Much to think about…

Saturday was our last full day in Senegal, and it began with some powerful work together. The fast pace of our daily schedules didn’t afford us much time to process all that we were experiencing and learning, so our debriefing session that morning was geared to that.  We shared our research questions again: what we observed and still have questions about. We shared our lingering emotions and some lasting memories, our concerns for the Senegalese youth, and formulated our “message” about the Senegalese education system to take back home to colleagues, administrators, students, and friends, who would all be curious to know what we think.  I’d never considered this idea of educational diplomacy before, but I realize how important it is because I am now a kind of ambassador for Senegal as well.  It is incumbent on me to communicate all the positive strides that have been taken to educate all their youth and train their teachers, as well as the real challenges still to be overcome.  They are much the same challenges we face here in the US, just on a slightly different scale.

Over 46% of Senegal’s population is under the age of 18, and the government knows that they are looking at a time bomb of sorts because there will not be enough jobs over the next 10-15 years to employ all these young people as they finish school.  There needs to be a focus on vocational training moving forward, and given that in this same age group the girls outnumber the boys, keeping the girls in school is also a huge priority.

A panel of three ILEP and TEA alumni came midmorning to share their own experiences of studying in the United States and what that has meant for them personally and professionally over time.  The connections they made and have maintained have positively impacted their classroom practice and their students.  It inspires me to continue my collaboration with Ibrahima and his students, particularly the English Club, for the benefit of us all.  I have much to ponder on my plane ride home tomorrow and in my planning to come when I return to school.

Our farewell dinner celebration was a hoot!  Everyone dressed in their Senegalese attire, and there were pictures upon pictures taken, just like a prom event!  We went to this fabulous “treehouse” restaurant that was an art gallery on the first two floors, and the sunset over Dakar was beautiful, despite the dust-laden skies. Great food!  I swear the poulet yassa just keeps getting better and better.  I loved the band that was playing, and Teresa got the dancing going after dinner!  Everyone, including myself, had a turn with stepping out while balancing a basket on his or her head.  It was so fun and a fitting end to our time together!  Tomorrow’s goodbyes would be sad, but tonight’s hugs were full of joy and friendship.


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A Reunion in Dakar

Ibrahima, Malamine, and Aissatou all came to the Hotel Residence to bid us farewell on our return trip to Dakar.  Lots of hugs and pictures later, we boarded the van and began the five hour trip back through Thiès to Dakar and the King Fahd Palace Hotel. Traffic was lighter going back than it had been leaving, so we made good time.  It was a sunny day but incredibly windy, and in the wind was sand, the harmattan which I’d read about in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There was a Hotel Harmattan in Saint-Louis as well.  According to Wikipedia “it’s a dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind which blows from the Sahara Desert over the West African subcontinent into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March (winter),” and this was April 15th.  Later than March, but the desert sand covered everything.  I don’t think my pictures do it justice.  There is a tan hue to the air.

It reminds me of an article I read about the desertification of  the subsaharan countries, and the collaborative effort that has gone into building the “Great Green Wall” of trees across several countries to halt the advance of the desert.  The partner countries are: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and the Sudan, and Senegal has led the way.

It felt odd and decadent to be back in our rooms at the King Fahd Palace after our time in Saint-Louis.  Our lens of life had been altered, and so the sharp contrast gave us all pause to reflect upon our experience in the field.  We reunited with Kirsten and Kerryane, who had been in Kaolack, Anita and Brielle, who’d been in Tambacounda, both more rural areas than Saint-Louis and much, much hotter – like 110 degrees everyday hotter; and Ryan and Teresa, who’d been in Kolda, which is in the southern Casamance region.  The last pair, Frank and Faisal, would rejoin us from Nioro du Rip later that evening after prayers in the mosque of their host teacher.  Everyone was tired but happy to see one another and anxious to swap stories.  We got some lunch and then went shopping at the market for some last minute gifts.

Some folks went out for dinner at a local restaurant, So Beach, but I opted to stay and eat with Kirsten, Kerryane, and Anita at the hotel restaurant, so I could catch up on some emails and some much needed sleep.




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Thursday already?

It was our last day of school and our turn to teach Ibrahima’s classes.  How did Thursday come so fast? We have been on a whirlwind of a schedule!  I woke up at 6 am in hopes of being able to download the “Our World Is” video my students and I had made as part of my presentation for Ibrahima’s students this morning, but the wifi was still not cooperating.  I had to punt with some other pictures and videos of our school on my hard drive, but the kids were fine with it. It was my own fault for not doing it earlier and assuming that technology would work when I needed it. When I showed them the video of our egg hunt from Easter


Easter in the Compound 2016

as a slice of culture, they were laughing at us crazy Americans with bunny ears and tails on, but the biggest laugh came when I showed them the wedding photo of my husband and I and told them he was my second husband.  “Mame Diarra!” they exclaimed.  I quickly explained that I didn’t have them both at the same time!  It was funny. Polygany is still practiced here in Senegal, not commonly from my observations, but most certainly not by the women.

