STUDENT TRAVEL: A Research Trip to Senegal

View from the plane over Dakar, capital city of Senegal.

View from the plane over Dakar, capital city of Senegal.


By Haby Sondo

Na’nga def. Mangi tudd Haby Sondo. Mangi American la. Senegal neek la.”

The phrases above translate into: “Hello/How are you? My name is Haby Sondo. I am American. Senegal is nice.”


These little bits of Wolof (the native language of the Wolof people) were pieces I attempted to use as I walked through the vibrant streets of Senegal, Africa’s westernmost country.  I received plenty of smiles and “Na nga def’s” back, but also hundreds of confused faces from some individuals who probably assumed I was Senegalese (because of my dark complexion), and were confused as to why my Wolof was so horrible. After all, that is the limited knowledge most people have of this coastal country: that all its inhabitants have dark skin, which is most definitely not true.

     Fun Fact: Africa is an ethnically diverse continent. Each ethnic group has its distinct traditions, languages, and physical features (this is why it makes no sense to tell someone “you look African,” since there is no one way to look African!) Different ethnic groups settled in different parts of Africa. For example, the largest ethnic group in Senegal is the Wolof, who make up 43% of the population, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a Wolof person in Ethiopia. The second largest ethnic group in Senegal are the Fula (who you can also find in Guinea and Mali), and who make up about 24% of the population. Comprising only 15 % of the population is Senegal’s third largest ethnic group, the Serer, who are known for their extremely dark, vibrant skin tones.


Through a program called International Youth Leadership Institute (IYLI), I was given the opportunity this summer to study abroad! This is an account of my experiences in a country whose inhabitants, I believe, have mastered the art of selflessness.

From the moment I left New York I kept a diary of my journey by making regular entries in my travel journal.


12:11 am- “I’m on the plane! So scared!!! I hope I have a safe flight.”

12:45 am- “I’m crossing a body of water! Watching the wing of the airplane light up. This is amazing! I could literally see the edges, curves, outlines of the city I call home. I’m excited to see what awaits me on the other continent.”


The Goree swimming area near the House of Slaves

The Goree swimming area near the House of Slaves


The sky was light and the sun’s rays were brighter than ever. The rays pierced into the crystal blueness of the sky and illuminated Goree Island. They specifically shone on the beautiful blackness that swam in the clear water. They shone on the melanin-enriched skin of hundreds of Senegalese people enjoying swimming and laughing in the Goree Island Ocean, one of the many beauties this country has to offer. They moved through the water so effortlessly, almost as if they were born to swim. I stood by the shore admiring their beauty.

But soon I would be passing aggressive vendors looking to sell dashikis standing in front of La Maison des Esclaves (The House of Slaves in French). Senegal is home to this infamous building (located on Goree Island) which was a major slave trading post during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade.

Below I’ve listed seven interesting statements our tour guide made regarding the history of the slave house.


  1. Slave Trading on Goree Island took place from 1536 to 1848.
  2. “Cellule de Recalciatrants” were cells designated for “bad” slaves.
  3. Rooms were broken up to divide women, men, and children.
  4. Slave owners bartered various goods in exchange for slaves.  For example, to get a virgin girl, potential owners would give a gun, or a barrel of wine.
  5. Goree Island had 28 slave houses.
  6. Pope Jean Paul II visited Goree in 1992, and apologized to Africans because many Catholic missionaries were involved in the slave trade.
  7. Nelson Mandela visited the House of Slaves and sat for 10 minutes in one of the slave punishment rooms.


(I’m not sure I can precisely recall how I felt on that island, in that house. So I’ve included two entries from my journal to describe it:)


July 21st, 4:08pm- “At the ‘door of no return.’  No words for how I am feeling at this  surreal, disgusting, but beautiful moment.   How can people bring themselves to destroy such a place so tragically precious? There are names on rocks, touching the exact place our ancestors lost their former lives. It’s ironic how we bring ourselves to destroy the very thing that created some of us.”

4:28 – “Tragically beautiful. I’m having a hard time accepting that this place is real.  When I say it’s ‘tragically beautiful…’ I mean that The House of Slaves is one of very few preserved memorials to the Atlantic slave trade, so it now serves as a learning experience. It’s painful, but it’s real. It’s there for people to view and learn about with their own eyes, which is much more powerful than looking at it through a history textbook, a YouTube video, or a virtual tour. It’s historical, and shows the slave trade in its truest, most horrific form.”


I couldn’t help but notice as I walked through the House that there were writings on the walls from visitors, and that people couldn’t resist the urge to take pictures and videos (I, myself, included).  As I stood in front of the Door of No Return and looked out into the Atlantic Ocean, I couldn’t help but feel that by taking pictures, I was in a way disrespecting the hardships my ancestors endured.

I wanted to be “in the moment,” and that meant attempting to imagine 6 million human beings being robbed of their human rights. That meant imagining my life being bartered like an object. It meant imagining being shot because I fought to stay at home. That’s not something I felt I would ever be strong enough to imagine, or survive.

As I imagined these unbearable conditions, I remembered that some of those who were enslaved survived. The thought of the survivors wasn’t something I could ignore. They survived so that there would be a future where their melanin-enriched children could once again swim through the clear Senegalese water. La Maison des Enclaves clothed me in dignity, pride, and insight into another part of my story.


I wasn’t in Senegal as a tourist. IYLI has a curriculum set in place for students to follow when going on these trips. We completed three ethnographic projects, but I  decided for this article to focus on my favorite out of the three.. According to the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, an ethnography is a descriptive study of a particular human society. Contemporary ethnography is based upon fieldwork.  An ethnographer usually cultivates close relationships with local informants who can provide specific information on aspects of cultural life.  So, I guess I was an ethnographer for about a month.


