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From Dorms to Dakar

WAC students experience language, culture of Senegal through UCLA Summer Session program.

It's a fine example of students having a good idea and their institution realizing the proposed activities.

This article was first published in The Daily Bruin.

By Skye Mayring, Daily Bruin contributor

THE FAMILIAR pounding of six Sabar drums drew nearly every villager to a pulsing circle of dancers. Small children rushed to the center of the circle, eagerly starting the first dance performance of the evening.

Typically, Sabar, a Senegalese dance event, showcases one gender through traditional dance. But that particular night featured the modern dance of male and female foreigners and may have marked a new annual tradition involving UCLA World Arts and Cultures students.

This summer, UCLA Summer Sessions offered a WAC travel study program in Senegal, Africa for the first time. Twenty-five students participated in the five-week program, which provided instruction on African dance techniques, drumming, the Wolof language and Senegalese history and visual arts. Excursions outside of the classroom, such as the Sabar dance performance, rounded out the students' Senegal experience. The new program, which lasted from June 24 to July 29, is a result of the work of Germaine Acogny, a Senegalese Regents scholar and choreographer who has taught at UCLA, and Allen Roberts, the director of UCLA's African Studies Center.

Roberts, a WAC professor who taught a language and visual culture class during the program, also credits the combined effort of Acogny's students in its establishment.

"Everyone at the WAC department was so impressed with Germaine Acogny's work that several students put (a proposal) for this program together," Roberts said. "It's a fine example of students having a good idea and their institution realizing the proposed activities."

Roberts worked with UCLA Summer Sessions to mold a 12-unit program with enough room for excursions to a former site of the transatlantic slave trade, Goré Island, and to Pikine Cultural Center, where students collaborated with hip-hop artists.

Although the program had no prerequisite classes, a preparation course offered in spring quarter 2006 was highly recommended by the organizers.

Liz Getz, a third-year WAC and global studies student who attended the preparation course before studying abroad, said that prior knowledge of the culture expanded her experience immensely.

"Prepping with the Wolof language was really valuable, although a little French helps too," Getz said. "Students interested in going next summer should also understand that (the Senegalese) are more pervasive with certain social values, such as always greeting everyone in sight."

Split into two distinct parts, the program began with a focus on studying Wolof, the country's dominant language, in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Students attended five hours of Wolof class a day, along with two Sabar classes a week.

During these first two weeks of the travel study program, students lived with a host family. Most students were placed in separate homes in order to better immerse them in the West African culture and to facilitate communication in the native language, Roberts said.

While students had the weekends to dine out and explore, the host families were responsible for preparing all meals during the work week.

Second-year WAC student Margaux Permutt, who attended the program, remembers an array of meals that ranged from a lunch of stewed vegetables in a chili sauce over rice to a breakfast of bread and instant coffee.

"Senegalese food is fresher than anything we could get here because they don't use any pesticides or have true markets to sell produce," she said. "Still, some students wouldn't eat fresh veggies out of fear of microbes."

The second part of the program took place in a city two hours south of Dakar called Toubab Dialaw, where students received dance and music instruction under the direction of Acogny and her staff.

No longer in the accommodations of a host family, students were housed in the dance center founded by Acogny, called L'Ecole des Sables. Here, the organizers devoted the program's final three weeks to a daily curriculum of five to six hours of dance and choreography exercises with African counterparts.

"We danced all day in the extreme heat and humidity of West Africa, covered in sand and sweat, yet the dance intensive was one of the highlights of my trip," Getz said.

The opportunity to learn and perform African dance in Senegal could likely arise again next summer, as Roberts plans to make the program an ongoing summer project. He intends future programs in Senegal to follow a similar curriculum with a greater focus on AIDS awareness.

"This fall, we're hoping to present a dance performance and discussion to the WAC department," Roberts said, "so that the students can build enthusiasm for next summer."

African Studies Center