experiential U

Madelaine Guss - Senegal


November 14, 2012

During our 2-week pre-departure training the fellows were informed of an experiential U that expressed the up and downward mobility we would feel during this year. While living momentarily in Dakar, I found myself cemented on the top left perch of this U, looking out over Senegal and the next 7 months with idealism and childish excitement. Though with this, the month of September slipped away from me quickly, and without notice or reflection, October came and off I went to Segou, Kedougou.

When first unpacking my suitcase in Segou, I imagined that what I was feeling matched that of my friends halfway across the world who also recently unpacked their bags and moved into new college dorms. Unpacking wasn’t just emptying bags for the necessity of access during a short stay or vacation, it was moving into a new home and the placement of things mattered. Where I put my deodorant mattered. And as I moved forward through the first two weeks, that feeling came with everything I encountered. Each persons name mattered. Any cultural mistake mattered. If I liked the food mattered. Permanency weighed down on me in a way it couldn’t in Dakar, and as easy as it was to say before departure “ its only 7 months,” made it equally difficult saying, “ I am here for 7 months.”

There were a lot of things that I loved immediately upon arrival. My new family compound, which consists of 4 circular mud huts with straw roofs, a cooking hut, and a large mud oven where each night my brothers make bread to sell in the village; walking outside of my room and seeing the mountains that lie between the border of Senegal and Guinea, and the ability to write down a new experience each day, because everything that was now surrounding me was unfamiliar.

Along with the things that I loved came those things that made me slide down the experiential U into the awaiting lower chasm. While homesickness and loneliness managed to play their part in my downward mobility, what I found affected me the most were people’s expectations and preconceived notions of me that slipped through the cracks of our conversations. I had expected that my gender was going to play a large part in my cultural experience and I would be fighting my host family to work in the fields or gardens, but that only played a small roll compared to the expectations that accompany my nationality.

When I told my host brother that I had finished high school, he responded by saying that school in America is easy. When I bought sheets for my bed I was told Americans have much money and little work. While knowing none of these things were meant to be negative or hurtful, it was hard not to attempt to defend myself or make excuses for my actions because I realized the vague truth in the things he was saying. Not only access to education, but the classes themselves in Senegal are extremely difficult based on the fact that school is taught in French, and students who live in villages like Segou only speak their local language, forcing them to learn what is being taught and French in tandem. Wanting to encourage discussion, I still felt an uncomfortable vibe each time I took something out of my suitcase that may hint at my means or ability.

Some assumptions of Americans I faced were positive but managed to make me uncomfortable all the same. Both men and woman would make comparisons between America and Senegal saying things like “ American woman are more beautiful,” or basic statements of “ America is good, Senegal is not good.”

Both ends of the spectrum caused me to cling inward and stray away from conversations, not having the vocabulary yet to really engage someone in a discussion. Though as my vocabulary begins to grow, and as I begin to understand and know my surroundings better, I hope I will slowly start to climb back up the experiential U.

Madelaine Guss