I thought I knew what to expect. From talking with my host teacher, I knew that the classrooms would be pretty bare. I knew that the electricity might go out and the toilets would be. . . different". But vague descriptors don't prepare you at all for what you see and experience on a trip like this.
The classrooms were incredibly simple. A chalkboard at the front, a single light overhead, and thirty or so desks in neat rows facing the front. There was no computer (in many classrooms, there are no outlets). There was no artwork, or slick motivational posters on the walls. Plaster may or may not be covering the cinder block walls. There was limited restroom facilities available. I was expecting to feel bad for them. But I didn't. I felt embarrassed.
I felt embarrassed because we simply don't know how good we have it. We have schools with electricity and classrooms with 20 outlets or more. We have water that is easily drinkable and toilets that flush. We walk to school on paved sidewalks or drive on paved paved streets. I asked my host why he didn't drive around one particular building. He said because he would get stuck in the sand. Where we would call roadside assistance, he would have to rely on neighbors and an unfortunate teenager passing by to help him push the car out.
My house is full of junk. Stuff that my family has accumulated over the years and no longer uses or needs. In fact, we have so many material things that in the past, I've used a local storage facility. I'm not alone. In the past few years, self-storage has boomed in popularity as Americans have generated wealth and materials. It is one of the fastest growing areas of real estate.
But it's not enough. We still have too much stuff.
If I need help moving that stuff out of my house, I can hire junk removal professionals to come and take it all away and relive my stress. Yet, here in Senegal, I can watch a horse pulling a cart piled with 15 college kids going to college. I can watch 90 kids file into a barely-lit classroom with no complaints. I can watch people live their lives who rely on sharing, on community, on Terranga, and make the most of it.
It is painfully clear that Americans don't know, and probably don't really care to learn much about Africa. We enjoy our financial privilege here in the United States, and we assume that others want to be more like us. So, in our on-top-of-the-world status, we don't know much about the rest of the world or what's going on in it, except for what we learn through media and the movies which are often loaded with misconceptions and falsehoods. In my experience, our perceived ignorance of the world is backed up by a significant set of data of not just Africa, but the rest of the world as well.
To be sure, some of us are interested or may have a personal connection to continental Africa, so we are a bit more familiar. However, when I told friends and family that I was going to Senegal, the resounding majority of questions were: "Africa? Is it safe there?" usually followed up by, "Now where exactly is Senegal?"
To be clear, I don't expect everyone to be able to know were Senegal is. In fact, I think that Americans are put into a tough position, as every other country in the world knows about the US (and follows our news), but then expects that the US will know about their country. This is, of course, impossible. In my travels, I have talked with students in China, Costa Rica, Senegal, and Europe that knew California (and several other states). But ask a typical American student (or adult) to name a single province in any other country , and you will likely be met with wide eyes and a shrug. They may know one from Canada. Maybe.
Upon my return from Senegal, I am inevitably greeted with "How was Africa?". This would be like going to Russia, then asking someone "How was Asia?" Or going to Alaska and saying "How was North America?". Africa is HUGE! You can fit All of the the United States, China and all of Europe, and still have room left over. But, I forgive them, because I know that they know that Africa is not just one country. Realistically, they probably forgot where I was going, because (see above) they are just not familiar with the countries.
So how was Senegal you say? Well, I'm glad you asked . . .
IN April, 2018, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to Senegal, as part of a fellowship through the US State Department (Teachers for Global Classrooms program). Of course when I returned, everyone wanted to know what it was like. It is impossible to describe such an experience in the brief moment I am typically allotted, so I give them the overview and save them from the minute details that I treasure so much, but they would likely find tedious. Instead, I have written out my thoughts in blog form, relatively unfiltered, for those who are so inclined to read more about my time and experiences of terranga.
I am purposely writing my thoughts in subject form, and not as a diary. My experiences from the trip are incredibly varied and I wanted to put together my thoughts in a cohesive and somewhat logical format. I hope you enjoy the reading and maybe learn a little something about Senegalese culture and reflect about what constitutes your own culture.
There are so many things to talk about Senegal, I'm not sure where to being. Senegal is the western most country in Africa, with it's capital, Dakar, jutting out distinctly into the ocean. It was a former French colony that became an independent state in 1960. It is a very politically stable country, although there is occasional unrest in the southern part of the country, called Casamance, which is semi-isolated from the rest of the country. It is 95% Muslim, however, there is a great deal of acceptance of other religions, including Christianity, and they live together peacefully.
The people of Senegal pride themselves on Terranga - 'hospitality' and are incredibly warm and receptive to others. I will talk more about this later in another post, but the feeling was so strong that it has actually made me reflect on my own community back home.
The students I met on my trip were incredibly warm and eager to get to know me and my culture. They have a difficult time getting to school, as many live far away, cars are unreliable, and there is no consistent public bus service. Many have to walk considerable distance (or ride with others on a horse or donkey-drawn cart), but they do their best. The students I saw worked hard, knowing that their education was their future.
The climate of Senegal is interesting. The northern border is essentially the southern border of the Sahel region. It is very sandy and dry for most the year, with a rainy season between April and August. As you travel further south, you get into the "Dry" Savanna, also called Sudan-Savanna. This area is characterized by increased density of trees and shrubs, but remains distinctly drier than "wet" savanna closer to the Gulf of Guinea. Interestingly, most Atlantic hurricanes that strike the US begin just off the coast of Senegal.
There is so much more to this country than what I am telling here. I will be adding to this blog more of my experiences in Senegal to shed so light on the country, the people and the culture that made a real impact on me.