Thus Far on the Journey: A Reflection

It has been almost a year and a half since I’ve returned from my first trip to Senegal. I recorded all of the wonderful experiences that I had, all of the reflections, the amazing people, and the incredible food! I missed it so much last year, that I went back in December, 2020 during my winter break. I had another opportunity to engage in local culture, and spend time with my host teacher and his family. Again, I kept a journal of my experiences and thoughts during the week-and-a-half stay. (It would have been longer, but there was a travel snaffu in Canada, which definitely taught me about making the best of situations. That’s a post for another day.) It was just as amazing as I thought it would be!

Interestingly, I was straightening my desk area just now between Zoom classes, and found a letter that I wrote to myself at the end of my first stay. I read it and was moved to tears, and I felt compelled to share it here.

April 30, 2019

Dear Nikki,

Hello! How are you? Nanga def? Mangui fi rek! This has been an amazing and incredibly intense field experience, but you did it! With a first year of a doctoral program under your belt, and successfully finishing your Fulbright Fellowship, the world of possibilities seems open.

I have to say, you had a pretty amazing time in Dakar and Thiès, Senegal. You met some warm and wonderful people, shared some adventures, and learned valuable lessons about life and the great big world. Don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned.

Greeting is important

Family above all

Your neighbor is your family

Taking time to fellowship is important

Smiling is important and universal

Show appreciation for the little things

You don’t need much to be happy

While some of those things you may have known, you, maybe, have been too busy to remember them. Take time to reflect. Write things down. You used to do that – go back to it. It used to make you happy and on this trip, you’ve found that it still does.

Remember, this was not just a glorified field trip. You were chosen for such a time as this – You’ve been given this gift – what will you do with it? How will you share? What stories will you tell? With who? You have a very grand opportunity to dispel the African mystique – the notion that everyone is bad off. When you think of intelligence and brilliance, think of them. When you think of resourcefulness, think of them. When you think of love and peace, think of them. When you think of exercising your voice, remember them.When you think of home, look east to them.

They are ready and willing to welcome you home. One day, you will return and the next time, you will bring your old family to meet the new one, and it will be the most glorious of reunions.

Keep working hard to complete your studies, and make good on your promises. You are never too busy for others.

Until next time, In Sha Allah,

Nikki

This find, this reminder, could not have come at a better time. Thankfully, I am still carrying with me the many lessons that I learned along the way…and I am happily sharing them with others.

The Lessons Keep Coming: Seeing With New Eyes

First, I feel like I should apologize for not writing in a while, though to whom the apology is addressed, I’m not so sure. It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing, but that life, in all of its whimsical, hectic, and sometimes serendipitous nature, stood between the blog and I. In spite of all of life’s busy-ness, I’ve still found ways to apply what I’ve learned in Senegal to my context in the US. There are at least four lessons I’ve learned, or light bulb moments (maybe five) that I’ve had since returning home. I’m apologizing now if this post sounds “preachy”; feel free to bail out if you need to. I promise I won’t be offended.

The first “a-ha” moment I had, I think I shared before, but is worth repeating. Greetings are important. The simple act of acknowledging another person and their humanity has the ability to change someone’s trajectory in life, and I don’t mean that in the literary, hyperbolic sense. Sometimes people crave recognition because they feel rejected, cast off, or forgotten about. Perhaps your greeting reminds them that they matter, they are important, and that they have an unrealized purpose. A few weeks ago, I stopped at Walgreen’s to pick up something – I don’t remember what – and a gentleman gave me what I felt like was an obligatory greeting. When I responded like he was a friend that I hadn’t seen in a long time, his whole posture changed. His tone was friendlier, and his smile was brighter. We had a great conversation that lasted maybe five minutes, and we were both on our way. Just yesterday, a contractor working on a building shouted, “Ain’t nothing better than a woman with a smile.” To which I replied, “And why not smile? It’s so much easier,” and then I began to ask him about his work. The brief conversation ended with an exchange of names and an elbow bump – his hands were covered with paint and dust from work – and we parted ways. So, I guess the lesson or the lightbulb moment for me was more than about greetings. Our time is a gift that we can give to people. If you feel like you can’t stop and spend time with someone because it’s too valuable and you have so much to do, just imagine how the person feels who knows that you’re busy but took the time to visit with them, even if it is for just five minutes.

