My name is Ioana Liane Georgescu, and I was born in Bucharest, Romania. I did my undergraduate studies in the U.S. I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, with a Bachelor’s in International Relations and Economics, and a concentration in African studies. I studied abroad in Senegal during my junior year.

I chose to spend a semester in Dakar, Senegal. In 2006, when I was in high school, Bucharest hosted the eleventh Sommet de la Francophonie, and I attended some of the cultural events organized there. This was when I had my first contact with the Senegalese culture through a concert and some exhibitions, as well as by listening to the Senegalese people I met talk to me about their country. This sparked my interested in Senegal. During college, thanks to Professor Gadjigo who is an expert in African literature and cinema, I was able to take some classes on French Speaking West Africa with a focus on Senegal. And since Mount Holyoke had a study abroad partnership with the West African Research Center in Dakar, I decided to enroll in the program.

I prepared for my trip by watching Ousmane Sembene’s movies, so I was aware of the cultural and social setting of the country, and by taking Wolof language lessons. Outside my classes I hadn’t heard much about Senegal, except from the Romanian Honorary Consul, who told me when I got my visa that the Senegalese people are very welcoming, and that the country is safe. She advised me to be very respectful and thankful to the people I met there, as they would generously offer me the best of what they had. Although my parents were very concerned about me going to Senegal and did not agree with my plan in the beginning, they were relieved by what the Honorary Consul told them, and stopped worrying.

I remember that when I first arrived in Dakar I was surprised that it felt almost like home, as I noticed many similarities between the state of the city I was in and the state of my own city during my childhood. The unpaved sidewalks that the city council’s employees were working on paving, the buildings that were half built but unfinished yet, the walls and fences protected with bits of broken glass, the stray dogs on the streets: all these things suggested a difficult economic situation, but were signs of progress in building a better infrastructure for the future. While these may sound inconvenient, they, in fact, helped me adjust more rapidly to my new environment. And since Bucharest managed to develop and overcome similar constraints, I think there’s hope that the same thing will happen with Dakar.

Of course, I also noticed many differences between Romania and Senegal. But I don’t think I had a culture shock. My host family was amazing, and my host mother especially spent a lot of time talking to me in the first weeks, to make sure I was feeling comfortable and I understood what was going on around me. When I started, for example, complaining about the gender issues I was seeing and asking questions about polygamy and marriage in Senegal, she told me a lot of happy and sad stories from her own and her friends’ experiences and helped me see the whole picture of the society.

It wasn’t the first time I was living in a country outside my own, but I think living with a host family (as opposed to living in student accommodations, which was the case for me in the US) helped me integrate much faster, and feel, to a certain extent, part of the society. I became really close to my host brothers and my host mother, but especially close to my ‘twin,’ the girl who was the family’s maid. Every day when I came back from school I used to cook with her, talk about what happened during the day, and sometimes when we finished work early we went out for a walk. One day I took her to a shopping mall and it was the first time she went on an escalator; she was a bit scared but she enjoyed it. Then one weekend I went to her house in the suburbs and met her family and her friends. Her family was crammed into a small room with no running water. We had to take water from a well, so she taught me how to do it.

The most memorable experience I had in Senegal is also linked to her. My host mother had to travel to Casamance, so we took the boat with her to visit the area. My ‘twin’s’ mother had left Dakar four years earlier in order to care for her sick son, who was also in Casamance. We didn’t really know where she was, we only had a few contacts. So the three of us called the people she used to be in touch with, we went and asked at the local church, we asked people around in the neighborhood she used to live in. It was almost as if we were private detectives. And the very last day before we had to leave we found her mother. It was a very powerful moment to see the mother and the daughter reunited after four years, even if it was only for a few minutes.

I think the most important thing I took from the study abroad experience was that I managed to see the real face of a ‘developing country.’ I remembered what ‘insufficient’ infrastructure means, how that impacts the amount of time you spend when you travel or how when you take public transportation you cram into a full bus with people carrying their merchandise, with mothers keeping their babies on their back, with children in uniforms returning from school, etc. I understood how ‘migration for health purposes’ and poverty separates families and pushes people in a lonely silence, how social networks and families help individuals survive but also put high pressure on them, and how people still have the energy to dance on a Saturday night even though they worked very hard the whole week and maybe weren’t even able to eat as much as they needed.

For the students who are going to study abroad in Dakar, my advice is to be as open as they can. This is sometimes very hard to do, and we all have our limits that we should acknowledge and respect. So they should avoid over stretching themselves, but at the same time they should keep in mind that you can only receive as much as you are willing to accept by opening up. And when it feels impossible to take certain things in, it is fine to refuse them as long as it is done in a respectful manner.

Three words that sum up my experience are sharing, challenges, and happiness.