“So… I saw this man on T.V. His name was, Donald I think? And he says that he doesn’t want Muslims to enter America anymore. Do you think he could become President?”
This is the question I got from my host brother, Djiby, several weeks ago, and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
It’s an embarrassing time to be an American abroad, especially in a Muslim country. It could be worse. In Senegal, not many people watch the TV or are particularly interested in the American presidential election, since Obama is almost done (there are many, many Obama fans in these parts). But Djiby is not exactly your typical Senegalese man. He is a teacher and more educated than most. He is also very interested in all things American.
I told him that for a long time I thought the Donald Trump campaign was a joke. I saw snippets of it on Facebook but didn’t take it seriously. It is easy to get disconnected from the news here. By the time I realized it wasn’t a joke, it was very serious indeed. This didn’t make it any more believable.
“But… he can’t win, right? Americans would not agree to that.”
In a lot of ways people here seem to have more faith in my country than I do. It’s hard to speak badly about the States because people won’t listen. The images they see of the “American dream” on television don’t accurately portray what things are like on the other side of the Atlantic, but no one wants to hear that. America is the land of money, nice cars and houses, and lots of food.
I wanted to tell Djiby that it is impossible for someone like that to get elected as the leader of the free world. Someone as racist, sexist, and out of touch with reality — no chance.
But I couldn’t. The truth is, I’m not sure whats possible. I haven’t set foot on American soil in over two years, and I’ve missed a lot. The Ferguson case, the formation of the Islamic State, legalization of marijuana in several states, the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. These are just a few of the monumental events that I’ve observed from afar.
“The American people are scared. They’re scared of the Islamic State and that’s why some people think Muslims shouldn’t be let in to America anymore. But I and a lot of other Americans don’t agree with that. We know you can’t generalize about a group of people like that.” I told Djiby.
He seemed dismayed. Senegal is such a peaceful place, it is hard for one here to imagine Islam causing any harm. The country is over 90% Muslim, but they are far more tolerant of other religions than I would have imagined.
I didn’t know what it would be like to live in a Muslim country, but (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record ) I am grateful to have had this opportunity. Islam seems to have done many good things for Senegal. Religious taboos of drinking alcohol and stealing have a strong hold on the population. Sure, people here drink. But not that many, and its mostly confined to big cities. There is not the same problem with alcoholism that exists in other, poor, African countries, where men spend what little money they have to get drunk. And outside of Dakar, I’ve never had to worry about my possessions getting stolen. I can’t count how many times I’ve left my valuables unattended — including my bike, which I don’t even own a lock for. Even though my bike is American and extremely nice compared to the bikes here, I’ve never worried about it getting stolen.
These are just a couple of examples of the positive impact of religion here. There are many more positives, and sure, there are negatives too. But the point is, I’ve gotten to see first-hand what its like to live in a Muslim country. And it confirmed what I already knew to be true — that not all Muslims are extremists or terrorists. Many of them are far more peaceful and tolerant of other religions than many Christian groups in the States. And when I return home in a matter of weeks, I’ll have my work cut out for me in terms of explaining what I’ve seen to those on the homefront that are interested in hearing.
For now, I’m still representing America to the people of Senegal. And it’s getting harder and harder as Donald Trump advances his campaign. I’ll be long done with my service by the time of the election, but I can’t help but think of the PCVs of the future. I was lucky to have Obama behind me during my service, but Trump if elected will make the lives of future generations of PCVs extremely difficult. I’ll just have to borrow the simple statement that Senegalese people use in times of uncertainty and potentially negative outcomes — Allah akbar (God is good).