The Mayor of Dakar-Plateau (left center) and translator (far left), with his delegation and the Mayor of Pasadena, CA (far right).

Next, gift giving is a way to show appreciation. I think sometimes the act of giving a gift is marred by holidays – people expect a gift from someone because they gave them one at the last gathering. That ruins it. Gifts should be given as an act of kindness and love, not out of obligation or personal gain. It’s not about the amount or the size of the gift, but the thought and intent behind it. When I give a gift, especially if it’s after I’ve returned from a trip, it is because I have really thought about the individual, who they are, and what I think they’d like. Unfortunately, my bank account is not set up in a manner that I can give everyone a gift, but when I do, it really is heartfelt and I feel bad about not being able to spread the love to everyone. Just recently, my husband and I were at a reception celebrating the newly formed sister-city relationship between Dakar-Plateau, Senegal and Pasadena, California. During the reception, there were several gifts exchanged, to my delight. It took me back to the many school and home visits that I made with my host- and co- teachers while in Thiès. I smiled at the exchange. When it was noticed how many gifts were exchanged, I very enthusiastically replied, “Gifts and hospitality are important!”

While I don’t quite remember who gave this to who, the sentiment in the plaque is beautiful: working together for the upliftment of Africa.

Third, there is something magical about staying in touch with people. I think this lightbulb moment connects to the idea of greeting and acknowledging someone else’s humanity. Your contact may come at a point in their life when they feel forgotten about or alone in a struggle. If someone is important to you, if you value them, drop them a line so that they know it and feel it. Don’t leave it for people to assume that you think they’re important; show them. There’s an expression that I hear a lot, unfortunately, at funerals about giving someone their flowers while they’re still living to appreciate them. I haven’t always been the best at it, but I’m learning to be better little by little.

Beauty isn’t about how the package is wrapped, but the contents of the package.

Years ago, Maya Angelou wrote a poem called “Phenomenal Woman” and the first two lines of it brings me to the fourth lightbulb moment I had. The lines go: Pretty women wonder where my secret lies/ I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size … The “a-ha” moment was when I realized that what I had been telling my students all along was true definitely true for me too. I don’t have to “dress to impress” to feel beautiful or dress in a way that leaves very little to the imagination. Doing the former doesn’t make me any more beautiful and not doing the latter doesn’t make me any more of a prude or an old lady. True beauty comes from within. It sounds like a very simple statement to make, and some people might feel like, “duh”, but it took a lot for me to get to the point where I could dress in a way that made me feel comfortable and not care about the backlash or the furrowed brows. It is beautiful to be who you are. It’s complicated and simple at the same time.

Finally, words are powerful! As an English teacher, I tell my students all the time that there is power in the pen. As writers, they hold readers’ emotions in their hands. With the stroke of a pen and one word choice, they can evoke tears of sorrow or joy, gasps of dread or delight, or moans of agony! That’s powerful! The same is true for the spoken word. The book of James tells us that life and death lie in the power of the tongue. Thing about your last conversation or comment to someone. Was it encouraging or was it full of doubt and cynicism, masquerading as realism? With our tongues, our pens, and our keystrokes, we have the power to hurt or heal the next person. Even if they’re on the other side of the planet.

Take time to see the beauty in the world and all the lessons it has to offer! #DontMissYourLife

If you’ve read to this point, congratulations. You’ve reached the end of this post and my musings for today. Feel free to comment or ask questions. I’m more than willing to share. It’s all in love. #TakingSenegalWithMe #DontMissYourLife #AlwaysAnAdventure

Remember to Look Up: A Personal Revelation

The simple pleasures are all around us, the things that make us smile, if only we’d let them…if only we’d look up every now and then.

Years ago, there was a public service announcement featuring basketball star, Isaiah Thomas, reminding its young citizens of Oakland County to “look up” and be aware of power lines when playing outside. As I visited various regions of Senegal recently, I was reminded of this same lesson, to look up, but for very different reasons.

Living in a first world country (who decides that, really?) has afforded me with lots of comforts, technology being one of them. Alexa will give me the news, read me a story, give me the weather, play me a song, and even tell me a joke if I request it. More and more my smartphone is glued to my hand and my screen time increases with each passing week. I look down…a lot. And as someone who professes to not miss her life, I have to confess that maybe I have been, to some extent. Let me explain what I mean.

