As part of a three-year project, a group of American high school students and their teachers are spending three weeks each summer helping to modernize Keur Sadaro, a rural village three hours from Senegal's capital, Dakar.
More than a learning experience
The students are from two private high schools in San Francisco, California - Drew School and Lick-Wilmerding High School. This spring before leaving for the project's second trip, the 21 teens attended Saturday classes where they learned about the geography, language and culture of Senegal.
Jacques Cusin, a philosophy educator at Drew, says it's more than a learning experience.
"I hope that our students become more aware of the world, of the way some people do live, the way resources are shared, the way they make their decision," he explains, adding that he hopes the students will also make a difference in Keur Sadaro. "So, it's more of an exchange than us coming to the rescue of anyone. More of a sharing of what resources we have and, in turn, our students are becoming more aware of different culture and, in this case, it's a Muslim culture, also, a polygamous culture."
Each year, the students bring athletic equipment, medicine, tools and computers to share with the villagers.
Building clinics and classrooms
In the first year of the project, last summer, a dilapidated French colonial house, inhabited by ducks and chickens, was fixed up as a clinic. During this summer's three-week stay, the students worked on the village schoolhouse. They helped put a roof on it, install solar panels and lights, lay a floor, and build desks. They taught village teachers how to operate donated computers.
The American teens also constructed a chicken coop, and planted 50 fruit-bearing trees and a vegetable garden. Advisor Jacques Cusin recalls, with a laugh, that's where they ran into some unexpected trouble with some of the village livestock.
"The goats are such a problem that the idea of a fence controlling them to protect the garden was not possible in the end, so we decided to build a wall," he said. "And, so, we had a huge wall built!"
One student's expectations
Prior to the trip, 18-year-old Mona Khaldi was looking forward to learning about a different culture, but, she admitted, "I expect myself to be somewhat shocked by the cultural differences." She had a lot of questions: "What kind of emotions they have? What kind of realities they have? How it's different from ours. How do they relate to themselves? What kind of relevancy do they think they have in comparison to their communities, the world, internationally, individually?"
In Keur Sadaro, Khaldi spent most of her time working at the clinic. Like the other students, she lived in a village home with an outhouse, but no electricity or running water. She ate the traditional staple spicy rice and grilled onions with her host family.
Khaldi says their polygamous lifestyle didn't bother her. The various wives of her family's husband seemed to be close and sisterly, working together and helping out each other. She was distressed to see how much hard work the women did and how little control they had over their lives. They were only allowed to go to the mosque at certain hours and had no voice in family decision-making.
Still, Khaldi says she watched with admiration as they moved about the village.
"They walked tall and they walked extremely proud. They had baskets on their heads, sometimes. They had the most beautiful posture. They had a very strong presence. All of them," she said.
Khaldi was most impressed by the colors of Senegal, from the beautifully-painted buildings and the electrifying fabrics worn by village women.
"I think it sort of reflects the people," she said. "They're really interested in everything you do. They're really nice. They are very high in energy."
That energy was evident at the ceremonies, plays and wrestling competition the students witnessed. Khaldi says there was always dancing.
"It's just like great pure human movement," she said. "It's just like a complete release. Hands are going all over the place. Their arms are going all over the place. They're just like jumping and sort of kicking. It seems like so raw and just like everything they feel on the inside just flows out of them. It's crazy and wild."
A convergence of tradition and technology
Mona Khaldi describes her trip to Senegal as amazing and wonderful. But, as she helped modernize Keur Sadaro, she admits that one question kept haunting her. Were she and the other Americans intruding where they shouldn't?
"This small village was undergoing a lot of change from our Western world," she said. "And a lot of what I had in mind the whole time is: 'Had we not been there, what would these people have done?'"
She says she felt as though she was upsetting the natural order of things. "And I know it's a really terrible thing [to think that]," she said. "'Come on, you're helping people. How can this be bad?' But I felt a bit like I was intruding with my computers and my Internet."
The third and final group of high school students who will go to Keur Sadaro next summer are scheduled to build a women's center.