Amherst students return from first leg of African exchange program
Among the cultural sites the Amherst group visted was Juffureh in The Gambia where Kunta Kinte, the hero of Alex Haley's "Roots" was sold into slavery. Front row from left: Bruce Penniman, Regina East, Grace Findlen-Golden, Kira Weilerstein, Momodou Sarr, Melina Devoney, Katheryn Wilkes. Back row: Cayman Adams-Nice, Meaghan McCluskey, Kassia Robinson-Hidas
AMHERST — The most surprising things about visiting Senegal and Gambia were what the Amherst students had in common with the local teens.
“Me and my host have the same favorite singers,” Melina Devoney said, a senior at Amherst Regional High School. She went to West Africa recently with six other students as part of a new exchange program at the high school.
The students will present their research and discuss their experiences at a reception tonight at 7 p.m. in the high school library.
Some days after school in Senegal, Devoney would hang out with her host’s friends. They “would just sit and watch soccer and music videos all day long,” she said, laughing.
The students, accompanied by three teachers, spent three weeks in Senegal and Gambia, living with families and going to school. This was the first year of an exchange the participants hope will continue, with students from the schools they visited in West Africa visiting Amherst next, and the schools alternating visits each year thereafter.
The students who went on the trip have been preparing for months. Last year, they each took a class on West African culture and history designed to give them background, and they spent the first trimester of this year meeting every other week to discuss the countries they would be visiting.
They traveled to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and Gunjur, a village in Gambia. Momodou Sarr, one of the teachers who organized and went along, grew up in Gunjur and still has family in the area. Oumy Cissé-Deme, a French teacher, grew up in Dakar, and helped put the trip together, but she was unable to go because she was on maternity leave.
Devoney said she was stunned by how much Dakar felt like New York City or a city in France. Some of the people on the street wore traditional patterned robes, but others wore jeans and T-shirts like any American teenager, said Grace Findlin-Golden, a junior at Amherst Regional.
Gunjur was less like an American city. The houses typically had no running water and residents got their power from generators. Goats, sheep, dogs and cats roamed the streets. Still, Findlin-Golden and Devoney said the people seemed relatively middle-class.
“People didn’t have much money, but they really didn’t need much” because they did not have many material possessions, Devoney said.
Because students in Senegal largely spoke French in school, the Amherst students said they had difficulty participating. In Gambia, however, students spoke English, and the Amherst students took classes alongside their peers.
By the time students in Gambia reach high school, they choose a focus for their studies, Devoney and Findlin-Golden said. The Amherst students each told the principal of the school about their interests, and he suggested the fields they should be in. Findlin-Golden took classes in history and government while Devoney focused on science.
“They were learning a unit ahead of us in physics,” Devoney said, so she took notes hoping to get a leg up on her classwork once she returned to Amherst.
The trip was not a vacation for the students. They did homework the entire time and came back a few days before finals, according to Devoney and Findlin-Golden.
Each student also did a research project. The topics ranged from daily life for teenagers to early education. Findlin-Golden researched gender roles and social dynamics, and Devoney studied local environmental challenges.
One of the biggest cultural differences they noticed was that they weren’t expected to be on time, Devoney and Findlin-Golden said. It was far more important to stop and greet everyone they knew as they passed them. Being late was fine; being too busy to talk was rude.
After having difficulty boarding a crowded ferry boat, some of the students were even late for a wedding they attended with their hosts.
“They were so welcoming. They put us at the front of the ceremony,” Devoney said. The bride was the groom’s third wife, and the other two wives participated in the wedding as bridesmaids, Findlin-Golden said.
In order to finance the trip to West Africa, the students held several fundraising dinners in Amherst with traditional African food that brought in $7,500. Still, each student had to come up with nearly $3,500 dollars.
It may be difficult to keep the exchange going, Findlin-Golden said, because the students that come from Dakar and Gunjur will also have to raise the money to pay for their travel.
The trip took several years of planning and the teachers who organized it had to work hard to convince the administration that the trip would be safe, Devoney said. Bruce Penniman, Sarr, Cissé-Deme and Katheryn Wilkes financed a trip for themselves in 2011 in advance of the student visit to meet with school officials and others and scout out cultural sites.
Devoney said her friends and family thought she was crazy for going.
Findlen-Golden said people told her to be careful of wild animals. “We were safe the entire time,” she said. “We saw lions in a zoo.”