babies’ home. I felt that by helping others I would find my feet.

I worked on a project with my uncle in which we were creating a platform where local craftsmen in Dakar could sell their crafts online to a global audience. We focused on leather phone cases as our first endeavor so that we could see how the market was before we test other art forms. The intention of this project is to sell high quality products that will help the local craftsmen maintain their livelihood. On certain weekends, I would go to the motherless babies’ home and feed the little babies in the morning. They were all too eager to hear music from my phone and listen to my voice while I read to them.

I met up with a friend from college who recently moved to Dakar for work. She introduced me to four amazing people who became very good friends of mine. Three of these people were young women from Sweden who returned to Senegal for a month after falling in love with the country the first time they came, and the fourth was a Nigerian-American who works in Senegal. These five amazing people taught me to embrace change and the new. We had a few movie nights, occasional outings, and went to a reggae festival. This reggae festival, to my surprise, was part of a cultural movement by the Baye Fall, a group of people who are similar in many regards to the Rastafari. I visited the village des arts, which is a complex where artists live and sell their work.

I decided to visit the famous Goree Island on my last day in Senegal. I felt it was a good way to conclude my trip to the country. I stepped off the ferry along with a huge crowd of tourists onto the island.  I went to the house of slaves, which was a site that has left an indelible reminder in my head of the brutal slave trade. The house was comprised of two compartments. The top was where the slave traders lived and the bottom was cells. The two levels of the house were worlds apart. The cells were dark and gloomy with only a small window for light. Each cell belonged to a certain group of people. There was a cell for young men, one for woman, and a separate one for children. Children as young as four months of age were kept in a separate cell because it was believed that if the child was less nurtured, he or she will become stronger and more viable as a slave. I saw how rebels were kept in a separate cell that was as small as closet in a studio apartment. My tour guide told me that the old and disabled were usually thrown into the ocean since they wouldn’t be good enough to travel to other countries. The top floor had bedrooms with a bathroom, lights everywhere, and windows in each room. It was on this floor I saw the chains that were used to shackle the slaves and the glass and buttons that were used to distinguish who was going where. Throughout the island, I was reminded of the art in all its forms that I later realized is a means to reconcile the past with the present.

From listening to a Senegalese friend playing the guitar and singing good country music, to seeing an artist paint an image of Nelson Mandela in under an hour, I realized the untapped source of creativity and innovation that lies in Senegal. Art is an untapped source that exists in every African country, which I encourage everyone to explore. I didn’t gain all the answers I was looking for but I learned how many people find the answers to their biggest questions. They use their creativity, whether its singing, playing an instrument, writing a poem, painting, or even designing a leather bag, I learned that people use art not only as a form of communication but as a form preservation which gives them a sense of self. As Robert Engman said, “a piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question, which has been asked and asks a new question.” I am now inspired to discover more art in all its forms to see how art is used to inspire change.