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A Teranga-filled homecoming: My experience on Princeton’s fall break trip to Senegal

<h5>&nbsp;Me and other Princeton students, as well as our chaperones and instructors, taking a photo with a US Embassy worker who spoke to us about Senegalese education and female empowerment.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Mbouillè Diallo</h6>
<p>&nbsp;</p>
 Me and other Princeton students, as well as our chaperones and instructors, taking a photo with a US Embassy worker who spoke to us about Senegalese education and female empowerment. 
Courtesy of Mbouillè Diallo

 

After completing my final day of midterms, I found myself hurriedly packing and rushing to Wawa to embark on my Princeton-sponsored fall break trip. Despite being exhausted from exams, I was filled with anticipation about the journey that lay ahead: I was going to Senegal. After a long 24 hours and two flights, we finally arrived in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. Stepping out of Aéroport International Blaise Diagne, it truly started to sink in. I was in Senegal. Home. My parents were born and raised here, before they decided to immigrate to the United States. I had not been to Senegal since I was eight years old, and so the little recollections I had of the country were fuzzy and blurred together. But here I was, returning over a decade later, through Princeton’s support.

It is not often that Princeton holds trips to the African continent during fall and spring breaks, as most opportunities are concentrated in Europe; the University must build on the precedent of the Senegal trip and create more of these opportunities for students.

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My group was comprised of eight other Princeton undergraduate students, four graduate students, and four chaperones: Imam Khalil Abdullah, Reverend Theresa Thames, Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Tennille Haynes, and Equity and Diversity Specialist Felicia Edwards. Our trip was held in collaboration with the organization Where There Be The Dragons, so we also had three amazing instructors guiding us: Samba, Mbouillè, and Mamadou. The purpose of our trip was to explore the peaceful coexistence of Christianity and Islam in Senegal, as well as to make a pilgrimage to Gorée Island, home to the House of Slaves, a departure port for enslaved Africans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. As a first generation Senegalese American and Muslim woman, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a deeply impactful trip for me. 

Although I was only able to spend a week in Senegal, I truly made the most out of my time. Guided by the theme of religious tolerance, we visited churches and mosques in both Diakhanor, a village in Senegal, and Dakar, which is the country’s largest city. One highlight of these visits for me was going to the Massalikoul Djinane Mosque. The Massalikoul Djinane Mosque only opened in 2019 and was completely funded by the Mouride Brotherhood. The Mouride are one of the most prominent Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, and Sufi brotherhoods are a distinctive part of religious life in the country. Adorned with gold, chandeliers, and Islamic patterns, the mosque is breathtaking. I am forever grateful I had the opportunity to pray in such a beautiful mosque that was funded, built, and continues to be maintained by my people. Massalikoul Djinane can fit more than 30,000 people, and our guide told us how during the weekly Friday Jummah prayers, the mosque is filled to capacity, with some residents forced to pray on their rooftops. The visit to Massalikoul Djinane emphasized to me the importance of community within religion and spirituality.

Throughout the week, my peers and I had the opportunity to speak with the respective priests and imams of these churches and mosques, and saw the spirit of tolerance and mutual respect nationwide. In Senegal, we saw no tensions between different religions or different ethnic groups. The communities we encountered viewed each other as family, and coexisted peacefully. Multiple religious leaders actually mentioned how during Eid, many Christians will support and celebrate with their Muslim neighbors, and vice versa during Christmas. The harmonious coexistence of different religious and ethnic groups in Senegal may serve as a role model not only for other countries on the continent, but across the world. 

A key point during our trip was also making a pilgrimage to Gorée Island to go to the House of Slaves. This visit was extremely emotional. We were able to stand inside a holding room for enslaved Africans. While all 20 of us barely fit inside, our guide told us that approximately 40 people would be packed inside the room. Some people held the 20-pound balls that had been attached to enslaved African ankles so they would be unable to escape off of the ships. I felt the most emotional when I was at the Door of No Return, where my ancestors and the ancestors of millions of others would pass through to begin the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. 

