By Alexandra Merck
When I first told people I was studying abroad in West Africa for French, I got a lot of “What’s wrong with Paris?” type of responses. My answer was “Nothing”, but I was seeking a more immersive, unique adventure in another culture learning another language. I wanted to do something a bit off the beaten path and go to a place I might never go on my own. This made the French LBAT – Senegal program a natural choice for me. I will always remember my time in Senegal as one of the absolute best summers of my life and reflect upon it fondly.
Graffiti on a bridge in Dakar. Graffiti is ubiquitous throughout the city and a celebrated art form.
When I first arrived in the airport at 2 a.m. (apparently this is a normal time for a plane to land in Dakar) I was overwhelmed with smells, crowds, sweat, and jetlag. As I got into a taxi with mismatched black and yellow doors held together by duct tape, I seriously wondered what I had gotten myself into. However, when the sun came up and I met my professor and host family, I knew everything was going to be just fine.
The weekend I arrived in Dakar was actually Eid, or Korité as it is called in Senegal. It was very unique to see the tail end of Ramadan and how things really slowed down during this holy month. I also remember my first proper Senegalese feast on Korité to celebrate breaking the fast.
I’ll never forget my first taste of warm, spicy thiéboudiène and wondering “Where has Senegalese food been all my life?”
Drinking fresh coconut water with my friend, Cat. We were very proud the seller gave us the local price instead of foreigner price!
While I was in Senegal I thrived. I felt so independent and empowered making my way around such a different country in my second language. Every day felt like an adventure, and my friends and I often made time to go on special excursions to local attractions, markets, the beach, and more. Even walking to school over cracked sidewalks and through roundabouts with seven different offshoots and no traffic lights was exciting. Every day I tried new foods, met new people, practiced my French, and saw new things. These novel experiences, French proficiency, and the sense of independence I gained during this time gave me a lot of confidence and worldly experience I would not have otherwise had.
My favorite part of my experience was seeing how around the world, we are very different, but we are also the same. It was so interesting to see how different societies hold different norms, values, customs, and traditions. Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country and this shapes their everyday life significantly. For example, when I brought home some fabric from the local, massively bright and colorful fabric market, instead of praising the beauty of the fabric itself, my host mom said “Masha ‘Allah” attributing its beauty to and thanking God.
HLM fabric market in Dakar
What I found unique about Senegalese traditions was that although Islam plays a large role, there are many things Senegalese people do that reflect their unique cultural history. One thing many men do is wear amulets, or special bracelets, so that if they die, the spirits will be able to find their spirit and guide it onward. Although this practice is not technically allowed in Islam, it prevails due to ancient cultural customs. Additionally, if you know someone will be away for a long time, it is customary to take some dirt from the path they left the house in and keep it until they return. My host family picked up some of the sand I walked over to keep until the next time. Every time one says goodbye to someone, it is customary to say “À la prochaine, Insha’Allah” or “Until next time, God willing.” I found this tradition very comforting and sincere and those were the last words I said to my host family, holding back tears on my way to the airport.
So, to wrap up, my time in Senegal changed my life. Cliché, but true. The confidence, language skills, and experience I had living in Senegal enriched my life to a degree I can’t stress enough, and I will always be grateful and reminiscent of this experience.
Our small group – who grew very close – ‘dune buggying’ over sand and salt dunes on the coast.