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Photo by Sophie Singletary

Lessons from the Tower

As indicated by our last post, our time in Mouit will likely be remembered by each of us as our time in the tower. It’s where our lessons and lectures were held—diving deep into the many different types of pronouns and verbs of Wolof (no adjectives, only verbs!), beginning French and its nonsensical grammar, lectures on geography, cultural norms, and rural community service. The tower was also our place for whenever we didn’t have classes. That cool breeze and shade away from the sun—one night we huddled together screaming as a lightning storm broke around us. Other times we simply sat quietly, journaling together. Yes, we did other things—a scavenger hunt in Mouit, a boat tour through the Parc de Barbarie, Homestays through the Tomkharit celebration… (we actually, really, did a lot)—but ultimately it was our time in the tower that most impacted our experiences. Our perspectives, both about Senegal (through lectures and classes) and about ourselves (through shared experiences and late-night convos) were shaped most significantly there. Thus, this Yak Post about Mouit is centered our time in the tower, each of us taking one class or moment there and applying it to our greater experience in Mouit.

Alison and Sabien:

While on our tower, we had a lesson to prepare for a scavenger hunt in the Saint Louis market. The few phrases we learned consisted of am nga…, dafa ser, naata la… meaning “do you have,” “that’s too expensive,” and “how much does this cost?”. That’s pretty much it. Thus, we were totally prepared when the instructors handed us a yellow sheet with our tasks and dropped us off at the edge of the market. The streets were hectic with merchants carrying goods on their heads, horse-drawn carriages, and people walking in every direction. We bought a bag of peanuts, acquired some sotchu (a type of wood used to clean teeth!), and then came to a mutual agreement to shop for fabrics (not on the list haha). As we walked into the store, we were bombarded by colors—vibrant wax fabric covered in all types of patterns stacked to the roof. While at the store we were approached by a guy our age, Justin. He was learning English in University and spoke it well, so we talked for a long while (he also makes EDM music and is half Brazilian and Congolese—a very cool dude). When it was time to head back to the group, Justin said he wasn’t busy, so he came with us. Ultimately we bought everything we were supposed to (and more), traversed the market without any terrible incidences, and made a friend—maybe that quick lesson in the tower prepared us better than we thought.

Lu and Emma:

Many of our tower sessions focused on the impact of the environment and environmental change on the local community. In 2003, the Senegalese government created a canal between the river and the nearby sea in response to heavy flooding in Mouit and Saint Louis. The results were disastrous—in the years after the original flooding, the 4-meter-wide canal has grown to approximately one hundred times its original size. This has made the previously freshwater river to become brackish, creating salinization of the land and wiping out almost all the agriculture near the affected parts of the river. As we stood beside the remains of a colonial French arsenal—one of the first Western buildings in the region—former farmers described the once-fertile land that had surrounded it only a few years prior. Coconut and mango fields that have thrived in the area for decades have been reduced to rows of stumps.

As the canal expands towards the original delta, more populous areas downriver in Saint Louis are also suffering. We visited a newly built school complex, situated along the beach, twenty meters or so from the shoreline. We learned that it had been built to replace an old school, now 500 (!) meters offshore beneath ocean waves. Later that day we learned more about the area’s environmental issues from local activists. What was described was bleak: efforts by the national park and local organizations—building fences, stone and concrete walls—have proved ineffective in the face of the changing environment.

This was the first time many of us had seen firsthand the havoc that global environmental irresponsibility (in particular that of developed Western countries) has wreaked on smaller coastal communities. Driving along the shores of Saint Louis, we passed kids playing by the colorful boutiques, robust fish markets, and the bright dress of women returning from the market. Soon this vibrant community will join the increased number of displaced families crowding Saint Louis. We hope to continue having conversations about climate change and its effect on different communities, and will absolutely be continuing these conversations back in the US.

Maddie and Sebastian:

While the environmental costs have already been discussed, there are far-reaching social costs that accompany them. Daouda, our host and a teacher by trade, took the time one night to show us around Mouit, talking about these social consequences. Without viable land to farm, he explained, it has become more and more worthwhile for younger generations across the region to use Mouit as a jumping off point from Senegal to Europe, in search of economic opportunities. Senegalese have called this phenomenon Barca or Barzah, meaning Barcelona or death, because the trip (in crowded, small boats) is so dangerous, and so many perish on it.

Six of the eight members of our group are either the children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves. Immigration is close to all of our lives and hearts. We understand, in each of our own ways, what it’s like to leave our home countries for a place of more opportunity and safety. Daouda, Babacar, and our time in Saint Louis has prompted us to give more thought to the places left behind.

Magnus and Zoëy:

The tower was our classroom. It was our late-night-convo hangout lounge. It was where we came to learn more about the culture around us, and also about ourselves. It was also the largest structure around. While we learned the enunciation of Wolof to practice with our homestay families or at the market, we were also sitting in a tower, in an empty eco-tourism hotel, isolated from the people of Mouit. As we learned about Senegalese family dynamics (joking cousins!) and geography, we watched the dramatic tides of waters that were destroying homes and schools only 30 minutes north in Saint Louis. Thus, the tower was a physical display of the part we played as outsiders of the community. We were wealthy foreigners, going to a prestigious University, literally in a separate tower looking down on the locals. While the image of wealthy elites in an ivory tower is not one that we’re striving for (and, to be clear, not at all true to our experiences or actions in Mouit), it’s still an important image to remember and think about in the rest of our time in Senegal. Two days ago we left the tower to head to the bigger city of Thies. While the comfort of the tower may be missed at times, we’re all ready to leave our tower and move on.