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A UAlbany Junior Falls in Love with Senegal

UAlbany students recently participated in a cultural immersion experience in Senegal.

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 29, 2011) -- The first time University at Albany junior Kalima Johnson of Brooklyn, N.Y., saw children begging in the streets of Senegal, she was shocked. When the communication major learned money given to child beggars often ends up in the hands of adults, she started to carry around crayons. “Unfortunately, when I gave a crayon to a child who was begging, he ate it,” she recalled. When she explained crayons are for drawing and not eating, the child was disappointed. She switched to carrying around bread, the traditional Senegalese breakfast, and candy or fast food.

UAlbany junior Kalima Johnson interned in two schools and an orphanage during her recent stay in Senegal.

UAlbany junior Kalima Johnson interned in two schools and an orphanage during a recent study abroad trip to Senegal.

Her experience in West Africa challenged stereotypical American media images. She witnessed hope in the midst of poverty: She met a farmer who sells his products to provide for a school, and volunteers who invest their time at school to keep children off the streets.

“I see education as the only escape for the poor,” she said. She interned at two schools and an orphanage during her stay. She also went hiking, went on safari, and rode in a dugout canoe.

“I realized that every day was a high for me, since every day I did something that I never ever imagined doing,” said Johnson. She visited the grand mosque at the holy city of Touba, which reminded her of going to services in New York with her Muslim father until she was six years old. “It is amazing how well Senegalese Muslims and Christians get along,” she said.

Johnson was joined by five UAlbany undergraduates and one graduate student, in addition to students from Union College and Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Like Johnson, they chronicled their daily experiences in a journal, and lived in pairs with Senegalese host families. Johnson and her housemate had “the best host brother,” who cooked grilled fish, took them to the market, and on a boat ride to an island.

Johnson, who had never been out of the U.S. before, felt the world open before her as a student on a UAlbany study abroad trip to Dakar, Senegal. The trip was part of a three-credit course -- Culture and Customs of Senegal -- that begins with seminars, a field trip to Little Senegal in NYC, and meetings in the U.S. with Africana specialists. The course is taught by Associate Professor of French Eloise Brière of UAlbany, who began her career teaching college in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.  Brière teaches Culture and Customs of Senegal with professors Cheikh Ndiaye of Union College, and Kevin Hickey of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

French is spoken in Senegal, so knowing the language is useful, but not a requirement for the course.

“The purpose of the trip is to expand minds and to increase awareness of the commonalities between people: The supposedly helpless, primitive Africans we see portrayed in our media and we Americans, who at times are just as helpless and primitive as any other culture in the world,” said Brière, who was awarded the 2010 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. “In addition, the trip helps students understand how art, music, literature, and even sports are important cultural expressions that enrich a culture, making it vibrant and attractive.”

Johnson’s initial culture shock faded. She quickly developed a love of Senegalese people and their culture, as well as a new pride in her African roots. “It made me realize that before I am anything, I am African,” she said.

On the third day of the trip, the group visited the slave house at Goree Island. “It is a beautiful island with a horrific history,” she said. She was left wondering, “Did any of my ancestors reside in a slave house? What if it was this house?” She added, “Goree Island brought me closer to the pain my ancestors may have endured during slavery.”

“This experience also taught me to truly value my African appearance,” said Johnson, who wore her natural African hair out for the first time in four years.

While Johnson has not chosen a specific career path, she is considering working in the public sector or in communications. She would like to one day work for the U.S. government or in international development.

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Educationally and culturally, the University at Albany-SUNY puts "The World Within Reach" for its 17,500 students. An internationally recognized research university with 50 undergraduate majors and 125 graduate degree programs, UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as public policy, nanotechnology and criminal justice. With a curriculum enhanced by 300 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers. For more information about this globally ranked University, visit http://www.albany.edu/. For UAlbany's extensive roster of faculty experts, visit www.albany.edu/news/experts.shtml.