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 third and last in a series of reflections on the tie-ins between his Fulbright experiences and the three pillars of his formation as a member of ACE Teaching Fellows. Here, he discusses the pillar of spiritual growth.
When the Senegalese ask “How you are doing” in Wolof (the most widely spoken language in Senegal, even more than French), the standard response is, “Maangi fi,” which literally translates to, “I’m here.” It bodes well with Senegal, and shows the importance of simply being present.
As a Catholic living in a mostly Muslim country, I knew that if I wanted to truly understand Islam, I needed first to be present—getting accustomed to the daily calls to prayer and celebrating the various Muslim holidays. Religion and spirituality are embedded in the fabric of Senegalese life.
While living in Senegal and thinking about my own spirituality, I have often recalled the tenets of “faith, hope, and love” that were instrumental during my years as an ACE Teacher in Mississippi. Focusing on “faith, hope, and love,” I realized that Christianity and Islam had more similarities than I thought.
The Senegalese are faith-filled individuals who make a conscious, everyday effort to pause, pray, and give gratitude. Whether I was walking down the street or in a professional development session, there would be someone praying and reflecting. It motivated me to reflect, as well. I often heard “Alhamdulillah”—which translates to “Thanks and praise be to Allah/God”—spoken regarding seemingly little things. It entered into my own vocabulary.
But what has struck me the most about the Senegalese (and West Africans, in general) is how religiously tolerant and accepting they are. Not once did I feel threatened or intimidated because I was Catholic. If anything, quite the opposite. I’ll admit that I may have missed going to Sunday Mass once or twice, and it was my host dad, Lamine Amadou, who would immediately reprimand me (jokingly, but not). He’d ask why I did not attend. I joked that my Filipino-Catholic guilt had somehow found its way to my Senegalese-Muslim host family! I wondered if my devout Filipino mom had found a way to communicate with my Muslim host dad!
Ultimately, conversations on religion and spirituality focused less on religious affiliation and more on the depth of your relationship with a higher being. This left a huge impression on me. I truly believe this is the crux of spirituality.
It’s no surprise that a recent rise in Islamophobia in the world has sparked stark divisions, especially in the United States. The beauty of living in a religiously tolerant and accepting country like Senegal is that these divisions essentially vanish. Ignorance and hate are replaced with consistent dialogue. It’s less about placing an emphasis on “the other” and more about accepting others as equal parts of the human race, regardless of religious beliefs.
One of my most profound spiritual moments in Senegal happened during this past Advent. Kaylin, a Fulbright research friend, and I decided to attend the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at the Cathedral in downtown Dakar. Afterwards, we were craving a snack and went to our neighborhood corner store. Because we were both all dressed up, Ibrahima, the store owner asked where we were coming from. We explained the significance of Midnight Mass and talked a bit about our background as young Christians. He immediately asked if he could tag along for Mass next Sunday. Kaylin and I willingly obliged.
Come the following Sunday, we all headed to the nearest Catholic church in our neighborhood. It was his first time in a Catholic church, and he displayed the utmost reverence and respect. Throughout the Mass, I found myself explaining the different parts and answering his questions.
Walking back from the church, we entered genuine conversation about religion, the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam, and our own spiritual practices. The evening call to prayer reverberated throughout the city, and Ibrahima went to the mosque to pray. It was a fleeting moment of sharing, but it left a lasting impression on me. It gave me a hope not found in the religious climate of many lands.
While the heart of spirituality emphasizes the depth of one’s relationship with a higher being, our willingness to learn from and love each other holds great significance, as well.
When I’m back home in the San Francisco Bay area, I’m used to joyous and hilarious Christmas gatherings with my huge Filipino family. But in a country that doesn’t fully celebrate Christian holidays, it could be difficult to re-create. I decided to share my family’s tradition of gift-giving. When I gave gifts to my host family during Christmas dinner, they were a bit surprised. I explained this expressed appreciation for our loved ones during a season that calls for new beginnings and gratitude.
In my final full month in Senegal, it was the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims awoke before sunup to eat and pray, then fasted throughout the entire day, eventually breaking their fast when the sun goes down. In solidarity, I wanted to try fasting for one day and praying five times throughout the day (Catholic prayers, of course).
The breaking of the fast had a communal and spiritual aspect to it. As a non-Muslim, it was an honor to be invited to the breaking-of-the-fast celebrations with friends, coworkers, and even my host family. Those who gathered ate dates, then prayed, then shared the actual dinner. This process was meant to bring Muslims closer to God, to strengthen relationships with those around them, and to reinforce love and respect in a chaotic and divisive world.
Senegalese practices I first had viewed with a distanced attitude took ono a more spiritual quality. Truth be told, I already miss the calls to prayer, as well as the conversations with folks who proved genuinely curious to learn and share. I’ve recognized my desire to further cultivate a relationships with God and my loved ones, to respect the beliefs of others, and more importantly, to simply remain present in the here and now.