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Seen in Senegal

Seen in Senegal is a new monthly column by Hannah Feig, a recipient of the study-abroad Gillman Scholarship. Feig is studying in the French-speaking African country of Senegal, and details her experiences there.

The sun beats down on the dry earth, plants and air. Women are all around washing rice, carrying babies on their backs while carrying water on their heads and resting in the mango tree’s shade.

This is the Bedick village of Indar near the Kédougou region of Senegal.

I am about 700 kilometers — or a 13-hour bus ride — southeast of my homestay family in Dakar, and everything is hotter, dirtier and simpler than I’m used to.

As part of my study-abroad program, I lived in a village for four days. The Kédougou region of Senegal is home to many ethnic minorities who make their living cultivating crops such as peanuts, mangoes, cotton and honey.

But now it’s the dry season, and there isn’t much cultivating to be done, so I wake up and have a colonially introduced breakfast — a baguette and Nescafe with powdered milk.

The kids who are slated to attend school — they are on a rotating schedule because of the large number of students — have already gone for the day. Now, only the women remain.

We sit in the shade of the mango tree and speak in French, Bedick and Wolof — the most common language in Senegal. Some know a little English, Spanish or Pulaar.

As tourism grows in the small town of Kédougou, so does the language palette of its residents, who learn at school and from tourists, students and Peace Corps volunteers.

We walk a few minutes to one of the two wells at Indar. One is a large hole with plastic buckets tied to ropes for pulling up the water. The other is a pump well and, luckily for the women, their young sons like to follow them to the well and do the pumping.

This water is life. It’s for bathing, cooking, watering, washing, drinking and extinguishing fires.

We cook lunch, which is some form of rice and peanuts for almost every meal. The school children return on their bikes for lunch, with beads of sweat lingering on their necks and their feet covered in red clay.

The afternoon is spent drinking several rounds of tea, or “ataaya.” While I am in the village, a group of teenage boys who live there make it.

Some of the boys come from the nearby mountaintop Bedick village of Iwol, but spend the week in Indar to go to school because of the difficult trek from their home to school.

These young men are intelligent and know many languages. They play music from their cell phones — Akon, Rihanna and Senegalese artists. One of the rappers is an uncle, who sings in Bedick and English.

They dream of being lawyers, ambassadors or politicians, and they care about the well-being of their community. When they aren’t at school or discussing life and drinking ataaya, they are in Kédougou — about a 30-minute bike ride away — fixing bikes, purchasing flashlights, meeting friends or running other errands.

But where are the men? Well, it’s not the cultivation season, so the men do less.

According to my host father, who demonstrates with the height of his fingers, the statuses of women and men used to be “like this” — the distance between the middle finger and pinkie finger. Now, it’s more like the middle and pointer fingers.

The men are away — working in Kédougou, socializing, or giving tours of the villages to tourists who stay in the encampment next to Indar. They do not stay in their homes frequently at this time of the year, and when they do they play with children, salute their wives and talk with other men.

Missionaries in the mid-1900s, Peace Corps volunteers and advancing technology in Kédougou have drastically changed the lives of the Bedick people.

The villagers have cell phones and plastic trash collects behind the village because there is no concept of what to do with it. They wear Western clothes that women pair with “pagnes,” fabrics wrapped around the waist.

They have slowly moved down from their traditional mountaintop villages to ones at the base of the mountain with closer access to modernity. Even the name has changed from “Idar” to the name mistakenly given by the French — “Indar.”

The Bedick are constantly exposed to tourists, and that has drastically changed their lives and their knowledge and perception of the world.

Yet, many of their traditional practices remain. Children are named based on birth order, but are also often given French or Christian-inspired names. Marriages are traditional and not performed by a priest, and they still hold beliefs such as reincarnation.

The mixture of viewpoints makes these people’s lives possible, and possible for me to experience life with them.