By The Inaugural Global Scholars Class


Throughout the Fall 2016 semester our core class, Global Scholars, studied the effects of globalization and its impact as we become more connected. This class was taught by Professor Bill Roberts, Chair of the Anthropology Department, who brought us to Senegal as a cumulation of our studies. As a group of 16 students, we traveled to Senegal to share our experiences, as well as expand our own knowledge and develop relationships. We were joined by Maribeth Ganzell, the club athletic trainer at St Mary’s College of Maryland, and Michael Ford, a photographer, and videographer at Yellow Cat Productions in Washington D.C. Together, we have compiled some of our experiences about our trip.

Islam and Community

Senegal is a former French colony, with a population of 13 million, located in West Africa. French is the official language, and most Senegalese also speak their ethnic language, Wolof being one of the most common. The Islamic faith is largely important in the culture of Senegal and this is to the extent that it heavily influences Senegalese society.

One place in which the effect of Islam shows greatly is in the values of Senegal. There are specifically three major values that are important in Senegalese culture and have very clear ties to the Islamic faith. The first value is teranga which is the Wolof word for hospitality as it holds that people need to warmly welcome guests and overall, there is an expectation of friendliness in Senegal. The Senegalese people are very proud of this value and on our trip, we not only experienced teranga but so many students and people talked about Senegal as the “Country of Teranga” as they believe that they are unique in their friendliness. The Islamic faith in Senegal preaches a message of friendliness, tolerance, and peace which is very similar to teranga.

Even more so this value is also a large part of Senegalese culture in addition to being part of the Islamic tradition of Senegal. We witnessed this first hand when we visited the Khalif of the Niassan Branch of the Tijaniyya Brotherhood of Islam. The Khalif is the leader of that branch of Islam in Senegal is thus a very important person. Yet that did not exempt him from practicing teranga as he not only fed us on four separate occasions and offered us lodging if we ever visited Senegal again but he also met with us on three occasions. This is particularly special considering his power in Senegal and the fact that we were all non-Muslim foreigners but this was not important. What was important was that we were his guests and thus he had to make sure we were well taken care of.

Another value that has strong connections to Islam is the value of jom, the Wolof word for honor, which pertains people’s determination to do things no matter how tough they are. This determination connects directly to people’s faith in Allah to help them through anything. Their faith tells them that when they struggle and suffer, Allah will help them through it all. Their spiritual connection as a result of their faith gives them a strong determination that no matter what they will be to get through all of the trials they face in life.

The final Senegalese value that needs to be discussed is sag which pertains to a harmony of living and a strong belief in tolerance. This value is a direct parallel to Islam in Senegal as Muslims in Senegal believe strongly in tolerance of all people no matter their religion, race, gender, etc. This leads to almost complete religious harmony in Senegal between Christians and Muslims. Even more so, it leads to less hardline Islamic beliefs to the extent that practices like the hijab is not mandatory for all women. Overall, Senegalese society believes in tolerance and this is a direct result of the tolerance of the Islamic faith in Senegal.

We had a discussion about origins of Islam and having misconceptions identified through a conversation with the Imam of the brotherhood. Several points of this discussion stood out due to the way they were reiterated, as well as the way they are applicable when observing societal structure. The first concept that was presented is that Islam is a religion of peace. Every aspect of the religion involves peaceful interactions with both Muslims and non-Muslims. The only exception lies in the rare scenario in which one is attacked or driven off their land. A Muslim would then be able to fight back in self-defense. It was also mentioned that the word “war” was only written 2 or 3 times in the Quran. This further supports that the Islamic beliefs are ones of peace.

Another point that was made clear involves the treatment of others. According to the Quran, Muslims must be accepting of both Muslims and non-Muslims, or they will be punished by Allah. Muslims should welcome those who join their religion, display peace with those who don’t, and never force or ask anyone to join the religion. It is believed that if Allah wants them, they will be Muslim or they will be believers. One reason for the peace between Muslims and non-Muslims is the notion that everyone is the son of Adam, making us all brothers. After having the conversation about Islam, it seems as though Muslims are more accepting of others than what is observed of other prevalent religions.

