Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Sharing a bowl has a whole new meaning here

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In picture:

I took this photo on Sunday at lunch time, sometime between 3:00 and 3:30pm. Two minutes before, 10 people were sitting around the table, as I mentioned in my previous blog post. Questions I didn’t even know I had were answered in class today, Tuesday. It helped me understand this photo more completely even though I hadn’t known I was missing information.

Before I talk about what I learned let me first give some context about the picture. I don’t remember what was in the pan, but it was something with rice, beef, and some sort of sauce and vegetables. With every meal we also eat a lot of bread. Each person has at least nine or so inches of a baguette. We never use utensils. This was the only day we ever have, and I haven’t figured out why we might have used spoons. The meal wasn’t more spoon requiring than any of our other meals. In fact, I found that my spoon didn’t make things easier at all – I missed using my hands. The only guess I can make is that we used spoons because there were so many people around the table and it was easier than having all our hands in the bowl at once. Lastly, when eating around a bowl like this, it’s only appropriate to eat the food just in front of you, in your part of the bowl. Even if the potato piece on the far side of the bowl looks especially appetizing you wouldn’t reach for it.

This is the view from just outside my bedroom door. I live on the second floor. Above this table, straight up – the sky. This is our open air room.

Here is the first question I had answered that I didn’t know I had:

Why, every meal, is mama ripping off pieces of meat and fish and throwing them into my section of the bowl?

I didn’t have this question because I thought I knew the answer. I figured it was because I was new to the game, and she wanted to make sure I ate the meat even if I was too timid to reach to the middle of the bowl and rip some off. I also thought that she was encouraging me to eat more meat, because admittedly I had been shy about taking it and sometimes even wary of eating too much of it. I would quietly say “Merci” and wait a little bit before until eating it because as soon as I did, I knew she would feel that she had to throw me another piece.

Today in Wolof class (my favorite class, a blog post will come eventually), the professor starting talking about meal time. He explained the role of mothers at the table. He said that during the meal, the mother is constantly surveying the bowl, making sure everybody has enough food in the part of the bowl in front of them. Sometimes, with especially good meals, my section will be cleaned out. Mama will push some more rice or noodles into my section so I can continue to eat. She’s also in charge of breaking off pieces of meat and fish for the children around the bowl, who aren’t necessarily supposed to do this for themselves. Now I understand. She is treating me like a child when she breaks off meat for me. I’m not offended. In Senegal, I am a child. I have a lot of learn yet.

In Wolof class today we also went around and told the class an embarrassing moment so far in Senegal. (I’m not sure I will share what I said on this blog. But I’m a pretty open person, so maybe.) One student said that her family told her that she says “Merci”, thank you, too much. She was thanking them for things that were simply expectations, cultural norms. (I also think that we over apologize and over thank in the U.S.) I thought about this in relation to meal time, and vowed not to say thank you every time mama passes me meat. She is simply doing her job as a good mama. I’m experiencing a lot of things at home but starving will never be one of them.

Why, every meal, do people just walk away from the table, leaving mom alone to clean up?

This is another question I thought I knew the answer to, but my answer was incomplete. Now I understand. At the end of the meal, when everyone has had their fill and left the table, mama can relax and just worry about feeding herself. Now she will eat until she is full, and while doing so, clean up the plate, organizing the leftovers into the middle and taking the rest of the meat off the bone. I’m assuming they save the leftovers but I’ve never seen what happens to the plate after it leaves the table. Sometimes after I’m full, I will stop eating but still stay at the table waiting for mama to be done too. Now I realize that it’s probably good that I leave, so I can be officially off her feeding radar.

That’s meal time! Of course, even within Dakar there are many differences between families and the way things run. But I think that many of the things in this post are generalizable to Senegalese culture. At the very least, they are my humble observations of mealtime in the Georges family.

Learning Wolof: Waxal ndànk ndànk, Speak slowly (This will become a useful phrase.)

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My first weekend au Sénégal

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In picture: Me and Yama at the zoo, visiting with our favorite animal: le lion.

This weekend in twelve sentences:

Jeudi, le 22

Today we took a boat to Gorée Island and it was breathtakingly beautiful. Since I have now seen the House of Slaves on Gorée island and have already seen the Elmina Castle in Ghana, I’ve stood in the exact place so many did who came to the Americas as slaves. The emotions are hard to describe.

Vendredi, le 23

We watched a compelling, interesting movie in class, largely about factors outside Africa that are responsible for the failures within. My favorite part of the day was throwing my lunch up; I felt instant relief and was back to feeling 100% by morning. I think it was the beef.

