Where it All Began
Updated: May 17, 2020
More than 10 years ago, I studied abroad in Senegal, West Africa.
It's when I met Anne-Marie, turned 21, and had my life changed forever.
It's when the seeds for Teranga Market were planted, and it's where we're going back to now.
This is going to be our first #ThrowbackThursdaySenegal, where I dust off, tidy up, and re-post my original blog posts from my 5-month study abroad experience from 2009.
Be warned: I'm keeping this mostly in 20-year-old Katie's voice and style, editing only where I think it needs it for flow and such. So, it's a bit rough around the edges (for now).
Basically - my goal with doing this is to share about a cross-cultural journey that led to all sorts of adventure and transformation and joy and hard reflection (and ringworm). I hope you'll enjoy the story and learning more about Anne-Marie and I and Senegal and more.
And most of all, I hope that these stories will open doors of curiosity for you, that they'll be a starting point for questions, conversation, and maybe even some inspiration!
Thanks for tagging along :)
January 4th 2009
Note: these #ThrowbackThursdaySenegal blog posts are lightly edited versions of their 2009 original posts from Katie’s first trip to Senegal for a 5 month study abroad experience.
Two steps off the plane and I was already in love with Senegal. At 5:30am, I could feel my heart racing like I’d had too much coffee, and my belly was full of butterflies. Standing at the top of the disembarking stairs with a hand on my carry-on, I looked out at the still-mostly-dark sky with just a hint of the sun at the horizon. I took in a deep breath of warm, salty ocean air, and gently shook my head in disbelief that I’d finally made it to West Africa after somewhat obsessively dreaming about it for 5 years.
I’m here, I thought, with a smile that hurt my cheeks. I’m actually here. I was 20, halfway through college, and I had no idea what was in store for me here, but I knew it was where I wanted to be, needed to be. I had never felt pulled toward any experience or place like I had with this semester-long study abroad. The other jet-lagged students and I got through the airport with minimal difficulty and met up with the program coordinators who would be here to help us navigate through everything during the next 5 months. After exchanging greetings and introductions in a jet-lagged mixture of French, English, and Wolof, we took a bus to a guesthouse (where we dragged our huge suitcases up 4 flights of stairs) and were able to sleep for a few hours before going to our first cultural orientation. It was on the rooftop terrace of a woman’s home, and there was a huge tent to protect us from the sun (though we all still got our first dose of Senegalese heat that afternoon). We all sat around in a big circle while the woman, Fatima, gave us a rundown on the major cultural differences we would encounter, leaving us a bit wide-eyed and nervous at the end. We more or less learned we should no longer expect much privacy (as the Senegalese share everything), we should never bring food into our rooms or even home without having enough for everyone (“They will hate you,” she said…again, the sharing thing… but geez, HARSH word choice), and we should spend a lot of time with our families and make an effort to help out (I was looking forward to this part since I didn’t really experience it at all during my France study abroad the previous year). Nothing and nobody is ever on time, she said, as you spend so much time talking to people on your way anywhere since you generally greet anyone you've ever made eye contact with. Therefore, the mindset of most Senegalese people is infinitely times more relaxed than Americans, who are usually always in a rush and so private that you rarely even look strangers in the eye on the street. Afterward, we had a traditional Senegalese meal called cheb-u-jen, which consisted of one huge plate of sticky brown rice, vegetables and fish (among other unidentifiable objects). The interesting part was that we could only use our right hand to eat (your left hand is associated with dirtier things, such as cleaning the more intimate parts of your body).
Awkwardly I grabbed my first handful of rice and tried to squeeze it into a ball to make it into something edible (something our host made look easy) and proceeded to get fishy rice all down my front and stuck on my face. It helped that nearly everyone else was having the same problem, but I still felt like an idiot. Oh well. The food that did end up in my mouth was tasty, and I successfully created several rice-balls in the end. When we were finished, we spent some time talking and trying out some new fruity drinks and tea. Apparently I was drinking juice made from the fruit of a baobab tree and tea that you normally spend 2-4 hours making and drinking. Both were amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever had before.
I'm also thrilled with all the students in the program. Everyone is so interesting (we’re not all from MSU) and we all get along really well, as though we've known each other for years. After lunch, we were all taken to a Senegalese wrestling match. It was complete chaos around and inside the stadium (which looked just like an outdoors football stadium). When we finally got inside, we were lucky enough to be seated in the shade, got a few fruity sodas and then began the three-hour-long extravaganza that included approximately three minutes total of wrestling. That’s not to say there wasn’t always something to watch: there were a dozen or so men in matching shirts (advertising something or another) who I don’t think stopped dancing the entire time, all lead by a tiny 3- or 4-year-old in the front; there were two separate areas of men drumming, sometimes playing separately and other times together; there was a group of four women who I believe didn’t stop repeating the same two phrases of some sort of song the full three hours, getting progressively louder and louder until several people around me had their fingers jammed in their ears with grimaces on their faces.
An hour into the spectacle, four heavily painted men dressed in the wildest, brightest tribal gear you’ve ever seen came rolling, jumping and dancing out of nowhere and seemed really out of place the whole time, yet fit in with the plethora of dancing and singing people.
All the while, it wasn’t uncommon for your neighbor to comment on the minute-long match you just missed because your eyes were elsewhere and somehow didn’t notice the two men, who finally stopped sprinting the lengths of the field, finally meet in the sandy arena to wrestle. I was so confused afterward as to why there was such little wrestling and so much else going on, until Chris, a returnee from last year’s program, explained to me that it’s more about the cultural aspects (singing, dancing, story-telling) than about the actual wrestling itself. This would be the first of many situations where having expectations stemming from my own culture and beliefs would get in the way of enjoying something new and different. It was an interesting first day in Senegal to say the least.