Diakene-Diola, November 1989

From Senegal

In 1989, after graduating high school, I joined a Canada World Youth exchange that had my group spending three months in Atlantic Canada and then three months in Senegal. The entire time, we would be paired with a counterpart from the host country. It was apparent when I got to Senegal that, experiencing a mix of culture shock and severe homesickness, I was too inexperienced in travel and too immature to properly appreciate the exchange.

It wasn’t until I got back that I realised that I had been changed by it and I saw the experience as the defining moment in my soon-to-be adult life. To this day, I can’t abide insular people who have no interest in new things or the world around them.

I recently got in touch with a friend from that exchange and we’ve been exchanging photos and posting a lot of them on Facebook. It’s weird seeing these photos, as they’ve opened up new memories that I’d forgotten. It’s also odd, seeing me skinny and bearded. The person in those photos seems like some other guy and I just happen to have his memories.

The photo above is of some of the children in my host family. Sibling relationships in those villages was a bit hard for us to pin down. My counterpart would introduce me to his family by saying “This is my sister X, same mother, same father. This is my brother Y, different mother, same father. This is my sister Z, we don’t know who her parents are so she lives with us.” It’s easier to just say “family.”

These kids are from my host family. The photo was taken in the hut in which I lived for three months. The smallest one was desperately afraid of me for a while. He’d run screaming from me every time I came home. It was explained that he had never seen a white person before and I thought I was dying or a ghost or something. Plus I had this weird red beard that is something of a rarity in those parts.

Eventually he caught on that I wasn’t dead and warmed up to me and this photo was taken around that moment. Eventually he’d allow me to carry him around the village on my shoulders.

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4 thoughts on “Diakene-Diola, November 1989

  1. Oh wonderful, would love to hear more about this experience and what specifically changed within you. Did you ever keep a journal back then of those days?

  2. I had filled several Hilroy scribblers with my thoughts but I was so embarrassed by the whining and self-absorption that I literally burned them. If I could go back, I would have kept a more detailed account of day to day life, rather than a running commentary on my emotional state.

    Like I say, the changes weren’t apparent until after I got back. As far as what changed is concerned, I guess it just made me grow up a little. I realised that there’s a bigger picture out there, which is difficult when you’re surrounded by people who don’t.

  3. i am a firm believer in the mind-broadening effects of travel, but even with my experiences i have still remained in the relative comfort zone of western europe. i can only imagine the shock to the system senegal must have been for you. good for you that you have been able to put yourself into some perspective. 🙂 i’d really like to visit africa, actually, but i’m also quite frightened to. i wonder what they would make of my hair.

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