A sunny Saturday in Thiès brings everyone out, but I would have missed it had I not looked up.

In Senegal, both in Dakar and Thiès, there was so much to see and do. As a visitor to the country, I wanted to make sure that I saw everything; I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I looked out of the window and was on high alert for new and interesting people, events, buildings, monuments – whatever, it didn’t matter. While I was on lookout for things, what I found was something intangible. I found a deeper connection to the people I was with and the places I had traveled to, all because I looked up. I was present for each and every encounter.

I’ll admit, that’s not a groundbreaking revelation and I’m almost certain that people have been saying that for decades. But it’s like when your parents tell you something versus you experiencing it. Sometimes you just need to see it and feel it to believe it for yourself. I could feel the difference there, but what did that mean for me back home?

This morning I decided to stop and get a grande soy hot chocolate with extra chocolate on my way to work. I was in great spirits and felt like I was wearing a smile. I shared that smile with everyone that met my eye. “Good morning, how are you?” was sometimes met with a smile and a greeting in return or even a quizzical look. An elderly women that I spoke to happen to be reading a book that I’d picked up in my living room just this morning. “I have that same book!” I exclaimed. She beamed and immediately we engaged in conversation. It wasn’t much, it didn’t take much, and it didn’t cost a thing except a few minutes of my time. But wasn’t it worth it? It absolutely was, and I would have missed it all if I hadn’t taken the time to look up.

This was taken on the way to school in Sanghe. I was sitting in the back seat, enjoying the view.

I realized, as I got in my car and went off to work, that it’s not about obligation or status when I speak to people, or even a game of chicken – holding out to see who, if anyone, will greet the other first. It’s about genuine human connection. The connection that I felt to the morning coffee goers, the connection that I feel to teachers and students at my school, and my neighbors, and the people at the grocery store or anywhere else I go, are the sparks of energy that make my life interesting and bright and colorful. We need each other. Well, I need you. And not in the needy, I can’t survive without you, sing sad songs on rainy Saturdays kind of way. I need you in the very basic, want to make sure we’re all alright and thriving not just surviving kind of way. I like it when we’re smiling. I love it when we’re laughing, and most days I really enjoy connecting with people. I’ll admit, sometimes the world feels too people-y, but maybe what I’m feeling is the energy.

Like I said, the realization to look up and be present is not new or earth shattering, but my trip to Senegal was a personal revelation and confirmation. It’s when I unplug and step away from the screen that I experience the unfiltered beauty and wonder in the world. They say that old habits die hard, but I will be working very hard to put my phone down, step away from the screens, and see life up close and personal. I’m making a commitment to look up, notice, engage, and enjoy. #DontMissYourLife

It’s very much a part of the culture to visit neighbors in Thiès and the surrounding villages.

Dallal Jàmm: You Are Welcome

A few days ago, I wrote about a very magnificent waiter at the hotel restaurant, Alassane, who spoke to me in four different languages. It’s not something I’ll soon forget. It was genuine. It was heartfelt. It was kind. It made me want to come back again, and when I had the opportunity to go back to that restaurant, I did, and Alassane was there with the same welcoming smile and conversation in English, French, Wolof, and Spanish.

Alassane (right), Senegal’s best waiter!

What has been striking about Alassane and other Senegalese that I have met is their incredible hospitality. Even before I set foot on this continent, my host teacher. Lamine – who I have yet to meet in person, told me repeatedly that I am coming home. Mamadou, a teacher advisor who led one of our tours of a teacher training center and his former school, said welcome home. One of my in-state coordinators and guide said to me welcome home. Are you getting the idea? I wanted to cry. Not for the tragedy and atrocity that tore my ancestors from this land, but for the way that I was welcomed back. Every time, it was genuine, heartfelt, kind, and warm. And it makes me want to come back again and again.

My group on a tour of a regional teacher training center. Mamadou (second from right) welcomed me home.

In our conversation at dinner, I had mustered the courage to try new phrases that I’d googled. Nothing fancy, just “I’ll take the check please.” ( Je prondrai l’addition s’il vous plais.) While I’m sure that there are other ways to say that, this is what Google had to offer. He responded in French and in so many words said that I must be from Senegal because my accent in French and Wolof is good. Needless to say that I beamed with pride! What a confidence boost! But it was the welcoming spirit that made me want to try to engage in the first place.

