Cultural norms challenged in Senegal

Traveling the world has altered the cultural assumptions I have before visiting a new place. Spending time in these various countries enables a better understanding of the environments in which different social norms take place.

Semester at Sea’s “IMPACT” programs for students offers opportunities to interact with local communities and engage in activities of everyday life. During my stay in Senegal, I visited the Tostan Training Center, a human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) that educates African villages on social empowerment.

Junior Janaye Perry was one of several University of San Diego students who also attended this enlightening program.

“It was incredible to see the differences in living [there] compared to the U.S.,” Perry said. “It was intriguing to witness a society that emphasizes community more than anything, and the upbeat spirit of the people living in the village was contagious. Despite the language barrier, I still received an overwhelming sense of love as they welcomed us into their community.”

This NGO offers a three-year Community Empowerment Program (CEP) that addresses issues on health, education, governance, economic, and environmental growth in an inclusive and sustainable manner. Our small group of SAS students had the opportunity to meet the founders and facilitators of this NGO program, learning the main principles and procedures of CEP.

Perry admired the method of Tostan and community building through facilitation of leaders.

“Tostan is a community-based educational program, which, in my eyes, is the best approach for social change and an increase in human well-being,” Perry said. “It provides communities the tools necessary for them to help themselves in a non-intrusive way.”

Tostan provides two different classes for the people of the villages they visit; one for adults and the other for adolescents. The first year part of the program focuses on building self-confidence, learning about human rights and responsibilities, problem solving, and hygiene and health. Years two and three focus on literacy, math, microcredit, management skills, and small project implementation.

Junior Kaitlin Girtin described the successful impact of Tostan’s program on promoting human well-being.

“The structure of the curriculum emphasized a bottom-up style, rather than a top-down,” Girtin explained. “It’s really important to empower people in order to create the reality that they want. This community had such an authentic spirit to them, and they truly believed in the human rights laws that they posed for themselves.

The village of Keur Simbara performed a skit and ceremony commemorating their achievements surrounding human rights issues that they face. Girtin expressed that she felt completely enlightened by the ceremony.

“It was inspiring to see one of the women, who was probably our age, take charge of the Tostan curriculum and bring it back to their community,” Girtin said. “They seemed very receptive of learning about human rights and implementing them into their daily lives. These individuals go to seminars twice a week learning about human rights. I wish there were more NGOs with these educational values. It is interesting to see how they are not even aware of these basic rights that we take for granted. It opened my eyes to how caught up we get in our own westernized, U.S. world.”

Unfortunately, we could not tell if the locals were genuinely happy with their living situations or just happy to put on a show for their visitors. When we thought more deeply about it, Girtin and I realized that maybe the excitement of the village was heightened to show us third-party observers only the joyous aspect of their community.

“In the moment, I was consumed with happiness,” Girtin said. “But thinking and talking about it right now, I am really questioning the authenticity of their representation of joy. If we had a chance to sit and have a conversation with them, I might have gotten a better idea. Unfortunately, the limited time we had and the language barrier prohibited us from answering these questions.”

Despite not being able to form friendships with the local villagers, our opportunity to visit Tostan did open our minds to the hopeful attitudes, which is a key motivator for African villages to improve their ways of living. One of the most important realizations I came across was the dynamic of social norms and how our western perspective heavily influences our view of other cultural practices.

A portion of Tostan’s educational program under the women’s health section was about female genital cutting (FGC). From a westerner’s point of view, one might label it as “female genital mutilation” as a result of the harmful and negative effects it can have on women and young girls in these communities. However, the members of Tostan emphasized educating these village women on the importance of choice and offering them an understanding that they do not have to abide by this social norm. FGC in some of these African village is a symbol for the purity of a girl and her fidelity to her future or current husband. Because it is socially normal within their social realm, women engage in this practice to be accepted by other villagers.

Perry said she understands the importance of education to inform others’ understanding of another country’s social and cultural norms.

“With ancient practices such as FGC, it is important that we drive away from the word mutilation because, when you go into these communities, that is not how they refer it,” Perry said. “It is necessary to remove our westernized lense. The facilitators at Tostan shared a story with us about the villagers’ response when they were explained how breast implants work. They were shocked that women reshaped and formed their [bodies] into something [they are] not.”

When we think of some social norms in the U.S., we are not deeply affected by their results because we might view them as a casual, everyday ordeals. When we can’t seem to comprehend the type of cultural practices upheld in other countries, it is no different than them not understanding our own social practices. In these cultural situations, social norms can vary vastly between different communities of the world. Recognizing another point of view does not mean we have to agree with it; it means we understand that there is always another perspective we need to consider.

Written by Tayler RV, Staff Writerdsc_72861