American students get glimpses of their counterparts in Senegal

Like many other hands that touched mine in this Senegalese village, the callused hands of Ndeye Sarr gave me strength. We sat on her bamboo mat, talking with gestures. She spoke no French or English, and my Wolof was limited to nodding and saying wow (yes). She laughed as I struggled to mimic the lyrical rhythms of Wolof, and I laughed at her soft voice making musical the harsh consonants of English.

Last summer I worked in the West African nation of Senegal through Operation Crossroads Africa. I observed. I listened. I wanted to capture the people and places in my notebook, in my sketchbook, and in my camera. I wanted to escape the mystical portrayals in PBS documentaries and National Geographic. I wanted to bring back a perception of Senegalese people that surpassed the stereotypes - to show that they are people who don't need visitors from far away to tell them how to live because they have the strength, intelligence, and courage to determine their own destiny.

Recently I began working with the Center for Diversity Education in Asheville, N.C. I travel into middle schools, carrying my paintings, drawings, and photographs from Senegal. I share my experiences and have students talk about their feelings toward the Senegalese people.

The children often ask me questions about Senegalese food, how the people bathe, and what they wear. One sixth-grade African-American girl with tight braids trailing down her neck could not comprehend life with no Dial, Crest, or Sure. "They're some dirty people," she kept saying. The irony was she looked identical to one of my young friends in the village of Kuer Momar Sarr.

Another young boy kept asking about their clothes - their "sense of style." He laughed at my description of young men wearing Nyke hats, Tommie Hilgugure shirts, and Abbibas pants. I told him about the pirate brands that imitate the expensive name brands we wear in Asheville. Names are only names. He laughed.

Those responses are not isolated in sixth-grade classrooms. I hear them from farmers, car mechanics, and seamstresses, even from business leaders, doctors, and distinguished professors.

To most people, "West African" means an impoverished child - a television commercial with Sally Struthers, a tribal drum circle with brutal savages running wild. To most, "West African" is just not American. And in fact, "West African" is not American.

There's no running water in the village of Kuer Momar Sarr. No faucet to get a quick drink. There's no comforting air conditioner to switch on when temperatures exceed 120 degrees. In a village of straw-and-bamboo thatched huts with dirt floors, I - the American - lived in a cinder-block house with tile floors and metal shutters to keep out the afternoon sandstorms.

Some villagers viewed me as a tourist who needed to be pampered, who needed busywork projects to keep her entertained. Others invited me to work in their fields and join them for dinner. Those others became my close friends. Children in Kuer Momar Sarr sat playing "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" up my arms, cackling with laughter as their small fingers trellised my freckled skin. Their words were Wolof, but my foreign ears understood them.

Children kicked soccer balls at sunset each evening before getting ready for dinner. They awoke to school and chores, and stopped to play. No different from the children I talk with in Asheville schools.

While in Senegal, I read a quote by a Senegalese woman, Codel Madame Toure: "Images of African competence are crucial because in the end it is the peoples and governments of Africa who are responsible for their own development."

Ndeye Sarr may never travel to Asheville Middle School to shake hands, smile, and greet children with nangendef (hello). But I can tell my story, and hope that through me, her voice can be heard.

*Bethany Jewell is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She is majoring in human rights and political communication - a program she designed to combine the social sciences with photography, drawing, and writing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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