I’ve been back from Senegal for a month now, and struggling with how to write about it. It was a formative experience in every way, yet still when people ask me “How was Africa?” I have no idea how to respond. Certainly “It was amazing!” fits the bill, but what does one say after that? It was challenging, eye-opening, perspective-setting, beautiful, and an incredible opportunity to get to be immersed in a part of the world I would probably never have gotten to on my own.
Although I was there for work (I work for a nonprofit called CREATE!), the trip affirmed for me that I really have chosen the right career path. As Communications Coordinator, my job while I was there was to train my colleagues on the field team in visual storytelling and photography. In addition, I was tasked with filming as many of our partner communities as possible to develop a catalog of video assets that we can use for our digital media.
So what this meant was that I got to travel around rural Senegal, take photos, interview people, and film. Who could ask for more?? It was challenging for sure — When I first arrived, I didn’t speak any French or Wolof, and there were only a few people on our field team with some English skills. Fortunately, we had a couple translators on the team who stuck by my side almost the entire time to help interpret (and yank me out of the way of donkey carts), but communication was still basic and limited. It wasn’t too bad, but as someone trying to collect stories about climate change, human experiences, and environmental challenges, I had a lot of piecing together to do. By the end of the trip, I had learned a few words of French and Wolof, but I maintain a deep level of admiration for everyone there who can speak both those languages fluently, on top of knowing some English! 😮
My weekdays were filled with trips to various villages throughout Senegal’s “peanut basin,” an area where they grow lots of peanuts during the annual 3-month rainy season. Usually, I would ride in our organization’s truck with the driver, Pape Ba (who joked that the only English words he knew were “room” and “chair”), and our two Communications Assistants on the field team, Fatou Thiam, and Fatou Sow, who knew the most English on the team and helped me translate everything.
We would spend a few hours at a village where our nonprofit helps establish garden sites, microfinance programs, solar energy, and working wells, and then return to town for about a 3-hour lunch break, mid-day. We would then drive out again in late afternoon when the temperatures were cooler, and spend another couple hours at another village, doing more interviews, filming, and photography with the groups at the garden sites.
The whole trip was an incredible opportunity to work on my portraiture and “people photography” skills. Throughout my life, I’ve been most comfortable with wildlife and landscape photography; it comes naturally to me, and there isn’t the added pressure of asking for permission, overcoming awkwardness, or just pointing a camera in someone’s face. But here, that was my job. People knew I was there to take their photos and film them, and it turned out to be a total blast.
Especially without speaking the same language, there was lots of laughter and always a lot of awkwardness. But there were also so many great opportunities to get shots of people interacting, working, or just doing their thing. I knew that I stood out a lot as the only non-Senegalese person around, but people were very friendly and would usually ignore me after the first few minutes after introductions and greetings (“Salaam Malikam,” “Malikam Salaam”).
By the end of my first week, I was definitely ready for the weekend. A big sandstorm was blowing in off the Sahara Desert, bringing strong winds and filling the air with a haze of fine sand that seemed to infiltrate every pore of my skin. The wind and sand blew from about Thursday-Saturday, making our power go out repeatedly in the compound where I was staying, and knocking our water lines out.
I took cold bucket baths most of time, which did little to get the sand out of my hair and ears. My clothes by then were also stiff and covered in a thin film of dirt.
By the second week of my trip, I was feeling much more integrated with the rest of the field staff. We found ways to communicate over language barriers, better ways to do interviews, and there was always plenty to laugh about.
On my second-to-last day there, the Senegal staff surprised me with a going away party, which was quite unexpected and very touching. I had only known them for a couple weeks, and yet felt like I’d gotten to know each one of them, even with barely speaking the same languages. They each tried out their English to thank me for visiting, training, and working with them, and then they presented me with a gift of a couple African garments, that totally blew my mind! I was so moved by their generosity.
It was such a great experience to get to travel to Senegal in this capacity. In Oregon, I often work alone in an office and correspond remotely occasionally with our staff in Senegal. So to get to meet them all in person and really feel like I was a part of their team, completely changed the way that I’m able to see and do my work now. How lucky I am to get to work on an international team like this, and to be the person who gets to help tell their stories.
Although this experience was very different from what I normally highlight here on my website, I think this one is especially important to reflect upon because of how much it built my capacity as a photographer and a storyteller. It challenged me in so many ways — taking photos I’m not used to taking, learning how to communicate across cultures, and hardest of all for me to grapple with: figuring out how to sensitively and appropriately collect stories in a place that has historically been so influenced by colonialism. I still have so much to learn, but I’m grateful to have had this experience in my lifetime.