Senegal: Hannah Drake reflects on her experience abroad

Africa- it’s a continent, not a country (as I’m sure you know!). It’s beautifully diverse and modern, and has some of the warmest people you’ll meet, especially in Senegal. I talked to Hannah Drake after her experience living in Senegal for four months in 2017, as well as traveling Europe for two months immediately after her study abroad program. In the capital, Dakar, she spent two months with the program, and chose a two-month public health internship in the village of Nioro Alassance Tall (population: 1,000).

Hannah is double majoring in Psychology and Anthropology at Grinnell College in Iowa, and is graduating this semester. In Senegal, she took French, Wolof, International Development, Public Health, and Cultural Analysis classes towards her Anthropology major. Hannah’s research in Nioro Alassance Tall revolved around post-natal healthcare for women, where there’s a lack of information on what’s happening to the women after they give birth. She’s looking to get a Masters degree in Public Health, after gaining some experience in the non-profit sector.

You learned Wolof for 2 months in the capital, was that through a class?

It was an actual class, my professor teaches Peace Corps volunteers that come to Senegal. He was great, he taught us drinking games! It was a mixture of French, Wolof, and English that we were learning in. We had an intro phrase we had to do and we’d give him intro phrases in English and one of them was ‘cash me outside how bow dah” (laughs).

Tell me more about living in the village-

I got placed with this host family who provided me my own room, which was a luxury there. It was concrete with a tin roof. We had electricity, but no running water so it was squat toilet all the way. We cooked over a fire, we hand washed our clothing. There was no wifi or internet cafe. The health clinic was right next to my house and my host mom worked there so she really integrated me into the community.

Everything was very different from what I was used to. I’d work from 8am to 2pm, when it was the third call to prayer, and we’d have lunch. I got very used to down time… I’d be playing with the kids or reading. But my body was in shock in a lot of different ways, I had to drink purified water and was sweating all the time. I learned pretty quickly though, that you don’t need running water, you don’t need an oven… you don’t need electricity!

Hannah & her host sister in Nioro Alassance Tall

How did your second host mom make you feel integrated into the community?

Yaay Fatou was always looking out for me, she took me to work and introduced me to everyone on the first day. I followed her around like a puppy most of the time. But I have recognized now that my relationship with my real mother, U.S. mom, that I’m one of those people that need affection and reassurance. Mama Henriette in Dakar did not do that, it was tough cookies from her. My village mom was happy to show me how to do something, we just spent a lot of time together. She nursed me back from malaria, basically covering my naked body with wet towels (laughs). I never felt like an outsider when she introduced me as her daughter.

With Mama Henriette, who was very critical of me, I felt more of a guest than a daughter because she expected different things from me.

How integrated were you with learning about Muslim faith, did you learn a lot?

I wish I would’ve gotten more of a chance to learn more, since I was focused on my health system research. The call to prayer is five times a day, that times your whole day- after the third call to prayer is lunch, after the last call to prayer is dinner. Most of the men are praying at the mosque at that time, and the women pray at home. I never went into the mosque, just because I didn’t feel like i could ask that of my host family. But I did get to participate in a wedding, so that was cool!

The Muslim faith has this practice of modesty, right. The Muslim women there didn’t always wear headscarves, they mostly wore head wraps because of the heat. And headscarves don’t always have to be religious, too. Since I’m interested in healthcare and children, I noticed that there were boobs out when breastfeeding, like so many. It didn’t matter if anyone was around, or is the woman is Muslim, the baby needed to eat. No one cared. It was one of those things where I go, well it’s the sexualization of women’s breasts in Western culture? It has nothing to do with women, or inherently men who ‘can’t handle themselves’… I was starting to break down these concepts and whether it was cultural, religious, those sorts of things.

What did you get accustomed to that you really liked and wish you had here?

I miss the food. I would struggle with the lack of vegetables, but it was also refreshing because I knew what I was putting into my body. Like the chicken I had, I saw it walking around all day! Also, the community aspect of that made me feel part of something, even as an introvert and it being sometimes emotionally exhausting, I knew I was welcomed into that community.

Wedding in Nioro Alassance Tall

Can you tell me a little more about the disconnect between what you faced in Senegal and what others faced either here at home, or the friends that studied abroad in Europe?

My friends who studied in Europe grew as people, which is wonderful, but they all had great experiences. One friend of mine studied in India and we shared a lot of similar experiences. My body had to get used to the bacteria… it was just very different, I was sick a lot of the time. Friends there got to party, and you know, being in a rural village that was something I just couldn’t do.

I also think studying abroad is not for just everyone, it takes a lot to be out of your comfort zone, it takes a lot to handle situations well. Some people recognized this and they learned from it and grew.

Everyone can laugh about my peppy Malaria anecdote, but I don’t know who wants to hear about my actual feelings, like how I came back and I was depressed…

In the same tangent, with the idea of privilege, what about money or your things? Did that ever play a role in your interactions?

Well, I had my Mac laptop, my iPhone, it made me feel uncomfortable because I felt if I brought out my DSLR camera, it was putting my Westernized amount of stuff on display where it didn’t need to be. It was hard to navigate the value of these things, because also, things just cost more in the U.S.

I felt weird when I was leaving to go travel, because I mean it wasn’t like I was going to any resorts or anything. But, I couldn’t help but think about how all of my money I was putting into travel, could sustain my family in Nioro Allassance Tall. But I also morally felt I couldn’t just give that money to my host family because they were fine financially, throwing money at a situation doesn’t necessarily make it better. I also didn’t want to seem like I was contributing to my host family just in terms of money.

I mean, over here, we don’t talk about money. As friends, I could talk to you about money but it’s more of a ‘private sphere’ topic. Whereas, in other cultures, it’s a public topic.

Yeah, I mean my family in Dakar had a dining room table that they didn’t use. It was for status, kind of like we have different displays of status in the U.S.

What was your experience with the intersection of being a white, American woman?

It was good to develop a better sense of cultural sensitivity. In Senegal, it’s normal to have three wives because they can sustain them financially, so I got asked to be somebody’s wife all the time. It was just the persistent level of being followed by men, asking me to be their wife. I gave the mistake of giving my phone number twice, and they called me every. single. day. I got really good by the end, like I’d say “I’m sorry I have four American husbands, i’m all booked up!” and it was a joke. I had to catch myself from being sassy against catcalls, because I don’t know these strangers. I was trying not to draw attention to myself, I could address someone for catcalling me or I could keep walking. It wasn’t exclusive to Senegal. It’s dangerous to be a woman in any country, in any city-but you can’t let that keep you from going anywhere.

What was the biggest challenge you overcame?

Senegalese life is much more relaxed. I like to plan things out and be in control, but a lot of my life there was out of my control. One day there was a wedding at my house, which I only knew about the day of! Part of it may have been my knowledge of the language too, what was actually being said…

In some ways, I had so much more agency, but in others, I didn’t have any control. I learned that life just works out, you have to work your way through things and trust people who are helping you and step back a little.

We’re in a space of life where you don’t have to do it all yourself. You can still rely and trust other people, and that’s okay. I guess that’s why people say “travel while you’re young”-

Yeah, I think you’re so much more equipped to not freak out over what happens, you just keep moving!