Stories from Senegal: First Day of Class
After my host-brother Théo drops me off at school, I look up at the sign, feel my mouth stretch ear to ear, and walk into the West African Research Center’s courtyard.
I am so ready. I’m taking so many classes that they’d give me a Time-Turner if I were at Hogwarts. I was thrilled to learn that there is a single fee we pay for tuition, but we can take as many classes as we’d like (which technically made this study abroad experience cheaper than what I would have paid to take comparable classes on campus in Michigan).
So, I signed up for everything, including a class at the local university. I’ve been told 7 classes (21 credits) is a bit ambitious, but I go full-steam ahead as usual.
This study abroad experience will be different compared to the summer in France. Rather than being language-focused, the assumption for this program is that your French level is advanced enough to receive instruction in French. So, most of our classes are subjects like Film Studies in West Africa and West African Literature. I even signed up for a African Dance and Djembe (drum) class (I mean, if they’re going to give me credit for it, I’m taking it).
Students are sprinkled over all the tables and chairs in the covered section next to the tiny restaurant. I walk up to the dozen students in my program and notice that my initial excitement deflates somewhat.
I’ve been noticing how cliques and BFF pairs have been forming and strengthening, just like back home, just like since forever, just like everywhere… and the part of me that just wants to belong sighs in pre-defeat. Not only do I already know I won’t really be a thread in their friendship rug in a big way, part of me doesn’t want to be.
Six months prior, I had studied abroad in France for two months over the summer. It was my first time using French outside of a classroom setting. Despite straight As for 7 years in French class, I couldn’t get past 10 seconds of rapid, colloquial French with my host mother when we first met. I cried myself to sleep that first night in France. I spent too much of the next two months with other American students, speaking English, Skyping with my boyfriend, and visiting a million freaking castles. I didn’t make one French friend.
While I still had a great time and improved my French that summer, I was disappointed that I had let those things happen. I knew Senegal was next - it was literally why I chose to major in French and study at MSU, because of their program - and I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes. That summer in France was an adventurous summer, but there wasn’t the pull to it like I had been feeling about Senegal for years.
And so, I quit the rugby team, subleased my room, and ended things with that same boyfriend the month before leaving for Senegal (I swear I’m not as cold of a person as this makes me sound). Things were okay between us, but the fire smoldering in me to immerse myself into this experience - and the hope of others after it - burnt away the scraps of sadness leftover when it was all said and done. In fact, I felt surprisingly light, liberated, and myself in a way that I hadn’t in the past year. The future sharpened for me.
I wanted to see the world, needed to see it. I was greedy for experiences.
So, when looking at the group that day, already laughing and bonding over funny shared experiences since arriving, I promised myself not to give in this time. I would still talk and laugh with them and go to classes and on excursions together, but I would become the 13th wheel. I’d sacrifice that easier bonding and closeness with them for a whole lotta unknowns with who-knows, but I didn’t come halfway across the world to stay in my comfort zone. I came here for exactly the opposite.
Serve me the unknown on a platter, please. I’ll lap it up, even if the hot sauce burns my eyes out.
I take a seat among everyone and wait for classes to start. At about 9:15, we begin to wonder if something happened and we won’t be having class, when our professor arrives. He greets us all, introduces himself, and asks us to make our way inside to the classroom. We all give each other sideways glances, silently asking the same thing: is he going to acknowledge how he’s 15 minutes late?
We were told about “African Time” and how we’d have to get used to things happening at a slower pace around here, but I didn’t think this would include official or formal events like university classes.
I’m one of the first in. I pick a seat toward what I think is the front - the room just holds one large conference table with a dozen chairs around it - and unpack my notebook and click the back of a pen, annoyingly ready and eager for the start of class.
I look up expectantly at the professor as everyone makes their way in and gets settled. The covered windows and dim overhead light create a soft but somewhat dark ambiance, but nobody opens any windows.
The professor seats himself at one end of the table (I guessed wrong) and gets comfortable in the cushioned rolly chair. We’re all sitting up straight, fresh blank pages open in front of us, no textbooks (because we weren’t told to get any), and wait for the professor to begin.
He starts by introducing his background and the subject: Islam in West Africa. As he goes on, he leans back in his chair, puts his hands together, and keeps… going on. After 15 minutes or so of this, my eyes scan the room to look for a projector or TV, a white board or chalkboard… but nothing. What’s the plan here? I wonder. Where are the PowerPoint presentations? Why isn’t he writing down that new term he just defined? Where are the familiar cues that help me know when to take notes and on what? When are we going to be asked questions? Put in pairs? Groups? Hello??
Three hours later, we lethargically file out of the room and into the sunshine. Nobody’s talking to each other.
Three fucking hours of pure lecture. Not even a single potty break, not a single discussion, not a single stimulating moment. Three hours of just the professor talking, swiveling ever-so-slightly in moments when he thought he made an interesting point, not seeing that he lost us completely by hour two.
I plop down in a plastic white chair at one of the tables in the courtyard. I am crushed with the disappointment I feel at what just happened.
A fellow haggard-looking student sits down next to me.
“What the hell was that?” she asks incredulously.
We’ve all sort of gathered in a corner, looking from one to the other for an answer, but none come.