Excerpt: LEARNING TO SEE by Gary Engelberg (Senegal)

“Test of Time”is an excerpt from Learning to See,  a collection of memoirs and short stories about the culture of Senegal and the experiences of Gary Engelbery there. — JC


by Gary  Engelberg (Senegal 1965–67)

 June 2003:  A lone podium in the middle of the field faced an expanse of tents that protected about 300 guests from the African sun. The Peace Corps Director who was also a former Senegal volunteer, had invited me to speak at the swearing in ceremony of the new Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal. It was a special day because it was also the 40th anniversary of Peace Corps in Senegal.  The first volunteers had arrived in 1963. I was in the third group that came in 1965 and had been in Senegal ever since. So the Director asked me, as the “dean” of former volunteers, to speak in the name of the nearly 3000 volunteers who have served in Senegal over the past forty years. It was a challenge, an honor and an exercise in retrospection, synthesis and completion.

The ceremony took place at the site of the proposed new, as yet unbuilt, Ambassador’s  Residence in a large  open field overlooking the sea, lovingly know as Ebbets Field in the American community. That had particular significance for me because I had grown up in Brooklyn and, like everyone else where I grew up, was a fervent Dodger’s fan until they betrayed us and moved to Los Angeles. It was a typically sunny, early June day with a pleasant breeze blowing off the Atlantic. The more humid rainy season or “hivernage” was still a couple of weeks away.

To mark the special day, Peace Corps had organized a buffet and set up an orchestra playing Senegalese music. The guests included the new volunteers to be sworn in and those ending their two year service, the host families that had housed the new volunteers during their recently completed training program, the training and administrative staff of Peace Corps Senegal and their training center, and guests from the development community, including many former Peace Corps Volunteers. In the front row under the tents, high-level representatives of the Senegalese government sat next to the US Ambassador, who was himself a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who had served in Burkina Faso.

I was one of several speakers, including the Ambassador, the Peace Corps Director, a member of the training staff and a Senegalese woman who had not only housed several generations of Volunteers but had herself benefited from awareness-raising and income-generating activities initiated by Peace Corps. The highlight of these ceremonies is always the speeches delivered in several national languages by the incoming volunteers who have just completed their training. They spoke with surprising fluency after only eight weeks of study, in several of Senegal’s national languages to the delight of all present. Peace Corps is known for its effectiveness in teaching national languages.

There are lots of funny stories about how the Senegalese reacted to the relatively recent phenomenon of Americans who learn to speak their language fairly fluently. The typical reaction was a look of surprise, and with hand over the mouth, the Senegalese would declare:  Laay Laa tubaab bi deggne olof”  (Oh my God, this white person speaks wolof!”

One volunteer tells the story of hailing a taxi around midnight and announcing his destination in Wolof. The taxi driver turned around and looked at him with a terrified expression and then floored the gas pedal because he thought he had picked up a djinn (spirit) since he had never seen a white person who spoke Wolof.

My favorite is the story told by my friend Riall Nolan who went on to become a prominent professor of anthropology. He tells of how in the late sixties, months after settling into Etiolo, way out in South Eastern corner of Senegal and learning to speak the little-studied language of the Bassari fairy fluently, he decided to hike over the ridge to visit some of the surrounding villages several kilometers away that he had not yet seen. He was gifted for languages and his reputation had spread.

Walking was the only means of transportation in this rocky, mountainous zone. During this particular trek he came across an isolated compound, which is often the way the Bassari live. He saw a very old woman sitting alone on a log that had been placed in front of her hut to serve as a bench. Following local custom, Riall sat way over on the other end of the log with his back turned to the woman. They gradually exchanged greetings in Bassari quietly as was the custom, and chatted for a while without facing each other.

Then a little girl came out of the hut and stood quietly for a moment evaluating the situation.  Finally she said: “Grandmother, do you know you are speaking to a white man? “

The old lady turned around and Riall saw that she was blind. “So you speak our language?” the old woman asked rhetorically.

“Yes” said Riall modestly.  “ I am learning.”

The old woman responded: “You know, There’s another toubab in the next valley over the ridge who also speaks our language.  His name is Nolan, but he speaks it better than you do.”

As I spoke to the audience, I could hear my amplified words echoing across the field. I said that I was going to try to talk about the common threads, the shared experiences or lessons learned by all volunteers who had served in Senegal over the past forty years, not an easy task. I wanted to accurately represent the experience so that volunteers would recognize themselves in what I was describing. The other goal was to help the many guests in the audience to better understand the significance of volunteer service for the young (and not so young) volunteers who come here.

