Before getting off the plane in Dakar I didn’t really know what to expect from this two-week adventure to the faraway African continent I had always dreamed of going, but had not yet had the chance to explore. My decision to go to Senegal had been made so rapidly that I was barely conscious of my choice until the week before my departure. I was most excited to go to Senegal to get a refreshing outlook on life and to experience a different culture with diverse values. My favorite part of traveling to different countries is meeting people who have grown up in more diverse environments and societies than I am used to. Usually when you travel to a different country, it is normal to experience some kind of culture shock. However, a two-week immersion does not allot time to the magnitude of culture shock you would normally experience. As soon as we arrived in Dakar, we were thrown into the Senegalese culture and we were forced to immediately immerse ourselves in everything we saw from that point forward. My experience in Senegal was one rich in observation and reflection as well as an immersion into the culture and direct interaction with the people. Although I wish I could have stayed longer, this two-week excursion opened my eyes to a different part of the world, unknown and misunderstood to a large part of the globe.
The first few days we spent in Dakar was very difficult for me. I could not sleep because of a mix of jet lag, the change of environment and the various noises that define Dakar and my experience. The first few nights I spent lying in bed listening to the frightening sound of airplanes taking off and landing about a mile from my bed. My ears were also tuned to the joyous and exhilarating reverberation of festive African music penetrating the walls of my room. I heard the first call to prayer of the day, at 5 o’clock in the morning. This peaceful, beautiful chant was joined by the dogs in the neighborhood who simultaneously began their own “call to prayer” consisting of high-pitch barking, which continued until their voices went hoarse and the prayer ended. As I was not feeling my best, physically, I did not have an easy time adjusting to the different culture and the environment in which I was living. I felt extremely alienated from the culture and from the Senegalese people.
Before coming to Senegal I was under the impression that it was a Francophone country, which meant to me that the French language played an important part in their everyday life, even though I knew that Woolof was their national language. Although the French language does hold an essential role in the written life of Senegal, Woolof is the primary spoken language and the maternal tongue of many Senegalese. Unless the Senegalese speak directly to a French-speaking foreigner, they speak Woolof or another African dialect. Therefore, not only was I clearly a foreigner because of my skin color, but I also was not able to communicate in the primary Senegalese language, which made me feel lost and alienated the majority of the time.
The language paradox in Senegal shows the long-lasting effects of colonization, as French continues to hold precedence as the written language and the language used in all official and governmental documents and procedures. Before traveling to Senegal I was unaware of the severity of the language dilemma facing many Senegalese today. In the lectures given by various Senegalese intellectuals and writers I learned that although Woolof is the mother tongue of many Senegalese, this language holds no importance officially. For example, in order for any work of literature or any Senegalese author to be recognized, the work must be published in French, in a Western country. This precedent makes it appear that the Senegalese language is not a real, respectable language and undermines its importance outside of Senegal, as well as the ability of Senegal to exist without the influence of its former colonial power. It is also very different for a Senegalese writer to express themselves in their mother tongue, rather than in a language that is not their own, and consequently the language barrier changes the meaning of their work. The works also can only reach a certain audience because a large percentage of the population is not literate in French. Many Senegalese authors are beginning to write in Woolof, which is changing the world of African literature and will help preserve this African language, as many Africans are afraid that soon African languages will be lost to the colonial languages. Furthermore, all official documents and governmental procedures are conducted in French. One of the most shocking examples given by one of our lecturers is the procedure that occurs during a court case when the defendant only speaks Woolof. Although everyone in the courtroom may speak Woolof, including the judge, the lawyers and the defendant, the case is still conducted in French and when the defendant does not speak French, the court is required to use an interpreter so that the case is carried out in French. Additionally, most African films are usually shown in Western countries, such as in France or in the United States, to gain recognition and praise before they are viewed in any African country. These examples are only a few among many which show the continued struggle Senegal faces with gaining power and recognition outside of Senegal and Africa and within the international arena. Although Senegal gained independence from the French in 1960, they have still not been able to totally escape the influence and control of the French imperial power.