The ocean looked vast and never ending, but I knew it eventually had to lead to land. I wondered what was going through my ancestors’ minds as they were forcibly ripped away from their lives, their families, and violently dehumanized. I can understand why many enslaved Africans did decide to jump into the ocean. Death was freedom to them, and they did not see the point of living life when it would mean constant torture and suffering. Despite the toll of being at the House of Slaves, it was a very important facet of my journey and a place I believe everyone should visit at least once in their lives — yet another reason why Princeton must prioritize access to these experiences.

Aside from the religious and historical elements of our trip, we also immersed ourselves in Senegalese culture. All of us had Wolof lessons led by Samba, and so everyone on the trip could at least exchange basic greetings with the people we encountered. We ate native Senegalese dishes throughout the week, including cheebu jen, yassa, and mafe, alongside drinking refreshing bissap, bouye, attaya (a Senegalese tea made with Chinese green tea leaves and mint) and ginger juice. One night featured Mamadou playing the djembe drums while singing a song in his native Fulani, and we danced along to the beat of the drums. 

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Another night we spent in the village of Diakhanor, and also featured more drumming and dancing. We also bought custom tailored Senegalese outfits, which we will wear to our reunion dinner at Prospect House. In Dakar, we learned to bargain in the Senegalese spirit while we bought more clothes, jewelry, and tote bags. Everywhere we went in Senegal, we were wholeheartedly embraced: Senegal is known for teranga, roughly translating to hospitality in English. I was familiar with teranga growing up, but it is a completely different thing to actually experience it on a daily basis. In a few days, I soaked up so much knowledge about my culture and became even more proud to be Senegalese. 

Having grown up as a first generation Senegalese American, it was extremely rewarding for me to use Wolof to communicate with other Senegalese people, eat Senegalese food everyday, and even see a few of my family members. I also really loved having the opportunity to speak with someone who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Senegal. She spoke extensively about the educational systems in Senegal as well as Senegalese female empowerment. 

The Senegal pilgrimage was fulfilling in so many ways. More Princeton students need to be on trips similar to this fall break trip and expand their knowledge of the African continent. Trips to Africa are particularly significant for students studying in the School of Public and International Affairs, one of the most popular majors at the University. How can future policymakers and leaders in international affairs have a truly global mindset if most of their travel opportunities are restricted to Europe and Asia? 

The Senegal fall break pilgrimage was undoubtedly a success. The trip was well-balanced intellectually, culturally, and historically — and included opportunities for group bonding and fun. The people on the trip made all the difference, and I could see the intentional selection of the participants of the trip through the conversations I had with them and our collective memories. Indeed, in only a few days, we all trusted each other enough to become very vulnerable and share our family stories — one of the most powerful moments of the entire week. I want experiences such as these to be more broadly accessible to the campus community.

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Trips like the one I was lucky to experience are especially important because the different academic opportunities that Princeton does have on the continent are limited to a couple of countries. Next summer’s global seminars will take place in Kenya and Morocco. For Princeton study abroad options, students only have the option of those two countries or South Africa. None of these opportunities even touch West Africa, for example. Furthermore, only having opportunities to visit three countries in a continent that has over 50 is simply insufficient — especially when compared to the European opportunities, where several different countries are represented. It is vital that more of the Princeton student body has the opportunity to visit different countries in Africa and learn about nations’ respective cultures, values, and peoples. Hopefully, this expansion of opportunities to study in the African continent would also lead to greater expansion and diversification of the African Studies department at Princeton — a move for which I have previously argued.

Thank you Princeton, for a truly transformative experience at home. My experience inspires me to push for more students to be able to have the opportunity to create their own impactful and meaningful experiences on the African continent. 

Ndeye Thioubou is a sophomore from the Bronx, N.Y. She can be reached at nthioubou@princeton.edu.

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