Postcards from Senegal

Professors of English Christopher Wise and Kristiana Kahakauwila  are currently taking 14 English students on a study abroad tour of Senegal for three weeks, including stays in Dakar, Saint Louis, and M’bour.  Western Today caught up with Wise to find out more about the trip, how it coincides with his research, and what kind of experiences the students are having.

WT: This part of the world has been an area of focus for your research and writing for quite a while. How did it become so fascinating to you?

My first research experience in this part of the world came in 1996 when I taught on a Fulbright award at the University of Ouagadougou for a year. Since then I have traveled many times in Mali, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.  One of my primary focuses of research is the Sufi brotherhood called the Umarian Tijaniyya. (I recently translated and edited a book called “Archive of the Umarian Tijaniyya”). One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Sahel area is its antiquity — it is a culture that is more than 2,000 years old — and its great ethnic diversity, as it is made up of black ethnic groups like the Wolof, Dogon, Mande, Bambara, and so on, as well as Fulani, Tuareg, Berbers, and Arabs. 

WT: This trip involves 14 Western undergrads, who will take three courses while they are abroad. What will they study?

Students are taking creative writing with Kristiana.  She is having them read Senegalese women writers and studying travel writing and its pitfalls.  They are then writing creatively about their own experiences here in Senegal in a variety of travel genres. She teaches one 5 credit classes and I teach two 5 credit classes..

The two I teach are in West African literature, from both the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras. They are studying the scribal traditions of Timbuktu, dating back to the time of Christopher Columbus, the oral griot traditions, including meeting and listening to griots (West African singers of epics about cultural founders like the Askiya Muhammad and Sundiata Keita). They are learning about Arab colonization and slavery of black Africans, as well as European colonization and slavery.  From the contemporary period, they are studying West African writers and filmmakers like Mariama Ba, Sembene Ousmane, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Yambo Ouologuem.   

WT: Trips like these tend to be events that students will never forget; for many it is probably their first time in the developing world. Did you have a similar trip or period abroad when you were their age?

I traveled a lot when I was the students’ age, hitchhiking across Europe and studying in Paris for a year as an undergraduate.  These were powerful and formative experiences for me.  I’m a strong advocate of travel and foreign language learning. It is clear from being here that students learn far more deeply about other cultures and about themselves with first hand experiences like these. Lectures, books, and films can only go so far.  You need to drink the water, eat the food, and smell the smells.

WT: What do you hope, when their trip is over, that they come home with?

One major goal we have for students in the program is the next time they come to Africa, they will not need us.  They will have a firm foundation for travel in Africa to last them a lifetime.  But even if they never return they will have had a profound experience of a culture that is very different from their own.  They will see that the world is not as simple as it may appear to those who never leave their own backyards.  They will understand that there are cultures that are far older than ours, and even Europe's, and that these cultures have deeply impacted the world in many surprising ways.  

Students in the program have really enjoyed meeting and interacting with Senegalese people.  The cultural similarities they’ve encountered have also impressed them, the warmth and hospitality of the Senegalese people.  We have been treated very well.  It’s very humbling.  

Students and their guides with WWU Professor of English Christopher Wise (middle, in light blue) at the Great Mosque of Touba in Senegal.
Students and their guides with WWU Professor of English Christopher Wise (middle, in light blue) at the Great Mosque of Touba in Senegal.
Surf's up in Senegal!