By Jordan Ricker (Senegal ’13, Franklin University Switzerland)
It finally happened in late May. I went back to Senegal.
I had not been back to Senegal since I left in April 2013. Returning over three years later, but this time as a freshly minted undergraduate of Franklin University Switzerland, was an experience, to say the least. For one thing, I traveled there not alone, but with my girlfriend, who had never been to Senegal and had lots of questions for me about the language, culture, and food of the country. For another, we only stayed two weeks total – one week in the small town of Mboro and another week in the capital city, Dakar.
But, let me rewind a little bit. I say “went back” because I took a gap year in Senegal after finishing high school in 2012 with Global Citizen Year. Global Citizen Year provided me (as it does other high school graduates, called Fellows) the opportunity to take a year off the path of traditional schooling straight from high school to college through an eight-month intensive immersion program in Senegal (other Fellows went to Brazil, Ecuador or India). During my year in Senegal, I lived with a host family, learned French and Wolof (the ethnic majority language in the country), and had an apprenticeship teaching English at a local vocational school, le Centre International de Formation Pratique (CIFOP).
But that was three years ago. And what really stuck out to me on my return trip was how much everything seemed to be the same in Senegal. My host family still lived in Mboro, all of my five host siblings were still in primary or secondary school, all my co-workers were still working at the same place, and my friends were living their same lives three years later. Indeed, it felt almost as if I had never left. For nearly the first week that we were in Senegal, I kept telling my girlfriend, “this doesn’t feel real. It feels like a dream.” Every morning that I woke up during my return trip, there was still a rooster crowing at 5am. Every day I had breakfast, it felt like I was back on my gap year again, about to get up and prepare another lesson for class that day. I was even speaking Wolof and French far more than I was speaking English – I had slipped right back into my old patterns with ease.
But… it wasn’t the same. Things had changed. My family, while still owning a rooster, had moved to a new house in a different neighborhood of Mboro that I didn’t know that well. My boss had new people he was working with. My oldest host brother was going off to university next year while my eldest host sister was going to the US for an exchange year. And even my youngest host brother, who I had thought would remain a toddler indefinitely, was starting to read books and watch cartoons in French, even though he had only known Wolof when I left. It was all the same, except where it wasn’t. My family was still my family but they were not static. Even though I had thought of my experience in Senegal over three years ago as one normally thinks of memories – perpetually suspended in time – my family had not stayed still during the time in between my visits. They were living their lives, indifferent to my frozen images of them.
This realization made me think about how I had changed as well. Here I was, taking a two-week vacation as a university graduate who had traveled to three other countries in Africa in the last three years, not a program participant who had just finished high school and was taking my first trip to the continent. While I still say “Inch’Allah” on a daily basis (much to my friends bewilderment), talk excitedly about West African food, and enjoy wearing wax prints, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I am not an inhabitant of Mboro anymore. And that has made me think about how I incorporate this incredibly transformative and integral part of my identity into who I am when I am not physically located in Senegal. Sometimes, I almost feel that the eighteen years of raised-in-the-suburbs American upbringing that I had before I went to Senegal, combined with the three years of life experience since I finished my bridge year, threaten to obscure all the parts of me that Senegal engendered.
However, as the days of my return trip passed, my time in Senegal started to feel less and less like a dream. I started to feel more comfortable constantly switching from speaking in English to my girlfriend to speaking Wolof and French with all my Senegalese friends. I came to acknowledge that even though my brother was not going to be asking me questions about his high school chemistry classes anymore, he would come to me with questions about what university would be like instead.
My first return trip to Senegal (because there will definitely be more in the future) was strange because it was the meeting of the past and the present in the now. While it was not always a seamless meshing, I greatly value it because it allowed the part of me that will always be connected to Senegal to breathe new life again. That part changed, evolved, and amalgamated into the current version of me, and I think that is far better than keeping my experience in Senegal hidden somewhere on a dusty shelf next to my high school diploma. Senegal will always be a part of me and this trip helped me to incorporate that part of my past with the present. Those things that I had worried would obscure the Senegalese part of me did not succeed. And they never will. The minutia of my Senegalese friends’ daily lives might have changed, but my core relationships with them hadn’t. Because while Senegal hasn’t been my daily reality for more than three years, I will always have a place in my heart for it and it will always be a part of me.