Starting from the three Peace Corps goals (roughly summarized: development assistance, better understanding of Americans by host country people, better understanding of host country by Americans), I discussed the obvious benefits to Volunteers of learning through doing, especially in a different cultural setting.

The volunteer has an impact on local development in small, lasting ways that gradually become part of community life. Years later, the younger people in the village would assume that things have always been that way until an older member of the community explains the story of Aminata Sene or Ibrahima Ndiaye, the American volunteer whose real name has long vanished from their memories but whose local name has remained. They explain how s/he had helped introduce market gardening, sunk a bore-hole well, built a maternity clinic, planted mango trees or taught English, leaving behind a small but significant change in the quality of life.

Returned volunteers can also be important resources to their own families, communities and country. I asked the former volunteers present in the audience to stand. The point was made when about thirty people rose to the ringing applause of the guests. They included the American Ambassador himself, various USAID and Embassy officials, heads of NGOs and project directors and administrators.

But for those who have never had the Peace Corps experience, it was important to insist on the less obvious, but perhaps more profound and lasting effect on the Volunteer. It was the experience of being integrated into another culture with warmth and support from host families. When Volunteers speak of their sister, brother or mother it is often impossible to know whether they are referring to their family in the US or to their host family in Senegal!

Senegalese “mothers” protect these Volunteers because they are “someone’s child.”  They hope that if their children ever find themselves overseas without the support of friends and the family network, that people will treat them kindly and protect them from the total poverty and discouragement that can happen when one is alone and broke in a foreign country. They call it “tumeranké.” They feel that if they treat “someone’s child” with kindness, that they will be rewarded by having their child treated with kindness as well and avoid “tumeranké.”  A sort cosmic repayment for good deeds or a Senegalese version of karma…

Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal, no matter what their program or the years during which they served, have all participated in the life of a culture that reminded them daily about the importance of people in responding to the needs and helping to solve the problems of others. All of them have learned the meaning of the much-repeated Wolof proverb “Nit, nit ay garabam.” Roughly translated it means, “Man is the remedy for Man.”  They say “You are born into the hands of other people, and you are carried to your final resting place in the hands of others.” It is a philosophy based on the idea that any problem we may encounter as human beings can be resolved by other people – not necessarily by individual effort, but by our web of interpersonal relations.

Well-managed inter-cultural experiences can be profound and enduring for those who share this adventure. It can create long lasting links between people around the world.  I recorded an interview with one volunteer who returned to Senegal for a visit almost thirty years after his service. He swore to me that a day did not go by when he did not mention Senegal or think of the years he had spent in his village. He remembered the sound of the pre-dawn call of the muezzin to prayer and the scent of curaay (incense) that permeated Senegalese homes. Sometimes a Senegalese song or a phrase in Wolof or Pulaar would pop into his head, even though his fluency in the local languages had long since faded with disuse. But most of all, he remembered his Senegalese family and went to visit the village where he had served while he was here. He began to cry as he told me that when he got to his village he learned that his Senegalese father, the village chief, had died several years ago. “Turn that thing off,” he said.

In July 2003, a young Senegalese Catholic colleague from a local NGO provided me with another lesson on the enduring nature of the links established between Peace Corps volunteers and the people they work with in their host countries.  He called me aside to ask for a favor. “I know you were a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago,” he said. “Did you happen to know a Volunteer named Jerry Grondin?”

“Yes,” I said,  “I remember that name and sort of remember Jerry as well.”

“Well,” explained my young colleague, “Jerry was a track and field trainer in 1974-75 and also worked in an orphanage. He trained my uncle Robert who is today [almost thirty years later] a senior official at the Direction of Territorial Administration. My uncle was a member of Senegal’s 1974 national high jump team that Jerry trained. Jerry found a two-year sports scholarship for my uncle in Chicago but my aunt [Robert’s mother] felt he was too young and did not let him go.  Jerry returned to the States in 1975 and my uncle would really like to get back in touch with him…”

Many former volunteers have another type of impact. They communicate their love of Senegal and the value of their experience to their families and friends who have never been here.  This is part of the third goal of Peace Corps:  “better understanding of the host country by Americans.”.  Bringing the experience home…

Ginny Neely, had worked in a social center program in the 70’s. When Ginny left Senegal after two years of service, she met and married a returned volunteer from India. They had two children, a son and a daughter. Ginny always told her children and their friends magical stories about her time as a volunteer in Tivaouane. The kids were surrounded with African and Indian artifacts and Peace Corps stories from both their parents. Ginny, in particular, transmitted her love for the Senegalese people and her lasting gratitude for the love they had given her. One of her daughter’s friends subsequently joined Peace Corps and went to Paraguay as a result of Ginny’s stories..

