Giving and Receiving: Studying Abroad in Senegal

By Ben Hubbard
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Yoro Ba owned only two nice shirts, but they were always clean and well-pressed. He knew mountains of jokes and was an adept raconteur -- whistling, clapping and gesturing as he built to the punch line. He appeared eternally entertained, whether arguing with university colleagues about how to develop Africa or dancing salsa in some seedy nightclub.

Yoro sat down next to me in the cafeteria after he arrived at the Université Gaston Berger in northern Senegal, where I spent my junior year in college. Three hours later, we were still talking, and he became my best friend on campus. I was one of six Americans studying there; he was one of the 3,000 or so Senegalese who had studied their way to the top of their class to earn spots at the university, a smattering of buildings in the desert with shaky plumbing and spotty electricity 30 minutes outside of the former capital of Saint-Louis. The local students wondered why we had traveled so far to be at their university when they would have sold limbs to go to ours.

Besides class, there wasn't much to do, so we hung out in Yoro's dorm room and listened to music -- sometimes mine, sometimes his -- talking while he brewed round after round of strong, sweet Senegalese tea. Our conversations often reflected yawning cultural gaps, such as when I tried to explain why I liked Billie Holiday (my music) but not Céline Dion (Yoro's music). They both sing well, Yoro said, but Céline Dion's recordings aren't scratchy.

"Yeah," I said, "but Céline Dion is cheesy." Yoro's brow ruffled.

"What is this 'cheesy?' " he asked.

I taught him the word, but he found the concept hard to grasp. What was it that made, say, Phil Collins "cheesy," but not Bob Dylan? I did my best to explain this strange sensibility that I and the other Americans had. He listened, but he never really got it.

Other discussions were more serious, like when he asked why I and the other Americans had chosen to study in Senegal, of all places. We had our reasons. One woman wanted a fun year before medical school. Another man loved African dance. I had seen the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy" as a kid and had been fascinated with Africa ever since. Together, we sought experiences that our middle-class backgrounds and universities -- and American life, in general -- couldn't offer.

Again, Yoro listened and asked questions, but I never got the feeling our explanations made any sense to him.

Yoro had other reasons to be at the university. He had left home because his father hoped a degree would help Yoro support his sprawling extended family. In Senegalese culture, Yoro said, family comes first, and one's resources are valued for how they enrich one's community. That community includes friends, we were to learn, who often ask each other for money to fund weddings or build homes.

That was different from our American way of thinking, in which asking friends for money can send them looking for new friends. And none of us had come to Senegal to help our families or because we thought the trip would help us earn money someday. (Ten years later, we realize we were right.)

Despite these differences, my friendship with Yoro grew, largely through our love of music. I was entertaining fantasies of becoming an ethnomusicologist, a bearded, Birkenstocked misfit in some university music department who could play 16 instruments most people couldn't pronounce.

Yoro's tie to music was more direct. He came from a family of griots, traditional musicians who had supported themselves by singing for the wealthy. His father was raised in the tradition but now worked as a well-loved but ill-paid radio host. Yoro had opted for an academic career after deciding the tradition was dying out.

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