Aissatou Ba, one of our in-country coordinators, opened her home to us and fed us a most delicious meal! I am grateful to her for her kindness!

Two nights ago, another of our in-state coordinators hosted a dinner at her home. She had a friend prepare a meal for the 14 of us! And it was quite a spread! There was chicken and fish, and lamb, rice and vegetables and couscous that came with a sauce that was to die for. I can’t imagine creating something like that for 14 people, let alone a single course, but it was a joy for her and her family to have us in their home. There was no rush in the meal either. There was time for fellowship and laughter before, during, and after the meal. We sampled local drinks like bissop, which is like a hybiscus drink and it was wonderful, and a ginger drink that reminded me of Vernors soda at home. There was also a variety of fresh fruit offered for dessert, and there was more conversation. We lost track of time, but it didn’t matter. It was the company, the fellowship, that mattered. It was a gesture of welcome and it was genuine, heartfelt, and kind.

This meal was quite a fest! The time of fellowship and laughter is one that I will not soon forget.

I knew that this trip would be life changing but I wasn’t quite sure how. I knew that I came with specific guiding questions about engaging students in a classroom and how students’ voices are represented and made room for, but I’m learning so much more than that. In our seminar yesterday, Mouhamadou said that the greeting of people is so important. To walk past someone, especially someone you know, and not speak is not soon forgiven. His advice? It’s best to greet everyone.

Mouhamadou Diouf, one of our very wise and humble in-country coordinators

In the western world, especially in the big city that I live in, it’s very easy to be caught up in our own lives, in our own worries, in our own hustle and bustle, and forget about those around us. We make excuses about why we can’t slow down – it’s multitasking – we’ve got to be productive, right? What this week has reminded me, is that there will always be things to do; that will never stop. What will not always be are the people – those you know, and those you don’t – and we should really take time for them and with them.

I sat at dinner last night, alone at first, in a corner of the restaurant thinking that I was going to read and eat and essentially go unnoticed, get in, eat my dinner, and get out. It did not happen that way and I couldn’t be happier. Jere jef (Thank you).

When you learn a lesson, you should share it!

How Shall I Greet Thee? Or, Multilingualism

When I was in college at the University of Michigan, I had lofty goals as I’m sure most teens on the verge of their twenties do. I was going to be a prize-winning author. I was going to be a poet. I was going to work as a journalist for a newspaper. I was going to be trilingual. It’s possible, I thought. I already speak English and Spanish. I’ll just add French. How hard could it be? At the time, it turns out, it was really difficult! I tried really hard, but whenever I didn’t know a word in French, I resorted to Spanish which, I’m sure, frustrated my French teacher. I limped out of that class at the end of the semester with a very bruised ego and a semi-respectable C- (I think) and never looked at French again.

Fast forward 20+ years and I find myself in a foreign country, but it’s not one where the people speak a language I already know. Of course not. That would be too easy. In order to prepare for this incredible trip thanks to IREX and the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship, I have had to relearn the French I’ve long forgotten, and the irony was not lost on me. I also have been trying to learn Wolof, one of the local languages spoken in various parts of Senegal. I carry a cheat sheet with me of common words, phrases, and questions, and try to use them occasionally when I feel brave. This morning when I went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, I responded to the French greeting in French. The hostess smiled and giggled a little and in clear English spoken with a French accent said, “Oh you are trying to speak French.” I smiled and very sheepishly replied behind a hand hiding my smile, “I’m trying.” And I was. But sometimes when I greet people first thing in the morning or mid afternoon, I say “bonsoir” instead of “bonjour.” When people say to me “Comment ça va?” I am sometimes taken off guard.

I now have a newfound respect for learners of any language that is new and different! While in Dakar, I learned that students have a local language that they speak at home and are instructed in French at school. However, when students reach grade 6, they begin learning English as well, and by high school, they choose an additional language as an elective! In our school visit today to Lycée Galandou Diouf High School, a class of students was learning Spanish! I was completely blown away! In addition, the students can choose Arabic, German, or Portuguese, as a language elective. How incredible! In addition, the language classes are mixed ability. In other words, students may be in the 11th or 12th grade but taking a beginning level language course.