Tragically, Ginny died young, in her late forties leaving a gaping hole in the lives of her family. She was sorely missed. Several years later, her then17-year-old daughter Margot told her father that she wanted to travel to Senegal to try to better understand why this experience had been so important to her mother Ginny. She was looking for a way to somehow continue connecting with her deceased mother. She wanted to visit the town where her mother had served as a Volunteer. Her father realized how important this trip was for Margot, and though he was concerned about his young daughter traveling alone to Africa, he trusted her maturity. He made a few calls to people who might be able to facilitate his daughter’s journey. My partner and I were among those contacted. I had known Ginny when she had been a volunteer 30 years earlier. We agreed to do whatever we could to help.

Margot arrived in Senegal. With a little help from us and a lot of determination on her part, she managed to get to the town of Tivaouane in a seven place bush taxi. Rail transport had been suspended in most of Senegal and the railway station in the center of Tivaouane was no longer in use.

This town is in the Region of Thies. It was part of the Wolof kingdom of Cayor, and was at one time its capital. It was first described to Europeans in the 15th century by Venitian explorer Luigi Cada-Mosto. In 1904, it was the fifth largest city in Senegal after Saint Louis, Dakar, Rufisque and Gorée.

More important, Tivaouane is the capital of the Tijaniya Sufi brotherhood, the largest in Senegal. It is known for two Senegalese historic monuments: the mausoleum of El-Hadji Malick Sy and the mosque of Serigne Babacar Sy. Each week, followers come to visit the tombs of these religious leaders. Literally hundreds of thousands of visitors flock each year to Tivaouane to celebrate the birth of the prophet Muhammed in a festival called the Maouloud (or Gamou, in Wolof).

But Margot was not really interested in the sights of Tivaouane. She had a mission and very little time. She was armed with pictures of her mother and went directly to the neighborhood where she knew her mother had lived. She learned some basic Wolof greetings, and with the help of a local interpreter, began asking people of her mother’s age if they had known Ginny Neely. She showed them the pictures and told them what she knew about her mother’s work with Peace Corps in Senegal. Most Senegalese knew “les volontaires américains” or as many pronounce it “Peace Corpse” with no intention of disrespect. To Margot’s satisfaction, she gradually met people who had known and worked with her mother as a Volunteer. But she was yet to understand the extent of what she had discovered.

Two of the women still had photos of her mother that they had saved. They were a bit faded and worn from time and handling but were clearly important souvenirs for their owners. In the pictures, Margot saw a younger and very happy version of her Mom. She could feel the excitement of the Peace Corps adventure through the photo. In a couple of pictures, she thought she was looking at herself. The women spoke warmly of her mother and the good work she had done at the social center to provide skills training for members of women’s groups so that they could develop income-generating activities. Margot was proud that her mother was remembered so warmly by women who could not speak English and who barely spoke French.

But her discoveries were not yet complete. A third woman’s eyes filled with tears when she learned that her old friend Ginny had passed away and realized that she was talking to Ginny’s daughter. She fondly pressed Margot’s upper arm repeating the word “massa, massa doom” a wolof expression used to relieve pain in others. “Take heart, my child, take heart.”

Her name was Fatou. She noted Margot’s resemblance to her mother. She invited Margot into her little home and began serving Senegalese tea, ataaya, telling Margot about moments shared with her mother, as she brewed the three successive little glasses. Margot instinctively knew that this woman had been very close to her mother.

After a while, the woman pulled out an old, rusted metal box from under her bed where she kept memorabilia. She pulled out an envelope yellowed around the edges by time and handed it to Margot. As she pulled out the card it contained, Margot realized that this woman had saved the wedding invitation that Ginny had sent her 31 years before. Her mother had wanted to share this important passage in her life with her old Senegalese friend. “Of course, she knew that the woman could not come to the wedding,” Margot thought to herself. But she understood that her mother had wanted Fatou to be part of this significant passage in her life even if she could never attend. Margot felt the intensity of a friendship that had transformed an old wedding invitation into a precious symbol carefully preserved. She understood the complicity that had developed between these two women from different cultures.

But there remained a fourth surprise on the next to the last day of Margot’s trip. A woman named Arame came to see her, accompanied by her daughter. The Senegalese have an extremely effective word of mouth communication system that puts internet to shame! The woman had learned from her friend that Ginny’s daughter was in town.  Margot estimated her to be about 45 but had already discovered that the Senegalese men and women she met were often older than they appeared.

