Day 1 – Dakar

Gewe — pronounced “griot” — means “one who speaks” in Wolof, one of the predominant local Senegalese languages.

It’s a good word for today, as our cohort of 15 teachers from around the U.S. listened to three incredible gewes and were reminded why it is so important for us to speak out as well.

Our day started with intensive lessons about the educational system and culture of Senegal. A key struggle here, as in the U.S., is how to blend “rootedness first” — a love of one’s own culture and language — with the need to build a cohesive, global-facing nation.

There’s a big push here to teach local languages in the schools (and push the colonial vestiges of France out), but there’s also a big push for more STEM education and entrepreneurship, even a “Miss Math” competition to get more young girls excited about pursuing math and science courses.

That was just the beginning of our day. We also learned — both in the classroom and in real life — about the Senegalese spirit of sharing and how this nation grapples with its history of slavery and colonialism.

First, about sharing. In the classroom, we learned that one of the worst things anyone can say about you is that you are selfish and not generous — and it can get you shunned. When you are eating with friends or family, your host will tell you lekke, lekke “eat, eat!” until you insist, suur naa, “I am full!”

Then we saw it, in action, on the ferry from Goree Island. A man didn’t give up his seat for an older woman, and everyone around him (even those on the pier) called him out for it. It was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered at home.

The most emotional and difficult part of our day was the visit itself to Goree Island. I have no words, really, to describe the feeling of visiting a place where so many Africans lost their families and their lives to the evils of the slave trade.

To stand there at the door of no return, where human beings were treated like commodities and forced onto ships with no idea what awaited them and no way to go home,… as I said before, there are no words. And the juxtaposition of this beautiful, flower-filled island (a UNESCO world heritage site now) with the terror of what happened there is impossible to reconcile.

I feel fortunate to be here with a group of phenomenal teachers from around the U.S., all of whom are willing to learn with open hearts and minds and talk candidly about what we are seeing and learning, and how they will bring it back to their own classrooms and communities.

It’s not easy in the current political climate to do that. But our kids, and the children here, are counting on us to be gewes.