Days 7, 8 & 9

I woke up yesterday (Sunday) morning in this “glamping” tent in the middle of a wildlife refuge to the sounds of birds, frogs, monkeys(?) and who knows what other creatures. Like many remote places around the world, there was little to no Wi-Fi signal at Fathala (

There was also no work to be done and no real plan for the morning except to shower (in a protected outdoor space), walk the boardwalk to the lodge, grab some coffee, and watch the watering hole to see who shows up. (Warthogs first, followed by antelope.)

For someone like me, who is always mentally scheduling the next task, lesson, or errand while finishing the last one, it was both calming and a bit unnerving. I felt completely removed from the day-to-day grind of teaching. The issues that gnaw at me (late work, phones in the classroom, apathy) seemed more than the literal 5,000 miles away.

It occurred to me then that I should write about the importance of stepping back from work and filling your mind with other meaningful experiences. It’s essential not only for our mental health but for our ability to teach effectively.

In addition to collaborating with teachers and working with students, part of the Fulbright experience is cultural exchange. We’re not here to “fix” anything, and we’re not here to bring gifts or do charity work. (We’re also not here to extract resources and make money, like many westerners do.)

We’re here to build relationships and learn together, and that includes learning about culture, geography and history. 

Thanks to our host Aly Ndao, the past three days have been filled with an overnight visit to Fathala Wildlife Refuge, attendance at a traditional Serere wedding ceremony, and an exploration of ancient stone circles, as well as a lot of time just talking and trading stories from our lives.

The wildlife refuge was every bit as amazing as I thought it would be. While many of the animals were relocated from South Africa (not because they are non-native, but because their native populations were wiped out here), they live in about 15,000 acres of original and protected forest. 

For me, the best part was the giraffes. We watched a pair as they glided slowly among the trees, then we saw the mother come to the watering hole at twilight and awkwardly crouch down to sip some water, flailing her neck at the antelope if they approached too closely while she was vulnerable.

Also the Colobus monkeys, who were too quick to photograph while we were on the game drive. When I headed back to my tent to pick up a towel, they were running and playing up and down the boardwalk, so I was finally able to see them. (Quick video here.)

The wedding on Sunday — actually a re-affirmation of vows — was an incredible window into traditional Senegalese culture. When we arrived in the village (about 25 km outside of Kaolack), everyone from the village was gathered under tents and trees (mostly mango and acacia) just talking, drinking tea and waiting.

I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, but eventually a large group made its way to us, with the bride in the middle. Griots shouted through megaphones in Serere, telling us (I found out later) about the glory of her ancestral family, while she visited and sprayed a scent on each of the guests.

The bride’s visit (she’s in gold in the picture above) was followed by a group of drummers who seemed to be serenading the crowd and encouraging dancers, some of whom performed in front of us. And then it was time to eat, and we were ushered into the house, where we shared thiebou yapp, traditional joloff rice with beef.

I knew that people all over the world have maintained traditional cultural practices despite centuries of colonization and cultural imperialism, but I don’t think I ever quite absorbed this fact until I saw it for myself.

Finally, the stone circles (

This afternoon, we drove about two hours southeast of Kaolack along paved road, then dusty dirt roads, to reach this incredible, remote UNESCO site. When we got there, we were treated to a guided tour by the keeper, who has been responsible for the site for 20 years, despite ongoing conflict with the villagers over who owns the land.

The stone circles date to the 3rd century B.C., and researchers are pretty confident that they are burial sites from an ancient, advanced civilization. There are 25 such sites in Senegal and The Gambia, and it was mystical to finally see a site like this, after having seen artifacts from similar locations at museums my whole life.

It’s impossible to capture the emotion and energy of these three days, except to say that I am happy-exhausted, and so grateful to Aly for sharing so much of his country with us.

Tomorrow, we head back to the high school to meet with all of the English teachers. I’m excited to see what we will learn there.