Senegal trip changes lives for Saint Michael’s group

Service, cultural immersion help build lasting friendships

January 30, 2020
By Laurence Clerfeuille, PhD

Thirteen Saint Michael’s College students spent the winter break (December 26, 2019 through January 10, 2020) in Senegal for a life-changing experience with trip leaders Laurence Clerfeuille, a professor of French, and Moïse St. Louis, associate dean of Students / director of multicultural affairs and services.

Senegal group photo

Group photo of the Saint Michael’s Senegal trip student cohort and their leaders at Yellitaare (Fulani for empowerment), an NGO that fights against forced marriages and excision in Senegal; Aminata Diallo, a prominent member of the NGO, invited the group to her house; she is a former deputy (member of the National Assembly) and has worked with UNICEF. The founder and director of Yellitaare is Moussa Bocoume, who visited Saint Michael’s and talked to students in November of 2019).

After an orientation to life in Senegal and an introduction to Wolof, the main language spoken in Senegal, the group visited several important sites such as the beautiful newly-opened Museum of Black Civilizations, the Monument to the African Renaissance, and Gorée Island and the House of Slaves. Students learned more about Senegalese culture through interactive lectures on Islam, feminism, human rights, immigration, hip hop, and cinema organized by Dr. Cheikh Thiam from SIT (School for International Training) in Dakar and were lucky enough to meet with Matador, Father of Senegalese rap, or renowned film director Moussa Sène Absa. Students also had excursions in Touba where they visited the Great Mosque and Joal, birthplace of first Senegalese president and poet Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Service and direct interactions with the locals in the neighborhood of Guinaw Rails, in the periphery of Dakar, also taught students a lot about Senegalese culture in quite a special way, the trip leaders said.  While Guinaw Rails is too often only seen as a poor and unsafe neighborhood, students quickly understood that beyond the dust and the lack of certain infrastructures, Senegalese teranga (Wolof for hospitality) was at its best.

Senegal party photo

The party organized at Waranka on the Saint Michael’s group’s last day there.

Students engaged with school children and led various activities (bracelets-making, painting, drawing, card games, dances, soccer…) and were greeted with open arms by children, school teachers, and the directors of the Waranka nonprofit that manages the school. A workshop on painting on glass by a local artist and member of Waranka enabled students to bring home exceptional souvenirs that they had made.

Waranka organized a big party to honor the efforts made by the Saint Michael’s group that came to work with the children and enabled Waranka to repaint the school thanks to a fundraising initiative. There were music and a DJ and djembés (drums), and many dances the group was asked to join; the whole community attended and probably over 150 children and adults came. A griotte or story-teller also praised in the Senegalese way what was accomplished by the Saint Michael’s group. At the end, gifts and a certificate to honor their commitment to Waranka were given to each Saint Michael’s participant. The trip leaders agreed that leaving was very difficult for everyone.

The English Club of Guinaw Rails (GREF, Guinaw Rails English Family) also provided students with unforgettable experiences and interactions. Young people their ages joined them in Dakar for some activities (and gave each of them a Senegalese name that was used for the duration of the trip) and greeted them in their homes in Guinaw Rails – and offered all of them gifts as well as honorary lifetime club memberships.

Senegal paintings by students

Paintings made by students at the painting on glass workshop.

Many students expressed that they could not believe how well they were greeted in Guinaw Rails, how comfortable they felt, and how grateful they were for becoming part of Senegalese families so quickly. At Waranka and the English Club, many insisted that the Saint Michael’s students were “not guests but friends and members of the family forever,” and it proved to be true at every second. Strong friendships were built and are continuing now in spite of the distance. Students have been able to see and understand by themselves that stereotypes on “Africa” are wrong and that they have friends waiting for them in a country of West Africa called Senegal, where hospitality is everything.

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