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Returning Home to Senegal for the First Time

By Mary Altair

Rooftop laundry with the Senegalese flag.
Rooftop laundry with the Senegalese flag.

In this essay, Mary Altair, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal, reflects on what Senegal teaches us, in spite of our many differences, about the commonalities of the shared human experience. All images are courtesy of the author unless noted.

“Congratulations! You have been selected to participate in the CAORC- WARC January 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal."

For each of us reading those words back in the Fall of 2018, they brought a promise of new exchanges and diverse challenges and the same directive: Prepare for a Homecoming. Each of us chosen for participation in the fellowship came from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, different academic disciplines, different geographical regions and political viewpoints, different gender and age perspectives, and different stages of life and career, but we were to share an experience together that would transform all of us in unexpected ways, continuing to ripple through our lives, our friendships, and our missions as educators.

The participants in the 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal
The participants in the 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal. Photo courtesy Mbye Cham.

Many of us, including myself, had never been to Senegal before, and some were new to the continent of Africa or even to travel in the Developing World. As a seasoned traveler in other areas and card-carrying anthropologist, I was struck yet again by the thrill of the unknown. All I knew of Africa was what I had seen through media and read in ethnographies of remote villages with dusty streets and smoke curling over cooking pots. Just the mention of my trip conjured images of a Dark Continent for those with whom I shared my news. In most cases, this darkness is due to a lack of information with “So…where is Senegal?” by far the most common response.

As I sat on the plane, I contemplated what it must have been like for the medieval sailor- explorer coming to the continent for the first time, sailing past beautiful Goree Island decades before its stain of human tragedies, to view a strange unknown shore, or a lone desert trader cresting a grassy rise to see the herding and fishing towns full of color and language with strange cadence. That same blend of fear and excitement made my breath catch in my throat as the plane landed. I am the “Outsider.” I do not speak French or Wolof. I dress like neither an African nor a Muslim. I am different here. It is an apprehensive exhilaration to be surrounded by the unknown, to immerse in the world of “the Other,” as anthropologists say.

Colorful pirogue fishing boats along the shore of Saint-Louis.
Colorful pirogue fishing boats along the shore of Saint-Louis.

This mix of emotions is both fundamentally different in its freedom of choice, the deliberately taken journey, yet substantially similar to the kind of flexibility and courage that we ask immigrants and minority groups to display daily as they struggle to set aside familiarity to compete in the dominant society. It is what I asked of my students when they stand in front of a classroom to present ideas to others who seem very different from themselves. I tell myself to embrace it.

What I didn’t realize is that for all of the visceral power of this feeling, and the often demonstrated psychological tendency of humans to categorize, and cling to the familiar by forming in-groups and out-groups, this is at its root a false experience, misguided in its focus on separations. I had forgotten what I teach on day one of cultural anthropology and what the Senegalese ethnic groups have known for centuries. In their view, we are all not so much different as merely cousins who need to be able to joke with each other about our “differentness.” I think this is the true lesson of Senegal, the crossroad of Africa and the continents. This is what it means to be able to come home to a place you’ve never been before and find connections and familiarity.

We are all intersectional, sharing commonality with our fellow Earth travelers. Regardless of our descriptors, human experiences, thought, and emotions overlap like a crazy Venn diagram. All humans share love of life, food, family, warmth, creativity, innovation, safety, and learning. The rest of the world would do well to take a lesson from the people of Senegal who have understood for centuries, invasion after invasion, their commonality. “We are all Senegalese first.” This became the rallying cry for the new nation: “One people, one goal, one faith.” (L. Senghor, first president of the nation of Senegal.)

The importance of what they have achieved with this idea, becoming an independent nation with no history of ethnic or religious conflict, is remarkable, but it is the individual experiences that resonate with us, the fellowship participants, who were invited to experience together this uniquely syncretic place.

Traditional dancing in Sokone.
Traditional dancing in Sokone.

While attending the historical and cultural seminars and traveling the beautiful villages and landscape, we each began to discover our own history with Senegal and our own connections to the land and to each other. A mother missing her daughters was led by the hand around a beach on Sippo Island by local children. A devout Southern Christian was able to share a prayer with a Muslim worshipper after the adhan prayer at a mosque. American Muslims gained new insights into the history, practice, and diversity of their own religion. Successful African American scholars of survival in the dominant U.S. culture were able to see themselves and their ancestors in the daily struggles of the traditional women selling for their living in the marketplace, their children in under-supported but optimistic schools, and the men building their houses up out of the very earth into bricks and walls. Musicians from both continents collaborated with each other with drums and shakers while Senegalese and Americans danced together to their music. Countless connections were recognized throughout our journey. And me? I just felt myself blending into the people and into the warm embrace of Senegal as I snuggled a young mother’s baby girl.

Perhaps the most powerful experience of connection for all of us was our journey to Goree Island and the House of Enslaved Peoples. To touch the walls of the holding cells released a vibration of pain and sadness strong enough to overcome distance and time. For those whose direct or cultural ancestors had passed through the Door of No Return, it was an obviously overwhelming experience physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. As a European descendant whose personal ancestors had no connection to the slave trade, I felt an overwhelming human guilt that we have done this to each other because of such shallow differences.

The Door of No Return, Goree Island
The Door of No Return, Goree Island

It left me with a desire to give back. Not so much in the form of monetary reparations per se, but in that the peoples of the world owe our birth, our cradle, and our childhood to Africa. We are not so different and we have all come from this same center. If the strength of the academic community and friendships that were formed during this experience are any indication, the mindset of Senegal is poised to revolutionize the world. We are all African even if we left home at different times. We all need to come back to the embrace of Senegal. We have been far too long away.


CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Mary Altair is Professor of Anthropology at Erie Community College near Buffalo, New York. She was one of 17 participants in the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar on Diversity, Religion and Migration in West Africa, January 6–23, 2019.


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