Jenny Parker is a student in the Professional French Masters Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. As part of the program she is required to do an internship in a francophone country. Because she already spent five years in France she decided to do her internship in Senegal this year. In the following Q&A she tells us about her experiences there so far:
What are you doing there (studying, internship, etc.)?
I am doing an administrative internship in what is called the rectorat, or the office of the chancellor at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis. I am also fortunate enough to be teaching English at the university. It’s fun and a nice challenge!
And when you aren’t studying or working, what do you do in your free time?
If I can, I love to go dancing! Senegalese people love to dance and it is so fun to learn their dance style, mbalax (even if it is quite hard to look good doing it!). Otherwise, I am often invited to my co-worker’s house to yeendu, which means literally “spend the day at someone’s house.” You arrive for lunch then you just hang out, watch TV, or take a nap, yes, I said take a nap! Any good Senegalese host will offer you a bed to rest on after eating! Then you have attaaya, the Senegalese specialty tea. You are served three glasses: the first is slightly bitter and then the two other are a lighter version with mint. It is delicious! Before you leave the house you are offered fruit juice or actual fruit. The yeendu does not usually end before 5 or 6 p.m. Sometimes you even stay for dinner! Otherwise, I like to go to Saint-Louis and shop at the tourist shops or even better, go to the market to find great Senegalese material!
What is the most invaluable experience that you have had so far?
I just recently got back from a stay with a friend at his house in Guediawaye (suburb of Dakar) where I really got to experience Senegalese culture. I got to see the day-to-day living of a family with eight kids. They have so many financial constraints and yet manage to make life so warm and fun. I also learned how to cook Senegalese food. Most importantly, I got to see over and over again teranga (Senegalese hospitality). It is amazing what they will do to make a guest comfortable.
What is one of the most jarring experiences you have had there? Why?
This will sound a little ridiculous, but the heat in the month of October was quite jarring. Even though I grew up in Texas, I forgot how hard it is and how you have to take care of yourself by drinking plenty of water and staying out of the sun as much as possible.
What languages do you need there?
You can easily get around with French, but knowing Wolof, the national language spoken by more than 80% of the population is invaluable! Young kids don’t speak French. Lots of older people in villages don’t speak French either. If you are anything like me, those are exactly the people you want to speak with! So learn a little bit or a lot of Wolof! It’s worth it!
I’m hoping the internship and the teaching experience will help me to pursue an international career in education. I would love to return, but I guess I have to leave first to return!
What advice would you give a person who is planning on traveling to Senegal?
There is a ton of information available on what to pack and how to prepare for coming to Senegal, the IAP office at UW has some great tips (of which I helped write!). Read those and follow them! They will help you to be prepared for your time over here.
Follow Up with Jenny Parker
Jenny Parker first lived and worked in Senegal as part of her Professional French Masters Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After completing her program she decided to return to Senegal. Here is what’s been going on since that time.
Could you give us a little summary of how you ended up back in Senegal after you internship ended?
Actually, I basically came back to Senegal to do the same thing I had been doing last year as an intern. I am still working in the chancellor’s office and am teaching again in the English department. It may sound odd that I would come back to do the exact same thing, but to be honest, the university needs me (or needs a native English speaker) and I need them. I wanted to take a year “off” after finishing my masters to work and have evenings where I don’t need to research, read, or worry how I’m going to get that paper done. Senegal and more specifically the University afford me the best place possible to do that.
During your internship you worked in the Chancellor’s Office at the Université Gaston Berger (UGB) in Saint-Louis. What were some of your duties and how did those responsibilities help you post-internship?
Well, as someone who wants a profession in a university, being at UGB and seeing the inner-workings of a university in its infancy has been amazing. I’m inspired by their drive to see not only their university grow, but their country, their region and even their continent. They’re dreaming big over here, as they should be.
My main job in this position has been translating documents for the Chancellor. Most of them are prospectuses telling the world about what they’re trying to do at UGB. I can’t say exactly how this knowledge will help me, but I know that what I’m getting to experience is unique for any American, even occidental person and it has given me knowledge that few have.
One of my other significant jobs over here has been teaching English. It may seem banal, but at a university where the majority of students majoring in English will never travel to an English speaking country, much less live in one, they are in need of interactions with a native speaker. My work as a teacher here is just as important as anything else I’ve done. I don’t want to paint a picture of them not being able to live without me, but I do bring an important type of knowledge to the students. Clearly this part of my internship will help me in my career as a teacher!