Kristin's Presentation

Kristin’s Presentation

Kristin gave a fabulous presentation that focused on languages spoken in the US and the diversity present across our country, despite the fact that the majority of Americans speak only English. She had recorded several of her students, who are all English language learners, talking about their experiences coming to the US. The students were riveted, and after some questions and answers, it was time for finishing our postcard exchange.

This is what I am most interested in pursuing in the short term, fostering a personal connection between my students and Ibrahima’s through these postcards. My hope is that it will build empathy on both sides, and I want to keep it going beyond this first exchange.  I talked with my TGC colleague, Faisal, about it upon our return to Dakar.  He also did this with his students in Chicago and his host’s classes here in Senegal.  He had his students take pictures of themselves doing something that is part of their daily lives and use those as the postcard with notes on the back – brilliant! I’m going to try that as the next step when we return to school next week.  It doesn’t require technology beyond a cell phone for taking the picture, which is key as Ibrahima’s classrooms are not wired.  There is also something very personal about picking up the pen or pencil and writing your note.  Letter writing is becoming a lost art form, and so this appeals to me as well.


The note Pierre (Peter) wrote below brought tears to my eyes.  He gets it, and I want to honor his desire to connect.IMG_2013

Both classes went well, and we had some picture taking and some more mbalax dancing, and all of a sudden it was over.  I was sad.  I miss these students so much and have thought about them often over the last few days.

Kristin and I walked yet again over the bridge to our hotel, and we were supposed to visit the Guembel Animal Reserve from 2-5pm, but it was hot, 108 degrees hot, so we opted to get some lunch and do some much needed shopping for gifts to take home instead. We had a wonderful lesson on the meaning of the older tribal masks by one of the street vendors in the alley market across from our hotel.  It harkens back to Animism, the older belief system that predated Islam’s advent here, and the different masks were used like passports to identify a person’s tribe and where they came from.  It was fascinating.

A few hours of waxali-ing later, and I did get better at the haggling as the week wore on, it was time for our cultural dinner celebration and Zoumba!

Our hosts had arranged for a fantastic band (Zoumba!) to play for us and teach us some dance steps before dinner, and my-oh-my did we have fun with that!!  I’ll let the pictures and videos speak for themselves.  This is another of my fondest memories of the trip. Oulaye, Adjara, Tiffany, Isabella, Rohkaya’s daughters, and others joined us for a festive time.  The band was excellent, and the lead singer’s voice gave me goosebumps. Zhoumba, the gentleman playing the piano-harmonica thing, is an art teacher at Ameth Fall, Adjara’s school where the concert was held, and an alumnus of the US programs.  I was happy to hear from Adjara that the auditorium space and stage had been built with the help of US funds.

And the dancer moved so fast and fluidly like water through your fingers – amazing!

Hot, sweaty, and happy, we said our goodbyes to the band, sorry that they did not have a CD for purchase because they were awesome, we made our way to the Galaxie Restaurant for a farewell dinner.  Our bus was picking us up at 8:30am the next morning to head back to Dakar.  More good food (I had couscous with lamb, but it didn’t come close to Oulaye’s in deliciousness!) and of course we had to take one more group shot!

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Eyup Sultan Elementary School

Wednesday morning, Malamine, Kristin, Tyler, Jessi, and I had the pleasure of visiting the Turkish school, Eyup Sutan Elementary School, and observing Ibrahima’s first and third grade English classes.  It is a private school, and the tuition is quite costly by Senegalese standards, so the class sizes are small and the facility well equipped and maintained. The school exuded warmth, and I felt like it was one big happy family there.  The principal and other teachers were incredibly welcoming.  In fact, when Kristin and I were leaving (Malamine, Tyler and Jessi had to leave earlier), we were presented with a bag of gifts from the principal! There are plans to expand the program next year to higher grades and increase English instruction to 16 hours a week!  Ibrahima was thrilled to hear this.  I hope it comes to fruition.

His first English class was with the first graders.  They were adorable, and after introductions and some roleplaying with Jessi Parra, who was totally in her element as a first grade teacher, they sang for us!First Graders at Eyup Sultan Singing  Ibrahima has them practicing their English speaking at all times. He uses picture cards to have them retell the story of Ruby and Otto.

