This summer—specifically for thirty-four days during May and June—I studied in Dakar, Senegal, as a part of the Francophone Africa: Between Tradition and Modernity Education Abroad program at The Ohio State University. Delving into topics ranging from West African hip-hop and art to the study of decolonization, religion and history, our classes were diverse and challenging, and not to mention almost exclusively taught in French or Wolof. Moreover, I had the opportunity to explore many of the major cities in Senegal, learning about cultural and religious mixture in the country, in addition to learning alongside Senegalese university students.
This video encapsulates a considerable portion of our program; made by Laine Monsey, used with permission.
Although the program was just under six weeks in length, my STEP Signature Project significantly molded my worldview and myself in general, perhaps in a way that was much greater than anticipated. I knew that I would love the program; I had been talking to the Program Director, Dr. Cheikh Thiam, Associate Professor of French, since my first semester at Ohio State about how incredible the experience sounded. This personal transformation took place from the moment we approached the Dakar airport, sailing high above the Atlantic, to the moment we touched down at Port Columbus at the very end of the trip. Much of this transformation occurred in the classroom and my daily life with my host family. Learning about the varied and important issues in Senegal alongside Senegalese student peers was an experience that is difficult to put into words. Every single second was spent learning. During our first visit to l’Univerisité de Cheikh Anta Diop and our peer group’s dorm, we casually sat on the floor, talking, eating some fresh fruit and nuts, and scrolling on our phones. Oddly, at one point, I looked up and scanned the room and just felt so at home, so welcome, and I sat in awe at just how the experience was profoundly mundane, yet still decidedly special.
At that moment, I thought about how painstakingly similar this instant was to so many older memories of living in a dorm in Columbus, yet at the same time, everything still remained fundamentally different. For instance, one of our friends was praying in the corner, as 90% of Senegalese people practice Islam, and the dorm room housed six students in the space of a typical double at Ohio State. I will never forget that moment; the sun beaming into the cream-colored room, accompanied by a warm coastal breeze. It was pure bliss. From my interactions with my now friends in Senegal, I learned that collaboration and camaraderie can be two of the most powerful tools for understanding, not only in a cross-cultural sense, but also on a deeper, more personal level. In fact, I still frequently email, Snapchat, and interact with my friends in Senegal. My worldview has shaped to be more compassionate and appreciative for every person on this planet, and I am hopeful that our world, which is too often divisive and stricken with doubt, could become as serene and pleasant as that quiet dorm room. In addition, simply going home to my host family each evening and talking with them about my studies and my personal experiences transformed my perceptions of family, kinship and openness. La Téranga sénégalaise, or Senegalese hospitality, was a hallmark of my experience. Whether it was at the round oak kitchen table at my host family’s home or at a roadside mango stand in the countryside, I always felt welcome. I thought about how immensely different this idea is in the United States and American universities. The importance of family, friends and cordiality in Senegal was something that I will always look back upon as another thing that positively molded my personality and worldview after have completing the program.
In addition to my interpersonal relationships and experiences that help shape myself and my perceptions of traveling and the world, the lectures and discussion from our classes led to my personal transformation. For instance, we spent an entire week in class discovering the unique, peaceful métissage, or mixture, of cultures and religions in Senegal. In the country, which is predominantly Muslim, both Islam and Catholicism are not only tolerated, but celebrated. One of the most moving experiences during our weekend excursions to other cities was when we visited a cemetery with both Christians and Muslims, a very unusual occurrence. After our class discourse and writing two essays on this topic, I truly value this aspect of Senegalese culture, and I think that the world could learn a valuable lesson from the religious acceptance of all people in Senegal. In the United States, for example, Islamophobia and religious discrimination have gravely become too commonplace and putative. Living and learning in Senegal was so transformational in this respect because the mutual understanding and acceptance was so unlike my experiences at Ohio State or in America in general. It was a breath of fresh air, a hopeful goal for a future long overdue. In order to eradicate injustice and promote love, nations and individuals alike will need to have the courage to celebrate the diversity among the population and not resort to divisiveness, bitterness and resentment.
Another section of our intriguing and diverse study encompassed Senegalese hip-hop and rap music, especially how it is being used as a vehicle for political action and social change in Senegal. This was perhaps my favorite unit of our study. Learning the modern-day manifestations and implications of hip-hop culture and art in Senegal as compared to hip-hop in the United States reinforced the importance of expression and the power of the voice of the people to change. Our professor, Dr. Thiam, is fortunate enough to have several high-profile connections in the greater Dakar region, and we heard lectures from top hip-hop scholars in the country and met some of the most talented spoken-word artists as well. The power of the written word has always been something that has interested me. Another layer of this concept is the language in which the artwork is written and performed. Some artists exclusively use their native tongue, Wolof for example, while others use French or English as a means to reach a wider audience with their words, which was something I had never reflected upon, in addition to art’s place in decolonization studies. Some of my fondest memories with my host brother are when we bonded over hip-hop music and went to a rap concert at l’Univerisité de Cheikh Anta Diop, and I am eternally grateful to the Francophone Africa Education Abroad program for this aspect of my transformation.
A Senegalese spoken-word duo performs in our classroom.
These few specific experiences, along with all of the other moments of the program, have contributed to this transformational shift in my worldview towards being more understanding and grateful for people, places, art and history. The more I reflect on my time in Senegal, the more I want to return in the future, in addition to recognizing the gravity of my transformation. In Senegal, we visited countless artist communities and galleries as a part of the Dak’Art Biennale, or biannual African arts festival that is centered in Dakar, and talked to the artists themselves and toured their private homes and studio spaces. From this experience, I have a reaffirmed impo
rtance of interpersonal interactions and understanding. For instance, when I go to my local farmer’s market nowadays, I make a special effort to talk to the farmers who are there, asking them questions, learning from them, and actively making an effort to connect. I sometimes catch myself thinking about meandering through a small coastal art collective in Dakar and how such small interactions from strangers can change your life, or another’s, forever and for good.
My transformational experiences in Senegal, which lead to this change to a more grateful, appreciative, understanding, and connection-focused worldview, is incalculably valuable in my life, both personally and professionally. In the near future, I am going to be applying for medical school to pursue a career in (hopefully) emergency medicine and perhaps work with Médecins Sans Frontières in areas of violence or lack of access to medical care. My newly transformed grasp on the importance of hospitality, cross-cultural encounters, gratitude and acceptance will surely be beneficial to my career path as a physician in every way possible, from treating and understanding patient’s circumstances to working collaboratively on a team. Even utilizing my French knowledge and having learned and used some basic Wolof, the communication skills I developed in this program will be valuable for my entire life in general, not just as it pertains to my career aspirations.
Wrapping up the STEP and Francophone Africa program, I have emerged a changed person: a more informed, compassionate, curious, thoughtful and positive citizen. The lessons that I learned, similar to my myriad fond memories of the Francophone Africa program, will be woven into the fabric of my soul for my entire life. Finally, I can only hope to use this first education abroad experience to further catalyze my yearning for understanding and connection with others, as well as my courage to step out of my comfort zone in order to continue to have these dynamic, transformational experiences.