Lessons in Listening

The sharp and melodic call to prayer pierces the early morning sky. My eyes blink open, orienting slowly from within the gauzy canopy of my mosquito net.  After a few groggy moments, my mind catches up to my body: I’ve arrived in Senegal.

Just a few hours before, Nicole (International Program Director) and I had descended into Dakar after a fitful cross-Atlantic sleep. Dazed and delighted, we walked through the dark, across the tarmac, watching a mysterious fog float up through the hot desert air.  Passports checked, bags examined, we made our way through Dakar’s pre-dawn bustle to our hostel to rest for a few precious hours.

By daybreak we were on the road, diving headlong into a wild and wonderful run of days that could easily have been weeks, given the depth of insight they uncovered.

In the past two years of launching Global Citizen Year, I’ve often played the role of presenter—pitching a vision, promoting a cause.  But in Senegal, my role was reversed to that of observer, a new perspective to mirror the posture of our Fellows at this early stage in their journeys abroad.  Through the whirl of new colors, tastes and experiences, what resonated most deeply were the lessons I learned through slowing down, quieting my own inner chatter, and listening.

What I heard was astounding.

I listened as Anta (Senegal Program Manager) moved fluently across cultures, translating far more than words to bridge the divide between our American urge for efficiency and local customs that favor a more timeless rhythm.

I listened as Madelaine (Senegal Team Leader) worked her magic as confidant, coach, teacher and mother to our Fellows as they navigate their way through their own cultural adjustments.

I listened as our Fellows conversed comfortably in French and Wolof, and shared their early insights into their host communities’ culture, values, perspectives and needs.

I listened to host families who have welcomed our Fellows as extensions of their own kin, inducting the new arrivals into clan lineages and household routines.

And I listened as our partners at Millennium Promise and Dynamique Femme as well as allies at the State Department, Peace Corps and Malaria No More shared their confidence in the value of our Fellows’ involvement – as observers now, and active participants over time.

As the week ended, despite the exhaustion of long days in thick heat, I left Senegal energized beyond words. What I heard were the early rumblings of a movement taking hold, of an idea becoming reality and leaving its mark already on all of those involved.

And as I return home, it is with new clarity around the critical importance of our work, and my role as a catalyst in bringing it to life.

Imagine if a Global Citizen Year before college were someday the norm, rather than the exception.   If our current Fellows are any indication, our next generation of leaders will be a formidable force indeed, working with humility, courage and personal insight toward a more peaceful and prosperous world.