I have always tried to fill my life with cross-cultural experiences. Among other things, I am very active in the interfaith movement at Brandeis University, and I spent a summer as an intern on the Navajo Nation in 2011. I have taken classes in anthropology and global studies, and I know that suspending judgments until deeper understandings are reached is key to cross-cultural interactions. However, I underestimated the importance of avoiding judgments in intercultural relationships until I spent some time in the shade of a baobab tree.
I spent the fall semester of 2011 studying international development in Senegal. I spent eight weeks in the capital, Dakar, taking classes and learning Wolof, the principal language of the country, before moving to the village of Toubacouta for six weeks where I interned with a traditional dance and drumming troupe at a local kindergarten. I was dropped off in Toubacouta, waving goodbye to my fellow American students, who were each assigned to a different village – the last familiar faces and English speakers I would see for six weeks.
I was equally terrified and excited on my first day at Garderie Baobab, a kindergarten that included kids as young as five-year old. In the morning, my host sister walked me to the school, where I awkwardly sat as the center of attention, surrounded by children fascinated by my white skin.
The first day did not go as I had planned. In fact, in my mind, everything was wrong. I often found myself alone in the classroom with the children, and I quickly learned that I held absolutely no authority in the classroom. My very basic Wolof was not sufficient to control the classroom – but some the children did not know much Wolof either. Rather, they spoke Mendinke or Seerer, two other ethnic languages.
Moreover, the novelty of a white person in the classroom discredited any kind of influence I might have. I was clearly not able to lead them on my own. However, day after day, I found myself in charge of classrooms all by myself.
Nothing ever seemed to get done. I felt as if the children never learned anything. In the classrooms, the alphabet and the numbers would be repeated again and again, and then everyone would sit in silence for half the day. There were supplies that were never used, and when I tried to go through them I found cockroaches and earwigs. The teachers often sat in the shade of the baobab tree in the courtyard, drinking tea or simply sitting.
I felt alone and alienated. In my mind, I knew the teachers were trying to be polite, but it was lost in cross-cultural translation. They thought they were engaging me when they asked me if I had a husband, if I had children, and then why didn’t I have a husband and children. But I felt that my privacy was being invaded.
I hated it. I was trying to find solutions to the problems I saw, but I felt that nothing was changing. I felt helpless and useless. Moreover, in my quest for solutions, I found myself constantly judging the other teachers. They were lazy – they only wanted to sit and drink tea. They did not care about the children. I resented them, but ultimately, I did not understand them.
Finally, I realized that I had to stop trying to make everything go according to my plans. As open-minded as I had tried to be going into this experience, my definitions of hard work and success were still incredibly Western. So I stopped trying to find solutions, and instead I began to model the other teachers. I sat with them in the classroom and under the tree when they were too tired to teach. Inevitably, as we sat we began to talk, and as we talked I began to hear their stories. Tales of waking up long before the sun rises to clean the village dispensary before school, doing laundry all afternoon after school, working desperately to make ends meet. Tales of the people they had welcomed into their houses, regardless of how little they had. Tales of hardship, community, and undeniable strength. These women were becoming some of my best friends in the village, and I looked forward to spending every morning with them. My time in Toubacouta began to fly.
Stopping to listen was the key. A vast cultural divide made our relationships extremely difficult and seemingly impossible. But when I stopped trying to find solutions that fit with my expectations and my definitions, I truly began to hear these women and their stories. Once I genuinely pushed my judgments aside, I could move forward with personal relationships. It was the formation of these relationships that eventually enabled me to help the school. Through listening, I saw the constant exhaustion of the teachers, and then when I stepped in to assist them – going over the alphabet or leading songs with the children – I was truly helping. Our conversations revealed their illiteracy, and finally I realized that the school supplies sat unused because the teachers could not understand the instructions. Knowing this, I was able to show them how to use the supplies, which added color, variety and creativity to their classrooms.
As my last day in Toubacouta arrived, I bought the tea for the teachers, and we all sat together for the final time. We joked and laughed, and I took pictures. As I walked away from Garderie Baobab, there were hugs all around, and tears began to fall. Looking back at the school for one last moment, I was struck by how much I would truly miss these people. My relationship with them had come so far, and I thanked God for this incredible experience and indeed for their remarkable friendship.