When University of Colorado student Emily Christensen arrived in Senegal, she was surprised by the greeting — a dance party, by the community of a rural Muslim village.
Christensen, a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority, was selected for the trip by Circle of Sisterhood Foundation, a national organization that brings sorority sisters together for international aid. For this year's project, 13 sisters from around the country went to the Kaolack region of Senegal to help build a foundation for a school in mid-July.
"The entire community helped. They cared for it and wanted to build a school," Christensen said.
Christensen is studying environmental studies, with a minor in ethnic studies, but the trip wasn't about her major, she said.
"My trip to Senegal though was more about women empowerment. When you have powerful women, I believe you build a more sustainable community," Christensen said.
In this rural village, there is no electricity. Villagers have to walk for miles to get to the nearest hospital. The water that the villagers drink has so much fluoride in it, it turns their teeth red. The school that stood there before was like a shed — no walls, just a sturdy roof.
The joint goal between the Sisterhood and buildOn, an organization Sisterhood works with that builds schools around the globe, was that education would lead to more power for women. Their one condition for creating the school was to make sure that at least 50 percent of the students attending were girls. At least 50 percent of the school board would have to be comprised of women as well.
"The purpose is to remove education barriers for girls," Ginny Carroll, the founder and chair of the Circle of Sisterhood, said.
Christensen stayed in the village with a Senegalese family — the father, his two wives, children and extended family members, since they all live together.
"I have no idea how many family members there were," she said. "People from the village would flock over to the house all the time. I would say at least 20 people lived in that compound."
This wasn't Christensen's first trip abroad. She lived in Nairobi, Kenya for a month last year. There, she spent time teaching girls in one of the largest slums in the world. This made her more comfortable with the trip to Senegal.
"Coming from America to an entirely Muslim community, I was not expecting them to be open," Christensen said. "But they were really intrigued about the American lifestyle, and I was really interested in the way they responded to me."
The family gave Christensen a Serer name, a name dictated by their official language.
"My name was Daba," Christensen said.
President Barack Obama visited Senegal back in June, and his visit prompted widespread knowledge of his name around Senegal.
"The children would come up to me and they would say 'Obama' or 'Akon' to me and nothing else because they could not speak English," Christensen said.
(Akon is a Senegalese-American hip-hop producer. His name is known throughout Senegal as well.)
Being a Muslim community, the villagers had built their own mosque. The team arrived during Ramadan, so Christensen did not eat with her house family since they were fasting.
"We went during Ramadan and the rainy season," said Carroll. "The rainy season is when it is most important for their farming, which is their livelihood."
Christensen noted that women there were the hard workers of the community. Their main social role in the community were to be mothers, but they also worked on the farms.
"A lot of times, women were treated as a child-bearing device in the community," said Christensen.
The team spent three to four hours everyday at the build site. They dug the foundations and had to make cement bricks by hand by mixing sand, gravel and water together. They broke ground for the school, and left the rest for the villagers to finish.
"A way to keep sustainability in the village was to let the villagers finish the school," said Carroll. "We want the villagers to be responsible."
The contract with the village dictates that after the Sisterhood built the ground and foundation of the school, the village would have to finish it in 12 to 14 weeks.
Coming back to Boulder was not a smooth transition for Christensen, due to the culture shock.
"It was definitely an adjustment," Christensen said. "I don't get the fulfillment that I felt in Senegal while I'm here."
Contact Mirav Levy at firstname.lastname@example.org.