If you’re paying attention—well, and more to the point, if your host is open-hearted—you can learn a great deal about a fellow during a 90-minute car ride.  When my plane arrived in Dakar a day late, Fulbright staff sent the redoubtable Professor Mouhamadou to drive me from the airport to our hotel in downtown Dakar.  As it turned out, that car ride with Mouhamadou was one of my Senegal Sojourn highlights.  Fulbright scholar, political observer, lover of American music, and generous guide who was always patient with my torrent of questions:  Mouhamadou came to embody what I most cherished about Senegal.  When I think of Senegal, his kind face is the first I picture, his voice—wise, deliberate, calm, & measured—the first I hear.

You’d be proud to know that the six classroom teachers on my right were representing your profession and your country in Saint-Louis, Senegal; you couldn’t ask for better ambassadors of goodwill.  They were unfaltering in their kindness, full of insight into all that they encountered, and always ready to meet a challenge—whether it was teaching an impromptu two-hour classroom lesson, meeting with the mayor of Saint-Louis is in his living room, navigating the customs of our Senegalese hosts with grace and humor, or rising to the occasion when they suddenly found themselves drawn from the audience at a “cultural event” and transformed into the star attractions.  In all likelihood, I will not see them again, but I cherish my time with them and was proud to be part of their team.

Left to right:  The author, from Silver City, New Mexico; Sara from Manhattan; Brenda from Augusta, Georgia; Rebecca from Homewood, Alabama; Anne-Michele from Chicago; Melisha from Little Rock; and my high-school co-teacher, William from Washington, DC.

In all, fifteen American teachers formed our Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms cohort.  The seven of us who traveled to Saint-Louis comprised nearly half the group; in two additional cohorts, the others headed inland to Kaolack and Tambacounda.  Before departure to our host schools, and for a couple days after our return, we fifteen made visits to several Dakar schools, an orphanage, the U.S. Embassy, the West African Research Center, the Black Civilization Museum, and the African Renaissance Monument.  My colleagues tell their stories elsewhere on their Fulbright TGC websites, to which I hope to provide links.  During out time together, I was educated by their energetic discussions and inspired by their commitment to their students.

Sometimes it seemed as though we were time-traveling whilst in Senegal.  Saint-Louis’ civic infrastructure was dilapidated and its classrooms—sometimes packed with 80 students—were often conducted with “old-school” sage-on-the-stage methods.  But there were refreshing echoes of my own growing-up years:  people out on the street, a closer relationship between customer and farmer or craftsman, and kids playing with little adult supervision.  Saint-Louis’ research scarcity was certainly responsible for its rough edges, but at the same time the citizens of Saint-Louis had created a vibrant public life in the absence of material wealth.  Here, boys leap from pirogues dragged to shore after the day’s fishing expeditions.  Their joy brought back nostalgia for the kind of risky revels of my youth.

Another colorful but notoriously risky feature of Dakar city life were the multicolored car rapidés.  Fulbright staff forbade us from taking a seat on these objets d’art, but I would have relished a renegade ride in one.

When I returned to the States, I was surprised to read a 2018 report from CNN that such city buses were to be phased out.  Indeed, they have their darker side (see the linked article), but despite their danger and pollution, they seemed very much part of the 2023 Dakar cityscape.

(For another take on the yin-&-yang of modern Senegal, consider

Though the young Senegalese women I met in the classrooms and homes I visited were always hyper-polite, modestly dressed, and demure, I gained a whole new insight into Senegal Girl Power when I attended a community dance one evening.

It seemed to me that I’d found on that sandy plaza some manner of cultural escape hatch, where young women could let their wild selves loose for a moment in a culturally sanctioned explosion of motion (and occasionally, of seduction).  Their dances were free-form, athletic, and heart-pumping.

(One began with her hands on the arms of a chair and progressed to some serious booty-shaking.)  When I was pulled to the dance floor myself, I did my dangest to meet their moves, but I didn’t quite have it.

Our night at the “cultural event” was my happiest in-country—and at the same time, I felt a little inappropriate snapping photos of the dancers’ antic movements.  But how else could I show you these young women suddenly, beautifully, breaking free?

Île de Gorée is a powerful destination for many in the West African diaspora.  In the back of the town’s pleasant, shady streets—it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that, if you didn’t know its raison d’être before you boarded the ferry to the island, you might mistake for a balmy colonial port—lies the Maison des Esclaves:  the House of Slaves.

Historians differ on how many African slaves were actually quartered here; their statistical arguments are not without merit, but the numbers are, for me, less important than the conditions that enslaved people endured at Gorée.  Many captured West Africans died in the House of Slaves before they ever boarded a slave ship bound for the Americas.  

