To the Land of Teranga

To the Land of Teranga

December 2022

The snow kept falling, leaving the ponderosa and piñon branches outside my window pendant and promising a Snow Day on Tuesday.  For many a teacher, it’s not a White Christmas that we long for so much as a Snow Day, and once the call came in from the county next morning making it official, I moved my stack of essays aside and, as usual, found yet another way to postpone paper-grading as I began shuffling through that Pandora’s Box we call the World Wide Web.  In the middle of a ramble through The Atlantic, the notification arrived from the good people at Fulbright, letting me know that I would be posted to Senegal in April.

For months I’d been waiting for that post.  An unquiet world had complicated our Global Classroom travel plans; beset by a worldwide pandemic and—at the risk of sounding overwrought—a looming worldwide war, the Fulbright team had doubtless been sifting State Department data as they placed several dozen impatient scholars around the planet. 

It became official on a doubly-blessed Snow Day:  “We are pleased to provide you with updated information regarding the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program International Field Experience.  Your host country for the International Field Experience will be Senegal.”

Senegal, in bold letters.  In West Africa, right?—in that cluster of countries that I often confused with one another whilst playing “The Map Game.”  (“The Map Game” was another self-improvement mission I’d devised when I printed a stack of blank maps to teach myself world geography, having skipped that class in college.)  The 54 countries of Africa had stumped me more than any other continent’s.

A quick accounting of my Prior Knowledge of Senegal was shamefully meager.  I knew that Senegal had sent a side to the FIFA World Cup; their team, for reasons to me then unknown, were called the “Lions of Teranga.”  The Senegalese national team had fared well in tournament play, defeating Ecuador in a tight match to advance to the round of 16.  Some global scholar I was.

So what does an ignorant but earnest teacher do first when he finds out he is being posted to Senegal?  Well, he further neglects those essays and types Senegal into his search engine.  I’d like to boast that I’m a sophisticated researcher, but in fact I proceeded to the inevitable Wikipedia Senegal entry and learned that my host country’s official language is French (a personal barrier), but that its lingua franca is in fact Wolof (an even higher barrier), that it is governed as a unitary presidential republic (familiar) and, according to the World Bank’s Overview, “since the country's foundation in 1960, has been recognized as one of the most stable countries on the African continent” (reassuring).

While I’ve encountered little military presence whilst traveling outside the US, (exceptions:  military police patrolling Mexican highways, armed soldiers in Jerusalem), I’ve found such “security measures” more unsettling than reassuring.  So when I read that “Military noninterference in political affairs has contributed to Senegal's stability since independence,” I was encouraged.  Senegal’s military is small, having mostly participated in UN peacekeeping missions (though I was disappointed to learn that the country had participated in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen).  The Senegalese government was apparently friendly to the U.S. and to France, its former colonial overlord, but I wondered whether that was a friendliness confined to government officials or if that attitude was shared among its citizens, of whom I would soon be a guest.

Impatient with—but still grateful for—all the hyperlinks (Almoravid Dynasty, Louis Faidherbe, Battle of Fandane-Thiouthioune), I fast-forwarded through other demographic details to the Music heading and found there a familiar name:  Youssou N’Dour, the renowned Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry collaborator, and perhaps the best-known of all African musicians to an American audience.  Enough Wikipedia data; it was time to launch Spotify for the next step in my Senegalization.

My Snow Day presented opportunities for further excursions:  Ordering a Lonely Planet Senegal (actually, no such animal since 2009; ordering Lonely Planet West Africa instead), ordering a copy of Goncourt Prize-winner Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s first novel Brotherhood, and then typing in “Senegal film”—wherein I found the name of the father of African Cinema (heretofore unknown to me), Ousmane Sembène.  My partner Chris and I watched an alluring Sembène documentary on Amazon the next evening.  And then where else but to Parts Unknown to follow Anthony Bourdain around Dakar and Saint-Louis.

But my own journey to Senegal was to be focused on education—not merely on cultivating my personal education but devoting my time in-country to exploring Senegal’s educational system.  Wikipedia’s two-paragraph summary of Senegalese education was not encouraging, as it noted that “The Ministry of Labor has indicated that the public school system is unable to cope with the number of children that must enroll each year,” and pegging the net primary enrollment rate at 69% in 2005.  For comparison’s sake, Algeria’s sits at 99.65%, near neighbor Sierra Leone at 98.97%, and next-door neighbor Mali at 58.94%.  Most troubling, the article noted that “illiteracy is high, particularly among women,” which prompted me to wonder how significant the nation’s conservative Muslim roots might contribute to that gender discrepancy.

But there was better news to be found from the Global Partnership for Education, which reports that “Senegal has spent over 20% of total government expenditure on education since 2015, and country-level partners are discussing how to improve the efficiency and equity of domestic financing to address low learning outcomes and ensure the most vulnerable children are not left behind.”  In the last decade and a half, grants have aided the country in increasing access to technical/vocational education and training, and more young Senegalese are pursuing higher education.

Vision statements are easy to write, of course, but Senegal’s government strives for “the diversification of its economy and development of social harmony and political stability in order to achieve ‘an emerging Senegal by 2035 with a civic-minded society governed by the rule of law.’”  A Fulbright teacher can be inspired by such a vision.

In the end, Senegal faces significant economic challenges, which I’ve yet to witness first-hand of course.   The Economist (as summarized by the helpful staff at Wikipedia) concludes that “the main obstacles to the economic development of [Senegal] are its great corruption with inefficient justice, very slow administrative formalities, and a failing education sector.”  And then there are troubling cultural realities, like the country’s criminalization of homosexuality and anti-LGBTQ attitudes among the Senegalese population; according to 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 96% of Senegalese people believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society.

That being so, I discovered in my preliminary research on my host country—thank you, Anthony Bourdain—that teranga (as in “Lions of Teranga”) is a national ethic for the Senegalese.  In a word, teranga is “hospitality”—but according to Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese cofounder of Teranga, a New York City restaurant, “It’s really much more complex than that.  It’s a way of life.”  Writes Colette Coleman, in a 2016 travelogue for the BBC, “As a visitor, I quickly noticed that this value permeates many aspects of daily life in Senegal. Teraanga emphasises generosity of spirit and sharing of material possessions in all encounters—even with strangers.  This builds a culture in which there is no ‘other.’  By being so giving to all, regardless of nationality, religion or class, a feeling grows that everyone is safe and welcome.”

In the great Fulbright host-country lottery, then, it appears I have drawn a winning number.  It's hard to predict what awaits me in Senegal and what good I might become to my hosts.  But with four months remaining till departure, I find myself stirred by new possibilities, even in the last years of a teaching career, and once more Still Learning.

Wikimedia image courtesy Sanjay Rao