In the summer of 2016, the coordinator of Thacher’s Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics & Global Citizenship took a group of 10 students to western Africa; their destination was Senegal. The group of 14 (10 students, two Thacher faculty and two Where There are Dragons* field instructors) spend those three weeks enjoying rugged travel, home-stays, and comparative religion and philosophy study while immersed in the culture and two languages of the country (French and Wolof). They visited five cities where they shared a variety of experiences: from a visit to a tailor to have clothing custom-made for them, to a mangrove reforestation site.
After a stay in Yoff, a fishing village on the outskirts of Dakar, where they were introduced to the culture and visited NGOs that are undertaking important development work in-country, they spent a night in Djifere, then traveled to Niodior for home-stays. There, the students explored issues of migration, unemployment, rural health, conservation, and agriculture as they immerse ourselves in the rhythm of daily life in rural Senegal. They also participated in a community-based work project—replanting mangrove trees with a local women’s cooperative.
The next stop for the group was Thies, where they enjoyed their expedition phase, then on to a Sufi village called Dene. In Dene, they learned about the Sufi tradition and its relation to Islam.
*Where There are Dragons provides cross-cultural education, fostering leadership, self-exploration and global citizenship. Thacher partners with them on some of its international off-campus study trips.
Rod Jacobson, English teacher, Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics & Global Citizenship Coordinator
Donald Okpalugo, former history teacher
Why did you choose Senegal?
First, it is a Muslim majority country with a long tradition of Sufi practices. The Sufis are known to be peaceful and mystical. I wanted the students to be exposed to Islam in a way that challenged western stereotypes. Second, it's a poor country whose citizens risk everything on dangerous attempts to immigrate to Europe, and migration will be an important issue for years to come. Third, Senegal is modernizing while sustaining its traditions. Finally, the people are known to be among the most welcoming in Africa.
What did you hope to accomplish with this trip?
Deep cultural immersion and understanding; an understanding of Sufi Islam; an understanding of African migration; an ability to live among local citizens in homestays that challenges students' resilience; team building and leadership skills.
I opened my mailbox on a regular afternoon during my Junior year at Thacher and saw a small white envelope, a little wrinkled on the outside from traveling, lying in my mailbox. A tiny black and white drawing imitating the style of Senegalese wooden face masks and sand drawing is on the envelope. It was a letter I wrote to myself two years ago, on the last day we were at Dene, a small religious village and the last stop on the trip. Our Senegalese instructor had mailed it after a two-year wait, to take us back to the lessons we had learned while there.
“No matter where you are now, remember that there is always a loving place called Senegal that keeps your greatest memories, and there is always a group of people who can share those memories with you.” I could not forget this sentence that I wrote, nor could I forget our final “debrief” session on the night before our departure on the beach. Our instructor Elke made us choose two stones. One we would take home, the other throw as hard as we could into the ocean. I named the former friendship and open-mindedness and the latter discomfort and bias. Till this day, although I don’t remember in which corner I placed that stone, its name is still with me. The yummy Che-bu-jen served late at night, the first sweet date enjoyed after a day of fasting, the baguettes full of “Chocopain” that we had every day for breakfast, and of course, the mangos still have their delicious taste in my mouth. The all-afternoon Daara sessions with the Dene marabout, the enchanting yet heartbreaking story of Escana who wanted to immigrate to Spain, the scarring accounts about FGM all seemed to have happened yesterday. Senegal was truly a life-changing experience and contributed significantly in my current worldview and aspirations.
Yao '19, Shenzhen, China