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Through Senegal trip, Dot students connect to culture

Talia Whyte

A group of students from Smith Leadership Academy Charter School in Dorchester recently took the trip of a lifetime — traveling to Senegal during April school vacation week.

The curriculum at Smith, which has a predominantly African American student body, emphasizes intellectual curiosity, cultural awareness and citizenship. Smith world studies teacher Lovely Hoffman said she believed a trip to the West African nation fit neatly within the school’s mission.

The process of organizing the trip started in October through a selective application process. After six students were selected to go on the trip, an aggressive grassroots fundraising initiative was launched that involved the entire Smith community.

Besides the usual fundraising tactic of having bake sales every week, Kamala Sherwood, Smith’s head of school, also instituted a creative “dress down day” for students once per week. On those days, students were permitted to wear regular street clothes instead of uniforms — but they would all have to pay $2 each for the privilege.

“All the students felt invested in making this trip happen, even if they weren’t going themselves,” Sherwood said. “They knew the significance of doing this trip. There was a spirit for going to the motherland.”

The school community’s strong feelings toward the trip culminated with a sendoff party for the six students, held the day before their April 17 departure.

A key element of the trip was the attempt to create a bond between Smith’s students and pupils at the Derkle School, a middle school on the outskirts of the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

“We raised money to buy school supplies and clothing here to bring to the kids at the school,” said trip participant Shanikwa Marsh, 13. “They really appreciated the gifts, because they really needed them.”

In exchange for those physical gifts, Marsh said, she came back with the gift of knowledge about her African roots. While visiting the Derkle School, she learned from her Senegalese counterparts the arts of shoe-making, cooking and African dance.

Trip participants also had the opportunity to visit historical and cultural institutions like Gorée Island, one of the centers for the transatlantic slave trade, where Africans were shipped to the Americas. Both Marsh and Hoffman said that setting foot in the same dungeons where up to 15 slaves were packed into small rooms gave them a sense of perspective about their place as African Americans in world history.

The group then traveled to the ancient city of Touba to visit the Great Mosque, said to be the largest in Africa. Brandon German, an adult advisor on the trip, was amazed that even in a remote part of Africa like Touba, a cyber café is not to hard to find.

“Africa is more technologically advanced than America,” he said. “Everywhere we went, we found people on the Internet or using cell phones. A lot of people say that Africans are not technologically savvy, but that is simply not true.”

Hoffman learned during the trip that many Africans have a strong desire to reconnect with their brothers and sisters in the United States. She said that almost everywhere her group went in Dakar, they were welcomed with open arms.

Hoffman, also a local RandB artist whose father hails from Liberia, recorded a song called “Motherland” to celebrate her African heritage.

“I have a passion for Africa,” Hoffman said. “I wanted to go to Africa to explore this passion. I also feel like a lot of people don’t know about their African heritage, and I think it was good to do this trip with young people so they learn to appreciate the motherland from a young age.”

Satisfied with the success of the trip, Hoffman is not only planning another short term trip to Senegal or another West African country next year, but she would also like to create a six-week summer program in Dakar for her American students to continue the bonding.

Marsh has already made an effort to keep in touch with her new friends in Dakar. Two days after coming back from Senegal on April 29, she received a long distance phone call from one of the Derkle students, who spoke to her in broken English. While Senegalese mainly speak French and Wolof, trip participants said it was very rare to meet an African who didn’t know at least three languages.

Right now, language might be a barrier to communication for Marsh and her Senegalese counterparts. But she understands the importance of keeping the dialogue going.

“I don’t understand Wolof, but that’s okay for now,” Marsh said. “I have to learn some eventually.”