In America, there is a log of conflict between members of various religions, and there is often tension regarding religious freedoms and differing customs or beliefs. In contrast, there is almost no conflict between Christians and Muslims within the predominantly Muslim community. After talking with students, we learned that in Senegal talking about one’s religion occurs often and in casual situations, including conversations with strangers. The differences between culture in America and culture in Senegal are extremely clear when looking at the stark contrast in how religion is approached, and whether or not differing religions result in a divided community. Learning about Islam initiated connections between the welcoming attitudes of everyone we meet, from students to leaders to street-folk, and it’s interesting to note how much the belief systems of individuals impacts their lives in such a noticeable way.

Senegalese Education

One of the first things we noticed when meeting with students at all the different lycées (secondary schools) we visited in Senegal was that many students were very fascinated by and enthusiastic in their learning of English. For many Senegalese students, English is one of the most highly-favored subjects of study, and lots of them have aspirations of future careers in America. As a matter of fact, the lycées we visited seem to place more emphasis on learning foreign languages than high schools in America. One lycée in Kaolack offered Portuguese, German, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and English classes, whereas in the United States, Spanish, French, and very rarely German are offered as foreign languages.

The passion and vigor Senegalese students put into learning languages other than their native French or Wolof indicates how open they are to other cultures and the possibility of forming connections with people from other walks of life. This sense of compliance with and appreciation for diversity seems to be lacking in American high school students as well as American culture in general. In spite of class size in Senegal appearing much larger than class size in the United States and in spite of the seemingly higher age disparity between Senegalese students, it was clear to us that these students are very appreciative of the learning resources available to them and possess a stronger work ethic than many of their American counterparts.

There was also a different attitude toward learning among the student body than is common in the States. Students we met seemed invested in and passionate about their education and determined to gain as much as possible from the few resources they had available to them. This stands in stark contrast with the United States where most of us take the resources and opportunities we have for granted. This contrast stems in large part from a difference in culture. Knowledge and gratitude are highly valued among the Senegalese where as in America we care more about what marketable skills you posses and tend to have a sense of entitlement.

Many of the schools we visited expressed a need for more school books. Particularly English grammar workbooks. These books while in short supply are in high demand to aid English learning students learn and practice the complexities of English grammar. As English as a language is subject to change, many of the workbooks currently able to students are old and outdated. Establishing a program to send these schools English grammar workbooks would be extremely valuable to many Senegalese schools and their students. Not only would workbooks be appreciated, novels in English would be helpful for students to practice reading skills.

Many Senegalese students were also interested in setting up a program to e-mail with American students. That way they could practice conversational skills online while also learning about American culture as well as share their own.

Tourism and Development

There were unfinished buildings, little shops constructed from sticks and tarps, and goats roaming around. Some cities were less touristy and had less development compared to the capital city, Dakar, a popular place to travel for business and vacation. Sometimes trash would be layered on the dirt and we would see little kids, and wave, but then notice they were chewing on a battery or a piece of trash. As we got into the more touristy towns, we saw more toubabs, the Senegalese word for white people, or tourists. When visiting Gorée Island, Dakar, and Bandia, we saw more toubabs and we would wave and say “Look! There are some toubabs”. While in Djilor, we stayed in “La Source aux Lamantins”, which was a gorgeous ecotourism hotel where we saw many different species of birds and vegetation. We also felt at home when sat by the water and watched the sun set.

Tourism is a major part of the Senegalese economy, with their warm weather and interesting wildlife providing an enticing vacation stop. Rainfall is infrequent during their dry season, so the sun is almost always out. There is a large variety of interesting and beautiful plants that are very common in Senegal, such as the huge baobab trees that are unlike any plant species in the US. The country also hosts a wide variety of animals, both wild and in reserves. The various species of birds visible in almost any part of the country are particularly impressive, as many of them boast very colorful plumage. In reserves, tourists can see larger animals that were once prevalent in Senegal and other African countries, such as rhinos, zebras, and giraffes. The diversity of animal life is an effective draw for the country because many of these species are only visible in zoos in the United States and Europe.

Although tourism levels have fallen in recent years because of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and terrorism scares, there is still much work being done to build facilities that house, feed, and entertain arriving tourists. One particular town we drove through had several gated housing developments, with more being built. There were also hotels, both ones in use and a few that had closed down, and many restaurants that served non-African food such as hamburgers and pizza. In addition, there were many vendors in marketplaces selling items that would appeal mostly to out-of-towners, such as art, jewelry, and other crafts.

