Jan 22: It was very sad to wake up today and realize that it was our very last full day in Senegal. I didn’t want to think about it too much. I was more excited for breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel – it is such a quaint rooftop and the service and amenities had been so wonderful so far, I was convinced that it would be the best breakfast that we would have on the entire trip. I was not disappointed. A complete breakfast spread was at the rooftop bar – REAL, crusty, thin French baguettes, cheeses, hams, mini croissants and pain au chocolats, fruit salad, real filter coffee, yogurt… I was in seventh heaven. I was at a point where I could not eat baguettes for breakfast anymore and I had taken to carrying oatmeal and fruit around with me for a more balanced and filling breakfast. We had our lecture at 9 am on the rooftop itself, in this little cabana, and it was partially a presentation of our final essay ideas, which was nervewracking, and also a reflection on the entire course. Honestly, it was quite emotional. For me, coming to Senegal has been a long time in the making. From trying to study in Senegal while I was a student at USC to meeting and working with incredible people who are all based in Senegal, to trying Senegalese restaurants in New York City and listening to Senegalese musicians from time to time, I have been wanting to come to this tiny West African country for a long time, and I was certainly not disappointed. I also reflected on my journey to come here. I was first interested in Senegal as an anthropology student with vague social justice leanings. I have since become a full-fledged activist and will become (I hope) a useful civil servant in international society working on gender equality and youth empowerment issues. I have had so many experiences in the international development and civil sector field since 2009, when I first had a conversation about Senegal with my linguistics professor at USC, and it’s amazing to me how things match up perfectly time-wise. I took this course with a background in West Africa, with French fluency, and with experience in advocacy work and the international development power structure, so I was truly able to capitalize on my experience. I really understood how Rosalind discussed development – indeed, that was one of the most coherent aspects of the course for me. I was also interested in youth issues and religion here – that is something that I have been focusing on lately, especially with the course that I co-facilitated in Istanbul this past summer for European and MENA youth. This course could not have come at a better point in my life – right before my academic career comes to an end and I am deciding what direction I would like to go in and what skill sets I should emphasize. I am now so confident that I can work in a variety of contexts – I am a very flexible person, I embrace different cultures and like to integrate myself, I felt as comfortable in Senegal as I felt in Colombia or Brasil, and speaking French fluently helped me in every single aspect in Dakar. If I were to actually work and live in Senegal, I do understand that I would have to learn Wolof, but still. Especially when some of the other students were having a hard time adjusting to Dakar and certainly didn’t make any Senegalese friends, I feel that one should not underestimate the importance of cultural preparedness and compatibility.
Right after the lecture, I had to prepare for an interview with Tostan, an organisation focusing on empowering communities at the grassroots level and has been lauded for their work on virtually eradicating the practice of female genital cutting in Senegal. The respectful, holistic and grassroots approach has been so successful that they are present in many other African countries now, including Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Somalia, Mauritania, etc. I went to interview the volunteer coordinator and one of the volunteers for this blog – so that you all can learn about their fantastic volunteering opportunities! (Interview shortly withcoming!) Constance accompanied me and we also had the luck of going to their one of their staff meetings, where a professor from UC Davis lectured about social norms and behavioral change. I had not thought that nonprofits would invite academics to give lectures about models that were useful in their fields, and I found the entire concept fascinating. I was also able to talk to Molly Melching, the Founder and Executive Director, right after the meeting, which was so gratifying. I had meet her three years ago at a conference that I helped one of the Senegalese French professors at USC to organize, and I have followed Tostan’s work ever since. It was a hugely exciting afternoon, and Constance and I left exhausted.
In the late afternoon, I went back to Hotel Voile d’Or to pick up some chargers I had left behind in the hotel room and relax by the ocean for a bit. Then I visited my two host sisters at Baobab. We went to a local restaurant to have tea and catch up. It was nice to see them, but too short as always, as I had dinner at the hotel at 8 with the others. This was truly one of the nicest dinners that we had throughout the entire trip. Not only was the food absolutely delicious – African/Mediterranean I would classify – but the energies and vibe of the group were really nice at this point. We didn’t always have the best vibes during this trip and I am definitely not a group person, but I had a lovely conversation with the girls at my end of the table about very deep and personal subjects. I think the benefit of traveling with a group – something that I have never done before, as I always travel on my own or for very short periods of time with one or two other people – is that yes, there will be tensions and disagreements from time to time, but the knowledge that you have overcome those energies in order to focus on the positive and the shared in common is hugely uplifting to the spirit. I am not exactly signing up to travel with a group again in the future, but I did learn a lot from this experience. We left at 2 am to go to the airport, and had to bid Rosalind goodbye – I knew that I was just saying see you later to Senegal, though.
Questions: 1. What was it about Senegal that first drew me to this country? How has my perception of those “qualities” or characteristics changed?
2. Has many people heard of Tostan in Senegal and what is their perception of their Community Empowerment Program approach?
3. Female genital cutting is now considered a mostly abandoned practice in Senegal. In other African countries, it is not. What is the current pan-African discourse on this subject, both on the international and community level?