He also plays Simon Says with them every class, both the first and third graders, and he had all of us lead a round.  The kids got pretty good by the end, and it was hard to catch them out.  It is a wonderful way to reinforce their English and listening skills while having fun.  He repeated much of the same practice and drill with his third grade class, and at the end everyone posed for a picture with Louie the Lion, Jessi’s class mascot.  Great morning for all of us!IMG_1714

In the afternoon, we returned to Charles de Gaulle for our visit with Ibrahima’s English Club.  They are an exceptional group of students, mostly 11th and 12th graders whose English is excellent, and they are eager to improve it as the Baccalaureate exam fast approaches.  They remind me a great deal of my National Honor Society students because they, too, are very socially conscious and service oriented, and I’d like to connect the two clubs in the near future. One student told us how he has been busy painting murals on the wall between Charles de Gaulle and the middle school next door to make positive statements and beautify the school grounds, all on his own time and at his own expense.  We saw his handiwork later that afternoon.  He and the other artists are very talented.

We had the ambitious plan of skyping with two of our classes back in the States.  Ibrahima secured a projector, extension cord, loud speakers, and purchased an hour’s worth of hotspot time, but the wifi connection just would not cooperate.  It brought home to me again how much I take having technology in the classroom for granted, and I won’t whine about our network issues in the same way ever again. Nonetheless, it was a productive meeting, and the students were so excited to speak with us and use their English.  We were also treated to their many talents, as two young ladies sang for us and then the whole class danced mbalax!  

Kristin and I trekked back over the bridge to get some much needed lunch at the Creperie that Jessi and Tyler had raved about the day before.  We both had an omelette crepe and a dessert crepe, mine was chocolate caramel with peanuts and hers was chocolate with bananas – yum!  There was a young mother there with her tiny, 2 month-old snoogie who had us both “Awe!” ing because he was so cute.  I love how the mothers here strap their babies to their backs.IMG_1780

At 5pm, we trekked back over the bridge again to meet with Saint-Louis’ chapter of ATES, Association of Teachers of English, at the middle school behind Charles de Gaulle to discuss the many challenges of teaching English in an EFL context and the importance of professional development.  It was a fruitful conversation.  All of the Saint-Louis six are committed to continuing our collaboration with our host teachers and their colleagues.  A first step is to create a shared Facebook group to keep in touch.

Our last stop of the day was Rohkaya’s home.  She had generously invited all of us for dinner. Kristin wasn’t feeling well, and so she went back to the hotel, but the rest of us piled into the TGC van and headed to the DIOP residence where a feast awaited us! Rohkaya prepared this fabulous salad platter because she knew we’d been craving some fresh greens.  And there was bread, yassa, fish, and rice, with buey, hyssop, and ginger drinks.

It was a great pleasure to meet her daughters, sons, and husband.  They are a handsome and gracious family, and her eldest daughter, Nafissatou, impressed me in particular with her desire to become an aeronautical engineer.  She also shared with me that she is a writer, and has been submitting her stories to Beaute´ Maudite magazine for money!  That is an awesome combination of skills, and she has an amazing role model in her mother to boot. I’ve no doubt she will be successful in her pursuit of an engineering career.

We arrived back to the Hotel Residence late, after 11pm.  I stayed up a bit trying to download some videos I’d prepared for my presentation tomorrow, but the wifi wasn’t cooperating.  I gave up and slept, hoping to do it first thing in the morning before leaving for Charles De Gaulle.  Now you understand why I got so far behind on my blog posts…no time.

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Na nga def? Mangi fi rekk!

Bonjour! ¸Ca va? It wasn’t easy getting the cedilla in the right place under the preceding “C,” but I tried.  Hello! It is going well, and I am feeling fine.  French and Wolof get blended here quite often, but I’m partial to Wolof, even though I stink at it.  Ethnic map of SenegalWhat’s so endearing is how eager the Senegalese people are to help you learn their native tongue.  Mind you, there are many native languages spoken here in Senegal like Pulaar, Fulani, Mandike, Serer, Soninke, etc., but Wolof is most commonly spoken in the north.  The street vendors,  the taxicab drivers, the students, our host teachers and their families, the hotel clerks and housekeepers, the waiters, passersby, and even the cooks at Gaston University cafeteria all tried to help me master this crucial exchange in Wolof:

Salaam aleekum. Na nga def?”(How are you?) they’d ask.

Mangi fi rekk!” I’d answer, butchering the pronunciation again.  And with infinite patience, he or she would smile broadly, pronounce it properly, and ask me again, so I could practice.  They invite you into their culture and are an inclusive people by nature and custom.

