Alumni Post: Starting at the Personal

The first time I went to Senegal, I brought cargo pants. I was off to live, work, learn, and study in the Dakar region as one of Global Citizen Year’s Founding Fellows. After deciding to take a year off between high school and university, I was ready for something ambiguous and different since school had encapsulated my life for as long as I could remember.  After a month of language and culture training in Dakar, I moved to Noflaye, literally translated as “tranquility,” to work with an eco-tourism entity.

The first couple of months anywhere are the hardest. Everything is new – you are new. In my wee village that also meant I was the attraction. I came to learn different types of understanding—the dynamics of my family, the intricate politics of the half-government half-private run ecotourism village, how to speak Wolof and French, why the bread tastes like saltines, who to shake hands with and who to curtsy to… the list goes on and on.

Perhaps you have noticed,  but all of this is about my own benefit, how I was becoming a better and more faceted individual. This is the kicker for me about travel and development, how in so many ways, the dynamic doesn’t seem equal and the outsider gains more from any experience. When you have the chance to be in a situation that gives you no chance but to learn, you can’t help but feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

That’s why I wanted to give back, to the community, to my friends, to this new country that was teaching me what hospitality really meant. My individual reality always reigned this back in- I was an outsider, young and inexperienced, who was I to try and do something for the people around me? 

As my time went on, I was more capable of leaving a lasting impact from an impact analysis for the ecotourism village to teaching an English class. While these things look pretty on my resume, my most enriching moments came from the blips of similarity I found with my new best friends, the laughs shared over me being able to pour tea like the boys. These were moments of complete equality – while the trappings of our existence may look different, we both shared so much.

We defied the stereotypes that shadowed our first meetings. This was the lasting impact that stayed with me.  I was not a funder from the World Bank, nor a director of a USAID program, but I understood what these entities meant to my closest friends and community. To put it simply, I understood that cargo pants defined those that came in to be apart from their surroundings. The day I went into the city with my closes friend Awa to grab a pair of skinny jeans from the Chinese market, the day I learned how to try and fit in with the three piece suits in 100 degree heat, was the day I became more than an outsider and instead part of her family.

Three years later, my bridge year has undoubtedly shifted my life. I started University with curiosity for what I was learning. I had a new lens through which to approach school. Although I forgot small moments and details got hazy, I still did and do feel overwhelmingly thankful to my friends in Dakar and the community for how they shifted my understandings from the theoretical to personal.

I went back to Senegal this past summer with developed understanding in language and social entrepreneurship. As I completed a Foreign Language Area Studies program with the US Department of Education, I interned with IntraHealth International, an organization that creates solutions to health problems using local resources and local ideas. I was back, but with a different set of skills bringing a different type of impact.

The understanding of Senegal that my first experience brought me immediately gave me credit in my colleague’s eyes. They trusted me enough to challenge ideas and bring in opinions that, if anything, would beg the answering of questions. My flippant Wolof jokes surprised them and opened unexpected  pathways. From photojournalism assignments for USAID to program design projects, I had a quantifiable impact this summer beyond personal relations.

One year does not make for complete cultural understanding, just as one person does not change the way people perceive America. But I won’t accept that as a barrier. Impact comes in different colours, and I would dare to say it always starts at the personal. My relationship with Senegal during my bridge year made quality impact this past summer possible.

Perhaps this was the whole point – I had to learn first in order to have the capacity for positive change. I learned that this past summer, instead of those cargo pants, I would be bringing flats, nail polish, and yes, the same skinny jeans I bought with Awa.


Ananda Day is a 2010 Global Citizen Year Fellow. You can read more about her time in Senegal here