“Madame, Madame, Madame!” almost every student calls out while snapping their fingers. The noise is overwhleming to my ears that have been trained to be disapproving of noise in the classroom. However, as the first lesson was carried out and students were jumping up and out of their seats to be called on for the answer, chaos never ensued as I expected it would. I have only taught in classrooms in the U.S where the more quiet a classroom is the more well behaved it is considered. Students in the U.S are not supposed to be heard. And this is where I have found a considerable difference between the culture I grew up in and the Senegalese.
(Bilingual Classroom being taught by a ARED trained instructor in Dakar, Senegal)
I observed in this Bilingual classroom that there was a mutual respect between the students and the teacher. Granted this was only one brief observation but I could certainly make connections to what I had previously been learning about the Senegalese culture. It seemed that the more noise the students made the better, and this ideal translates into everyday Senegalese life as well. Students that were vocal were rewarded with the chance to show their knowledge and answer the question being posed. In direct contrast, the U.S formal classroom discourages students who are loud by sending them out of the classroom to sit in a room where there must be silence and they cannot interact with their peers unless explicitly told to.
What this comparison and my many other observations has led me to realize about the Senegalese culture and use of oral language is that words are incredibly important. From placing a high value on just their greetings, to their love of music and noise within the house, and the level of energy that goes into their conversation, I can see that oral language is an art. It is full of excitement and passion. It is complicated as all language is and even more interesting I have found it is physical as well. Hands fly through the air as they add a physicality to their speech. I often find myself dodging hands as I walk by two people conversing on the street. I appreciate this as a hand talker myself and I have found it much easier to communicate with taxi drivers, or store clerks, when I can feel comfortable using my hands when speaking.
I have been reflecting on the importance of a culture’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively through language often since I have been in Senegal, attempting to understand the context behind their culture. Recently we have been learning about the colonial history of Senegal, which must be discussed when thinking about education and language in this country. Dr. Mbacke Diallo expressed that the colonial powers were meant to diminish a culture, to assimilate them into the dominate culture, which is French, but to not allow the indigenous people the same equal rights as a French citizen. Colonization and cultural alienation is a game of power.
It makes sense now, that Senegal has gained their independence but are still struggling to bring to the surface their own narrative rather than the French, that they would fill their days with passionate speech and energetic conversation. When your voice is diminished and constantly ignored, you want to scream from the hill tops when you finally gain the power to be heard. The Senegalese people are speaking and being heard and are making great strides with their culture and education.