Jërë jëf,” I’d thank them.

ñoo ko bokk,” you are welcome, they would rejoin.

This would never happen in France with the French, at least not in Paris, and  I’m speaking from experience not hearsay. I hope it’s happening in the US when a newcomer is trying to learn English, but I’m not confident that it is across the board. The academic language in Senegal is French, but there is an initiative afoot to use Wolof for instruction in the primary grades, especially in the more rural areas, to hasten literacy.  As language is the heart of any culture, I hope this initiative is successful and becomes widespread.

Tuesday was a day of Teranga, full of warm welcome and hospitality.  Ibrahima had invited us to help co-teach his two classes that morning, both two hours long, and the students were so receptive.  It has humbled me to see the commitment of Ibrahima and his fellow teachers of English, who come to teach even when there is a teacher strike, which unfortunately happens often.  I will never whine about my class sizes again, at least not in the same way.  He allows students who aren’t even in his class to come if they want to, so they too can learn English. We have so much to learn from our Senegalese counterparts. They are literally building their country, and they know education of the youth is the key to moving forward.

After reading a short article about teenage prostitution, students worked together to answer some questions that tested their reading comprehension and word attack skills. The directions and questions are written on the board, and the students copy them verbatim, which results in strong memory retention and excellent handwriting.  The beautiful cursive in the students’ notebook astounded me!

The other half of the postcards from home were handed out, and this time I modeled on the board how to set up the format:  Dear (Student’s Name), Our names are (their names, and we are in the 12th grade at Charles De Gaulle. They were then off to the races!  Again, there was not enough time for them to finish, so we’ll continue on Thursday when this class meets again.  That gives me time to buy more postcards from Senegal upon which Ibrahima’s students can write their replies.  For now, they are crafting their responses in their notebooks.  It was another fabulous and full day in the classroom!

At noon, after a photo session with the class, everyone breaks for lunch and classes resume at 3 or 4 pm.  I just love this schedule!  The Senegalese make time for family, and I admire that greatly.  Kristin and I met Shiona and Rupa for lunch again, but this time we ventured to a new restaurant, La Kora, a little further down from our hotel.  This was the first time Teranga was not extended to us, and I have to say that the owner of the restaurant was French, not Senegalese.  The food was good, the atmosphere pleasant, but the proprietor cold, at least until a dead bird’s head fell from the roof overhanging the bar.  Shiona saw it happen and was shocked, to say the least!  Finally, the owner cracked a smile and spoke with us, but her “distance” was noticeable by comparison to the warmth extended by everyone else.

At 5pm, we visited Gaston Berger University, Aissatou’s, Ibrahima’s, and Malamine’s alma mater, and met with the English Department head and some of his students from the English Club for a short presentation and Q & A. Mr. Brown joined us too. And then we were treated to a tour by the students.


Gaston Berger University             Saint-Louis, Senegal

It’s a green and beautiful campus, with lovely plantings and an open gathering space with tables and playing fields, basketball courts, and concession  stands where students can meet to work on projects together or just hang out.  It looks like many American universities, and the vibe of learning is strong.

The students who took us on the tour know they are fortunate to be enrolled here. Ousmane Keita (aka Keita-man) and Rafi were two of about five with whom I spoke at length. Admission is selective and dependent upon passing the Baccalaureate exam, which is extremely difficult. Since the government pays for their studies, it has become a problem because there are many students but not enough universities to accommodate them all and not enough money in the coffers to support them all in their pursuit of a degree.

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They are committed to perfecting their English, and Keita-man told me that he takes every opportunity he can get to practice.  He was a delight, and his English is very, very good!  We saw the library, the gymnasium, the cafeteria, and the dorm rooms too.  It’s an impressive school.

Dinner that night was at Ibrahima’s house, and his wife Oulaye had been preparing for us since Monday afternoon!  Of course we were running late on Senegalese time, but when we arrived she and Ibrahima made us so welcome that it squeezes my heart to recall the good time we all had together.  She made the most delicious couscous or theiri (sp?) from scratch, which is quite an involved and labor intensive process, and we ate it by hand in the traditional manner for the first time.  It was magical, and I have a new appreciation for the sense of community engendered by eating this way.  It’s important to remember that you only eat with your right hand, however!  The left is reserved for other business.  Sorry lefties!

