A major highlight of the France program offered by SLU is having the opportunity to travel to Senegal for 9 days. This was a huge attraction for all of those who took part in the France program. This trip had a significant impact on our study abroad semester, one that we will never forget. We left bright and early from the Bordeaux airport on Sunday April 15th and finally arrived in Dakar, Senegal that same night– with tired eyes and hungry stomachs– but eager to start the week! After one night at a hotel, we awoke the next morning to go to the West African Research Center (WARC) to meet the masterminds in charge of our program. The heads of the program were the esteemed Dr. Chiekh Thiam and Dr. Barrel Gueye. Alongside this power team were 7 Senegalese University students who acted as guides for us during the week. Our first presentation was given by Dr. Thiam on the “Dos and Don’ts” of Senegalese culture. This presentation included a short lesson in Wolof: the principal local language spoken in Dakar. After the morning session, we piled into the bus and took an abbreviated tour of the city. We returned to WARC for lunch and awaited the arrival of our host families. One by one we dispersed to our homes and families for the week!
In our home stays, some lived alone while others were paired with another SLU student. The families ranged from small to large, some being Christian and others Muslim. Some families were more traditional than others and ate from a communal bowl with their hands, while others sat at kitchen table and used utensils. We compared and contrasted our experiences throughout the week. I think it is safe to say the families were a huge success! Other activities during the week included spending time with our Senegalese peers at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, visiting the first President of Senegal Léopold Sedar Senghor’s home, and attending another lecture called “The Senegalese Exception.” One extremely significant aspect of the trip were debriefing sessions where we discussed our general reflections on cultural differences and Senegal in general. These debriefing sessions included Senegalese students, professors, and us as well. Our notions were challenged and eyes were opened on several occasions.
Our trip included an excursion to Gorée Island as well, an island that had historical importance during the European slave trade. The main use of the island when in possession of the French was for the slave trade. On the island were 28 slave holding structures, and during our trip we toured one of these slave houses. We discussed how history was written and challenged the traditional westernized perspective in many history books about the European and American hand in the slave trade.
On Friday we left for the much awaited voyage to Saint-Louis! We left from the frequented hang out area, Case de Mermoz, and began our 5 hour long drive to the island. Who said road trips had to be boring? We sang, laughed, and played a variety of car games. Even when our tire popped, the fun continued in a desert patch along the side of the road. Thankfully our bus driver knew his way around a tool box and fixed our tire in no time at all. When we arrived in Saint Louis we observed many Senegalese Muslims praying along the streets. In Islam, friday is a day designated to collective prayer. It was a beautiful sight to see.. After a quick stop to drop off our bags, we were ready for our tour around Saint Louis. One particular stop on this tour was in the fishing market of Saint Louis. Here we observed dense population swarming the streets, particularly children. We learned that 70% of the 27,000 inhabitants were children. Our perspectives were challenged once more when our tour guide stated these families are not poor. Even though their living conditions differ from ours, they are able to successfully feed their large families.
After a dinner of rice, fish, and other Senegalese delicacies, Dr. Barrel had a cultural event in store for us. It included traditional drumming, dancing, and singing. Although we may not be the most talented dancers, we experienced a cornerstone of Senegalese culture. Many of our Senegalese peers assisted with our lack of skill; however, the highlight of the cultural event was Dr. Caldwell hitting the dancefloor! By the end of the night we were danced out and returned for a good night’s rest. On our final day, we went to the University of Saint Louis to interact with new peers. We got into discussion groups and talked about music, feminism, and societal challenges students face. It was during these discussions where we connected personally with our new peers influencing our perspectives on life and education. Although we didn’t have so much time with these students, it was clear that these were remarkably smart and driven scholars just like us. It was truly a privilege to experience the beauty of Senegal. We learned so much about Senegalese history, culture, language, and the issues facing Senegal today. We can only hope to one day return to Senegal.