She introduced herself and explained that she had been one of Ginny’s assistants at the social center. Arame presented her condolences to Margot even though her Mom had been dead for over four years. Margot was particularly fascinated by this woman. She had surprising almond-shaped, almost oriental eyes, an engaging smile and beautiful skin that set off perfect white teeth. She was simply dressed in a patterned cotton boubou with an unpretentious matching head tie hiding her hair. She was a simple woman, obviously not very well to do but she exuded poise and confidence.

Then came the final surprise of Margot’s mission. Arame introduced her daughter who was a younger version of her mother, with the same almond-shaped eyes.  She said her name was “Neely” and explained that she had given Ginny’s last name “Neely” as a first name to this daughter.  Her mother’s name had been pronounced daily in Arame’s house for 25 years!  Her memory was alive and well in Tivaouane.


It was evening and the gentle call to prayer of the mosque was hypnotic. Back in the room of her funky hotel, Margot was now seeing what her mother had seen and hearing what her mother had heard. She was beginning to understand the relationships that her mother had managed to weave with these extraordinary women from a totally different culture. She realized how deep and lasting the relationships were and finally understood why they had been so important to her mom.

While Margot was in Tivaouane, two of the women took her to the house where her mother had lived as a volunteer. It was a simple three-room banco house with a corrugated tin roof. Margot imagined the noise it must have made when it rained. She pictured her mother sitting with her roommate reading by candlelight in the evenings. Her mother had told her that they did not have electricity. But things had obviously changed.

A young Senegalese family now occupied the house and, though they had not known her mother, they allowed Margot to visit their home once she explained that her defunct mother had lived there many years ago. They now had electricity and running water, though the house both indoors and outdoors was badly in need of a coat of paint. The children’s hand prints were visible on most of the walls and the linoleum covering the concrete floor was cracked in places. Everyone was very gracious and the curious kids gradually warmed up to the toubab stranger and approached diffidently to greet her and touch her unusual skin. They seemed like a happy family and Margot found the children to be neat, well-dressed and polite.

They invited her to stay for dinner but she declined politely. She wanted to stay longer but had to get back to Dakar to catch her plane so that she could be back in the US in time for school. Before Margot left the house, she picked up a few small stones from the gravel surrounding the house and gently placed them in her bag.

On her return to North Carolina, she sat with her father and brother for several hours recounting every detail of her time in Senegal. There were tears. There were smiles and laughter.  She showed them pictures of the people she had met and the places she had visited. Then she leaned over and whispered into her father’s ear. He smiled and nodded his head.

The next day, Margot and her father and brother visited the cemetery where her mother was buried. When they arrived at her mother’s plot, they quietly removed the weeds that had grown up around the grave. Margot slowly reached into her bag and respectfully placed the small stones she had carried back from her mother’s house in Tivaouane, one by one, on Ginny’s tombstone.

Gary  Engelberg (Senegal 1965–67; staff/APCD Senegal 1967–69; Regional Training Officer/west and central Africa 1969–72).  Gary has lived in Senegal, West Africa for over fifty years. He is co-founder, along with Lillian Baer, former Director and current Board Chairman of Africa Consultants International (ACI), a non-governmental organization that promotes cross-cultural communication, American Study Abroad programs, health and social justice, and the promotion of LGBT rights. It’s otherwise known as The Baobab Center in Dakar.


Learning to See: And Other Short Stories and Memoirs from Senegal
by Gary  Engelberg
September, 2017
164 pages
$25.19 (paperback)


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  • Simple essential interesting heartfilling reading. How happy I feel because of it on this sunless morning 50 blocks from the Pacific Ocean in the northwest corner of San Francisco decades now from my time in the developments of the Peace Corps.

  • Such a beautiful story. Loved the story about Nolan too–the villagers in my Tanzanian village were always telling people that I spoke the local language “kabisa!” (completely) even though I knew less than ten phrases. Thanks for posting this!

  • John the story about Margot’s mother who served in Senegal evokes a lot of sentiment and at the same time it brings
    joy. This is the kind of love and cultural understanding the Peace Corps generates. Every college age youth should read and share Margot’s feeling. This happy adventure and tour de corps is what is needed in this world full of hate now. The Peace Corps is the vehicle that can make cultural understanding flourish. Trump must be educated and
    about the Peace Corps and elevate its cultural contribution. Let’s carry the torch of peace and love together and make America the promised land of Peaceful Co-existence where all diverse cultures can live freely. Samuel

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