by Nellie Dinah Pharr-Maletta
I owe the inspiration for this commentary to three valued colleagues - Ms. Wilma Jean Randle, renowned journalist and Director of the Women’s Media Center in Senegal West Africa; Professor Anthony Smith, a gifted art instructor and fellow cohort participant from North Hampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Professor Ousmane Sene, Director of the West African Research Center in Senegal, West Africa.
In January 2023, I had the privilege of participating in the CAORC - WARC Faculty Development Seminar to Senegal. To say that it was one of the best experiences of my life is no exaggeration. For two and half weeks, I and 13 other U.S. academics were immersed in the history, culture, politics, economics and educational resources of Senegal. Our stay included visits to four cities and tours through rural areas. We visited museums, monuments and mosques. The experience was completely transformative, yet restorative. To quote Nikki Giovanni in her famous poem Ego Tripping, in Senegal “I changed myself into myself”.
I say this because the experience of traveling to West Africa can be both transformative and restorative, bruising and yet beautiful, for Africans who are the descendants of the 11.5 million who were forcibly brought to the Americas as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Further, knowing that approximately a third of the enslaved Africans were taken from the Senegambia region can make this trek “back home” to Senegal doubly painful. Then, add the fact that many of us also share the very present day experience of living in an anti-black world that has taught us to devalue all that is black or African. Laden with this very real, very tangible, and very heavy emotional baggage that cannot be checked at any airport ticket counter, off we go to West Africa.
Fellow cohort member, Professor Anthony Smith, helped me by being the first in our group to bravely address both the blessing and the baggage that African Americans can experience when we travel “back home” to Africa. At the beginning of our cohort orientation, led by the elegant and eloquent Dr. Marame Gueye, a Senegalese-born expert on African and African Diaspora literature from East Carolina University, Smith asked what African Americans should expect from Africans on their first trip to Africa. Dr. Gueye’s response was both surprising and relatable, transformative yet restorative. She reminded us that most West Africans have also experienced colonization on their side of the Atlantic, and therefore know very little about the West African Slave trade. This is a very real east-side issue, and can be very divisive. Dr. Gueye explained that African Americans should not expect our West African brothers and sisters to bear the burden of explaining and helping us to unpack our feelings on the issue of American slavery. Like many African Americans, they were not taught about slavery in their European-led schools. Further, as we would learn in the next few weeks, the Senegalese are busy addressing their own economic, educational and political challenges of being black on their side of the Atlantic.
The next person to help me with my Africa baggage was Wilma Jean Randle, a Communications Specialist and educator who lives in Dakar. I should explain that when I first met Ms. Randle at a social gathering on the patio of the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar, she greeted me with a hug and informed me that I looked just like one of her dear friends. So, I was instantly at home when I met this former Chicago Tribune journalist. Then, in our second meeting, at a more formal setting, a panel discussion presentation at the Senegalese Bi-Lingual School (SABS) in Dakar, when she responded to my question of what message should I take back across the Atlantic to the U.S regarding Senegal, Ms. Randle helped me to moor my transatlantic boat.
A former newspaper journalist, Randle is familiar with the images, the stories, and the distortions that are reported in the media about African people and African places. As an African-American, she is also familiar with my West Side of the Atlantic issue, packed with negative stereotypes about Africans and Africa. So she replied, “Tell them that all of this is Senegal." Randle and I both know that African Americans have been taught to fear, devalue and hate anything that is Africa, and therefore to hate themselves. I understood and was at once transformed and restored by her comment, because I have spent my life studying, loving, and celebrating the beauty and wisdom of Africans in the Diaspora. Like Randle I am unpacking the idea that Africa is one story. Rather Senegal, like all of Africa and the Diaspora, is not one thing, but many beautiful, sometimes complementary, sometime contradictory things.
So, in two and half weeks, I learned that “all of this is Senegal." From the large, looming, well-photographed, iconic Millennium statue at Dakar, to the simple fishing villages that we were asked not to film, out of respect- this is Senegal. From the beautifully covered Muslim women to the high fashion headdresses, fit for worship in D.C. and Dakar - this is Senegal. From the elaborate spires of the mosques of Touba, to the one Catholic Church adorned with black angels – this is Senegal. From the vibrant market economy and ubiquitous, entrepreneurial street vendors, to understanding that the country’s currency is printed outside of the country in France – this is Senegal. To the wide expanses of rural areas where our tour bus stopped for goats and cows as they crossed the road, to the posh European vacation playland and beaches of Saly - this too is Senegal. To the rural rest areas with stand-up facilities where the wise among us carry our own toilet paper, to the fancy bidets of our ultra modern hotels – this is Senegal. From the daily consumption of copious amounts of French pastries and bread, in a country that grows no wheat, to plucking fresh oysters from the roots of the mangrove trees of Toubacouta to grill for lunch – this too is Senegal.
From presentations by Senegalese Rap Artist Duggie Tee (who is a doppleganger for African American Rapper Snoop Dogg), to learning that the blues is from Fulani music and that Saint-Louis is Saint Louis, and that Louis Armstrong is revered on both sides of the Atlantic -this is Senegal. To learning that poor boys in Dakar wrestle for the same limited opportunities and reasons that young boys in D.C. hoop- this is Senegal. To the massive, life-giving Boabab trees where we bury griots- trees that are too majestic to imagine that any tree could be used to tie a noose around its branches – this is Senegal. To the art, the museums, the music, and proliferation of the Negro Renaissance that looks just like the outpouring of the verve and life and colors dubbed the Harlem Renaissance on the west side of the Atlantic – this is Senegal. From joyfully and tearfully adding my newly-given Serer name of Khemes (Kindness) to the names of the two African American grandmothers that I proudly bear – this is Senegal. From speaking in my clumsy French, the tongue of colonization, for two and half weeks, to being required by the cleaning lady at the West African Research Center (WARC) to return her morning greeting in Wolof instead– this too is the transformative, restorative power of Senegal.
Over two and half week’s, my African American family’s concerns about my traveling to West Africa changed. The tone and temperature of their telephone calls and texts transformed from the perfunctory “Are you ok?” to “Are you ever planning on coming back home?” The answer to both of their questions was “yes.” From Dakar to D.C. from Senegal to South Carolina, from Saint-Louis to Saint Louis, from Goree Island to the Gullah Sea Coast Islands, I am at home in an entire African Diaspora that creates and always innovates, especially under circumstances that should not even tolerate its survival.
In summary, I owe my final acknowledgment for this transformative, yet restorative experience to Dr. Ousmane Sene, Director of the West African Research Center (WARC). Dr. Sene taught us that one of the many explanations for the origin of the name of the country of Senegal is literally ‘my boat’. I am personally grateful for this explanation, because a boat can intimately know and be at home in many places. In Senegal, I exchanged some baggage for a boatload of treasures, learning that the Atlantic ocean laps gently on both the west and east sides of the shores of my home.
Nellie Dinah Pharr-Maletta is a career higher education administrator, having worked in the Maryland University System’s two and four-year institutions since 1991 in leadership capacities in Academic Advising, Admissions, Recruitment and International Student Services. She is currently the Assistant Director of International Student Services and Principal Designated School Official for the Community College of Baltimore County, Maryland. She is also an avid African American historian.