By Lisa Maina
Among the many reasons I decided to attend George Washington University, one of the most important was the many opportunities I would have to study abroad. I’ve always been interested in working internationally, and what better way to confirm this than by spending a semester abroad? GW makes it so incredibly easy to do so, whether through awesome advising, easy FOFAC registration, or financial aid transferal; there was nothing that could stop me from exploring the globe.
The hardest part of the whole process was probably choosing where to go, especially because there were so many options. With choices ranging from 6 continents, 41 countries, and over 200 programs, the list of options was long. I knew I wanted to continue learning French while abroad, so that cut down my options by a few, but many still remained. After doing the necessary research, I knew I wanted to travel with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) because of their resources, classes and global opportunities. Now most people in my position would have easily chosen to go to France, and of course I would have loved to spend a semester there, but I saw something else in my life course*. However, I wanted a different experience from the rest of my peers; I wanted to go somewhere where I could learn about the world from a completely new perspective. For this reason, and many others, I chose to study abroad in Africa, more specifically in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
In order to be fully prepared for this journey, I wanted to strengthen my French skills as well as transition my way of thought to one more open to new perspectives. In order to do this, I chose to study abroad in France during the summer, which definitely improved my oral communication and (helped me see the world in a different way). Within 2 months, I witnessed different ways of greeting people, of eating, of travelling, of interacting with others; overall it was very different. Even though I was experiencing the culture firsthand, there was still so much I had yet to understand as I learned in my course on French Identity. Learning the history behind all the common beliefs of the French, I could begin to comprehend why their culture was so different and could appreciate what some of their values meant to them.
Overall, I learned a lot from my short stay in France but the most important was how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Staying in a host-family comprised entirely of strangers was definitely out of my comfort zone, as well as being approached in French, not knowing how to convey exactly what I meant, figuring out news ways to communicate my needs, and just being in a fairly foreign environment. Eventually, it became normal for me to not know exactly what to do, and I learned how to be okay with it and understand that I’m not always going to be able to resolve that problem.
Having done intercultural workshops while in France, I also learned how to view a different culture with an open mind, not privy to judgement but rather to curious observation. Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions when witnessing some aspect of a culture, I learned to ask myself why I feel a certain way about this aspect, what I’m used to and why that culture might have this aspect. This way, I am less likely to dismiss the traditions of a society (which I believe one should never do, but humans are naturally judgmental), but I can analyze what cultural significance they might have and have a more objective opinion. For example, (maybe talk about French being pretentious, la bise, idk)
With all this is mind, I came home from France mentally prepared to head straight to Senegal, though definitely not physically prepared. Being that it is a third world country, there was a lot I had to consider like vaccinations, buying any products I might not find in Senegal, getting lots of bug spray and malaria pills, signing any documents I had left, and finally, packing. This came especially hard because of the conservative nature of Senegalese society combined with its incredibly hot climate. I am very comfortable in my body, so I am not afraid to wear booty shorts and a tank top when it hits 75°F, but that definitely would not slide in Senegal. Trying to find clothes that would keep me cool but covered is not something I’ve ever had to do and presented many challenges when I made my feeble attempts. After a couple unsuccessful rounds of shopping, I decided to just buy some pairs of linen pants and hope for the best. My last item to do was say bye to my family, which I now realize I did not do well enough. I guess I didn’t realize how long four months on the other side of the globe is and homesickness, no matter how much you think you won’t have it, is very real. Finally, we made the 2-hour trip to JFK International Airport, I said my last farewells (while my mother stalled to prolong my departure) and I made my way through security to await my flight.
While flying is generally pretty stressful, my arrival in Senegal was the first of many trials I did not foresee, from lost luggage to the heat to the lack of toilet paper in bathrooms, but my euphoria mitigated some of the initial stress I felt. It also didn’t hurt that I had some family friends in the city with whom to communicate any concerns, but also, my host family was most accommodating, and I am grateful to have been welcomed into such a wonderful home. Thus far, living in Africa is pretty much what I imagined and more. People on the streets are extremely kind and willing to have full conversations, which has only helped with the language acquisition. A simple “Salaamalekum” will spark a huge smile on a passing stranger and right away you’ve made a new friend. Often times, people will approach me speaking Wolof at full speed, mistaking me for a Senegalese girl, but it’s never an issue and only makes them more inclined to keep up the conversation when I say “degguma Wolof”.
After a few days of orientation, we had a cultural competency lesson on the cultural differences we might encounter here in Senegal. We split into groups and explored different aspects of Senegalese life. In my group we discussed the concentration of homeless children in Dakar and what has caused their numbers to remain so high throughout the years. Because of the reputation of Senegal as being the country of “Teranga” or hospitality, many people across West Africa know of the welcoming nature of the Senegalese. This, along with the importance of religion in this country, has enticed many young students of the Quran to leave their homes and study under the Marabouts here in Dakar. As is tradition, students are expected to bring Adiya, or a donation, in return for their studies. However, many Marabouts in Dakar have turned this sacred tradition into a form of exploitation, forcing these children to beg on the streets and receive no training after handing over what little they received from strangers. Many Senegalese can recognize these children, termed “Talibés”, and face an internal conflict when approached by one. If they don’t aid these children in collecting money, the Talibés are often beaten by their Marabouts. If they do give them money, however, they are only perpetuating a cycle of exploitation. One thing they often do instead is offer food around lunchtime when Talibés have been on the streets for many hours without food. This way they can help without necessarily supporting their manipulation.
After learning about this phenomenon, I couldn’t help but look at the young beggars in a new light, and all I wanted to do is help without harming the delicate situation. I thought about the many dangers these children face, children that are only seeking an education in the Quran, children that are only seeking a better future. I constantly wondered what could be done for these kids, and when offered an opportunity to work with an organization dedicated to their aid, I couldn’t pass up the option.
Equipe Aidons les Talibés (EAT), created by Bokoum Djibril in 2009, is nonprofit whose main purpose is to work with Talibés to provide adequate living conditions as well as offer an emotional support system in order for them to live safer lives. Working with five “Daaras”, or Quranic schools, Djibril and his team of volunteers conduct activities like happy weekend, one Talibé one sweater, Eid al-Fitr celebrations and more. They work with many sponsors to provide clothing, food, health care, education and safe play spaces for these children and foster real relationships with them. Coming on 10 years, Djibril and his team are developing more and more programs to improve the lives of Talibés as well as change the mentality of the Senegalese from feeling helpless to the situation by giving people a way to break the cycle.
Overall, it has been an incredible first month here in Senegal, and I'm very happy with the opportunities I have chosen thus far. I am ecstatic to start working with EAT and make a lasting impact on the organization, as well as effect real change for the Talibés. After meeting with a few of the other volunteers, I can tell it will be a very influential experience from which I will learn much and gain new perspectives to bring back to America.