The view across one of the bays in this lovely country.

The view across one of the bays in this lovely country.


My favorite ethnography project was called “Snapshot of the Community.” This project was designed to help students understand how history, culture, geography, and environment have influenced development in a community.  At first, each group had to come up with a focus problem, and questions we wanted to ask local informants about the problem we noticed. My group decided to focus on a challenging issue not only facing Senegal, but also prevalent in many other African nations: Sanitation.

When we first arrived in Senegal we stayed at a house in Ngor Village in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The canals there are man-made waterways with a number of different uses–they can be used for the transportation of goods, or even as a clean water supply. This was unfortunately not the case in the village where we stayed. Their canal was being used as a garbage landfill.  Everyone threw their household trash into it, making the water appear greenish and creating an unbearable stench throughout the neighborhood.


Below are four questions my group decided to ask local informants:


  1. Where is the trash of this village dumped?
  2. How often do you dump trash from your house into the designated area?
  3. Have you ever gotten sick from the lack of sanitation around your village?
  4. What alternatives do you suggest the inhabitants of this country should take to keep the country cleaner?

We interviewed a total of 10 people. Four people were questioned in Ngor Village, two people were questioned on Ngor Island, and four people on Goree Island. All of these places are just different parts of Dakar, so for the first question everyone’s answer was Mbeubeuss, the official landfill for the city of Dakar.  All informants talked about how they swept their individual compounds at the beginning of every morning, then kept their trash in one area until it was time to deliver that trash to a truck to be taken to the city landfill.

Yet even having established a big city landfill, the country is at a crossroads.  According to the International Development Research Centre, Mbeubeuss receives 1,300 tons of garbage daily.  Mbeubeuss is located on the outskirts of Dakar. Landfills are usually located in uninhabited areas, but this was not the case for Mbeubeuss. People live within walking distance from this landfill which produces constant clouds of smoke and dust.  The local population is told to add a bit of bleach to their water due to possible contamination. Also, air quality around this landfill is said to be the cause of health issues such as asthma, which negatively affect the local population.


Nevertheless, other people see opportunity in Mbeubeuss. Thousands of men and diverse recyclers sort out plastics, metals, and items which can be profitably saved and recycled here. There is a current search for a more favorable location for this landfill– hopefully in an area that doesn’t have people living nearby.

Thinking back on it, we should have asked our local informants if they knew anything about the current trash accumulation in their canal–how many years it took to get this dirty, and if there were any local community members working to prevent it from getting any worse.  However, what we often found was that people were in denial about the sanitation issues that their communities were facing. People were worried about the cleanliness of their individual compounds instead of the condition of their community as a whole. This was very disheartening, and perhaps this narrow perspective is the root cause of the sanitation issue in Senegal.


My research also included meetings with various different non-governmental humanitarian organizations such as Siggil Jigeen and The Peace Corps. Siggil Jigeen is a Dakar-based NGO aimed at improving women’s rights in Senegal. They deal with genital mutilation in certain parts of Senegal, as well as work to establish bills and laws protecting women’s rights. After taking the time to speak with several organizations, I decided The Peace Corps was by far my favorite.

The Peace Corps, which promotes world peace by sending American volunteers to different countries for 36 months at a time, was the group that interested me the most.  In Senegal their mission is divided into four different sectors: Agriculture, Community Health, Community Economic Development, and Senegdad (a word describing organized efforts to promote social equality in Senegal).  It seemed like the one organization in which people were allowed to interact with the local community and immerse themselves in Senegalese culture. They learned the language, customs, and traditions of the country they would be living in for nearly three years, and were forced to adapt to life on another continent completely different from North America.  Some of the volunteers sounded genuinely concerned about not displaying a “savior complex” towards what people consider a Third World country; an attitude which I admired.

As we sat listening to the Peace Corps volunteers’ experiences in Senegal, I couldn’t help but remember our time in Ngaye Mekhe Village, where we invited children from the surrounding community to jump rope with us in our compound.  I still smile when I remember the jubilant children and how happy they were with their lives. Their behavior made me think about what it means to be “less-fortunate,” for I always believed that this phrase referred to an individual who is unable to buy the newest iPhone or clothing item.  As I watched them grin while strategically planning out how the movement of their feet would follow the rope, I saw that they were indeed fortunate.  Their fortune was something I had never seen before.  Their fortune was that they had worked to create a life in which they find joy in simple actions.  The simple action was jumping rope with their friends.


Other fun things I did before leaving Africa included a Sociology class on the beach; learning Sabar (the name of a particular drum and dance move originating with the Serer group in Senegal); riding on the speedy, crowded transport buses [picture shown below], and eating the local food which was extremely delicious.  Fishing and fish eating predominates there since Senegal is a coastal country and the national dish isThiebou Dienn, (rice and fish).



A painted Senegalese bus for speedy travel between village districts.

A painted Senegalese bus for speedy travel between village districts.


Ultimately, as with everything in life, my summer journey came to an end. When I boarded the plane back to America, I sat by the window seat. I watched the plane glide over the runway and slowly lift away from the land of Senegal and I couldn’t help but feel incomplete. There were so many things I wanted to do, so much more I wanted to learn. I looked out of the plane and whispered “Ba su ba Senegal” which translates into “See you tomorrow Senegal,” knowing it would be many tomorrows before I would return.

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