Twelve FIU undergraduate and graduate students led by Professor Jean Rahier, director of the African & African Diaspora Studies Program (AADS), recently returned after a month of studying and touring in Senegal and The Gambia from FIU’s first study abroad program in that region. The five-week program provided the students with an introduction to West African cultures and traditions and the growing importance of cultural and heritage tourism.
During the trip, the FIU students had rare opportunities to experience completely different cultures and lifestyles. For FIU senior Sara Conklin, the highlight of the trip and one of the best nights of her life took place in a small Mandinka community in The Gambia.
“We had the opportunity to see a ceremony that is celebrated once every six months, which represented a hunting ritual,” she said. “People in native costumes wearing deer and crocodile masks on top of their headwear danced in a circle of a huge audience. It was a rare experience for foreigners to see the ceremony. We were lucky to be there.”
One of Conklin’s favorite experiences of the trip was visiting Juffureh, a famous village in The Gambia, which is the ancestral home of Alex Haley and inspiration for his bestseller Roots. “We got to meet the real family of Kunta Kinte, who was the main character in the book,” she said.
On Gorée Island in Senegal, which used to be a major slave trading center, Conklin was “humbled” to view Maison des Esclaves, a slave house.
“In Gorée we also visited a museum dedicated to the women of Senegal and their achievements, and actually got to meet some of these women. It was really, really great,” she enthused.
But Conklin had a hard time adapting to the poverty all around her.
“It was difficult staying in lovely accommodations and seeing people live in such poor conditions,” she recalled. “Coming back to the states was actually a culture shock. It was frustrating to see how much we have and how a lot of people take things for granted. You see people honking their horns when it’s not necessary and complaining about overpriced food. You definitely grow a new appreciation for what you’ve got.”
FIU senior David Jones said that one of his most memorable experiences of the trip took place on the first night in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. He and several classmates went for a walk and ended up in a local barbershop.
“One of the owners spoke English, and we talked about African politics and leaders,” said Jones. “I could contribute to the conversation because I’d taken a few classes in African politics. It was great getting a sense of how local Africans actually feel, instead of just reading about it in a book.”
But Jones admits that adapting to the local diet in Senegal was a challenge.
“When we were in that country, we ate a lot of fish,” he said. “Whether we were staying with residents or going out to restaurants, the meal was probably going to be fish. I’m not a picky eater, but it got old after a while. It got to the point where I said, ‘Just give me the rice.’”
Both Conklin and Jones would go back to Senegal and The Gambia in a heartbeat.
“It was really an out-of-mind experience. You get to go to places where so few people get to go in their lives,” said Conklin.
Jones agreed, but added, “It was great, but it’s not for everybody. It’s definitely not like traveling to Paris. But for students who are interested in different cultures and who don’t mind not being in a four-star hotel, I’d definitely recommend it.”