Michael Berino (ACE 19) has expanded his teaching and learning by spending the past nine months in Senegal. Thanks to a prestigious grant he received from The Fulbright Program, he has worked with the Office of English Teaching at Senegal's Ministry of Education, assisting in professional development for English teachers throughout the country as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) & Teacher Trainer. This blog post is the second in a series of reflections on the tie-ins between his Fulbright experiences and the three pillars of his formation as an ACE Teaching Fellow. Here, he discusses the pillar of building community.
If teaching is what sustains me professionally, then it’s community that helps sustain me personally. Oftentimes the decision to live and work abroad, and be so far away, can place a strain on relationships back home. While it’s great that I can connect with family and friends almost immediately with social media and cell phones, missing weddings, birthdays, and other life events year after year can be emotionally and mentally taxing. I often think that Facebook is more of a blessing but can occasionally be a curse!
But perhaps one of the best parts of living abroad is the sense of community and family you eventually create for yourself. You are uprooted from what is familiar, transplanted to a new location and new culture, and forced to juggle all these elements to create a sense of normalcy. Sounds challenging? You bet. Yet moving from place to place, I’ve found myself, time and time again, creating pockets of community and other “families” for myself–and moving to Senegal is no exception.
The notion of teranga (translates to “hospitality” in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal) is at the bedrock of Senegalese culture. Whether it’s greeting your neighbor or welcoming a foreigner to your home for a meal, teranga is alive and well. Before arriving in Senegal, I made the decision to live with a host family, with the intention of living with them for a couple of months to acclimate to Dakar and then eventually find my own apartment. As I write this at the end of my grant period, I am still happily living with them and know that this stems in large part from their openness and sense of teranga. After almost nine months, I am part of the family, sharing meals and inviting friends over, discussing our days, and laughing about the cultural mishaps that come every so often. Even in my work environment at the Ministry of Education, with my two colleagues (whom I affectionately call my “Senegalese aunts”), they too have grown to be a part of my family abroad.
It’s amazing how hospitality and compassion can transcend cultures and generations. Living in Mississippi during my time as an ACE Teaching Fellow,the notion of “Southern hospitality” was ever-present. From being invited to Mardi Gras balls to having food brought to our door, the members of my ACE community and I always felt welcomed. These ideas of teranga and “Southern hospitality,” though from two separate cultures, are not very different. Both espouse fostering a sense of true community.
Yet whenever I move abroad or live in a new place, I don’t always have the luxury of having a host family. So I find myself first gravitating to what is most familiar first. English speakers? Americans living abroad? I am truly blessed to have come into the Fulbright Program with six other dynamic, compassionate, and diverse Americans. Having first met in Washington, D.C., at our pre-departure orientation last year, we clicked as a group and developed an unbreakable bond throughout our time in Senegal--even if we are kilometers apart across the country. I compare this to the intentional ACE communities we lived in as ACE Teaching Fellows. I had a particular fondness and love for my ACE community in Mississippi. Sure, at times it would feel like an episode of “The Real World: Catholic School Teachers Edition,” but the challenges came along with many successes. Ultimately, the opportunity to discuss these shared experiences together is what brought us together and, more often than not, kept me sane!
When comparing the United States to Senegal, one of the first things that comes to mind is the concept of individualism vs. collectivism. When I first arrived in Dakar, I remember telling some of my Senegalese friends that in the U.S. most folks do not know who their neighbors are. I got looks ranging from dumbfounded to confused. They would say, “How can you not know your neighbors that are living literally meters from you? Do you not see them as you are heading to work or coming back home?” Here in Senegal, your neighbors are like your extended family, and to greet one another constantly is a ritual itself. Quite frankly, the degrees of separation are a lot fewer here in Senegal and West Africa as a whole.
Living in Dakar, a bustling and constantly changing city, I have been lucky to meet friends from all over the globe–teachers, diplomats, folks that work at NGOs and in international development, and others who are pursuing advanced degrees. Fortunately, the city affords the opportunity to meet others easily, and there’s no shortage of live music, bars, and ocean view hangouts. Truly, the degrees of separation even in the “expat world” are few and far between. I think my most interesting conversations have occurred with those whose backgrounds differ significantly from mine, and I can say that I’ve become a better person because of it.
Yet at the end of the day, I have to remind myself that I’m living in another country, another context, another culture. And my ability to assimilate and integrate myself is crucial–from getting work clothes made in colorful African fabric patterns, to learning greetings and key phrases in Wolof to converse (and bargain) with taxi drivers, to remembering that eating yassa poulet (chicken marinated in onions, lemon, and garlic, served over rice) and thieboudienne (the national dish of Senegal; a hearty combination of fish, vegetables, and rice) with my left hand is culturally taboo!
Because if there’s anything that living in community and creating a new sense of family has taught me–both here in Senegal, in other parts of the world, or during my time as an ACE Teaching Fellow in Mississippi–it’s that we must revel in each other’s unique presence, appreciate the diversity in our God-given world, make an effort to learn from one another, and realize that your perspective grows exponentially after having met and trusted another person on this beautiful Earth.