Not only was the list of offered languages impressive, the students’ commitment to learning was as well. They enjoyed being able to brag about high marks in school and knowing what they wanted to do with their lives. Some wanted to be surgeons, astronauts or work at NASA, others wanted to do something related to mathematics, but still others didn’t know what they wanted to do. What they did possess, however, was the ability to navigate between multiple languages and they were given the space to do just that through language clubs.

Spanish class at Lycée Galandou Diouf High School in Dakar, Senegal

Students lead the language clubs and organize events to promote a deeper understanding about the language they are learning and to showcase what they have learned so far as well. These are multilingual students who have been placed in leadership roles are rising to the occasion. On April 27 at 2:00 pm, the English Club of the high school will have “Opening Day” at the school, which is similar to what Americans call “Open House.” It is an opportunity for the students to show what they have learned in and about English by performing songs, skits, speeches, etc.

The President (left), member (right center), and Vice President (far right) of the English Club at Lycée Galandou Diouf High School

What impressed me the most was the grace with which they could navigate between the languages: Wolof, French, and now English. I went to dinner with cohort mates from the Fellowship and had a lively interaction with our server. He greeted me in French, spoke some in English and even in Spanish, and threw in a few phrases of Wolof! There were four languages carrying that conversation and I was a part of it. The server had created a safe space for me to learn and try without fear of judgment and ridicule. He was gracious when I made a mistake and he applauded not only my attempts, but my successes and pushed me to go a little further by introducing more words and phrases in either French or Wolof. I could go on and on about how instruction of any kind should be this nurturing or engaging. I think educators know that and to do that here cheapens the experience by reducing it to a sermonette. I’ll leave today’s experience where it is and just say that it was the best two hours of language immersion I’d ever spent and I am encouraged to learn all the more. Jere jef…Merçi…Thank you.

A Lesson Before Leaving or, Check your Assumptions

This is sort of a cheat entry. I meant to write it days ago but time got away from me. I have, in the most wonderful way, been made aware that I need to check my assumptions at the door! Here’s how it happened:

I was anxiously awaiting news of my host teacher in Senegal, Thiès (pronounced “chess”) to be exact, and I envisioned a very traditional looking (whatever that means) teacher. Well, a little less that two weeks ago, I received information about my teacher and the school. It turns out that he teaches high school and his typical class size is 5-065 students! My mind was blown! What does 50-65 students in a classroom look like? What does that sound like? How are individual student voices heard in a class that size? Is there any space for that?

Well, pondering those things and what I thought I knew about Senegal, I engaged my students in a quest to find out more:

  • What types of clothes should I bring?
  • Will I need sunscreen?
  • Will I be have trouble breathing with my asthma? What’s the air quality like?
  • How will I travel on a daily basis? What will most likely be my method of transportation?

I was so set on opening my students’ eyes to other parts of the world that I hadn’t really taken inventory of my own preconceived notions.

Fast forward a few days. By this time, my host teacher and I have communicated via email and I was setting up our WhatsApp chat group. If you know anything about WhatsApp, then you know that users have profile pictures much like other social media platforms, which meant that my host teacher most likely had one as well. Imagine my surprise when I took a closer look at his picture and found a gentleman rocking a baseball cap and hooded sweatshirt with the Wu-Tang Clan emblazoned on them! Looking back now, I realize how silly it was to be so surprised. Wu-Tang is well known and hip hop is world wide. Needless to say, this image prompted me to ask more about his choice of music and when I did, he proceeded to run down a list of old school hip hop groups that he enjoys!

It was my first lesson (of many more to come, I’m sure) about checking my assumptions!

The world is vast, it’s true, but we are all connected somehow. This, no doubt, is going to be a very cool experience.

The Journey Begins

Years ago, my family and I went on a vacation that took us to the island of St. Lucia. While on a guided tour, our very nice taxi driver whose name, very sadly, I have forgotten, stopped at the side of the road for us to patronize one of the vendors. Not really wanting to, my cousins and I opted to stay in the air conditioned van. This, however, was met with mild disapproval. After seeing us sitting in the van, he kindly opened the door and encouraged us to at least take a look. “Don’t miss your life,” he said to us.

It was so simple but it has guided me in the years since. When opportunities present themselves that seem challenging or out of my league, I remember his words and go for it. The worst that can happen is I miss the mark and learn a lesson.

And so, it is with those words that I embark on a two-week journey to Senegal. Excited and filled with butterflies, I go because opportunities like this don’t happen often. I refuse to be guilty of missing my life!

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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