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Lessons Learned from a Week in Myobene, Senegal

This being the second time that I have had the opportunity to visit Africa, several people have already asked how Senegal was different than Malawi?  Short answer: it’s a completely different country on the opposite side of the continent.  That would be like trying to answer how the United States and Mexico are different because they are both countries in North America.  They have just as many similarities as they do differences, so there’s no one easy way to answer that.

Entering the village of Mboyene for the Welcome Ceremony was a very special time. I loved being able to see the students’ joy and excitement and watch them as they were challenged and grew throughout the week. During the Welcome Ceremony, members of the community and the Trek team sign a Covenant for buildOn.  The Covenant is an agreement between the members of the community and buildOn that we will all uphold certain expectations. While skilled laborers from Senegal are hired and paid to do majority of the work on the school build, a certain amount of community volunteers are required to participate and to be invested in this process.  If the community volunteers don’t show up, the school build does not progress. There is also an agreement that an equal number of girls will be enrolled in the school as boys, making sure that the girls in the community have just as equal access to education as the boys.

What’s fun about this specific school build is that it is not this community’s first.  In 2016, buildOn helped them to complete their first school build. The past two years have seen a huge increase in school attendance and the classrooms quickly reached their capacity.  Two teachers daily instruct over 150 students, trying to navigate having multiple grades within the same classroom at the same time. The community, now having direct experience with the importance of education, applied again to buildOn and because of the success they have had, was accepted for a second time for a classroom extension.  We had the opportunity to visit with students and one of the teachers one day and to say that they are thrilled to be receiving a second classroom building is an understatement.

Each of us had the pleasure of living with a host family over the week.  I had the absolute fortune of living with Katie, our Circle of Sisterhood liaison for the week, and Sadio, who was one of our translators.  We really lucked out with having Sadio with us because we were able to have much more in depth conversations with our family during our down time.  While many of the other host families had several younger children and babies in their family, our brothers and sisters were all a little bit older.  Much of the time was spent with the four older teenage girls, which I absolutely loved. Out of the four, three want to become doctors and one wants to become a fashion designer – which I could totally tell because of the outfits that she wore each day!  We talked with them several times about what kind of education that we had and what types of work that we did. One of the primary questions that each of us was asked multiple times was whether we were married and had kids. Out of the 17 females that made up our Trek group (with our buildOn counterparts included) not a single one of us was married or had kids.  The fact that I was 36 and had neither made me kind of feel like a unicorn in their eyes – something you imagine exists, but have never actually seen. Women not getting married at the age of 16 (or at times even younger), is simply not part of how they live. However when they asked me why I had chosen to not get married before now, I truly believe that they understood and respected my answers and did not pass judgement on those decisions.

We were asked to think about the thing that we were most fearful of the first day that we were in the community and my honest answer was that I was fearful of the worksite and of my ability to give my all for 4 hours of manual labor for 3 days straight.  Ironically enough, the work site ended up being my absolute favorite part of the entire experience. I joke when I say thank you to Orange Theory, but I honestly think that I was completely underestimating my physical abilities and was secretly super happy to surprise everyone, including myself, with my strength and endurance doing the hard work.  We performed a variety of tasks during our three days on the website, primary ones being the digging out of the foundation, making bricks, digging the latrines, moving supplies like water, stones, and dirt to make concrete among other things. In comparison of the work I do on a daily basis, it was incredibly satisfying to see the products that result from your work right there in front of you.  Often times I wonder if what I do matters because you can’t often see a simple “finished product”, but with manual labor, it’s obvious of whether you have succeeded at your job or not. It’s refreshing to not have to wonder. I also loved having the ability to focus on a task and close my “thinking brain” off to everything else. I now have a whole new appreciation for those that make a profession out of manual labor.

Each afternoon after the work site we would get to learn things about Senegal and the community during cultural workshops.  One day we got to learn how to make couscous, a second day we got to learn about the wrestling culture which is incredibly popular, and then the most impactful workshop for me was a ‘Gender Talk’ with women from the surrounding villages.  With our translators, we were able to ask questions back and forth of each other and learn more about how women live in both countries. The hardest part about this for me was listening and not replying to some of the answers and conversations that we had.  People who know me well know that I like to challenge thought processes and enjoy asserting my opinion. At one point, the question was asked of what would happen if the women chose not to do the “normal women’s work”, such as making their husband’s lunch each day.  One woman replied that if her husband were to come home from working in the fields and lunch were not prepared, he would beat her. She didn’t make this statement to elicit sympathy from us, it was simply a matter of fact, how things are for her. It took everything I had to not speak up and say “don’t you know that’s not okay?!” But in reality, if I were to tell her that his behavior was not okay, her starting from that point would only bring more challenges for her and her family.  Given the lack of education, women are not taught the skills to become independent from their husbands and earn an income to support themselves and their family. That’s why the cycle has to begin with education, not intervention. Female empowerment and independence is a hugely important value for me, but sometimes getting to that point requires being able to see things from a different perspective. The more educational opportunities that women can have, the more likely they are to be able to make decisions that are healthier in the long-run and as frustrating as that may be sometimes, it’s the most effective and efficient way.

