An Incredibly Long and Very Earnest Critique

Victoria Tran-Trinh - Senegal


April 4, 2010

With my time left in Senegal ticking steadily away, I’ve been constantly contemplating everything I’ve learned here, trying to organize it in my brain. It never ceases to amaze me just how much these past six months have taught me about Senegalese culture and life. On a grander scale, I’ve been learning about how to integrate yourself into any other culture different from your own. The lessons and experiences of my total cross-cultural immersion have been pulsating in my mind all the time.

For quite a while now, I’ve known I want to live and work in a developing country, working with women and/or youth – probably in Africa and probably with a developmental NGO. I knew all along that this GCY bridge year will have been helpful when that dream becomes a reality, but after meeting some American NGO folks, I fully appreciate that the experience is absolutely invaluable.

My apprenticeship is not just with a preschool – it’s with an entire “community center” of sorts, who run the preschool, health initiatives and other things geared towards childhood development. The whole thing is funded by a foreign NGO. A little over a month ago, some Americans from this NGO stopped by my apprenticeship to check out the preschool, among other things. The Senegalese man who runs the center had forewarned me and asked me to translate – being sure to tell the Americans all the good things I am doing at the preschool, how wonderful the teachers are, etc. The way he explained it, if they got a good impression, they would give him more money for the center. I slightly uncomfortably agreed to do what I could.

The day arrived and in they came, surrounded by every single personnel member from the center, two translators from Dakar, and a cameraman with a mic. Every Senegalese person was in their element, speaking rapidly and trying their darndest to be charming and be heard. I really did not want to enter that throng, so I kept trying to keep the kids’ focus on their workbooks, not the loud, excitable horde that had stampeded into their formerly peaceful classroom.

The ones whom I gathered were the education experts had asked me a few questions about the curriculum, etc., and discussed my answers between themselves. They didn’t seem too impressed, one of them saying something along the lines of: “There are other schools in Africa with more students and more learning.” Standing there listening to them, I again found myself in a situation where I resented the need to bite my tongue, only this time I wasn’t even talking to Senegalese people. The Americans were gone in less than 10 minutes.

That whole encounter left a bad taste in my mouth and I went home immediately after they left to think about it. A very friendly email I later got from the “health specialist,” with a draft of his field report attached, gave rise to two emotions: 1) it made me very uncomfortable with the idea of writing this post, and 2) it made me want to write the post even more because I found some discrepancies within the report. It was just so obvious to me that they could have avoided those by hanging around a little longer, actually visiting for more than 10 minutes, or maybe even putting someone in the field instead of trying to run things from afar. I understand that they have Senegalese people working with them, and I am 100% for putting local people on local projects, but this project just isn’t working in the best way.

In the month since they came here, I’ve visited and observed four other preschools in the area and plan on visiting a few more before I leave. I’ve spoken to many preschool teachers from schools all over the region. I am no education expert, but at least I have an idea of the norms in Senegalese early childhood development, not of “other schools in Africa.” We’ve learned over and again – from US training to the readings Rachel makes us take notes on – how important it is to be country-specific or even region-specific. You have to work within and with the culture! You can’t just go applying one-size-fits-all projects all around the world. They may work to an extent, but they won’t work at their best, and money will be wasted and people won’t get the full benefit.

Just as important, if not more valuable, is the understanding of Senegalese culture that I’ve gained. For example, three days after the Americans came, I was the only Fellow to go to the Gamou, a huge celebration of Muhammad’s birthday. I stayed in a rural village much smaller than Sebikotane, I slept in a bed with 5 other people, I ate around the bowl with dozens of folks and multiple families over the course of the weekend. I had the privilege of kneeling in a marabout’s bedroom, packed to the gills with people in prayer, and receiving a blessing with all these Senegalese Muslims. I am clearly neither of these, but I and my headscarf were accepted with nothing but smiles.

I’ve “featured” a couple of lines in a Senegalese rap recording. I’ve waded through knee deep mud to harvest oysters off mangroves. I ate a raw oyster not two minutes later. I’ve taken every possible form of public transport, known how much to pay, and known how to yell if I don’t get my change. I have Wolof lessons underneath a mango tree three times a week, I teach yoga every Friday. This is only in the month since the Americans have been here.

I don’t think I could feel any more comfortable in this community, and I know I have earned respect, admiration and love from the people I’ve met. They are willing to listen to me and I love to listen to them. I wish every NGO employee, their directors, their such-and-such representatives, even their accountants, could have an experience like mine. You can plan all you want with people holding every kind of imaginable degree, with experts on education, health, environmental preservation, whatever – but your organization will not function to the best of its ability, will not be most helpful, does not have the best chance of being sustainable, if you do not get to know the people you’re trying to help. I mean really get to know them.

This is what I’ve believed for a long time. It has been doubly, triply reinforced since I’ve been here. There are great success stories in the developmental/social change field with this principle at the forefront. I truly hope that more and more people start to see and believe it as well. If not, well, I know all the Senegal Fellows agree with me on this, and I have faith that they’re all going to make big change.

Victoria Tran-Trinh