A Baby and the Belgians

Madeline Ripa - Senegal

December 1, 2011

I took a moment to appreciate the beautiful baby girl in my arms. Just around 4 minutes ago, she had been a bump in her mothers’ stomach. I watched as she opened her eyes to blink at the big new world she was now a part of. I smiled and handed the unnamed baby to her grandmother, and then swiftly got called out of the birthing room to get back to work.

I took a long drink of needed water before I heard an unfamiliar language drift through the open window of the clinic. To my surprise, I saw a large group of whom I assumed to be tourists making their way toward the facility. It was proving to be an unusual day at work. One of them had a makeshift bandage around his foot and was being helped along by two other men. Well, I knew that couldn’t be good. Once I said hello and introduced myself to one of the women in the group, the conversation promptly took a route I couldn’t fully follow. “Je parle anglais…” I sputtered. “Oh, we speak English!” the woman replied. I discovered that they were from Belgium and in Senegal for their friends’ wedding. On a canoe trip in a lagoon, the injured man, Christoph, had cut the bottom of his foot and needed stitches.

These people instantly reminded me of my parents. Nice as can be, and with sons and daughters my age, they took interest in what I was doing in a rural village in Senegal for 7 months. I told them about Global Citizen Year and experiences I’d had in cultural immersion so far. “I just witnessed my first birth in that room over there not too long ago,” I mentioned. Being the personable people that they are, they decided to go congratulate the new mother and baby. Upon their return, I was informed that they had explained to the mother that they were at the clinic because of what had happened to Christoph. In a truly Senegalese manner, the new mother announced that she would name the baby after Christoph, but since the baby was a girl, she would instead name if after his wife. And just like that, the baby girl became Winnie.

Half an hour later, with one successfully stitched up foot, the group began getting ready to leave; but not before inviting me to have dinner with them that evening. “Yes, I’d love to!” I replied. These people were truly kind, and also very interesting to an American teenager who has never been to Europe. “Ok, 8 o’clock!” Christoph said as he wobbled out of the clinic.

The Eco-Lodge in Niassam, where they were staying, was only a few villages away, but I had never been there before. Upon arriving at sunset I realized how enchanting the place was. It was softly lit by lanterns and nestled in a cozy forest of Baobab trees. There were rooms on the nearby lagoon that connected to land by small wooden pathways, and tree-houses built into the Baobabs. It was easy to see why the couple chose to get married there.

I found that my hosts had just gotten back from a trip to hyena-watch. The son of the groom pulled out an iPad and started showing me some pictures the newlyweds had captured last time they were in Senegal. “How many times have they been to Senegal?” I inquired. “Eight” he replied, and then added, “I think they lost their hearts here.”


Thing I knew about Belgium before dinner:

-Home to the infamously delicious Belgian waffles

-Its capital: Brussels


Things I learned about Belgium during dinner:

-Population: around 10 million (one of Europe’s 15 smallest countries)

-National language: Dutch (though there are many dialects)

-The general population is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English

-TV shows and movies are screened in English with Dutch subtitles

-There has been no “official” government for over 550 days

***French fries were actually created in Belgium, NOT France***

A side note: They had met Americans who have never heard of Belgium before


As the enjoyable evening ended, I received Winnie’s contact information and gave her mine. “Keep in contact!” she said. I promised I would, and would be sure to let her know how her namesake was doing. Everyone kissed me goodbye on my cheek and wished me good luck on my next 5 months in Palmarin. I thanked them for their hospitality and said how nice it was to have met them, and as I told the happy newlyweds congratulations and best wishes, I reflected on what their son had told me.

Whether from Belgium or from Nebraska…experiences like this make Senegal a place where losing your heart is an easy thing to do.

Madeline Ripa