Senegal – Today the old and the new – PART 1

Day at the beach with Amina and Freddie

I made my first trip to Africa this June, to the amazing country of Senegal to be exact. My wonderful friend Dr. Nicole Richards has opened her home in the town of Popenguine as a school to unite people with their roots, to study, experience real Africa, and honor her mother. The name of the school is Rose Pan African Education after her mother Rose (https://rosepanafricaneducation.org). As an historian who teaches African history, I jumped at the chance to get involved with this new enterprise. This June was the inaugural program, and as with all new adventures there were learning curves that were at times extremely challenging. Nicole and her husband Mustapha bared the brunt of these growing pains but persevered. My part in Rose Pan African Education besides advising is to get students from colleges to study in Senegal for 10 days next summer. The two colleges (Rockland and Hudson Community colleges) I adjunct at are interested in the idea of their students studying abroad. As luck would have it in March of 2022 the United States Department of Education put out an edict that American students need to be more conscious of life abroad. With the winds of good fortune in my favor I made the journey to Senegal to see what kind of program that could be created.

The flight from Newark, NJ to Senegal took 17 hours due to a stop-over in Brussels, Belgium. This was my first excursion away from the Americas and the long flights were taken in stride. As I flew over Europe and North Africa, I ticked off in my mind how I must visit these places someday as well. When the plane touched down in Blaise Diange International Airport the range of emotions flooded my body. To touch the ground of the birthplace of humanity, to meet new people, to experience what I have read and been studying about for so long was exciting. I also have been lucky to know many people born and raised in Africa, and what they have demonstrated to me by their actions had me relaxed. My first experience was a massive pilgrimage of Christians to the area to humble themselves before the Black Madonna statue in the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Deliverance. Senegal is an example of the beauty of Africa because so often there is a melding, ebbing and flowing of ideas and ways that work together. This has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years (spread of agriculture, spread of iron making, Bantu migrations, etc…). Senegal is a majority Muslim society, yet the Christians and Muslims live, work, and love side by side peacefully. This way of life is most often ignored while negative behavior is always highlighted while ignoring the causes of such behavior. The Tran-Atlantic and Arab slave trades, Colonialism, the Cold War, and the extraction of wealth by world powers have upset the natural ebb and flow of the peoples of Africa. And yes, Africa has had its own wars and slavery, however, pre-slave trade war was never as destructive as modern war and slavey did not strip people of their identity as human. When dealing with humas there will be problems, but back to the story. The roads and traffic of Senegal is let’s say politely from an American point of view a fucking free for all. Cars, scooters, motorcycles, pedestrians, goats and cows all compete for room on smaller roads, while the larger highways don’t have the animals, but the intense pace at which everyone drives needs to be experienced. It has the feel of a road rally. The small side roads are dirt and there are no road signs or house numbers (that I could see). I have spent time in Haiti, and I instantly was struck by the similarities. I recognized the French colonial influences and the frenetic energy of the roads. Many of the buildings of concrete block adorned with colorful images to advertise their purpose and the local buses packed with people and adorned to show local influences. Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood who led a pacifist struggle against the French, his face is seen often on many of the private taxis. But animist items like goat tails can be on the same taxi. This is another example of the melding of beliefs that is very present in Africa.

The majority of the languages spoken in Senegal is Wolof and French (there are other languages spoken such Serer, Pulaar, and Diola) and I must admit that not being able to communicate was at first very intimidating. It kept me close to Nicole or in the air B&B I was staying in. A month before I purchased a good book on speaking Wolof. The words are spelled phonetically which is a great thing for someone bad at learning new languages (like me). This book Talking Wolof by Serigne Mara Diakhate gave me a good head start. Spending time with me was Amina, Nicole’s nanny for her son Freddie (they are both in the picture at the start of the story) and Bomba a friend of Mustapha and hired as an interpreter and guide for the first attendees at Rose Pan. In the first few days they tutored me in Wolof, they were very patient as I wrote down, phonetically of course, their lessons. Nicole was able to spend time with me and took me to Dakkar but often had to tend to the first attendees. I also spent time with Amina and Freddie. Freddie being young his brain is like sponge, and he already speaks English, French, and Wolof. Amina only speaks French and Wolof, and we used Google translate, a slow but often effective way of communicating. Amina, Freddie, and I went to the beach and to the local store, and the more I moved around Senegal and had interactions with people the more relaxed I became. The less nervous I was about attempting to speak Wolof. One morning Freddie and I went to the local store, and I used my limited Wolof to buy water and a vanilla drink called Jet for Freddie. The store owner was patient and understood me, I was able to change my money into West African Francs the day before. This interaction boosted my confidence, and I observed that most people there were happy that I was attempting to speak their language. The day before I was with a driver Abu who spoke English, he had lived in Sweden and spoke several languages. He had been injured in an accident many years earlier and could not walk. He drove his old Kia four-wheel drive slow and often yelled at the other drivers that zoomed around us. He took me into the countryside where I saw Fulani with their cattle. It was towards the end of the dry season and the cattle suffer during this time. Several large white cattle stood on a pile of refuse picking through it looking for something to eat. I met a Serer woman named Fatu who spoke English. Fatu lived in France but came back to Senegal to visit her family. Abu was picking her up and taking her from one family member to another. American money isn’t wanted Euros are preferred, but Fatu exchanged fifty dollars with me. After dropping off Fatu Abu took me to the countryside where I saw some amazing baobab trees, that are all over the country. Their shapes are unmistakable, they produce large, tasty fruit and are revered throughout the continent. Now up close and personal with a large one. Certain large trees have magnificence of their own and standing next to a huge branching baobab you understand why they are considered magical and are often talked about in stories and legend. Abu’s headlights didn’t work, and we had to get back to Popenguine before dark. We raced the setting sun and made it as dusk turned to dark. He dropped me off on the road above my air B&B and I walked down two moonlit alleys to the gate of my place. I did that walk in the dark several times and never felt any trepidation even when I would encounter some passing individuals.

This is the end of part one come back to read more about Rose Pan African Education and my two solo adventures in Senegal!!