One of the first text messages I received when I arrived back in the United States asked me “how was your trip to Senegal?” Rather than respond over text, I called my friend and suggested we go out for coffee and talk about it. The truth is that although I am supposed to come up with an “elevator response” to that question, I am pretty sure that it would be too difficult for me right now. I have so many thoughts and feelings that I am constantly thinking about – and so many reflections to work through. Yes, the trip to Senegal was an amazing, eye opening and in many ways a spiritual experience. With a group of 17 other rabbinical students and Jewish professionals, I was able spend about four to five hours a day for a little over a week in a small village outside of Thies, Senegal: Keur Douda Cisse. When we arrived on the first day, we were welcomed with song, dance and one of the warmest welcomes I have ever experienced. Any feelings of reluctance I had were immediately swept away with the overwhelming feeling of “home.” After this wonderful welcoming ceremony, we were all given names. From that point on, I became Assan Torrei. I even began introducing myself as such – and the members of the village only knew me as Assan Torrei…something that just felt natural.
In the afternoons, we studied many texts, including Talmudic and Midrashic texts. We spent quite a lot of time learning about how the Global North (formerly the 1st World developed countries) and the Global South (formerly the 3rd World developing countries) were alike and different. We studied Jewish texts that related to the Jewish responsibility to other Jews and non-Jews. I learned so much about the roots and causes of poverty and I really began to think about the responsibilities that each of us have to these impoverished nations. What really began to stick out in my mind (and stays with me even today) were the images and stereotypes I brought with me to Senegal, and how different they were from many of the images I experienced and tried to capture with my camera. I am totally aware that it would be impossible for me to be able to explain everything I experienced and saw…but I hope to have conversations with people that will at least give me the opportunity to learn and teach…and grow with my community.
On the last day of our trip, we went to Goree Island, one of the last stops of the slave trade in Africa. When slaves left Goree Island, they boarded the ships that brought them to those countries that were involved in the 500 + years of the slave trade. Many thoughts rushed through my head as we explored the museum and the slave house. What responsibilities do those of us that live in the Global North have to the Developing World? What have we done to make the matters of life worse for these countries? Should we ask them how we can help or just assume that we know the answers? Clearly, I left Goree Island more confused than I was when I went…and I think that it is important for me to recognize and admit this. Now, I must figure out how I can use these thoughts and images to teach and learn.
American Jewish World Service is an amazing organization that works with grass roots organizations like Tostan in West Africa to bring change to these communities. This change comes from these communities…they decide for themselves what their needs are. Please check out www.ajws.org and www.tostan.org to learn more about the amazing programs that are so very successful in the Global South.