Kristin and I had brought gifts for Ibrahima, Oulaye, and their two children, Nenefaty and Mohommed, who are so adorable and friendly, and Oulaye had had dresses made for us that were beautiful!  The Teranga was overwhelming.  It is one of my favorite memories of our time in Senegal.  They live modestly, and they shared all that they have with us willingly and with warmth.  What a beautiful family, inside and out!

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Mame Diarra’s First Day of School

Just like at home, Monday morning and school come too quickly on the heels of a fun weekend, but in this case Monday morning couldn’t come quickly enough because  Kristin and I were so excited to meet Ibrahima’s students!!  We met him at Lycee′ Charles de Gaulle  at 7:45 am.  Class begins at 8, and so we had the good fortune of watching the kids coming in through the front gates and were able to exchange greetings with some of the faculty before they had to run off and teach.  I love their version of the morning bell – it’s a siren!  It sounds just like a fire alarm or bomb warning going off, and Kristin and I were cracking up imagining how that would go over at home. Mr Tall, the principal, was very


Front Gate


Siren Announces the Start of the School Day

gracious and welcoming, and he made it clear how much he appreciated us being there with the Teachers for Global Classrooms program.  Ibrahima told us how much the school culture has improved since Mr. Tall took the reigns last year.  Since Ibrahima’s first class didn’t meeting until 9 am, Mr. Bamba, the assistant principal, took us on a tour of the school.

It’s big with over 3,000 students, bigger by far than Leominster High School, which has about 1,900 students currently.  There are three main classroom buildings that surround a huge recreation area where kids hang out and play sports.

The Meeting Place

The Recreation Area

Each block is three stories high, housing large classrooms to accommodate the large class sizes of 7o or more, and has a small staff of administrators who monitor the day-to-day stuff and keep order.  And in the first block, we were introduced to my namesake for the week, Mame Diarra!  She is a presence!  The students love and respect her as the Aunty of the school, and I felt honored to share her name.  She is an advocate for women and the prevention of violence against them. Each time I introduced myself to Ibrahima’s individual classes and told them my Senegalese name, I got a rousing round of applause!

The One and Only Mame Diarra!

The One and Only Mame Diarra!

It is also the name of the mother of one of Senegal’s most revered holy men, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba.  Kristin’s Senegalese name for the week is Oulaye, another honored and respected name and the name of Ibrahima’s wife!  One thing I learned from our in-country host, Rohkaya DIOP (surnames are capitalized in Senegal), is that Muslims name their children after the prophet Mohammed, his family members, or his disciples, much like Catholics often name their children for saints.

Finally, the classroom.  The students are awesome!!  Curious, engaged, and wanting to learn English, they welcomed us with open arms and lots of questions and gave Mr. Seck their full attention, despite being a bit crowded on long desk tables that sit three, sometime four students across.  His first class was 58, the second 70, and the third, which met from 5-7  because everyone goes home at noon until 3pm for lunch with their families (How awesome is that compared to our measly 23 minutes?!!), had 74 students.  Most of the instruction happens using handouts, a chalk board, and notebooks, and it’s amazing what Ibrahima and the students are able to accomplish with high motivation and very few resources.

Mr. Ibrahima Seck writing instructions on the board.

Mr. Ibrahima Seck writing instructions on the board.

There are no projectors, no wifi, no textbooks, and cell phones are not allowed in class.  In fact, one of the lessons that day was a short article about the advantages and disadvantages of cell phone use.  The kids have them, but they DO NOT have them out.  We checked!   Their English is solid, and this is typically their third, fourth or fifth language. They are all multilingual and speak Wolof, French, and English, and most of them also speak either Spanish or German and/or another native language too!  That is an amazing strength, and it puts us to shame in America.

Below are just some photos from the day, and they speak for themselves.  It was a joy to be in class with the kids and to see Ibrahima in action. He is respected and beloved by his students, and the warm bond they share is palpable.

IMG_1564 IMG_1565 IMG_1568 IMG_1573 IMG_1581 IMG_1583

IMG_1522When we broke after the first class, Ibrahima treated us to these yummy, empanada-like meet dumplings with peppery onion sauce called fataya and a cup of cafe´ Touba from the concession stand on campus, named Chez Mame Diarra, of course!  These would become a daily ritual while there.  We also had the pleasure of meeting some of the students from the English Club and hang out with them on their patch of the schoolyard, which they have fondly named “Harlem.”  They are impressive young adults and invested in improving their English and helping their community and country.  We would have more time with them exclusively on Wednesday evening.

