If you’re studying French but looking for something other than the typical French experience of baguettes and cheese for study abroad, think about Senegal. Alive with culture, color, and an incredible landscape, Senegal provides students with so much to see and study that they often find it difficult to leave.
Whether you want to spend your time with the warm and welcoming Senegalese people, or exploring the world famous beaches that are surrounded by trickling creeks and sunny plains, you will have no trouble keeping yourself occupied. Even studying will be a pleasure, as you will be surrounded by what you’re learning about – the opportunities to engage with the environment around you will be virtually endless.
The next step is to begin thinking about the structure of your study abroad experience. Do you want to live in a home-stay? Are you more interested in support or independence? Begin scrolling through the following list of study aboard programs and you will quickly find that a plethora of options lay before you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, simply look through the program reviews – these will give you a good sense for what experienced travelers really thought of their programs. Once you become an experienced traveler yourself, fill out a review of your program here to provide valuable advice to those who face the same difficult decision you face now!Photo credit: SirisVisual.
Social Customs in Senegal
Africa remains a mysterious, unknown destination for many Westerners -- at best a homogeneous montage of UNICEF and Save the Children commercials -- and few of us are even vaguely exposed to African culture before journeying there. As such, when I participated in a study abroad program in Dakar, Senegal with Africa Consultants International (ACI), they immediately gave us a low-down on some important “dos and don’ts” before sending us off to our host families. Below are some of the social customs they discussed that any traveler to Senegal (and if loosely applied, to all of West Africa) should find useful:
- Always eat with your right hand. As is candidly demonstrated in this clip from the movie “Outsourced”, the left hand, or your “toilet” hand, is viewed as unclean. As such, always eat and shake hands with your right hand.
- Only eat from your portion of the bowl. Typical Senegalese meals are communal, with everyone gathering around and eating from one large bowl of rice, vegetables, and fish (known in Wolof as Ceebu Jen) or meat (Ceebu Yapp). Everyone sticks to the portion of food closest to them as though it had been invisibly sliced into pieces. If there is meat in the center, reaching for this is considered a no-no as well -- the task of divvying it out amongst the group falls to the eldest woman there, so be patient and rest assured that some will be placed into your section.
- If you are the one with food, always share. As stated by ACI "even if it's just a candy bar and there are 10 people in the room, it’s still polite to offer a piece to everyone".
- People typically don’t drink while eating meals. This means you won’t be served a drink, but don’t feel bad about bringing your own bottle of water to the table to wash down their insanely spicy cuisine.
- Eat what you are offered. Even if your belly is bursting, it’s rude to refuse.
- Cleaning up after a meal usually means shaking out the mat that people and food sat on, then rinsing hands over a bowl of water.
Tips for Socializing in Senegal
- Always remove your shoes before entering some one's household or a mosque, but put on house shoes before entering a bathroom.
- It's considered taboo to say or ask aloud how many children a person has for fear that saying so makes it easier for evil spirits to take away a child. Instead, a person may tell you how many “God’s bit’s of wood” they have to trick the spirits. This saying also serves as the title for Ousmane Sembane’s Senegal-based novel God's Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de bois de Dieu).
- Be careful with compliments; in Muslim countries – Islam is strong throughout West Africa – compliment something a person owns and they may likely hand it over to you. Compliment a person's physical appearance, and it won't go over too well. Avoid saying things like "you have beautiful eyes," and such.
- Although this isn’t so much a custom, telling someone you have no religion may result in someone trying to convert you. I found it best to say “I’m Christian” and end the discussion quickly.
- Respect your elders. Unlike in the United States, age gives people authority you shouldn’t undermine.
Do your best to follow these tips, but don't be afraid to make mistakes. We've all made them!
Overall, Senegal is a very affordable study abroad destination. For a one month trip to Senegal, after housing, flights, and program fees, I budgeted $500 for personal expenses and came out under. You can easily get by on $300 per month.
Consider these great scholarships to offset your costs when studying abroad in Senegal next semester.