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Virginia Native Talks Life-Changing Senegal Trip

By Juliana Fidler

Katherine Wise, a senior at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, spent a semester last year in Dakar, Senegal where she learned the local language and culture. The international and broadcast journalism major has become something of an advocate for studying in developing nations. “A lot of people know a lot about France, about Italy and about London, which is great, but not a lot of people know a lot about Senegal. And part of studying abroad is that exchange,” she said. “When you come back, you can be a little bit of a representative of something you’ve learned and then spread that further.”

She’ll take this experience with her after graduation as she hopes to work in the communications department of a non-governmental organization for international development. In addition to offering the perfect combination of African studies and French minors, Senegal is where she learned a lesson she sees as crucial: “To not judge a culture until you know the culture.” Wise talks about the language, religion and lessons we can learn from cultural immersion.

What was your first impression of Senegal?

I loved it from the beginning. Between the orientation (with my study abroad program) and just the hospitality of the country—Senegal is known as the country of teranga, which means hospitality—it made it easier to adjust there. A lot of the adjustment was language-based because the business language is French, and the local language is Wolof.

You learned Wolof. What was that experience like? Wolof is very different from English.

Yes. We took a beginner-level course there, and I practiced it with my host family. It’s very different. That’s actually one of the most common questions I got when I came back: “Is it derived from French?” It’s actually not at all, because it’s the language that existed before the French colonized in West Africa. In terms of learning it, phonetically it’s really easy, because originally it was only a spoken language. So once they added the written components, each letter only makes one sound. Then again, because it’s not based on any language, that does make it hard.

Can you say a common short phrase or saying in Wolof?

Noko bok is “you’re welcome.” Jërëjëf is “thank you.” The main religion there is Islam, so there’s a little bit of Arabic incorporated into it. The greeting is As-salamu alaykum, which is the same greeting you’ll find in most predominately Islamic countries. I remember all the greetings, mostly because greeting your neighbors was so emphasized. But beyond greetings and the basics, it’s a little hard to remember. When I Skype with my friends in Senegal, I try to brush up on it. When you say, “How are you doing?” and you answer, “I’m fine,” you actually say, “Maagni fi rekk,” which means “I’m here only.” At first, I was like, “What a weird response to ‘how are you doing?’—that doesn’t mean ‘I’m fine’ at all!” But in a way, it’s so true of how they’re so present in that time, in that conversation, that rather than listening to anyone else, they’re “here only.”

You mentioned that it’s a predominately Muslim country, and that’s different from our culture here. How it was different culturally and what was the same since the religion is incorporated into even the language?

The eight percent, or probably less than eight percent, that were not Muslim were predominately Catholic. For both of them, in general, religion is so much more a part of life there. I think that, in America, it’s much more of a taboo, hidden, personal subject. You don’t talk about religion too much; it makes people uncomfortable, or it’s seen as a private thing that you do here. For both religions there, it’s the opposite of that. The call to prayer, which is the sound that comes from a mosque that lets Muslims know the times of the day that they have to pray, which is five times a day—you could hear them throughout wherever you were whenever they went off. They had an early morning one, and you knew you had adjusted to Senegal culture when you could sleep through the early morning call to prayer. That’s a great example—it literally is booming through the air, versus a private, individualized thing. And you’ll immediately know when a family is Muslim or Catholic when you walk into the door, because there will either be pictures of saints everywhere or pictures of prophets everywhere on the walls. So it definitely is much more open. And, interestingly, I personally found that it led to a much more tolerant society between the two religions. It’s interesting; I think a lot of times, the reason, here, that we think religion should be so private is because you want to respect other religions, you don’t want to force anything. Whereas I found that, because people were more open, they were much more tolerant to each other, if that makes sense.

dsc_0303Can you talk about your living situation and your host family?

My living situation was probably not reflective of a typical Senegalese living situation, because most families were big and extended families lived together. Mine was a mom and two younger host brothers, which was cool because that’s my living situation at home. My host mom is still married, but her husband practices polygamy, so he doesn’t come to visit very often.

I’m sure that was a big difference, since polygamy isn’t typical here. Can you talk about your impressions of that?

I think it differs from family to family. I never even met my host dad. And part of that was that he worked in a different country. But I could see that it was hard on my host mother, even though she would never have admitted it. I think you have to acknowledge where you’re coming from, because it’s not your position to go into another culture and say, “Polygamy is bad.” They could easily make a judgment about your culture. However, I could see the negatives, because my host dad wasn’t there, ever. Also, my mom used to have three sons, and one died of malaria. She told me that her husband only came back for two weeks after that. That was just appalling to me. I mean, to leave your wife to deal with the death of a son that you had together was a hard concept for me to wrap my head around. But my mom was such a cheery lady. She was one of the best cooks, which is a very big compliment to any Senegalese person. My brothers and I had a lot of fun together, especially the youngest, who was 12. And I definitely felt welcomed into the family. I joke that Senegal puts Southern hospitality to shame. I recently got a letter from her, back in November, and you can just still see that they really see you as an extension of your family, rather than a visitor. Even in the letter, she’s like, “You are my daughter. You’ll always continue to be my daughter.” That’s translated from French. It’s very cool to see that you have this connection.

Do you think you’ll use your new language knowledge at all in the future?

I’m a big-picture person rather than a detail-oriented person, and I think that learning the local language taught me the importance of learning a local language. If you only know the business language, you can only connect to that person and culture on a shallow level. Because I learned the local language, I was able to develop a deeper connection with the people. When you stepped into a taxi and spoke Wolof to them, first of all, you got ripped off less. Second of all, they appreciate it. I hope that, down the road, I am led back to Senegal. I have so many connections there, it would be a shame if I didn’t go. I’m sure I’ll be back there somehow.