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August 9, 2007

Enlightenment in Africa - Part Three

Derek Shackelford

Scripture: "For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:20)

The time had come for us to tour Senegal, in particular Dakar. As we traveled around, one of the most prevalent concerns was road conditions. They were fair at best. The ones that were paved did not make transportation easy. Others were gravel. We traveled by bus.

Buses have no capacity limits in Senegal, as some passengers clung to the outside. The stations were not clearly marked, and passengers rode the bus for free. Dakar is underdeveloped. Construction is at a minimal when it comes to projects that may enhance the economy or increase employment. Trade and the marketplace are the economic sustainers and providers for a stable economy within the city.

Senegal's primary source of revenue is the export of peanuts. As we traveled we were continually bombarded with vendors who attempted to sell us goods while on the bus. The country is an open market with little or no regulation when it comes to buying and selling - or trading.

A poignant moment came as we visited a school. It had only four classrooms. Students were very eager to learn and were enthusiastic. The oldest student was 23 and was just as excited about attending school as all other students. Some would travel 10 miles one way just to attend classes.

English is taught in some Senegalese schools. Students truly believe that education is the key to their success, that educational opportunities will open doors to the larger world and to a world unknown.

The faith that these students exhibited in the educational system is remarkable. In one of my more relevant conversations in Gambia, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the employees at the hotel. He shared his story of traveling a far distance just to work at the hotel each day. He commented that the minimal pay received was just enough to feed his mother and sister. By the time resources were spent on tolls to work, gas for travel, and food, very little was left over.

He told me of his quest for education. He believed that if he received a good education, it would provide the opportunity for him to support his family and develop positive self -esteem.

The confidence this young man exhibited touched my heart. All he wanted was the chance to learn. He commented that if we were given that chance he would make the most of it. He was already very educated in terms of the Wolof and English languages. He taught me some Wolof words and extended the hand of friendship.

One of the unique differences between the U.S. and West Africa is the educational opportunities. Our system is largely required, but it still has some major flaws. The bureaucratic system weighs down many of the positive components in a negative factor. The debate of whether too much or too little money always seems to surface.

Some believe that too much money is spent on education and wasteful spending hinders the educational process. Others truly believe that more money should be used on education to hire quality teachers, classroom materials, and quality school construction.

This is very different from the situation in West Africa. It is no secret that funding is a major problem. Financial resources are not given to increase student learning or opportunity. School construction is unfair to the students who attend everyday.

In spite of this, the students are to be admired for their persistence in pursuing their education. Despite the countless obstacles, I was truly moved to help the students and people that I came in contact with, to assist them in their educational endeavors. The education money debate put everything into perspective during this immersion visit.

As I boarded the plane to return to the United States, I could not help but do some serious reflection on the entire experience. The sites, the sounds, the conversations, and the people that I met were something I was sure I would never forget.

When I got home many of my family and friends asked about the experience. I hold onto the memories of West Africa and I truly think about not only the richness of the country but also the people.

Who would think the relationships that I encountered would continue. I would have never thought this to be possible.

While I was in Senegal I met a gentleman named Somaile Ndjaye. He was one of the wisest and most friendly people I have ever met. Shortly after I got home he called just to say hello, again reinforcing my belief in the friendliness and genuine caring attitude of the people of West Africa.

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