Harlem - the English Club's Hangout Spot on Campus

Harlem – the English Club’s Hangout Spot on Campus

Fataya and Cafe Touba, a morning snack

Fataya and Cafe Touba, a morning snack



After a walk back to our hotel over the bridge, we grabbed lunch with Rupa and Shiona at the Sikki Hotel and swapped stories about our first morning in our different schools, and then Kristin and I had to head back to Charles De Gaulle for our 5-7 class with the 12th graders.  After introductions and Ibrahima’s lesson on the cell phones, I passed out 35 of the postcards that my students had written to a student in Mr. Seck’s class, and asked his students to reply to them in groups of three or so.  After some initial confusion, which was totally my fault for not being clearer with instructions, they focused and busied themselves with crafting a response, taking great care not to make a mistake with their English.  Most of the groups did not finish, so Kristin, Ibrahima, and I collected them and will hand them back out on Thursday when we see this class again, so they can finish without being rushed.  It is a small first step, but I’m hopeful that this exchange of postcards will be the beginning of a personal connection between our students and build empathy for one another.  The challenge will be to keep it going.

All in all, it was a great first day of school for this Mame Diarra wannabe.  Another trek back over the bridge, and a quick repeat performance at the Sikki Hotel for dinner, and I crashed for the night.  It’s another school day tomorrow!




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A Day on the River

Sunday began and ended in a boat on the Senegal River.  We met our guide Ibram early for the bus ride to Djoud National Bird Sanctuary, which was about an hour or so outside the city of Saint-Louis and quite close to the Mauritania border.  The weather was glorious, the boat ride peaceful, and the river teeming with birds – pink pelicans, flamingos, herons, cormorants, ducks, and eagles to name a few.  The sanctuary is home to some 16, 000 birds according to Wikipedia. We also saw a Nile crocodile, tons of wart-hogs and cattle, a jackal, and even a few Monitor lizards, which are apparently the only natural predators of the crocodiles here because they eat croc eggs.

In the afternoon, Adjara Sy Diagne, the principal of Ameth Fall, which is one of only three all girls schools in Senegal, hosted our group for lunch in her home.  She is a former TEA alumni who studied in the US years ago, and she is now hosting a Fullbright fellow for the year, Isabella Escolana, who is in Saint-Louis teaching English at Ameth Fall.  Jessi and Tyler will be at this school with their host teacher, Malamine, all week.  We also met Tiffany Chou, who is a Peace Corps  volunteer working on a sustainable garden project at Aissatou’s school.  Both Isabella and Tiffany became great resources for the six of us newbies to Senegal as we navigated shopping, banking, and finding our way around. Their Wolof and French are excellent!

Adjara welcomed us with open arms and open heart, and then she introduced us to the custom of eating together on the floor from a common platter.  She did give us a kudu (Wolof for spoon) for our first time, which I appreciated because I wasn’t sure how to do it with my hands yet.

We had Theibou djienne, the national dish, which is fish over rice with a yummy, spicy sauce and vegetables:  cabbage, carrots, cassava, and squash. Buey, hyssop, ginger and tamarind juices were served with the meal.  Buey I’ve already described, but not hyssop.  Hyssop looks and tastes a lot like cranberry juice cocktail, but it’s made from a woody shrub that I think is in the mint family, but I’m not positive of that.  Ginger and tamarind juice are pretty self-explanatory.   Dessert was fresh fruit, melons, mangoes, bananas, apples, and clementine oranges.  I was stuffed by the time the meal was ended because I was lucky enough to sit next to Malamine, who took pity on me and was breaking up pieces of the vegetables and fish to pass my way like a mother bird.  It was so kind of him!

And because this is the way we roll in this group, there was yet another excursion for the evening. We ended our day the way we began it, on a boat in the Senegal river. Despite it being downright cold by the time we got into that second boat, we had fun touring the island from the water, and it gave me a sense of what the fishermen see coming in after a day at sea.  Louis the Lion, appears to be happy too.  This feline gets around.  School day tomorrow, our first.  Can’t wait to meet the kids!Tyler, Kristin, Louie, and Me Touring Saint-Louis



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Meet Me in Saint-Louis

And meet we did with our host teachers, Ibrahima, Malamine, and Aissatou at the Hotel Residence after a five hour bus ride from Dakar, which was long but star-studded with amazing Baobob trees that look like they came right out of a story book and make me think of Rafiki and The Lion King.  IMG_0820They’re called the “Tree of Life” for good reasons.  Being a gardening nerd, it fascinated me to learn that they’re succulents, not unlike my creeping sedums at home just a whole lot bigger! These trees are so cool.  Prehistoric and capable of living up to 5,000 years, they produce a fruit full of antioxidants and other good stuff, which we’ve been drinking in juice form a lot since we arrived in Senegal. It’s call buey in Wolof and tastes like a vanilla smoothy. We stopped at a mammoth one, which, consequently, is a tourist stop, and the man who oversees the tree told us it is 1, 15o years old.  Yikes!  I’m not sure how he knows that, but it is amazing, and we were able to crawl inside of it and stand in the hollow at the center.

