SLU students in Dakar

Asalaa Malekum !!!

This is how everything started ! With a typical senegalese greeting !

My name is Adélie Breil and I am a French student. I am originally from Rouen, in Normandy, but I am currently doing a Master degree in Aix-en-Provence. I am studying foreign languages (English and German) and I’ve recently specialized in Management of cultural and humanitarian projects abroad. After a hard year of studies at University, I am now in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, to do a three-month internship at ACI Baobab Center. ACI Baobab Center is an american non-profit organization, whose main mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding, social justice and the health and well being of Africa’s people through effective communication and transformational training.

ACI is used to welcome students from all over the world, either university groups or independent students, who want to improve their French, Wolof or English and to have a better understanding of life and culture in Africa. The exchange programmes are based on cross-cultural understanding and what makes the difference is that students are placed in Senegalese host families during their stay in Senegal.
Every fall and spring, a group of students from the University of St Lawrence (Canton, New York State) comes and spends a week in Dakar, as part of their programme about “Francophonie”. Indeed, after two weeks in Quebec City, one semester in Rouen, Normandy, a week in Paris, they land to Dakar, Senegal to have an insight into French-speaking Africa.

As an intern, my mission was to follow them…

The students from St Lawrence University

The students arrived on Saturday, 16th of April with an Air France flight from Paris. As I mentionned before, 8 students from St Lawrence University (SLU) are spending a semester at Université de Rouen (Normandy) as part of their program about “Francophonie”. Six girls and two boys, accompagned of their teacher, Nathalia Singer from SLU and also Sophie Picavet, assistant of the SLU programme in Rouen and Christel Outreman, Directrice du cabinet du président de l’Université de Rouen.

I first met them on Sunday, 17th of April after a good night of sleep at Coumda Ndao. They enjoyed their breakfast on the terasse of Coumba Ndao, the hotel they spent the first night in. At 9.00 am, I went to pick them up: it’s a little bit hard for me to remember all the names at once, but I can feel that we are going to spend a great week all together. I discussed with all of them, trying to understand what is their first impression of Dakar. They all seem to be pleased ! It was just the beginning…

And then, the adventure started ! My first mission: take them to the Baobab Center (10 minutes of walk from the hotel) and let them discover the quiet neighborhood of the Sicap Baobab. SICAP is the abreviation for Société Immobilière du Cap Vert (Green Cape real Estate Company), and is a gathering of houses built by the state to provide accomodation for the people of Dakar.

The students are discovering for the first time the two builduings composing the Baobab Center, under a already warm sun.

Gary Engelberg, co-founder and director of the center and Al Hassane Diahate,associate Director for Language and Cultureare are already waiting for us in the conference room.

At 9.30 am, the first session of the week started. Every students introducted him or herself and describes their university pathways. Their subjects are sometimes different, from British litterature to Economics, but they have one thing in common : French studies. Indeed Brittany, Jordyn, Andrea, Emma, Lavon, Gabrielle, Reena, Jared travelled on three continents to improve their knowledges about “Francophonie”.

The first question is : “Why did you choose Senegal?” And there are different answers : “I wanted to learn more about the African culture, and especially Senegal” says one of them. “I wanted to see something else” answers an other one. All in all, it seems that all students are highly interested in discovering Senegal and the Senegalese Society.

Then it is time for an introduction to ACI Baobab Center. Gary Engelberg, director of the center, explains how they created the center and how it finally came to life in 1983. The first aim of the center was to help experts and volunteers who were coming to Senegal to integrate and have a better understanding of the culture and the people they were going to work with.

Indeed the founders of ACI, Gary Engelberg and Lilian Baer, noticed that these volunteers or any people who were coming to work in Senegal or take part to seminars had a lot of things to teach to the local population but had troubles expressing and transmitting their knowledges. That is why ACI started organising some cross-cultural sessions to improve the experts’ undersatnding of the new culture. They wanted to create a all “logistic” around the experts and their stay in Senegal.

After a couple of years, the Center extended. As Gary Engelberg says himself, ACI is really focused on international education, which is the key of future success. “You can only grow when you are in an other situation, especially in a developping country. Everything you will learn now will influence your life and all the decisions you will make” he adds.

To sum things up, Gary Engelberg  finally adds : “ACI’s mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding, social justice and the health and well-being of Africa’s people, through effective communication and transformational training”. This is actually the motto of the center. You can read more on

At 11.00 am, the students left the center to visit the neighborhood where they are going to live for one week. Indeed, the night at the hotel was just for the first night. From now on, they are going to spend every evening and night  in a Senegalese family, living at a walking distance from ACI Baobab Center.

The group is divided into 4 groups of 2 people, with a Senegalese guide. Adama, Awa, Fatim and Thiaba are four students working from time to time as guides for ACI and are going to stay with us, most of the time, during this week. I am joining Lavon and Jared, the two boys of the group for a walk in the Sicap. Thiaba shows us all the “strategic” places they might need during the week (bank, supermarket, post office…) but she also tells us about the neighborhood ! We even passed by the house of Abdoulaye Wade, the President of the Republic of Senegal ! Below is my group for the neighborhood visit :)

The tour was really interesting, but what I like the most is the reaction of the students afterwards. We had, after lunch, a typical Senegalese “Yassa Poulet”, an other session at the center where the ACI team organized a “Feedback”-session. On four panels, students had to write the “likes”, the “dislikes”, “what threw ma was” and the new words (Wolof and/or French) they heard.



