Katie Poirier '08
Going to Senegal over January term was a life affirming experience. I have always wanted to work in Africa but I have never visited the continent. My personal belief is that the world has turned their back on Africa and I want to do everything in my power to turn them around again. In Senegal I learned what is important to me in terms of career goals and what I would like to focus on during my years at Mount Holyoke. At first I wanted to experience what life is like in Africa and the effects of colonization. Even though it was not really talked about, the effects of the French rule is seen in almost every place we visited. Senegal is truly a beautiful country that is rich in culture and life. Senegalese people are kind and hospitable. The food is delicious. I know that I will never forget what I learned this J-Term.
It is difficult to pinpoint one aspect of the trip and discuss it at length because of the sheer enthusiasm I have for all that I saw. I will highlight parts of the trip that I believe are important and add to my desire to return to Senegal. Most of these aspects are cultural differences between the United States and Senegal while others are just details I noticed.
One of the best ways to summarize life in Senegal is juxtaposition. A big, solid, beautiful house will be next to a dilapidated shack. A group of children will be begging for money outside of a school. There is very developed land next to miles and miles of fields and trees. There are villages where people live in huts five minutes away from cement concrete houses. The land is captivating – we drove on bumpy dirt roads then traveled down highways. Miles of flatlands with baobab trees and bush lead into rolling hills covered in sand. The land itself leaves one speechless, but so does the hubbub of the markets. Visiting a market is an experience on its own, and a phenomenon of sensory overload. Groups of female toubabs (white people) are easy targets for deception while shopping. In any market in Dakar vendors hawk their wares and try to lure customers into purchasing their goods. Once you step foot in the market the whirlwind of excitement begins. Between the poking and prodding, calling out, offers, and pleas, when you finally decide to look at something, another item gets shoved into your hand. This item is never the one you wanted. The vendor quotes a price for the wrong item then offers a gift if you purchase the item you did not need or want. When the item that is desired is finally displayed, the vendor will give an outrageous price that is deemed a good one because “we are friends.” The hour-long bargaining process begins. It is long, exhausting, and frustrating. Personally, I am bad at bargaining because of my lack of patience. I would rather walk away and find what I want somewhere else than stand around and bargain. If it were not for the “market attitude,” I would move to Senegal in a heartbeat.
The main reason I would pack up and move to Senegal is the people. Every person I met was friendly and nice. My roommate Luisa and I got lost in our SICAP frequently and would rely on the street vendors or pharmacists for directions. We took one trip to find the West African Research Center from our house. We had taken the trip the day before with our host brother and tried to commit the route to memory. We got about half way when we hit a huge intersection. We had three directions to choose from. We walked up and down the streets for about two hours. We asked for directions and were surprised to the extent in which people helped. They would actually walk us to where we needed to go instead of using their hands to show us. If they did not know they took us to someone who did. One of the people we met was kick boxer. We ran into him the next day after our adventure and we talked to him like he was an old friend. The man who finally gave us the correct directions to the West African Research Center invited us to lunch when we ran into him again later that week. Senegalese care about other people regardless of color or religion. The kindness we encountered daily was astonishing. Another unbelievable event was the soccer games we watched and later, that Luisa played in. Soccer is a huge neighborhood sport in Senegal that many of the boys partake in as a daily after school ritual. The attire is informal, so informal that many of the boys play in jelly sandals. They do not wear shin guards or uniforms but play according to the color of their shirts. The field is all sand and the end part is in the street. Kids dash in the street dodging between trees and the car bumpers to chase the ball. It is truly a sight to see.
The only aspect of the program that I would change, would be to incorporate the SWAA (Society for Women Against AIDS in Africa) clinic where I did my internship, into the program. I learned so much from just two hours of asking questions than I would have in a lecture on the subject. The women who run the program are knowledgeable and engaging. I took away a greater understanding of not just AIDS in Senegal but AIDS in Africa. One of the most important things I learned was that the religious leaders play a huge part in educating the citizens about the disease and its transmission. In Senegal, SWAA trains and teaches religious leaders how to talk to their congregations about the disease. Senegal has one of the lowest HIV+/AIDS percentages in Africa and it is because of the discussions that the religious leaders start. These discussions start a chain reaction that commences with parents. Parents talk to their children about the transmission of AIDS and how to prevent it. This has resulted in their children having safer sex thus the AIDS rate diminishes. After a few hours of talking to the women who run the program I realized that my focus with AIDS has narrowed to working with children who have the disease. I am concerned with their education, living arrangements, and general wellbeing.
Since the day at SWAA I have been able to secure an internship for this summer at UNICEF. I will be working with children who have the disease. I realized that I would like to go back to Senegal. I plan to spend a semester there my junior year and the other semester in another country in Africa. Spending my January term in Senegal helped me understand why living in other countries is important. It leads me to decide that I would like to live and work in Africa. Going to Senegal not only taught me about life in Western Africa but it taught me about myself.