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Learning Service

When I first told people I was traveling to Senegal, the first question I was often asked was :“What are you going to do there?” This, for me, was a difficult question to answer. I often settled on the vague answer of “I’m visiting Senegal with a group of students around my age”, which as an answer was of course never enough. This is when people would become more blunt. “Are you going to teach the children there English? Are you going to help build a school? Or maybe raise money for a village in a poverty?” No, I would say, I’m just visiting. I can’t help but wonder why that was always the immediate assumption. I didn’t come to Senegal to fix anything or to teach anyone. What would these hardworking and educated individuals need to learn from a sixteen year old girl who has never even left the US? Of course I came here to learn!

I came here to immerse myself in the culture and to learn about the lives of people that are so different from my own. So how come, even with me being a teenager going to a foreign country with well-educated instructors, is there an assumption that I am qualified to teach a country of people the “correct” way to live. It is because I am a white American and because I am going to a developing country that it is therefore assumed I am there to make a difference. That I am here to “fix” Senegal, or even Africa as a whole.

To do that would make someone a really good person, right? To spend four weeks in a supposedly less fortunate area to teach the children there how to count to five in English. There’s a reason that I chose Dragons rather than a classic service-learning trip. I wouldn’t disagree that students choosing to participate in service trips have good intentions, I would however argue that the concept of going on these trips benefits the individual far more than the community they are aiming to help. They are displaying a clear unintentional ignorance and fixed ideas of how the country needs saving. People don’t go to Guatemala to help build a school with the open-mindedness that they will learn about the culture or lifestyle in the place they are visiting because honestly, they probably don’t care. They want to feel like they are simply solving a problem, so they can feel like a good person.

It’s true that Senegal is very different from the United States, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily needs changing to be more like us. Different doesn’t always mean bad, or unhappy. Wanting to help people isn’t the issue, the issue is the power dynamic that is created by giving white people the opportunity to believe that their privilege makes them superior and therefore able to fix the world’s problems. That a white teenager from America, who knows nothing about a country, is more qualified to fix it than people from that country who understand the issues as well as the successes.

I chose Dragons because I wanted to learn, not because I wanted to critique or change the lives of others. The idea of being a white savoir is extremely romanticized and Dragons has, I believe, created an environment that allows us to learn about the life here without painting it in a way that shows people who need our saving. My experience on Dragons has so far been amazing and I am thankful to be a part of this enriching educational program.