Today’s post is written in partnership with Cate Brubaker at Small Planet Studio. Cate and I thought it would be interesting to write about the same book from two different perspectives. After reading my thoughts on this book, please link to Cate’s comments on the book below.
Jerejef to Katie Krueger. Jerejef is a Wolof word for thank you. Wolof is a Senegalese language used by an ethnic group with the same name and it describes how I felt after reading Katie’s book, “Give With Gratitude: Lessons Learned Listening to West Africa.”
I read this book twice in two months. Yes, twice! It sprung so many ideas of how the book could be used in international education that I had to read it a second time to surface all of the intercultural gems and to allow the lessons of West Africa to wash over me. I wanted to soak them all in, bathe in them, ponder them for days and days.
While Katie’s book is about her time in Senegal as a Rotary Scholar, she frames the many highs and lows of a sojourner in “lessons” based on the cultural wisdom of her wise teacher: Senegal. For example, “Lesson 3” is:
Nit, nit ay garabam
Man is man’s best remedy (Wolof Proverb)
Within “Lesson 3” are chapters that provide examples of how Katie learned and applied ‘Man is man’s best remedy’ during her stay and regional travels. She writes with incredibly honesty about the loneliness that occurs, at times, when one is far from home. This lesson reminded me of my time as an intern abroad. I lived in one of the most beautiful places in Switzerland- yet at times, I was moved to tears with loneliness. I felt guilty about being able to intern in such a picturesque city while I recognized how much I missed pieces of my identity from home, where people truly knew me. Those that I loved were hours away by plane and I did not always understand what was happening around me, despite working in an English speaking office. Lesson 3 also made me think about the many international and study abroad students I have worked with over the years who have crossed borders and not been able to adequately express the challenges of such a blessing because of pride, cultural differences such as saving face, or simply lacking the intimacy and trust required in a friendship to share such a deep emotional state.
Katie’s writing is important, especially for those who study or earn a degree abroad. Her book will serve as an excellent common read and on-going orientation tool for international students (regardless of national origin or destination,) as it provides readers with an honest human story that all sojourners can relate to. We experience the joys of studying abroad throughout much of her book: the traveling, language, people, humor, her quips of self-reflection and the “a-ha” moments. Yet, we also traverse Katie’s down times – the challenges of eating different food (especially as a vegetarian), the sense of time, space, privacy, loneliness, confusion, adjustment and denial.
These are the topics that we often have difficulty discussing in an open and easy manner with our students. Katie’s book serves as a new pre-departure orientation and on-going orientation tool for students who are crossing borders. It provides a “safe” way to talk about common issues that our students experience as sojourners. Discussion can take place around these issues because we are talking about KATIE having these experiences and feeling the emotions. It creates an opportunity to discuss how Katie addresses these challenges and opens the door for there to be a connection or realization – or perhaps a feeling of trust – to relate them back to the student’s own experiences.
For example, a student coming to the US for an exchange program (or degree program) will quickly relate to Katie’s stories about “teranga” – the Wolof word for “hospitality.” Senegalese are known for teranga; they take hospitality to an entirely new level and one must adjust to being open to such extreme gestures of kindness and welcoming when one grows up in a culture where privacy is sacred. Students coming to the US will see glimpses of hospitality, but nothing that compares to the teranga of the Senagalese. This subject becomes an easy discussion point for students who are challenged with the common American greeting: “Hi, how are you?” or an equally common gesture of checking in: “Let’s have lunch” or “Talk soon.” In the US, most people won’t stick around for an answer beyond “Fine, how are you?” when asked how they are and “let’s have lunch/talk soon” usually doesn’t translate into a firm date on a calendar. This confuses the sojourner, who does not easily grasp why Americans share such expressions when they aren’t really interested or committed to the statement. This type of comparison between cultures can begin when talking about Katie’s challenge with “teranga.” I believe that this dialogue will take place organically because we initially are not asking the students how they are feeling about their own experiences with cultural adjustment, but rather asking about Katie’s experiences – which will spark ideas about personal encounters with culture. For those who are not ready or able, emotionally or culturally, to divulge their own challenges across cultures, commentary about Katie’s writing may provide hints about their need for support and need to process/reflect. As educators, we can then offer experiences, opportunities and programs to acknowledge these.
The study abroad experience is like a white light hitting a prism – suddenly what is in front of you becomes a rainbow of many different colors. Things suddenly are alive – some colors complement each other and some are not aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Yet, we are opened to a new color palette and it is worth exploring nevertheless. That is how I felt about Katie’s book – it made me want even more colors in the rainbow to explore, even if I didn’t understand or like all how I felt about all of the shades along the journey.
I hope that you’ll take the time to explore the lessons that Katie shares – and that you’ll consider sharing her book with your students who are in the throes of cultural adjustment. Katie is also available for speaking engagements. Her timeless book of lessons for the sojourner is available here (and don’t forget to read Cate Brubaker’s thoughts on this book too!):