The most drastic cultural difference that I experienced in Senegal in contrast to all the other places I’ve traveled is the religion: Senegal is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. The Senegalese culture and their way of life are very much regulated by religion. The call to prayer is heard throughout the city five times a day and many stop what they are doing to pray. For example, one day I was walking home during the afternoon call to prayer and I looked around me and almost everyone was facing east with his or her heads down praying. Although I am not religious at all, I found it really fascinating to talk to Senegalese people about their religious beliefs. Many of the Senegalese I spoke with seem to believe that God is responsible for everything that happens in life. They believe God is watching over us and will either award us for our good actions or penalize us for those of us who commit evil acts. In almost every conversation the phrase inshallah, if God wills it, is uttered, which shows their strong relation with their God. In only two weeks in Senegal I learned a lot about Islam, which I previously knew very little about, and many of my previous ideas about the religion were changed. For example, I did not see very many women wearing headscarves, which is how the Western media normally portrays Muslim women. Also I discovered that most Muslims do not practice polygamy and that women are not allowed in the mosques. It was quite fascinating to experience the religious aspect of Senegalese culture as it completely changed my understanding and vision of Islam, which was originally formed by Western media and by its reputation in the West.
Despite the many cultural differences between Senegalese and American culture I found myself falling in love with the Senegalese people. By the second week I was beginning to feel comfortable in the once strange, foreign environment. Everywhere I went I seemed to meet wonderful people who were so generous, open-minded and full of life. Although I was still greeted with gawking eyes, especially from children, and was incessantly called a toubab, I no longer felt alienated, nor did I feel like a complete outsider. I met various Senegalese people who within hours became my friends and welcomed me into their houses and lives. I learned so much about Senegal and their culture simply by talking with them. My knowledge that Senegal is full of intellectual and artistic individuals was reinforced by my conversations and my experiences. All the people with whom I spoke told me that Senegal was the best country in Africa and although this was my first time in Africa, it did not seem difficult to believe. They told me that they do not believe in war or conflict because they are simply concerned with living a happy life and enjoying and appreciating everything that is made available to them. I also found that many of the Senegalese whom I met are strong individuals with great values, which seems to stem from a mix of their religious beliefs and their African traditions. I found that I was always stimulated by the conversations and captivated by their beliefs and values. It was clear to me that the Senegalese culture was rich in intellect, art, music and tradition and above all their love for life. I could see this in the smiling faces of the children and feel it from the energy of my peers and elders. When two little boys, not more than eight years old stopped me in the street to shake my right hand and to say “Ça va?” I knew I was in a country where the people were genuinely caring and loving whether you are a family member or a foreign white woman on the street. The fact that everyone appears to be a brother, sister, aunt or uncle, is a perfect example which shows that everyone is family in Senegal regardless of your skin color. At the end of the two weeks, I had finally become comfortable and content in this new place and did not want to leave. I met individuals in those two weeks with whom I know I will cross paths with again in the future.
Getting off the plane in Dakar the first Friday night and stepping into the mass of darkness, into the foreign city, I was a little nervous and did not know what to expect of the following two weeks. However, returning to the airport at the end of the trip, I no longer felt like I was leaving a place that I neither knew nor understood. Senegal was no longer a foreign place in my mind, but instead it was a warm place full of life, color and beauty. I felt like during those two weeks I had experienced and become familiar with a small part of the culture and the life in Senegal, something that I will never forget but will always remember as my first adventure into the once unknown African continent.
I hope it is clear from this report on my experience in Senegal that this trip was extremely educational and beneficial to my academic and intellectual studies. From the lectures, to the tourist excursions, to the habitation with the Senegalese families, during these two weeks I learned so much about the life and culture in Senegal. Although I think two weeks is two short and it would probably be better to make it at least three weeks, I think it is a great idea and very important to have a J-Term trip to Senegal. In my personal experience as a senior, I was choosing between Senegal and Paris last year for my junior year abroad and ended up going to Paris. Although I had a great time in Paris, this did not fulfill my desire to go to Senegal. I feel extremely lucky that not only was I able to spend a year in Paris but I was also at least able to have a taste of the Senegalese culture and lifestyle. Even though I am sad that I was not able to experience this earlier in my academic career, I am so grateful that I had this opportunity before completing my academic studies at Mount Holyoke. This is an experience that should be made available to everyone who has the desire to go.