Our last day in Senegal our cultural workshop served as our Closing Ceremony – the time that we came together with our families and celebrated the last several days that we spent together.  We were informed in the morning that we would have a “surprise” from our families which ended up being that our families got to dress us in traditional Senegalese attire. I have never seen women so excited (outside of maybe Panhellenic Bid Day).  The moment we stepped back into our family’s compound, our host mom and sisters were swarming us giving us clothes, jewelry, and various other accessories, including their version of lingerie. I loved just how excited they were to share such an important part of their culture with us.  From the moment we landed in Senegal, I was in love with all of the bright colors and incredible fabric that the women wore on a daily basis. I have so much respect for how much care they put into their daily dress – don’t think I could manage it on a daily basis, but so thankful to have had the opportunity to do it for an afternoon!

Here are a few of the big, important lessons that I am taking with me from this experience:

Inclusion and Non-judgemental Acceptance

From the moment we stepped foot into the community of Mboyene, we were accepted wholeheartedly and without any conditions.  It continues to baffle me at how our families completely opened up their homes to us and literally gave us the clothes off their backs without knowing us or being able to communicate with us, yet here in America, we are building literal and figurative walls to keep people who are different from us out.  Majority of the residents were either Muslim or Christian, yet they made it a point to inform us that members of both religions lived in harmony, sometimes families having both religious ideologies living in the same communal space.

Patience and Living in the Moment

My everyday life consistently depends on the clock and that clock tells me what time that something should be happening.  In America, we live and die by our agendas, planners, and schedules. I get incredibly irritated when things don’t happen on time or when things take longer than I perceive that they should.  That concept simply did not exist in Myobene. We would have a start time of 4:00pm for a cultural workshop and all of us would be there on time and ready to go, but then the actual event wouldn’t begin until 5:30pm.  At first, it was maddening. In one particular instance, I had stopped playing a board game with my host sisters because we were supposed to be somewhere and when that event didn’t start until an hour and a half later, I just kept thinking about how had I known, I would have stayed and finished that game.  But as the week progressed and I became more accustomed to the flexibility in time, I realized just how freeing not feeling restricted to a timeframe can be. Things started when they were ready to start. Nothing felt forced or rushed or had to be cut off before it had reached its natural ending point. If people came after something had started, there was no shame put on them for “being late.”  If people were waiting on something to begin, they took that time as an opportunity to socialize, to dance, to simply be with each other. Just imagine how much more we may feel connected to each other if we didn’t feel this constant need to be busy and be doing something all the time.

 

Gratefulness

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been trying a simple daily journal of writing down three things that I’m grateful or thankful for and to be completely honest, there were days that I struggled to think of three things.  This trek reminded me of simply just how much I take for granted every single day. Things like air conditioning when we couldn’t sleep at night because we were so hot and sweaty, paved roads and sidewalks to walk on so that my shoes aren’t full of sand each evening, my access to education (which looking back now, I realize just how much I took being able to get high school, undergraduate, and graduate degrees as easily as I did for granted) so that I can have not only a job, but a career that allows me to support myself and a paycheck that pays for more than simply rent and food, but also allows me to have outside interests, travel, and enjoy time with friends and family.  This type of perspective is something that I hope to continue to remind myself of daily.

 

The Power of Women

I have always believed in the power of women, but it’s opportunities like these when you actually get to see strong, intelligent, compassionate, and empowered women come together that you realize just how vital women are to the success of our world.  I am incredibly grateful for the 12 students from UT that trusted me enough to travel across the globe and enter into an environment where we were torn away from every single comfort zone we have ever known. It is through these challenges and stepping outside our daily lives that we are able to grow and learn.  It is our responsibility to bring those lessons back to our own community and share with them these lessons. It is our duty to continue to be an active part of our communities and work with others to make this world a better place for every single person living in it, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc.  I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity that I had to get to know these women during our time in Senegal as each of them is truly a special individual and brings so many strengths with her.

 

One of the absolute hardest parts about going on Trek is being opened up to so many new things and having the opportunity to see the “bigger picture” and then having to come home and deal with all of the “petty” stuff.  I made the mistake of turning on my email as soon as we had Wifi access in the Paris airport and immediately became angry and frustrated at some of the communication I had received while gone. My immediate thoughts were, “don’t these people get that this doesn’t matter?!”  It’s hard – my priorities and what I feel is “important” shifts during these experiences and I want to shake the people that don’t see the bigger picture. But I also know that those thoughts aren’t exactly fair – they didn’t experience Trek and what they perceive as “important” is a priority for them, just not for me at this current time.  It’s difficult to try and navigate those feelings because I still do have a job to do and do need to respond to the little things. But it’s also my job to help people see why sometimes priorities need to shift and we need to spend a little less time worrying about the small things and a little more time focusing on the big things.

While I can never 100% relay what this experience was like, hopefully this blog provides some insight and can serve as a reminder of why the education and empowerment of women, forcing ourselves out of our comfort bubbles, and learning to live with and appreciate people that may be a little different from us are all such powerful things.  While I never imagined that I would be able to say that twice in my lifetime I’ve been to Africa, I also sincerely hope this is was not the last time.

Thank you to Jennifer Pierce, who wrote this post for her own blog “Living Life Colorfully” and allowed us to republish it here. Jennifer is a Gamma Phi Beta and is the Assistant Director for Fraternity and Sorority Life at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She is a lover of all things colorful and bright and a true and constant hero in the Circle of Sisterhood Foundation. Thank you again Jennifer!

Have your own Circle of Sisterhood story to share? We’d love to hear it! Contact Mia McCurdy at blog@circleofsisterhood.org

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