Alumni Post: Water at the Gate; Water Under the Bridge

I sat at the foot of my Senegalese mother’s bed surrounded by people I love so dearly.  The room was dead silent, and yet nothing needed to be said.  A voice outside of the window announced that the taxi had arrived. I stood up and absently walked towards the gate whose walls contained almost everything that mattered to me.  I stopped before it with my eyes locked on the gate, and began to take a step. My Senegalese mother grabbed me by the arm, stopping me from crossing the compound’s boundary.  She threw water at the gate, and then released my arm.  My gaze shifted from the gate to my host mother’s eyes.  She said nothing to explain the purpose of her gesture; she didn’t have to.

When my host mother threw water at the gate as I left for the States, it stood as a literal example of how I now see my bridge year with GCY.  During my Global Citizen Year, I was bridging a gap from high school to college.  All that I learned did not come with me; it fell underneath a bridge into a pool of reflection so that I could return to it to find the motivation to continue, to find clues to the answers I search for relentlessly, and sometimes, to find the answers themselves.  Every day of my life I return to my GCY Bridge in reflection, examining, analyzing, and admiring my unique experiences that have led me to this point.

I began planning my return this summer to continue and expand my capstone project, which was originally a tutoring program led by high school students who, in return received training and access to the library and computer lab at the elementary school.  During my bridge year, I noticed the unique interests and potential of the Senegalese high school students with whom I worked, and began to question the base of my program, which at the time was literacy education.

I began to notice that my co-tutors were interested in the revolutionary post-colonial issues, often authored by Senegal’s finest, that were found on the dusty shelves of the primary school library.  They were interested in the roots of injustice and the undermined power of the African people.  Prior to my initial understanding, the students did not participate because they wanted to be teachers; but rather, because they viewed the structure of the educational system as an injustice to those who were failed by it. It took me a while to grasp this concept as they meant it.   The students were already looking for the root of the problem.  They were not caught up in merely symptoms, such as problems alone within system of education.

This summer, after a year of adjustment, I returned to Senegal with a project proposal in hand. I spent the majority of my first week working under the guidance of two of the people who had mentored and supervised me during my bridge year. I remember when I first presented my proposal to Faye, the director of the school where I worked.  I must say that Faye is not an easy audience to please.  His connections, relentless work ethic, and seemingly natural bold presence in a room are enough to send a teenage girl into a hysterical fit. He was vocal, and furthermore did not find the soft-spoken response to be the most effective in getting things done. He was far from an idealist, but nevertheless unspeakably competent as a school administrator. 

After explaining my project to him, he looked up at me and explained how he had begun project that was almost identical, except it was for the elementary students. I was ecstatic to hear this news.  He began helping me improve my project and elaborate on my ideas.  That day we decided to collaborate on the projects to assure a sustainable and efficient future curriculum life that would benefit the students in the long run.

As I walked home through the sandy streets of Sebikotane that day, I had yet another grand realization about the future of my journey.  I stopped in the middle of the street when the thought hit me: “This is what I am supposed to be doing with my life.  This is not a project; it’s the beginning of my career.  I’d be crazy not to do this…it’s everything I love.”

My whole life I have known that I was meant for education, but prior to this moment, hadn’t understood the exact context in which I fit.  What I had realized for the first time was the critical point where my unique experience and passion collided with education.  Every experience as an intern, as a program assistant in urban Indianapolis, as an apprentice, as a tutor, and as a teacher had been success in my book if I had been able to develop opportunity, promote understanding, and instill creative solutions to problematic barriers to better the sector of education.  In other words, it wasn’t necessarily the practice of teaching alone that I loved so deeply; rather, it was the design of programs that opened the door to opportunity for my students.  In this moment, curriculum design had become the center of my universe.

A week later, Meag Lueck, former GCY Fellow, and her mother, Founder and President of Barefoot Books, arrived in Sebikotane.  Meaghan had been working on opening a new library in Sebikotane, Senegal, and given the timing of both of our projects, we had decided to return and work together.  Initially, we planned to have everything up and running before we left for home.  What we realized when we arrived, however, was that this was not going to happen.  We needed to secure the setup of both projects before proceeding with implementing the projects themselves.

We ran into several barriers in the beginning, which I am happy to announce, have all been resolved.  The initial barrier to successful implementation was the conflict between school administrators and volunteers.  It was so unforeseen and shocking that all of us felt as if we were walking on glass for a large portion of our stay.  The school administration and a local educational organization disagreed on the management of the project, and the project was delayed as a result.

I truly believe that the miracle of our problems were children’s books. Nancy and Meaghan had brought several books as samples of the materials the library would have.  The books seemed to be a refuge in the midst of a colossal misunderstanding of technical details.  The minute the administrators held the books, the mood of the group transformed.  These books were not used, dusty, dirty, and irrelevant to the cultural situation in Sebikotane.  They were new, powerful, colorful, engaging, and transformative for the kids and the school.  The books helped them to understand what Nancy and Meaghan envisioned as their library project.  The library was not a charity project; it was an engaging way to bring joy and color to children while encouraging them to learn and to read. Every aspect, from paint colors to book selections was thought out carefully. They envisioned a library of color and joy, where students would gather around a beautiful book for story hour; a place to connect stories to music and art; a safe place to nourish and encourage the beauty of the diverse gifts and personalities within each Senegalese child.  At the end of the project, their project reflected the genuine care they had for each child and for the community at large.

I left Sebikotane with more inspiration that I had ever fathomed.  My bridge year experience did not end when I landed in Indianapolis, Indiana in the summer of 2011.  It had just begun.  The steps I took this summer were a result of my GCY experience, the people who loved me along the way, and the lessons I learned.  Coming home was a pivotal moment for me. Since being home, my ideas have begun turning into action plans for my future my vision in education. I am beginning with a commitment to Clinton Global Initiative University Program, for which I am also a Campus Representative.

Benga International, my CGI U Commitment, is named after my host mother, Ana Benga, and also stands as an acronym for my mission: Building Educational Narratives for Global Achievement. Benga International begins with planting seeds for cultural competence in urban elementary students in Indianapolis, using international voices and Barefoot Books cultural tales as its main resources.  It then empowers high school students in Jordan, Kenya, Senegal, and the United States to stand up together as global leaders of the 21st century.  My hope is that students around the world will feel engaged in this interconnected society we live in, and that their voices will be heard as they too begin their journeys towards greatness.


More information is available at Benga International.

Erin Lang is a 2011 Global Citizen Year alumna.  Read more about her time in Senegal here.