Cliff Lewis - French in Senegal
I practice medicine in a small Southern city and I really love to travel and to study languages, so when I learned that Projects Abroad offered intensive French language instruction while living with a local family, I began giving it some very serious thought. Senegal offered the excitement of an Islamic West African sub-Saharan culture that I thought would provide a more exciting experience than the usual French speaking Western countries whose culture is so much like my own. So, when Projects Abroad offered me the opportunity for intense language training while living with a family in the rich culture of Senegal, I grabbed my French dictionary, packed my bags, and headed to Africa.
My host family in Senegal was wonderful. They were always interested in hearing my many tales about the experiences that filled each day and were quick to help with any concerns that might arise. They took me to the bank, took me shopping, and taught me a lot about the culture, history and politics of Senegal. Meal time with the family was especially enjoyable. Each night exactly at 8:30, soon after the last Muslim call to prayer, we would gather in the main room of the house and sit on the floor around a very large platter of food, eating a delicious meal and learning what everyone had done that day. The Senegalese cuisine is wonderfully spiced and incredibly delicious. It even outdid Southern fried chicken, but don't tell my mother! During these meals I really felt like a member of the family. I listened to them talk about their daily lives and they were always interested in hearing about my life in America. I really enjoyed their 10 year old boy Zale. After dinner he and I would either have a lesson in American history and geography or an English lesson. I would always give him a piece of candy at the end of each lesson to encourage his interest. We really got to know each other and I will miss him. He cried when I left.
My French course went very well. I had 3 different instructors, each offering a somewhat different teaching style with different accents and speeds. This kept my ear from becoming accustomed to one speaker. I was very surprised and pleased at the progress I had made at the end of my course. I could actually carry on a fairly good conversation in French. One of my teachers invited me home for dinner.
Of all my travel experiences, this one with Projects Abroad is surely the most special, and the thing that made it so special was my having a warm friendship with my host family and with little Zale. He was so receptive and appreciative of my attention, as I was appreciative of all the efforts of my host family to make this a successful experience. This is such an example of their efforts:
My host family lived in the town of St. Louis, on the border between Senegal and Mauritania. They had kin living in a village just across the border in Mauritania and when I mentioned I would like to visit them, they arranged for Djibril, their nephew, to take me there. So, one morning at 8 AM, Djibril picked me up on his motorcycle and we drove to where the road ended in the desert. Then we got into a near-dilapidated vehicle-of-some-sort and headed out over the desert sands. We soon got stuck in the sands but pushed ourselves out and proceeded uneventfully into Mauritania. This village sat between the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and the dunes of the Sahara. There were no roads and no electricity, in fact the road in and out of the village was the beach. As Djibril and I walked into the village several very young children began screaming and ran away from us. I was stunned when Djibril told me the children were frightened of me since I was the first white person they had ever seen. We eventually reached the village, found the compound of the family and spent a wonderful afternoon learning from each other. After a delicious dinner, again seated on the floor, Djibril and I returned to St. Louis in a horse cart, sharing space with several men and 2 large sacks of grain. This was a wonderful way to return home, with the desert dunes on one side, the ocean breakers on the other, the sun overhead in a beautiful clear sky, the wind to our back, and the sound of ocean birds and crashing waves. What a wonderful day.
I recently saw an advertisement that used the word "luxury" three times to promote their product. Such ads are common as they try to convince us we deserve only the best, and that only the best will make us happy. That same day I saw another advertisement that emphasized our need for their product by having a consumer shout "I want it all, and I want it now". This is all good for the economy but it leads us into a life that chases glamour and luxury, which ultimately will prove to be unsatisfying and destructive. Examples are easy to find. We need only look at the unhappy lives of many celebrities who have it all and yet have nothing, living lives of drugs, broken relationships and missed opportunities.
Many of us have surrounded ourselves with the excess of western society and have found that this emphasis on self and things is unfulfilling and unrewarding and creates a vacuum inside. We find however that a life directed toward giving to others supplies this meaning and purpose that we may feel lacking in our lives. Giving to others gives us opportunities to grow into bigger people. We turn from the emptiness of receiving to the satisfaction of giving, we turn from the destructive "I" to the expanding "you".
A volunteer trip abroad is said to "change your life" but it goes far beyond this. You become more understanding of other people and their culture, more accepting of differences, less afraid of challenges, less intimidated by the unknown, more self-assured, less rigid, less impressed with material things and more interested in yourself as a quality person, less interested in our petty needs and more interested in the genuine needs of others. You become a more spiritual person and so very thankful for what you have. My stay in Senegal was not a trip or vacation. It can only be described as a priceless experience.