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A love letter to Senegal

This month, as many of our students are heading off campus to study abroad, we take a look back at a journey Alexa Dorris ’12 took last year to Senegal.

“They always tell you that you’ll change when you go abroad,” said Dorris of her experience. A music major and psychology minor from Indianapolis with a strong interest in music therapy, Dorris wrote, “You figure out where you play in the scheme of the world.”

Here are some excerpts from the blog she wrote during her time in Dakar and other parts of Senegal.

Jan. 30, 2011:
Dakar is magnificent. It’s warm, humid, salty, and breezy. My feet are yellow from walking around in the sand. This week we’re staying at Good Rade, a hotel where we’ll go through orientation. After a nap this morning and a lunch of fish and potatoes, five or six of us went on a sunny, sticky walk through the streets. Mostly the streets are sand and dirt, but occasionally there are mosaic sidewalks coming out of the ground like fossils. There are mules and karts, beauty parlors, food stores that look like storage closets, and children playing all around. There is decadence and there is poverty, depending on where you look. I’ve yet to see a single cloud. Walking around here is like being inside a powder blue dome.

A view of a Dakar thoroughfare in January

Feb. 1, 2011:
The day was mostly dedicated to learning how to navigate in Senegalese culture without offending anyone. Some things will be hard to get used to. For example, eye contact suggests untrustworthiness and disrespect upon first meeting an elder. You aren’t allowed to tell mothers that their children are cute because it might cause the cuteness to “disappear.”

Feb. 7, 2011:
There is a mosque DIRECTLY next door to me. Prayers on the hour, amplified. They start at 5:30 AM which means I wake up every hour after 5:30 to what feels like a middle aged man standing next to me singing the pentatonic scale in my ear. But I fall right back asleep, and I find it strangely relaxing to wake up to. The sounds here are so different.

I feel very welcomed here, but I also feel very white. It’s not a good feeling. Yesterday, Anna sent me into a little shop with a phrase of Wolof and a 500cfa piece. I thought she was just testing my Wolof, but when I asked her why, she said that shop owners will not make change for her, but they will make change for me because I’m white. That was a tragic moment for me. You can’t come here and expect the world not to follow you.

Feb. 11, 2011:
In the U.S., we value individuality. Here, they value society as a whole. As long as we participate in Senegalese culture, we show that we are interested in being a part of Senegal. We show that we want to be part of their lives. Though we will never completely belong, we are welcome to try. That was important to me.

I had a migraine last night and the sheep under my window wouldn’t shut up.

Feb. 28, 2011:
Tomorrow morning, we’re leaving at 7 a.m. for Kédougou. We’ll get back next Sunday. This is a village stay, so I won’t have Internet for the entire trip. I’m staying in Etchwar, a Bedik village on top of a mountain. Rumor has it that I’ll be carrying buckets of water up the mountain, hunting warthogs, and seeing giraffes. Who am I kidding? I’ll never kill a warthog. I’d be too sad. I might have to eat it though. We shall see! So far I’ve been trying everything with no real consequences. Oh. Speaking of eating animals. You know that sheep under my window? A week ago, he was gone, and I asked Ngate where he was… I’ve been eating him for dinner for the past week.

(After Kédougou)
When I got back to camp, we were 18 very dirty, sick people. Very sick. And we were changed. We’d seen the harsh reality of what having the bare essentials in life really means. It means playing with empty sardine cans instead of toys, drinking muddy water, and eating baobab fruit instead of pharmaceuticals. But all in all, I wouldn’t trade this experience. I have done a fair amount of crying today trying to process it all, and I am still processing. What I know is that despite how hard things may have been there, there was love and there was community. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about. Let us never forget.

Alexa and Madame Fatou Wade, head of her first host family in Ouakam, a neighborhood in Dakar

March 12, 2011:
The more I take a step back and analyze my world, the more I realize how my definitions of good, bad, and normal have morphed without my knowledge or permission. Every morning I wake up at 5 from the call to prayer, I think about how calming it is, and I drift off back to sleep, comforted by a religion that I don’t even fundamentally agree with.

I also have to mention what learning music is like here. Forget what you knew about counting! Everything is based on what you feel and hear. I am so much more comfortable in this setting. It’s not about being the best at your instrument. Rather, it’s about being present in the music. Ever heard of the tama? It’s also known as the “talking drum.” The tama professor here has a severe speech impediment and barely speaks, but he is one of the best tama players in Dakar. The drum is his language, his vocabulary. His brothers communicate with him through the tama, different patterns indicating different words like Morse code. It was one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen.

I suppose this is a little love letter to Senegal. We’ve had our moments. These days, I love her despite her faults. And more and more I’m not sure they’re faults in the first place.

Alexa with her host family in Mouit, a village in the Gandiol region of Senegal

April 4, 2011:
I’m taking lessons with Gaby Ba, an ethnomusicologist here in Dakar, learning Senegalese songs that have been used traditionally in therapeutic contexts. He practices music therapy with children on Tuesdays, and I am shadowing him every Tuesday morning. I’ll be learning the kalimba, balaphone, and water drum, along with my voice lessons. I had my first session on Friday the 1st, and I learned two songs.

April 13, 2011:
My independent study project is in full swing, and my schedule is very full … when I’m not in lessons, I’m teaching and playing music at a private, bilingual (i.e., they speak French) preschool north of Ouakam. What an experience that has been! With the little kids (ages 2 and 3), we hand them two sticks and rock from side to side making rhythm and sound with our mouths, feet, and sticks. The goal is to develop memory and coordination.

This country has opened me up to so many things: compassion, seeking justice, openness, acceptance, and above all, patience. Nothing in life is so promised here. There are no satisfaction guarantees. What is left is thankfulness and community. I have experienced this in so many forms: not knowing if I’d make it to a hospital, never being sure that I’d get my change back, being promised something I found important and then being told “but we don’t have it today.” Through the frustration and discovery, there have been tiny epiphanies every day that would take up a million blog entries. Despite all of the time that it took, I live here now with a sense of agency and romance—what I think might be better described as fulfillment. No, I’m not ready to pack up my life and move here. But Senegal, I sure will miss you when I have to go.

A “swan song” of sorts as Alexa’s Senegalese experience comes to a close

May 13, 2011:
I can’t, nor could I ever, come up with the words to summarize my time in Senegal…This is such a huge, huge world, and we are such little people. Like my friend Assan said, it’s so important to keep moving. To experience another culture is to develop a little bit more compassion and understanding, even if in the tiniest ways. At the end of everything, I am just feeling very strong and at peace.

But here are the important parts of this entry: I’m enormously thankful for this experience and for the relationships I’ve cultivated here; I am enriched by this country forever; and I am looking forward to a future in which we all help each other to keep moving forward.

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