Can you express the benefits of doing an international internship and what should be some factors when deciding where to go?
Living in a different culture is a challenge, working is a whole other world. Working in a different culture requires much patience, openness, willing to do anything and nothing (often happens that you sit around doing nothing!), putting aside your belief of how things should be done and trusting that their methods may not be so crazy. It will introduce you to new ways of thinking and problem solving that you never dreamed of. It will challenge you in ways you never expected and maybe didn’t want, but in the end will give you an amazing skill set and insight into another culture. I also did an internship in France for six months after my undergraduate study and I can tell you that that short little section on my resume definitely opened doors for me in terms of interviews.
Now that you have lived and worked in Senegal, have your perceptions changed about Senegal, its people, culture, etc., since before you arrived?
It has and it hasn’t. I was going to write a thesis on this country so I did a lot of in-depth research and talked to a handful of friends from Senegal prior to leaving. In a way I knew what to expect, but at the same time, words can never fully express what it is to live in this country and on this continent. I mentioned in my last interview the hospitality that Senegalese people pride themselves on … you CANNOT understand the depth of that until you experience it. Until you are welcomed into a family’s house for a day that you don’t know. Until that family feeds you, gives you a place to take your afternoon nap and would even give you the clothes off their back if you really needed it. And all of that in the name of their duty to you as a visitor, no “thank you” necessary.
Also, I must mention the work ethic stereotype. Many people, including people who have been here, mentioned to me the slow pace of life and laughed at a 40-hour work week when I referenced it. Yes, there is a different pace of life here and yes, nothing is as urgent as we Americans seem to think it is or should be, but I can tell you that I have met many very hard working people who only have one day off a week. People working in everything from the Chancellor’s office to construction. Senegalese people work hard, but they know what is the most important thing, family and community, and when to stop everything else for that.
Can you describe some of the personal relationship you have established and how they may differ from relationships in the states (how you socialize, what you discuss)?
Well it must be noted that for whatever reason, most females that come here as an exchange student or like me, as an intern, leave with more male than female friends. I’m still trying to figure that one out. It could be a phenomenon unique to UGB campus or not. I’m not sure.
Most social time is spent at someone’s house. Unless you’re in Dakar most people don’t “go out” for a coffee or drink or go have a meal at a restaurant. All of that simply because money is scarce. So you go to a friend’s house and have attaaya (traditional Senegalese tea – FANTASTIC!) or you go to their house to “yeendu.” “Yeendu” is to spend the day. Yeendu-ing involves going for lunch, having attaaya after, then maybe some fruit and just relaxing with the person and their family if they have one. You do not usually leave before 5 p.m.
Topics of discussion vary as they would anywhere. Colleagues from work and I tend to talk about work, and people at work. Friends on campus (other masters and PhD students) tend to talk about fun things like music or serious topics like society, politics, differences between our countries, etc. Of course they ask a lot of questions about America. Until I become completely fluent in Wolof, I will not know for sure what topics are on the docket at gatherings!
I understand there will be another Presidential election in 2012. What has the political atmosphere been like?
There is a lot of talk about whether the current president should run again, he’s 84!!! He wanted his son to replace him, but the people were categorically against that idea for several reasons, one being him not being Senegalese enough.
Also, does religion seem to influence politics at all? And how does living in an predominantly Islamic culture change your day-to-day compared to home, or doesn’t it?
I don’t think I should attempt to answer the first part of this question. I am interested in politics, but not an expert and don’t feel I can answer intelligibly this question with accuracy.
While I was home this summer, I realized that I missed the five daily call to prayers. It’s a small thing, but it is a part of everyday and it starts to become a comfort of sorts to hear it. I must also admit that I completely relished wearing shorts all summer while I was in America as they are something that one shouldn’t wear here if you wish to respect the religious culture of Senegal. There are many little things that become a part of daily life that aren’t hard to accept but that are different in a society that is predominantly Muslim. I have to admit, I love it. It’s a complete change from anything we know in America and it constantly challenges the senses and your view of daily life. Things like saying “mashallah” when you compliment someone on their clothes or how cute their kid is. Mashallah is kind of like “knock on wood.” You say it so that the thing you’ve just complimented doesn’t change or stop. Of course no one makes you say it, but you can sometimes feel how uncomfortable it makes them if you don’t.
By Flannery Geoghegan, Division of International Studies
You can read more about Jenny’s experiences on her blog.