The reflective voices of our teens, Black, White, Muslim, Christian, refugee, male and female fill the area on the final debrief of the trip: “I’m going to eat all my food, I used to waste food, but I won’t anymore.” “Those three year olds act better and have longer attention spans than our classmates.” “I feel… safer, more free, less stressed, more welcome, more peaceful here… than I do at home.” “Hard work with purpose feels good.” No one was ready to return, everyone wanted to stay just a little bit longer. We were a group of 11, three chaperones and eight students, 9th through 12th grade traveling to Senegal over Thanksgiving as a learning excursion for My World, a global citizenship and leadership program for teens based in Atlanta, GA.
For five of the teens, this would be their first time leaving the North American continent. Upon landing in Dakar, getting our bags and meeting Tijan our driver we arrived at our accommodation for the next few days, La Villa 126. We wanted our students to see many different sides of Senegal so that they could challenge the stereotypes the media feeds us about Africa. La Villa’s 5 star accommodations at 3 star prices did not disappoint.
Our first full day in country, students met their pen pals of the Malika English Club and that exchange turned out to be the favorite part of the entire trip. In our program, building relationships across differences is a large part of our efforts. We were greeted by a delegation of the town’s Mayor, welcomed with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, participated in a lively debate about democracy, ate delicious Senegalese food and danced around a bonfire. After visiting their pals’ homes, our students marveled at how happy everyone was even though they materially have little.
Our second day started with a visit to Goree Island facilitated by our guide Ali of Andaando Tours. If you’re looking to understand the roots of modern day oppression, institutional racism, self hate within the Black diaspora, destruction of the Black family or simply pay homage and say a prayer for the ancestors, this is a powerful place to start. Our students faced a mixed range of emotions.
Seeing the nonchalant Europeans on the ferry and tour felt disrespectful, filled them with anger and left them wondering why they were even there and should they even be allowed there at all. For one student it brought up painful memories and heartache that were shared by a relative who’s endured modern day slavery.
For our Gambian chaperone, there was anger at how much the African community doesn’t know and how that ignorance affects how they think about and deal with African Americans. For our White student there was shame and horror around her ancestor’s actions. It was a heavy morning. What do you do with all of that?
After sitting with that grief, moving through the day and regrouping to debrief that evening, students were encouraged to channel their energy into speaking up when they see a wrong being done or something crazy being said about a marginalized group, or challenging their own thoughts of color lines within the Black community or raising awareness about present day is sues that are rooted in our economic system of oppression.
They were happy to have the company
and we were happy to be with them.
We finished the day with sightseeing and taking in a sunset over the beach that is the westernmost point on the African continent before heading to the Pink Lake the next day. For about $15 you can ride on a camel (half hour round trip) over to the most beautiful stretch of pristine beach you’ve probably ever seen. Over the next two days we had the honor of helping the community of Keur Simbara build a latrine facilitated by Tostan. Working alongside the villagers gave our young people such pride in their work. We visited a preschool class, taught teens to throw a frisbee, took goofy photos of the little kids and played a game of soccer. It was like hanging out with your extended family all day. They were happy to have the company and we were happy to be with them as their joy and love for life is something we sadly don’t often see.
On our final day we followed up our manual labor with art and relaxation at Sobo Bade in Toubab Dialaw. Students took a djembe drumming class, learned the technique of batik, swung in the hammocks and played with the kids on the beach. As we sat and reflected on our week, the statements that opened this article were a few that spilled out. I knew then that for at least ten people on the planet, many stereotypes had been broken, consciousness had been sparked and perspectives would never be the same. And we hope to do it all over again next year with a new group of future leaders.
In addition to developing leadership skills, My World provides scholarships so that participants can afford their trip. Five of the eight students on this year’s trip were able to go only with the help of our generous donors. We hope to provide twice that number of scholarships next year. Our Give the Gift of Travel Campaign is open through the New Year. If you would like to help us continue changing the lives of young people please visit us online.