Week three is when our group started to get serious about two of the most important elements of our study abroad experience: our final project, and of course, souvenirs.
For the former, each of us had chosen a special topic before we left the States, and were supposed to compile a 10 minute oral presentation, entirely in French, about what we had learned from our personal observations here in Africa. My topic was religion, which I found very easy to write about because Senegal is 94 percent Muslim. The way I would describe it is as a ‘national religion’ – Islam is just as much a part of their cultural identity as we consider BBQs, freedom of speech, and reality TV a part of ours. In the States, 15 percent of citizens identify as atheist or agnostic, but in Senegal, we were specifically told that we shouldn’t tell our host parents if we weren’t religious. “They just will not understand,” our orientation advisor explained, “because here, it is very difficult to imagine someone leading an ethical life when they have no religion. It does not matter what religion you tell them, but do not say you believe in nothing.”
I remember the first night my host mother asked me my religion. I proudly, and truthfully, told her Catholic. She smiled and said to me ruefully in French, “Ah, well. Maybe you’ll marry a nice Muslim man, and he’ll convert you.”
My final project also led me to a lot of other discoveries regarding religion in Senegal. For instance, there’s virtually no separation of Church and state. One of the largest banks in Senegalis the Islamic National Bank. Know why it’s so popular? Because, as per the Qu’ran, the bankers aren’t allowed to charge interest. It seems to make no sense, but somehow the Senegalese people have managed to combine the most secular thing in the world – money – with religious principles to create a successful business. What’s more, nearly all the transportation is owned by the mosques. The cars rapides, or small city buses, have “Alhamdoulilah” painted on their hoods – Arabic for “praise to God.” And the most delightful part of all is waking up at five in the morning to the sound of “imams” (Islamic leaders) chanting “suras” (these are like chapters in the Bible – a sura is a section of the Qu’ran) to Allah.
But I really, truly mean it when I say it was a delight. Growing up in the States, I never felt like I was in an environment that had the absolute faith that the people of Dakar, Senegal do. Even though Islam isn’t my particular faith, the general attitude towards religion was refreshing and uplifting for me – in stark contrast with the States, where most religion (at least on my college campus) is met with skepticism.
But now, on to the souvenirs! I decided that my best course of action was to buy a bunch of wood carvings of different animals, and distribute them among my family members. I found a rhino for my younger cousin, a cute little turtle for my mom, an elephant for my dad, and a hippo for my sister. I obtained all these over the course of quite a few weeks, as the result of haggling and many long, hot, draining trips to downtown Dakar.
As for my friends, I had a different idea. I decided that I would send them all postcards, and it worked out so well that I think this will be my go-to souvenir for all future vacations. As I went along my travels, I purchased postcards here and there until I had about twenty. Then Alice and I had a little postcard writing fest one evening, and I basically got to relive all the good times I had had so far as I condensed them into one paragraph a piece. The next day, Alice and I went on an adventure to the post office (shamelessly jaywalking all the way there and back), stamped our cards, and sent them off. It was very gratifying to see all those pretty postcards, colorful and full of my stories!
Some other awesome things happened during my third week. I finally met Lily and Kisha’s host family, and spent some time playing with their adorable 7-year-old host sister, Majj; I went to the tailleur (tailor) and had measurements taken for a dress; Alice’s cousins who live in Senegal, Laurent and Edith, took us out for dinner to a lovely restaurant on the water; and at the end of the week, we packed up our bags for one last trip before our departure.
But I think I’ll save those adventures for next time… because at Toubab Diaolo, our final weekend excursion, I made some of the best memories I had all trip.