Photo credit:  Haguard du Nord, Wikikmedia Commons

Some of the captured were shackled to the floor; families were separated and imprisoned in separate cells, and, as journalist Anna Porter reports, young women were “paraded in the courtyard so that the traders and enslavers could choose them for sex.”

The indelible image from the Maison des Esclaves is the “Door of No Return”—the grim doorway through which West Africans passed as they boarded a slave ship for the Middle Passage.  That descendants of enslaved Africans can now return to the homeland of their ancestors—after many generations and centuries of struggle—is significant.

Kunta Kinte, the protagonist in the early chapters of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, was captured in Gambia (the country that modern Senegal surrounds) and passed through Île de Gorée on his way to Annapolis, Maryland.  Given Haley’s powerful storytelling, and the television miniseries based on Roots, its not surprising that a pilgrimage to Gorée is essential for anyone visiting Senegal.

In a small onsite museum exhibit, I learned that Maison des Esclaves is a founding member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience—which coalition numbers some 300 sites around the globe in 65 countries.

Among famous Île de Gorée pilgrims are Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.  A memorial near the island’s boat dock commemorates Mandela’s 1997 visit, when the South African President—who knew something about imprisonment—is reported to have excused himself from his tour group, overcome by his response to the House of Slaves.

As a white American with Irish and Scottish ancestry, I entered the House of Slaves from a different historical perspective.  For the most part I am an idealist who believes that the world is stumbling toward peace and equity, however slowly.  Gorée represents not only a dark hour in human history but reminds me how easily we humans can dehumanize our fellows.  Gorée is a challenge to my congenital optimism, and a reminder that slavery is not confined to the past. 

A final note on petty corruption:  My tour guide, Nabi, was stopped by some manner of island policemen and told to produce a tour-guide license.  Nabi explained to them that he did not need such a license, but they demanded that he pay a fine of 1500 CFA francs (about 2 USD, but a not insubstantial amount for a citizen of Dakar).  Nabi refused at first, and we continued our tour; but as the hour passed, he began to calculate the hassles he might encounter should he not pay what was simply a bribe.  I offered him the money necessary to pay off the officer, and as we returned to the dock to board the ferry back to Dakar, who should appear but one of the two policeman who had stopped Nabi earlier.  He held his hand to the side in what suggested a clandestine acceptance of the bribe, we boarded the ferry, and I sipped the last of my water in order to wash the tang of petty corruption from my mouth.

It's fair to say that Senegal is soccer-mad.  Or, to speak more internationally, football-fanatical.  On our way from Blaise Diagne airport to our hotel, Mouhamadou confirmed my guess that this imposing structure, which dominates the skyline of suburban Dakar, is the home of Senegal’s “Tigers of Teranga.”  Its official name is Stade Olympique de Diamniado, and it is slated to host the 2026 Youth Olympic Games.  Original plans for the stadium, which seats 50,000, included “3,250 parking spaces, a sewage treatment plant, emergency power generators and a solar power plant.  10,000 square metres of green areas will be created around the arena.”  It stands in stark contrast to the  humble neighborhoods of downtown Dakar.

The Tigers of Teranga, of course, are Senegal’s national football team, who during the 2022 World Cup advanced to the Round of 16. (If you’re not so much of a soccer fan, that’s big-time).  But the brightest feather in their cap was their victory over perennial powerhouse Egypt to win the 2022 Africa Cup and become champions on a continent of passionate football players and fans.  In the photo at left, the Tigers lift their coach Aliou Cissé onto their shoulders after they won the championship in a shootout.  Cissé is a national hero, not only for leading the Tigers to the Africa Cup, but for captaining the national team that defeated defending world champion France in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.  (You can imagine Senegal’s jubilation at defeating the national team of their former colonizers.)

As Atlantic writer Clint Smith recounted in his spirited celebration of Senegal’s Africa Cup triumph, “The victory was celebrated deliriously in the streets of Dakar, Paris, and ‘Little Senegal’ in Harlem.  The Senegalese president, Macky Sall, declared [the following day] a national public holiday so that everyone in the country could celebrate the team’s victory.  Thousands of people showed up at the airport to greet their national heroes.”

Photo credit:  Jean-Pierre Kepsu, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, only a handful of players will ever make the national team, but that doesn’t stop Senegalese youth from dreaming that they might.  Pickup matches of the Beautiful Game materialize in ragged sandlots as well as in football stadia.

Many of the sandy playgrounds at schools we visited were given over to recess soccer matches.

Beach football is a passionate pastime in Saint-Louis, where a couple of jerry cans delineate goal posts.

Football prowess earns villages bragging rights.  This bedecked building in Pilote boasts of the local side’s status as a 2019 finalist.