At the end of the day, it’s time for the students to meet their host families. Most of them are a little bit stressed. They explain to me: “We have no idea what to expect, its our first time in Africa”, “I am affraid of the family’s reaction, my French is not that good”. But they are in pair and knowing the Senegalese hospitality for already 3 weeks, I was sure everything was going to be okay. They will let me know the day after…

Monday morning. The students spent their first evening and night with the Senegalese host family. The impressions are really different from a group to another. Some of them just told me “it was great!”, and other give more details “There were at least 15 people in the house last night!” or “We were told not to eat row fruit but they offered me a mango and I didn’t dare saying no, they were really insisting”. But all in all, the main impression is very positive, especially concerning the food “It was delicious” is the frequent answer to my dinner-related questions ! Im glad they enjoyed it ! If they had not spent a good time there, I would not have understood, actually !

And this morning, at 9.00 starts their class of “survival wolof”. In Senegal, greeting people when you meet them at any time of the day is really important. And shaking hands is not enough ! There is a whole procedure to follow and some greetings to know by heart! That is why ACI organises this class: for the students to be able to integrate and understand better the culture and the people they are going to live with. Here is the basis :

A: Asalaa Malekum

B: Malekum Salaam

A: Naka nga def ?

B: Mangi fii rekk.

A: Ana wa kër ga ?

B: Nunga fa.

A: Alhamdulilay.

B: Alhamdulilay.

On the right, Gabrielle and Jared, practising their Wolof.

At the end of the class, the students are able to greet people in the street or whereever they meet new people. They also know how to introduce themselves, saying that they are from America and that they are students. The professor taught them how to count and to bargain in the street or for a taxi ! Again, bargaining belongs to the Senegalese culture and being able to do it in the local language is definitely recquired.

Language is part of the culture and culture is part of the language, after all !

Jërëjëf, Mr. teacher !

Under the wise supervision of Mame Daour Wade, the communication’s officer, Aby Diallo, the housing coordinator and Aby Ly, English teacher at Lamin Gueye Highschool who is also an ACI ressource, our 8 students and 3 teachers were introduced into Senegalese values, which appear to be very different from theirs.

But first thing first, why is this important to understand the Senegalese culture ? Most of the answers are related to the home stay : “We don’t want to be offensive, and we want to give a good impression, show the family that we have respect for them” they say. “Some reactions might create a cut” says an other one. “We don’t want to make them unconfortable, so we have to know how to behave”.

In the field of this session, the following quotation is important to remember : “La culture est ce qu’il reste quand on a tout oublié”. (Culture is what stays when you forget every thing). What do you think ?

We were then told about 7 concepts, which are part of the Senegalese culture :

  • Mbokk, Njaboot, “Nit, Nitay Garabam” –> Family
  • Kersa/Teggin –> Respect and the proper way to behave
  • Fayda –> Determination, self-confidence and perseverence
  • Teranga –> Hospitality
  • Jom –> Belief in oneself
  • Dëmm, Jinne, Rab. “Les morts ne sont pas morts” –> Evil spirit
  •  Muñ, “Ku Muññ, Muuñ”–> Acceptance of one’s condition
 A lot of these values are really inspiring for the western society. The Senegalese hospitality, the respect, the conception of family are the values that I found the most interesting. We have so much to learn. Concerning hospitality, you can experience it every day, in the street, in a family. “To Share” is more than a word here. If a child has a piece of bread, you can be sure he will divide it, to share it with his friends,  who might not have bread this day.
Lets go further into the values !
Aby Ly is showing us how to wear the traditional “pagna”. It’s actually harder than it looks like !
This was just before lunch. Aby introduced us to the Senegalese eating etiquette. We had the national dish, Ceebu Jëm (Rice and fish), and we ate around the bowl. Forget forks and knives, you won’t need them !! Eating the rice with the hands is a difficult exercice when you are not used to it, but our students seem to like it and quickly every one has its own technic !
The introduction into the Senegalese values was definitely a success ! All the students seem to be pleased by what they learn this morning ! They will now be more in the position to understand their host family and their way of life ! This is the reason why they are here, after all…

On Monday afternoon, the main topic was “religion”. Ousseynou Ba, an islamic specialist and an ACI ressource, took us to different place in Dakar to tell us more about his religion.

First stop was at “La Mosquée de la Divinité” built between 1992 and 1997 but descending from the sky on the night of Thursday, 28 th of June and Friday, 29th of June 1973. Ousseynou Ba told us what happened exactly …

On this very special night, Mohamed Gorgui Seyni Guèye, the founder of the mosque, had a dream. He dreamt that a mosque was descending from the sky down to the earth with a plan. He heard a voice telling him to follow the mosque, and he saw the mosque down here,  at this very place, near the sea, in the “Ouakam” district of Dakar. Then the voice told him to build a mosque in a time of five year. That is what he did, almost twenty years after that. His tomb is just behing us: he died in Marrocco in 2007.

The entrance door of the mosque.

Students looking inside the mosque. Since none of us is a muslim, we are not allowed to come in.

In the area of the mosque, girls are veiled. Group picture in front of the “Mosquée de la Divinité”

Next step : a coranic school or “Daara”. Ousseynou Ba takes us in a school in the district of “Ouakam” and explains to us how work this kind of school, owned by a Coranic master. During the day, the children have to learn the verses of the Coran, often by heart without understanding since its in arabic. When they are done, they go begging in the street. These children are called “Talibés”. The money they collect goes to the Coranic master, who, in return, feed them and give them a shelter at night.

Ousseynou Ba explains how the children learn the verses of the Coran.

Below the Coranic School with students repeating all together and out loud the Coran.

The impression I’ve got is a bit weird and hard to describe. Hearing all these voices repeating the same sentences at the same time gave me a goose skin. Seeing all these children, who are away from their parents and begging made me sad for a few minutes before I realise I’ve to stop comparing everything with my home country. Here, it’s the way things are working: religion is so important in Senegal that it is hard to understand how devouted people are.

Not related to religion this time, we are now heading to “Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine” ..