When we first drove into the village of Temento Samba, in southern Senegal, in our two cramped station wagons, a parade of kids ran behind us as we were jostled around on the rutted, dusty, one-laned road. The village was picturesque: round-thatched huts, farm animals roaming everywhere, cook-fires outside, and all around, the stunning African savannah.
Last October, a group of eight other high school grads, five instructors, and I travelled to Senegal with an organization called “Where There Be Dragons,” which runs cultural immersion programs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We’d be spending nearly two weeks with families in this isolated, rural farming village.
Having grown up on 40 acres of farmland in Marshfield and currently living halfway between the happening villages of Adamant and Maple Corner, I’m no stranger to rural communities. I know what it means to walk down the road and exchange hellos with the neighbor tending her garden, to go to the store and run into the same five people you always do on your grocery run, or to simply open your back door to a vast expanse of undeveloped land. In this specific sense, Temento Samba isn’t drastically different from my hometown. But as each hot and hazy day passed, I began to notice what set this community apart.
When I first met my host “mom,” she ran up to me, held me by the shoulders and said, with great enthusiasm and vigor, “Goulel!” My instructor explained that Goulel (pronounced “Goo-lel”) was my Senegalese name. At first it was hard to remember my new name, but now it is impossible to forget it.
Most days, after a hearty breakfast of peanut-rice porridge, I would go on a walk into the peanut fields surrounding the village. As I walked, I’d pass neighbors tilling the fields and they’d shout, “Goulel!” They’d always greet me with big, warm smiles. Sometimes kids would pass me on the road and offer me the bushel of peanuts on which they had been munching.
Mid-afternoon, when the temperature was into the triple digits, my host brother and I would sit under the shade of the mango tree while he prepared ataya, the tea of Senegal. Neighbors often came by to talk and ask me questions. The daily afternoon ataya session was a time to hang out, relax, and be in the company of others.
Another ritual I came to love was the evening star-gazing. Every night, after supper, my family and I would lie on the outdoor bed and stare up at the clear and crisp array of stars. As we lay, the kids from the neighboring huts would join us. Sometimes we’d all look for shooting stars and compete to see who could spot the most. Sometimes we’d talk and laugh and listen to music playing off my host sister’s flip phone. Other times we’d just lie there, look up, and enjoy the coolness of the night air, the whir of field insects, and the collective moment.
On my final night I visited the neighboring families to say goodbye. Without walking twenty steps I was already in someone else’s yard, already a welcome guest in someone’s home. Each family I visited welcomed me with big smiles and insisted I sit down. They talked with me; they asked me lots of questions; they said I was welcome any time to return.
That night the entire community gathered on the other side of the village. Each student got up with his or her host family and thanked the village, and then the instructors did the same. One of my instructors, Micah, said something that really struck me. He talked about driving through the countryside here in southern Senegal and mentioned how, when driving along the road, you notice several signs. They’re usually big and white, and they say something like, “This NGO helped build a well in this village,” or “This group of Americans helped plant a garden here.” He said he wished the same could be true in America. He said that he wanted to drive through a rural road in America and see signs like, “The people of Temento Samba taught these people how to sit down and have a meal together,” or, “The people of Temento Samba showed these people what it means to be a part of a community.
”Looking back, I had few inhibitions. I was comfortable enough to dance in front of hundreds of villagers and butcher the moves. I was comfortable enough to walk into anyone’s yard anytime of the day and help out, or play with the kids, or attempt the language.
I love the communities of Adamant and Maple Corner. I feel privileged to be a part of them. But in Temento Samba, that communal force was undeniably stronger. I was welcomed by everyone. I was taken care of by everyone. I was taught by everyone.
Here we say, “Good fences make good neighbors,” but in Temento Samba, they would do just the opposite. That’s something I have yet to quite shake, and I hope never will.
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