My favorite school in all my travels in-country was Le Lycee de Jeunes Filles Ameth Fall.  As a visitor hobbled by language deficiencies, I am sure there were many crucial details that escaped me during my visit—like how expensive the school’s tuition was—but I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the students (the first-year English-language students leapt out of their seats to join me in a spirited rendition of “Head & Shoulders, Knees & Toes” when their teacher made an impromptu request for us to teach his students “a few words of English”), as well as the warmth of the faculty, who hosted us in their staff lounge.  Their principal, an elegant woman who seemed to evade my question about the educational value of segregating young women at her all-girls high school, was nonetheless a passionate school leader.  For a brief moment, I entertained thoughts of applying to the faculty there—but saved that idea for another day.

Ameth Fall’s playground was spacious and active—always refreshing at an all-girls school.

Courtyard murals carried inspiring messages.  Here, words from French novelist Victor Hugo, from his 1878 speech to the International Literary Congress, decorate the wall outside the school library.  Hugo's words can be translated as "The light is in the book.  Open the book wide. Let it shine, let it be.  Whoever you are who wants to cultivate, invigorate, edify, soften, soothe, put books everywhere."  (Incidentally, he followed that bibliophile manifesto with these words: "Multipliez les écoles ; les écoles sont les points lumineux de la civilization”—that is, "Increase the number of schools; schools are the bright spots of civilization."

Here, here!

This mural—“No to violence”—speaks specifically to the young women who are creating culture within the walls of Ameth Fall and without.

In this mural are listed the many subjects taught at Lycee Ameth Fall.  Alas, I was never able to establish exactly what would be taught in an “Eco Fam” course, but I remain intrigued.

One poignant moment during my visit arrived inside the school library.  When I poked my nose into La Biblothèque, staff librarians invited me inside to show me a collection they were very proud of.  “Would you like to see a book by any particular author?” they asked.  I mentioned Ousmane Sembene, whose God’s Bits of Wood I was currently reading.  They fetched his novel for me and gestured for me to browse the collection.  Alas, there was hardly a book on their that had been published since the 1980s.

Other schools in Senegal impressed me, but for different reasons.  Our Fulbright delegation agreed that Senegal’s teachers “did very much with very little.”  This mural near the entrance of Ndiaye Primary School in Medina is both idealistic and realistic:  I saw many such smiles among the school's young charges.

One Medina middle school looked as hard as any American blackboard jungle, but the students we met there were courteous and involved in their lessons.

Students in this elementary classroom used old-school slates, upon which they wrote answers in chalk.  Though the method seems antiquated, in fact it allowed the teacher immediate feedback regarding which students were grasping the lesson and allowed her to call on students without embarrassing them, should they be displaying their misunderstanding.

When we sat in on a music class, the instructor proceeded methodically through an introduction to reading notes on the staff—but later we were distressed to learn that the school possessed no musical instruments upon which to learn.  It occurred to me that a committed donor might make a tremendous contribution to the school’s students by funding the purchase of a few playable instruments for this nation of legendary musicians.

We encountered first-hand some of the consequences of Senegal’s rising sea levels.  This home on Saint-Louis’ coast was undermined and ultimately destroyed by rising waters.  According to an article by Álvaro Enríquez de Salamanca in The Conversation, “Between 1954 and 2002, [Senegal’s] coastline retreated by an average of 2.2 metres per year, reaching three metres per year between 2014 and 2018.  This coastal retreat is destroying houses, tourist buildings and fishing infrastructure, and leading to the disappearance of beaches and the loss of agricultural land.  The advance of the sea is also making groundwater more saline and unsuitable for human consumption and agriculture.  In estuarine areas, an increase in salinity affects mangroves and fisheries.”

Saint-Louisians have constructed stone “breakwaters” near the coast to redirect tides, but as de Salamanca points out, “Although breakwaters solve local problems, they may create new ones: sand deposit in one area occurs at the cost of erosion in another.”

Senegal struggles with sanitation issues.  But I temper my judgment with a recognition of the country's dire financial straits.  This rubbish pile I encountered on a Dakar street struck me as a kind of “found-art sculpture” symbolic of Senegal’s battle against the accumulating trash of modern life.  In its way, it bespeaks citizens' earnest efforts to “clean up their streets,” but the cost of hiding their trash the way more prosperous nations do means that the people of Senegal must live more intimately with their refuse.

A visit to a vocational school in Senegal proved surprisingly inspiring, when I learned that many of the school’s buildings were being rehabbed by students whilst learning their trades there.  The school had given their young students on-the-job training with a deep purpose and immediate results.

My friend and colleague Brenda enjoys a day at the beach, compliments of our kind hosts.  It is possible that the vast oceanic distance between Senegal and the States is smaller than we first imagined?