Cultural exchange at its best is reciprocal and mutual. The people in the host country learn from the traveler as the visitor learns from the host. On a recent trip to Washington's sister city of Dakar, Senegal, I met a woman who made this axiom personal and real.
At 50, Doris Johnston was making her first trip to Africa. She is a slender divorcee of medium height whose personality drew people to her like a magnet. ("I have never met a strange man," she announced to some of her more rigid companions.) Doris works in a steel mill. She has the ability to slice through the protective layers with which people veil their personalities like a skilled surgeon. In Africa, she sprinkled her sunshine and mother wit like a priest dropping holy water.
Doris was a little scared to go. She did not know if the Africans would like people like her, she said. She is from Aliquippa, Pa., and she'd been made to feel that Africans didn't care much for black Americans. "I wanted to find out for myself if it was really true," she said. She said she had "never even thought I would ever put my feet on African soil," but she got her chance when a friend encouraged her to come along on a trip to West Africa.
Doris' voice turns into a squeak when she becomes animated. She squeaked a great deal in the course of the trip. Her first surprise was that an African pilot and crew flew her across the Atlantic. When I first saw her at the airport in Dakar, her face was a mocha-hued glow as she watched a 6-foot-tall black American man who was part of a racially integrated "art safari" in spirited dancing with a group of Africans.
Dakar is a place of moderation, in climate, geography, culture and political ideology -- a good introduction to developing Africa. Doris drank it all in, in a way that the more jaded travelers among us failed to do.
A troupe of dancers -- their features in white paint, their foreheads rimmed in feathers -- enacted a ritual in the unlikely ambiance of the modern Teranga Hotel. To the troupe's leader, Doris confided that "I feel a part of this. We came from the same roots. We can relate to each other."
On a ferry crossing the Gambia River from dusty Banjul, Gambia, back to Senegal, Doris could unabashedly link arms with the handsome minister of forestry and chirp, "I feel so welcome. The people here make me feel nice, like I've known them all my life. I never thought I'd meet important people like you, and that you would be as glad to see me as I am to see you."
At a compound composed of mud huts with thatched roofs in the middle of Senegal, Doris posed for a photograph with the youngest and eldest of the single extended family that lived there -- "such beautiful people," she said.
The cohesiveness of the Africans touched Doris deeply. She was impressed with the extended family that forms the basic strength of the culture. She admired the deep respect for the elders. She marveled when, at the scene of an automobile accident, some 30 persons silently surrounded the car, the victim and the driver until the police arrived.
At a swanky hotel in Gambia, she stood toe to toe with a European who told her Africans were lazy and dumb. "The nerve of that man," she said at breakfast the next morning. "He almost spoiled my trip. But I told him a thing or two, and we drank up all his liquor and strutted on away."
The undisputed high point of Doris' trip was Goree Island, the departure point for up to 20 million African slaves who were shipped abroad. The slave house with its stone dungeons and harsh cells was "eerie," but a stirring experience for her. She found it overpowering as she stood on the rocky terrain looking out at the Atlantic, the soil where one of her ancestors probably had stood long ago. But she said it made her feel good to have survived and to know that she is still going on, still surviving, despite the obstacles. "It made me know what strong people we are and it made me proud to be of African descent," she said.
Doris said from Aliquippa the other day that she had already received letters from men and women she had met in Africa telling her how much they enjoyed talking with her. "It's like Richard Pryor said, once you go to Africa and come back you're never the same," Doris said. "It was the best experience I ever had and the best I'll ever have."