More than 4,000 miles from home, her worldview was expanded through spiritual and cultural diversity in a warm environment surrounded by baobab trees and friendly people.
Dr. Stephanie Lovett, adjunct instructor, Humanities, Communication, Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Science Division was in Senegal, West Africa, in January attending a two-week conference on Diversity, Religion and Migration. She was selected to participate in the Council of American Overseas Research Centers competitive program for community college and minority-serving institutions.
Group attending the seminar in front of the West African Research Center
She, along with 16 other educators and two group leaders, experienced lectures, panels, discussions and film screenings at the West African Research Center in Dakar. The conference mission was to foster international learning by exploring the region’s growing multinational diversity and interfaith discussion and influence, especially on young people. Lovett had the opportunity to meet other educators from across the country, sharing experiences from the classroom, and learning how to connect in a different culture and language.
Lovett explained, “What a beautiful place to be open in studying these issues, breaking down the ‘us versus them’ ideologies.”
“World religions, especially now in America, is primarily delivered with preconceived ideas of religion seen primarily through a Christian lens. Being in Senegal, a Muslim majority country, we could study the complexities of religion while being entrenched in an Islamic culture,” said Lovett, “It was much easier to focus on people and experience their history and religion through personal interactions.”
The trip was an opportunity for Lovett to broaden her experience as an educator and bring back the lessons to students in the classroom. She stressed this as one reason why study abroad programs are so important; the world is much bigger than we realize, yet we have more similarities than differences with other cultures.
“I was surprised by the numerous holiday lights and decorations still on display in Dakar. All countries take on holiday customs from pagan, cultural and sentimental traditions, which are significant to them. Religion gives them a platform for celebration.” said Lovett. “Another interesting practice were vendors on the interstate during rush hour traffic in Dakar trying to sell items when traffic was at a standstill. That made me a little nervous,” she laughed. “But after a few days, it felt totally normal to us and we got the hang of buying cookies through the window.”
During the second week of the trip, Lovett enjoyed seeing the landscapes throughout Senegal, as they toured the historic towns of Toubacouta and Saint-Louis. They visited the largest mosque in Africa in Touba, where she met the great-granddaughter of Cheik Amadou Bamba, a charismatic religious leader in Senegal.
They also saw Lake Retba (The Pink Lake in Senegal). Its distinct pink color is caused by Dunaliella salina bacteria, which is attracted by the lake’s salt content. The lake has a salt content equal to the Dead Sea. The local people scoop the salt from the bottom of the lake to preserve fish.
Her favorite visual experience was seeing and photographing all the baobab trees, a symbol for the ‘source of life.’
Lovett explained that the primary language in Senegal is French. She remembered enough of her French training to read the menu. She reported the food was delicious, influenced by the Senegalese French and Indian traditions. They shared mafé, a stew with a tomato and peanut base, and yassa, an onion-based stew made tangy with lemon juice. In addition, they ate lots of rice and couscous followed by lots of pastries. Senegal’s signature drinks are bouye, a drink made from milk and baobab powder (from the Baobab tree), and Ataya, an espresso like mint drink and green tea with a sweet and bitter taste.
Lovett summarized her experience saying “if you only know something through books, you don’t really know it until you see it.” Through this experience, Lovett cultured a deeper appreciation of both the country of Senegal and the multinational diversity of its people.