Samedi, le 24

Yama and I took the bus to the zoo today, and although I usually dislike zoos, I had the time of my life. Yama’s the kind of person you would have the time of your life with even if you were picking up trash on the highway. At night, after Yama, Sadikh, and Mohamed bought me some amazing gelato, we and several Toubabs (what the Senegalese call white foreigners, endearingly) in my program went to a bar/club and we drank expensive drinks and danced our hearts out.

Dimanche, le 25

Today I spent time with the children in my extended family, coloring and playing cards, and helping take Khadija’s braids out. We had 10 people around our lunch bowl instead of our usual three or four, even though the bowl remains the same size regardless of how many hands are sharing it. You feed whoever happens to be at the house when meal time arrives.

Learning French: C’est pas grave, Don’t worry about it.


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Open air rooms & English schools

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In picture: Cat and I, standing at the western-most point of the African continent. Our professor Waly says if we want to swim home, this is where we jump in.

I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since I’ve been in Senegal. So much has happened already that it’s hard to know where to begin!

After a tour of Dakar today, and one class about African economics, I met my host family! I also am fully moved into my new room. My house is beautiful. I had no idea what to expect but this house certainly exceeded any expectations I could have had. Like seemed common in Ghana, the central room of the house is open air. The sky is the ceiling. My family is even better than the house! Although my host mother speaks mostly only Wolof, her son, who is probably in his late twenties or early thirties, speaks French and is learning English. His name is pronounced “Baas”, although I’m unsure of the real spelling. My favorite part of living here so far is that Baas runs a school on the roof of my house! I met the children he teaches today, who were so polite and wonderful. I would say there are about 15 students, with various ages and academic levels. Baas teaches them English, and he is excited to be able to ask me questions when he is unsure about something. I adore small children. I’ve dreamt of teaching English abroad for as long as I can remember. I love open air rooms and beautiful homes. I love living a few houses down from the Atlantic, with sprawling, beautiful beaches. I love Senegal. All of my favorite things are merging and I can’t stop smiling.

Learning Wolof: Suur na, I’m full (when your host mother insists you eat more)


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Ambassamor – Spreading love all over

Je suis arrivé à Paris !

Some people have asked me, “Why ‘ambassamor’?” It’s my username on several websites and social media outlets. It’s also in the URL for this blog.

“Amor” means love. “Amor” is love in Latin and Spanish. “Amour” is love in French.

An ambassador, a liaison, represents one country in another. When I travel and live abroad, I may, whether I want to or not, be the representation of the United States, young female Americans, Christians, to the people there.

To me, an ambassamor is someone who strives to, above all, show love. As an “ambassador” I might represent Americans, but as an ambassamor, I aim to be a loving one. The love I receive in my family, in my friend circles, in Christ – I want it to radiate from me and touch the lives of others.

My dream career in middle school was to be an ambassador. No matter what my future holds, however, I’ll always strive to be an ambassamor.

Learning French: “Le Sénégal t’attend avec impatience.” (Said to me last night by a Senegalese friend.) “Senegal waits for you with impatience.”


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FAQs

ebolaimage3

With just over a week before I start my journey, I thought I would answer some questions that people frequently ask when I tell them about my upcoming semester abroad.

Are you scared or worried?

In general no, I’m not. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this and I’m ready. The only thing that I might be anxious about is that I don’t feel prepared to carry on conversations in French. I have taken 5 semesters of French at the University of Michigan, but it takes me a really long time to formulate even basic sentences. But, I will be fine! Becoming better at (and maybe even almost fluent in) French is one of the biggest reasons for my studying in Senegal.

What will you do?

I don’t have a super clear idea of what I will be doing, but it doesn’t bother me. From what I understand I will be taking classes for the first half of the semester. It won’t be terribly different from my responsibility as a student in Ann Arbor – go to classes all week, study for them, pass them. The second half of the semester I will switch residences and have some sort of internship, perhaps at a rural elementary school or something. I will get more details once I arrive.

Is it civilized there?

The term “developed” is the most accepted term to use to ask about the standard of living in Senegal. Senegal is considered a generally underdeveloped country when measuring it by various factors. In terms of Senegal’s Human Development, it’s considered a third world country. The Human Development Index measures Senegal’s development, considering life expectancy, years of schooling, and GNI per capita. Is Senegal poor? Most would agree, yes. When considering the rest of the African countries, however, Senegal has average or just above average wealth, depending on the specific value analyzed. Do they lack adequate health systems? Maybe. They don’t have health systems anywhere near that of the U.S. Are they aware of Western technology and ideas? I would imagine that yes, they totally are. It seems to me that there are only very small pockets, if any at all, of people anywhere in the world that are unaware of how life is, in general, for Americans. Their pictures of it may be incomplete or somewhat inaccurate, but I believe that they have a much better picture of our daily lives than we have of theirs. Also, remember, I actually don’t know that much about Senegal.