Mid-afternoon, we finally crossed the Faidherbe Bridge into the old town of Saint-Louis and made our way to the Hotel Residence, which was to be our home away from home for the next five days.  It is so charming!  Even the iffy wifi and an occasional lack of water didn’t tarnish its shine for us. Ibrahima, Malamine, and Aissatou were there with hugs and warm greetings and plans for the afternoon –  a horse cart tour of the city  with our Idris-Elba-look-a-like tour guide Ibram. I would have taken a picture of him to include here, but he just didn’t strike me as someone who wants to be in a tourist’s photo stream. His voice and manner kept making me think of the Commandant in Beasts of No Nation, I swear.  He was both knowledgeable and insightful, and I learned much about the double-edge sword of Saint-Louis’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The city was the French Colonial capital of Senegal in the 17th century and of French West Africa from 1895 until 1902. Dakar is now the capital.  IMG_0939It looks a lot like the the old quarter of New Orleans with the iron work balconies and inner courtyards, and it has an old warm charm and bustling vibe.  However, the city’s age and the wear and tear of sitting in the mouth of the Senegal river a short distance from the Atlantic ocean has taken its toll on the buildings.  Many are crumbling, but they can’t be fixed because to do so within the historical restrictions is cost-prohibitive, at least in the short term, and so they continue to deteriorate, an unintended consequence, which the residents are having to live with.  One of Ibram’s insightful comments has stayed with me: “Who’s history are we preserving here?”  It’s a perspective I hadn’t considered before, and it gives me pause.

Towards the end of the tour, we visited the fishing village of Guet Ndar (Ndar is the Wolof name for Saint-Louis), at one end of the Langue de Barbarie, which is a shrinking tongue of land between Mauritania and Senegal that separates the river from the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s only roughly a canal’s width across from Saint-Louis, connected by a short bridge full of foot and horse cart traffic.  I say shrinking because it is being not-so-slowly sucked into the sea, but the fishermen and their families don’t want to leave their homeland. They are of the Lebou tribe, and their ancestors are buried there on what looks to be the highest point on the island, which amounts to a small hill.IMG_1474

Things that struck me immediately were the number of kids, the overall squalor, and the jammed packed houses and pirogues. According to Ibram, there are 32,000 people living on this sliver of land, and 70% are under the age of ten.  Sons are needed to fish and take over when the father retires at fifty, so a wife’s fertility is prized.  She’s encouraged to have as many children as she’s able.

The pirogues are dinged up but brightly painted with famous Sufi leaders and favorite football team colors; they almost look Dutch to me, but the houses are rough and right on top of one another.  IMG_1378

The women have their own businesses selling things and are the ones who take care of the children and their husbands when fish are scarce.  They make money, but it’s the owners of the lorry trucks who take the fish to market who are getting wealthy, not the fishermen.  Their culture is self-destructing in a way, and it makes me sad to imagine the erosion of their land and way of life over the next few decades. And so our first day in Saint-Louis has a bittersweet tinge to it for me.

Dinner at the Flamingo with five of the Saint-Louis Six rounds out another full day. Shiona took a pass.  I awoke at 5:30am to the sound of the call to prayer.  It was yet another new experience for me, and a peaceful way to begin the new morning.




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Lac Rose – The Pink Lake

Our day Friday began with a visit to Professor Ousmane Sene, who heads up the West African Research Center here in Senegal.


Professor Ousmane Sene 

He is a dynamic and articulate speaker and had us all laughing in not time.  He has many partnerships with universities in the United States, and he and all of his children were educated there.  I think Holyoke is his alma mater.  I believe he will be one of the people for me to contact should I want to pursue a cross-cultural student exchange between Leominster High School and Charles de Gaulle Lycee in the future. He had us all leave our contact information, and I get the feeling he is an excellent networker!

The day was gorgeous – 72, sunny, and breezy, and we were looking forward to our excursion to Lac Rose, or the Pink Lake, so named for the color which is caused by some kind of algae or micro-organism in the water due to the large salt deposits on the bottom.  It’s not always pink-pink, depending on the weather, but we got to see tinges of it on the edges.


