As I sat here writing the yak, I couldn’t help but feel the urge to dance around to the beat of the dreams and go back to the night before we left Dene. The sense of acceptance and sharing of culture from one person to another made me feel without a doubt safe. So far it has been about a week since we left home and currently are at our homestays in Thies. Before that, for orientation, we were at a small village named Dene which is absolutely an experience I will never forget. From dancing around with Galam and other little kids to learning about Islam while sipping tea, every moment that I was there made me happy and truly made me feel at home. One of the things that really intrigued me was learning about how the village was unified through not just living in the same place but through the world of Allah. When we spoke with the Imman we learned that peace needs to be created through the power of education. Babacar later started to emphasize his compassion for the Islam community which was why people followed him. Like a lot of kids in Senegal, when the Imman was a young boy, he was sent to the village to learn about Islam. Through a dream, the Imman decided to move to a village so he decided to settle down in one to learn about Islam. But then he had another dream that he was supposed to go another village which brought him to the village of Dene. Afterwards, he met with the village chief and want to set up a place where he could study Islam and invite others to study with him. His study group went which eventually led to the construction of Dene. The people opened up their home to the us and let us learn how it was to live a quiet yet precious life. Though it may seem that the Imman is someone that may have all the answers, he is as Babacar described him. “A man that views himself as blind, weak, old and still has so much to learn”. Nevertheless, the Imman decides to lead others for peace through education.
In Dene, Dragon students learned about the respect and love at the heart of Sufism, as well as the symbolism attached to daily life. Sufism is a sect of Islam where believers follow a religious leader and believe in mysticism. Two aspects about Sufism that stood out were its emphasis on respecting women and the symbolic importance of everything, particularly the color of clothing.
Love is at the heart of the Sufi belief system. Babacar, the son of Dene’s Imam, explained, “By virtue of being human, you are beautiful enough to be loved,” by God and fellow men.
Sufis see the physical world as a manifestation of God’s love. Thus, they hold a great deal of respect for God’s creations, particularly women. Contrary to many westernized portrayals of Islam, Sufi women are treated with a great respect because they are responsible for giving birth and raising children. Women are perceived to have emotional strength superior to men. As the Imam explained, if a man sees that the weather is bad, and the ocean is wavy, he will not fish. But even if a woman sees that the conditions are dangerous, she will protect her children. The respect reserved for women made many of the women on our Dragons trip feel very safe and comfortable in Dene.
When we first arrived in Dene, many Dragons commented on the fact that everyone seemed to be wearing black and white, flannel clothing. To us, this choice of clothing seemed like it would get hot because even though it is the rainy season, each day in Dene was around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually, it was explained to us that the color of the fabric has great importance. Black is symbolic of light because black allows light to be seen. White is symbolic of power because it represents light. Generally, the Imam wore all black, and pregnant women wore all white. This allowed for respect to be given; however, everyone wore black and white which allowed for a level of uniformity within the community.
The best part of our visit in Dene was how welcoming everyone was and how willing they were to help and educate us. The Imam explained that he envisioned achieving world peace by educating the world about his religion and sharing common experiences with others.
Getting to Dene was somewhat a culture shock for me; a Senegalese Muslim who has travelled to Senegal before and multiple other Muslim countries and communities around the world. Everything I expected Dene to be was turned inside out, upside down, covered in sand, and taught to dance. It has been hard for me to describe my experiences in dene in a way that does justice to the time I had there so I picked three aspects of Dene concrete and abstract that I felt made the two days and two nights we spent there beautiful: the community, and the sand.
The community of Dene was the biggest thing I didn’t expect. As mentioned, I’ve been to many Muslim communities and African Muslim communities so I’d kind of formed a preview for myself as to how our stay in Dene would be based on what I’d experienced before. I’d expected to be judged for not being a “good Muslim”; for not wearing hijab, for forgetting some of the oppractics of Islam, for not speaking Arabic, or knowing at least twenty different Muslim prayers, etc., I thought I’d be judged for having an obviously Senegalese name and physical features and not knowing a word of French or Wolof, even less than my American peers. I’d expected a lot of expectations of my actions as a woman and that I wouldn’t be able to participate in certain events, namely pick up soccer. But Dene was not that. I felt welcomed immediately my entire group did. The group was invited into the Dara for a service and I expected to be stared at, preached at, and made to sit and watch prayer but to my surprise I was met with music. A song wrote just for my group as a welcome to the community. It was loud, lively, and really just good music. You could with all the soul in your body hear, see, smell, and touch the happiness and excitement radiating off of everyone in the Dara. And then the dancing. Everyone was dancing, the parents, their kids, seniors, and infants alike. In the midst of all this a woman turned around and led my friends and I to dance. People were so consumed by the music and the dancing and the euphoria that people were passing out. It was the most surreal thing I’d ever experienced. When it came time to leave we had a bonfire party. This time, instead of being invited to dance, my group and I dived in and we were accepted. We danced for hours. I danced with the grandpa who pulled my group into the circle and taught us each a move and with the little sister who held my hand and pulled me to the drums.
In terms of physical description the village of Dene seems like 94 percent sand and 6 percent well… not sand. For a girl from the cornfields of the Midwest the sand in Dene was something therapeutic. While sometimes the sand could be unforgivably hot under my feet and sometimes the sand was like a safe haven; warm, inviting, and soft. When us Americans played soccer the sand was an obstacle that made running more tiring and shooting more difficult while the Dene natives seemed to just float with ease. The sand became a nuisance when even after a shower it was everywhere. The sand that laughed at me and my friend when we took thirty minutes to get water from a well for a shower when it really should have taken thirty seconds. On our last night we sat on the sand to say our thank yous and goodbyes; this time the sand was a friend packed with all the moments of our stay that made me and others in my group feel at peace, perfectly content, and at home. Then came the dancing, where the sand was given a spirit as it bounced up and down under our feet. The sand took up so many characters, so many personalities, and so many different meaning. In some ways, the sand even resembled the community in Dene.