Parent Post: La Vie Senegalaise – Impressions of Our Short Visit

This post was written by Nancy Bales Anderson, mother of GCY Fellow Erica Anderson, following her trip to visit Erica in Senegal.

How can you properly prepare yourself for a visit to a developing country?  Iver and I thought we were prepared. Visiting the Travel Clinic, we had five immunizations, Typhoid doses, and had Malaria pills set aside for the trip.  We read snippets from books about Senegal.  We followed the Fellows’ blog postings, learning about their adventures to date.  We packed clothing using Erica’s suggestions so that, as tourists, we would not commit any fashion faux pas!  We were prepared to use cash for all transactions rather than our credit cards.  I tried to recall French phrases (from my high school classes!) that might be useful.  Erica arranged transportation, lodging and an itinerary for our week-long visit.  All was set.  Farewell Ames, Iowa.  Bonjour, Senegal!

As it turned out, Iver and I could never have been fully prepared for this most extraordinary experience.  How can I express the elation of seeing our daughter, Erica, after a five-month absence?  And how can we measure all the ways she has grown and changed during that time as she adapted to her new life and became a global citizen?

Erica with two parent families (deux famillies des parents)

Although Erica claimed that we were having the toubab version of a visit to Senegal (protected, vacationing part of the time like tourists), we were certainly in and amongst the people in a variety of cities and villages to witness “real life” there.  What an assault to the senses!  Imagine the vivid colors and patterns in the flowing women’s dresses (boubous) and head wraps –the beautiful Senegalese women are a favorite image.  Picture the colorful array of produce and other items at the vendors’ stands along the sandy streets and alleys.  Feel the warmth of a handshake and see the wide smile extended as a greeting.  Hear the cacophony of noise in the streets – car horns, truck and bus engines, donkey and horse hooves on the pavement, goats bleating, Muslim prayer chants being broadcast over loudspeakers.  Taste the distinct flavors of chebujen, onion sauce on rice, and bissap juice (made from dried hibiscus flowers).  Listen to the staccato of Wolof being spoken and to the lilt of French (and marvel at your daughter’s/son’s incredible command of both languages!).  All is rich and wondrous.

Corosol fruit, grown at Le Verger, the fruit orchard where Erica works

The opposite is true, too.  The smell of diesel fumes that belch out of trucks and cars (no pollution controls) and burning garbage cause the air quality to be toxic.  Lack of infrastructure is obvious in the condition of roads and the availability of drinking water to all regions of the country.  Sanitation leaves much to be desired.  Safe handling of food is dubious … suffice it to say that we were very careful about what we ate.  Street hustlers shove their wares in front of you – sunglasses, mobile phone cards, made-in-China “African” souvenirs – they are like pesky flies everywhere you go in tourist areas.  The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming every time women and children surround you begging for money; the face of poverty is everywhere and is heart-wrenching.

Teranga (Wolof, meaning Hospitality) is a proud heritage of the Senegalese people and was clearly evident.  Erica’s host papa, Lamine, took a week from his busy life to be with us, to chauffeur us to various places (he rented a car), and keep us safe.  As a result, we spent quality time with Lamine and learned much about himself and his family, his business, his tri-village community and about Senegal.  Lamine is an amazing man, a proud ambassador of his country and is Erica’s best friend.  Erica’s host family was excited to meet us and were welcoming and friendly.  Neighbors invited us into their homes and offered beverages or special tea to us.  Sometimes we even heard, in English, “Welcome to Senegal!  How are you?”

Assuredly, we saw unforgettable sights:  shifting sands in the desert dunes at Lompoul, donkey and horse carts laden with people and goods traveling along a sand “superhighway” at the edge of the surf of the Atlantic Ocean, the breathtaking silhouette of a baobab tree (Tree of Life in Senegal), goats everywhere, women conducting their daily tasks with a baby tied in a sling around their waist and/or carrying a basket on their head, colorfully-painted pirogues (fishing boats), bright-hued bougainvillea growing in many places, people jam-packed into brightly-decorated buses, and unusual fruit such as corosolgrowing at Le Verger, the fruit orchard where Erica works.

A beautiful baobab tree

Regrets?  Yes, there are a few.  I wish I spoke the language so that I could have had more meaningful conversations (but thank you, Erica, for your patience and impressive translation talents!).  I wish I could have taken pictures of the beautiful women in their clothing, or their houses/huts, or the colorful and dirty melee that is a marketplace … but it would have been rude to do so.  I wish we had been in a place to experience music and dancing.  I wish I had left my warm cot in our Bedouin tent to watch the sun rise over the desert.  Maybe next time …

We said our tearful goodbyes at the airport in Dakar.  I admonished Papa to please continue to watch over and care for our beloved daughter and to send her home to us in April.  I felt guilty at leaving – as mothers, we spend so much of our lives protecting our “babies” – from this distance I can’t provide her with an occasional warm shower or some variety in her diet or comfort when she has a difficult day.  Understand, however, that Erica has no complaints; for now, she is Mame Diara, confidently and joyfully a citizen of Senegal.

You note a thousand differences between life in Senegal and life in the United States.  Trying to reconcile these differences, especially between the “we have” and “they have not” has been my biggest challenge since my return home seven days ago.  I wept as I took a hot shower in my sanitized, modern home and had tears in my eyes as I pushed my grocery cart through the store to buy food.  How we take for granted these comforts, these services, these opportunities, this endless variety!  There are many kinds of aches in the world, some so beautiful and overpowering.

I may have returned to my life in Ames, Iowa but part of my heart stayed behind.  God bless our children living and working in Senegal – they are remarkable!  Global citizens … we are incredibly proud of them.  I pray for their well-being, their happiness, and for their safe return.

Le Village des Tortues (“Turtle Village” — Erica’s Papa is the director of this ecotourism spot, and the country’s tortoise expert)