The collection of the salt on the bottom of the lake, which is about 3 meters deep, is an artisanal one, and backbreaking work.  Men stand on stilts in the water, after rubbing their bodies down with a special kind of oil to protect their skin from the salt, and with long sticks and a scoop basket slowly fill their boats and bring them to shore, where the women then carry it on their heads to the piles on the shore.  They repeat this process 3 times a day, and they share the profits of two of those trips, but the third goes to whoever runs the salt piles and distribution.  Those baskets weigh 20 kilos or about 40 lbs. each.  After 8 hours, I can’t imagine how much my neck and back would hurt. Much of the salt is exported to Europe for salting roads in winter.

After the tire on our bus is changed and we’ve survived another onslaught of women and men hawking their wares, we head off to lunch at Chez Lucie for some traditional Senegalese fare: Thiebou Djenne and Poulet Yassa, delicious!

And along the way we see many children and adults praying.  It is Friday, a holy day for Muslims, the day they gather together to pray in congregation. It is impressive to me, a cradle Catholic who sometimes makes it to Mass, how devoutly Muslims practice their faith.


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“Bon jour, Mr. Ambassador!”

Hanging with the US Ambassador

Thursday was a day of firsts and juxtapositions for me, beginning with a visit to the US Embassy here in Dakar.  It’s literally a block away from The King Fahd Palace, so it’s the first place we’ve walked to.  That’s something I’m looking forward to when we get to Saint-Louis on Saturday, being able to walk around and see and talk to the Senegalese people more.  Any hoot, the Embassy visit was very cool and Ambassador Jim Zumwalt very personable.  Both his parents were high school teachers, so he is genuinely pleased we’re here in Senegal as cultural ambassadors, teachers, and students.  He spoke to us about the US partnership with Senegal and the focus on education.  One of the projects to benefit Senegalese schools implemented quite recently with the help of USAID funds was the installation of solar panels at a local school in Kolda, where two of our TGC superstars, Kirsten Bullington and Kerryane Moynihan, are stationed next week.  They left at 5:30am this morning, as a matter of fact.  The solar panels provide electricity for the school at night, so students have a place to read and study after dark. Again, the things we take for granted at home!  I can’t wait to hear how it is going from them when we all get back together next Friday night, 4/16.

Next first and jarring juxtaposition to the Embassy was our visit to Goree Island, which from the 15th to the 19th century was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and some 18 thousand people still live  on the island – 1,000 Muslims and 800 Catholics, in perfect harmony.  The ferry ride over was upbeat and sunny; ferry rides are universal that way.IMG_0345 However, walking through the slave house was sobering, fascinating but horrific all at the same time.  Our guide spoke with just the right tone of the misery, suffering, and inhumane mistreatment of the captured Africans at the hands of our white European ancestors, not to mention the staggering cost in lives. Some 25 million slaves, primarily from West Africa went through Goree Island on their way to the Americas.  The door through which they walked out to board the ships and say goodbye to homeland forever is called “the door of no return.”  I couldn’t help but reflect on the Ambassador’s words of hope as he spoke to us this morning about our current partnership with Senegal and some its neighbors. Maybe we can finally make some amends to the peoples of West Africa for our forefathers’ part in this shameful past.

On a lighter note, we went to see some local sand painting artists afterwards and were treated to a demonstration. All fourteen of us bought one to take home. Mine is the silhouette of two women carrying water on their heads.  The different colors of sand come from the Sahara, the river beds, and other regions of Senegal.  Not expensive, and

I feel like I’m literally taking a piece of the land home with me, as well as helping the local economy a bit.  The poverty is sobering. We were attacked as we left the artists’ studio by the market shop owners hawking their wares, and I bought a couple bracelets and some postcards for our pen pal exchange with Ibrahima’s classes. IMG_0396It was a bit uncomfortable, especially when this one woman attached herself to my hip on the ferry ride back, until I bought yet another bracelet from her – Adamena.  I have to admire her persistence and appreciate why she has to be that way to survive.  There was a sign saying no selling, but she discreetly conducted business from her huge green purse, all on the down low.  “We’re sisters, Mary Fahey,” she kept saying.  Her gift to me was a tamarind (sp?) stick she broke in two and gave me half to clean and whiten my teeth with – a fair exchange, I guess.

And then we visited “Renaissance d’Afrique” for a photo op.  We’d driven by it now several times, and it dominates the skyline along the cliff of the Corniche.  The statue was commissioned to inaugurate the 50th Anniversary of Senegal’s Independence and a symbol of national pride, but it is mired in controversy.

At first glance it is looks like a man sculpted it given the woman’s busty figure and short skirt, definitely not something one would expect to see in this predominantly Muslim country.  While all of us were snapping photos, the little kids (and big) devised their own fun.  You gotta love that!


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