Do they hate Americans?

I don’t think so. But I don’t know any Senegalese people, so I don’t know what the most common opinion is about Americans. Some people follow up this question with, “But they’re Muslim, right?” They are. And admittedly I don’t know a lot about Islam, but I do know that not all Muslims, or Muslim nations, hate Americans. And if the Senegalese people “hate Americans” as far as they dislike a lot of what the U.S. government has done in the past and present around the world, then I don’t really blame them. In fact, we can probably find many common opinions in this area. I’m 99% sure they won’t hate me, but I’ll get back to you about it.

How many other students from your school are going?

As far as I know, none! I don’t know a single person who is going to be there. The University of Michigan Senegal study abroad program was cancelled due to lack of applicants. I am studying abroad through the University of Minnesota, however, and I believe there will be a handful of students from U of MN to interact with regularly. Coordinating study abroad with the University of Minnesota has been extremely great so far. The staff that I’ve been working with are amazing, their application and preparation process has been smooth and comforting, and I think it’s going to be an awesome program.

Are you living with a family?

Yes! I recently received my home-stay information. I am living with an older woman who has three kids that are moved out. However, my host-mom’s grandchildren usually spend the day at the home I’m staying in. My host-mom’s nephew also lives at this house, and he is 25 and a student. To me, this sounds absolutely perfect. I adore small children and will be excited to have them around. Having someone at the house who is more or less my age (even better, more) might help me have a little group of Senegalese students to be friends with immediately! And, the fact that he’s a guy might mean that he can help keep me safe. Oh, and I’ve never had a brother before; this might be the closest I’ll ever get.

But wait… Ebola?

Yes, that is a valid question. Senegal, like the Ebola epidemic right now, is in West Africa. Am I concerned about it? Not really. Senegal has had only one case and zero deaths. (The U.S. has had four cases and one death). When I try to comfort the concerned individual with these numbers however, they often say, “Yes, but didn’t those Americans contract Ebola outside of the U.S.?” Yes, two of the cases of Ebola in the U.S. were contracted in West Africa, and the other two were nurses who had been treating one of them. However, the patient with Ebola in Senegal did not contract it in Senegal either. My life passion is Africa; if I wait for it to be 100% safe, I’ll never go.

Learning Wolof: Naka mou? How’s it going?


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“Where’s that?”

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When I tell people I’m studying abroad in Senegal, the response I get a large majority of that time is, “Where’s that?” The ensuing conversation is sometimes entertaining.

“It’s in West Africa.”
“Oh, Senegal is a city in the country West Africa.”

or

“It’s in West Africa.”
“Oh, like by Kenya!?”

No and no. Although originally I was disheartened by the lack of familiarity with Africa by the general public, it doesn’t upset me and I don’t think less of anyone for their ignorance. It’s probably no one’s fault individually, but rather some problem with the U.S. education system or neglect on behalf of the media. Furthermore, perhaps not everyone needs to know about Africa, although I would argue the average American should know more than they do, and I must not take for granted that I’m an African Studies major. I don’t know very much about ionic bonds or derivatives; I don’t study chemistry or mathematics. We all have our own specialities. I also have decided that I have been put into a position where I have a great opportunity to educate my fellow Americans about Africa, or at least the small parts of Africa that I have gained some insight on.

Many of you will know that I studied in West Africa this summer as well. I spent four weeks in Ghana. Although my time in Ghana has helped me prepare for Senegal, the two countries are quite different.

Senegal is a small country, marginally smaller than the state of Michigan, on the westernmost point of contiguous Africa. French, spoken in much of Africa, is their official language. My classes will be taught in French, but I will also learn Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. Most of the Senegalese population is Muslim.

Although I know a little bit about the history and political climate of Senegal from my classes, unfortunately this is the extent of my knowledge about Senegal. Textbooks would probably never be able to give me a complete and true idea of Senegal anyway, and I’m excited to discover Senegal for myself starting on January 18th.

Learning Wolof: Yendul ak jamm, Pass the day in peace


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Welcome!

Bienvenue!

My name is Alyssa and I am a student at the University of Michigan majoring in International Studies and African Studies, with a minor in Criminal Justice time allowing. This semester I am studying in Senegal and I couldn’t be more excited about it! As I prepare to live abroad for four months I’ve took time to set up this blog. I hope it becomes an outlet for me to express my thoughts and reflect on my experiences in Senegal. I also hope that it becomes at least one of these things for all readers: entertaining, educational, or inspirational.

Learning French: À bientôt ! See you soon!