It was really interesting being in Senegal and seeing the change in a place when it is intended to be a tourist area. There would be shops, restaurants, and other buildings targeted specifically at tourists. In smaller towns that aren’t visited very often they don’t pay much attention to anything like that. Tourist areas are centered on the coast and other places with water, like rivers. Goree, an island near the capital Dakar, is heavily marketed towards tourists because of its appeal as an island and world heritage site.

Agriculture and Environment

The first and most obvious difference was in temperature- we took off from Dulles in frigid December weather and landed in Dakar’s eighty-degree morning air. The temperature change was a little difficult to adjust to, even some of us feeling faint after several hours outside in the fields of an agricultural center. However, we quickly became comfortable and in love with the warm breezes and we were even chilled when the temperature dipped to sixty-degrees in the evening. This, of course, meant that we were faced with the shock of thirty-degree Maryland weather upon return.

Another physical difference in the environment was all the dirt and dust. We visited Senegal in the dry season, meaning that they might go months without rain. Because of this, there was very minimal ground vegetation. Everywhere that one might expect weeds and grasses to grow in Maryland, would be dry dirt in Senegal. Along the edge of the road, we often saw piles of trash, all in different stages of decomposition, some items being nibbled on by a grazing goat (side note: there were goats everywhere!). The abundance of trash was both surprising and disappointing. We later learned that many parts of Senegal lack a proper waste management system, leading to such buildups. Despite the abundance of drab and beige landscape, Senegal was also home to some spectacular natural sites. There were massive baobab trees, some so large that it would take a large group of people to link arms around the circumference of the trunk.

There was an immense amount of awareness and concern for the environment by almost each and every Senegalese we encountered. There seemed to be a widespread knowledge about climate change, and not only that but also a strong desire to make changes for the better of the environment. Those concerned about climate change (and who brought up the topic on their own accord) included an agriculture science student from the University of Dakar, students and teachers from Lycée El Hadj Malik Sy, an entrepreneur concerned about how environmentally friendly his products would be, employees working toward food security at the Bambey Agricultural Research Center, farmers encouraging sustainable practices at Ferme de Kaydara, and many more people we held conversations with. We came to realize that the Senegalese are more likely to be directly impacted by the effects of climate change, and are therefore more apt to working toward a solution.

In a discussion with students from a local school English club in Kaolack, we asked about Senegal’s environmental issues. The students explained that while large countries like the US and China are contributing the most to global warming, small countries like Senegal are being affected the most. The increasing temperatures increase the range of mosquitoes carrying deadly malaria, and the heat makes it difficult to grow crops. Litter was also a persistent problem in many of the towns and cities we visited, but many young people there are making an effort to clean up the environment. At one of the schools we visited, the students had created benches by stacking tires and filling them in with concrete. It was part of an initiative by the school to reuse and repurpose the trash that the community could not properly dispose of.

Their great concern for such an important global issue truly impressed us. Especially when we live in a country in which a large population of people either do not believe in climate change or they simply do not think that it will have substantial impact on them. And yes, most everyone at this school has likely lived with the same luxuries, however the difference is that we have minds open to education, accepting of scientific facts, and empathy for people besides ourselves.

1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting article however there is no way you are going to convince me that children were chewing on ‘batteries and trash’ – I think it’s possible you just didn’t know what you were looking at. They would die if they chewed on batteries obviously and no one is starving in Senegal (as I’m sure you noticed) so there’s no reason for them to be ‘chewing on trash.’

    I think you need to ask someone what a chew stick is…

    Also Kaolak where you visited is the dirtiest part of the country, Joal is the next dirtiest (where the big baobabs are), however you didn’t mention at all that the roads and bridges you travelled on are modern, smooth, well maintained and that all of them are clean from one end of the country to the other. Public roads are kept swept up and maintained, private areas and villages have garbage trucks come thru 3 to 5x a week, FREE. You should have simply asked someone because you were probably looking at garbage pickup points. Also there’s usually garbage on one side of the road (after passing a village) and not the other, again, this is how they drop off and collect garbage, your perception of how it should be (trash cans/bags/dumpsters) came thru because you didn’t understand the system and simply made assumptions based on the way you do things in America.

    These are the only glaring flaws in an otherwise balanced review of your trip. I am glad to hear you learned something about tolerance.

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