The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 6, 2013

Out of Africa: Vance instructor pilot spends month in Senegal

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Capt. Manuela Peters, command post chief at Vance Air Force Base, traveled to Africa not long ago to learn more about French, but she returned having learned so much more.

“I didn’t want to love Africa,” she said, “but I would go back there in a heartbeat.”

Peters, who also is a T-6 instructor pilot at Vance, recently spent a month in Dakar, Senegal, through the Air Force’s Language Enabled Airman Program, or LEAP. During that time she was immersed in French, one of the west African nation’s primary languages.

 She and three other airmen, two of whom likewise were in the LEAP program, while the third was training to become a regional affairs strategist, lived with Senegalese families as they worked on their French proficiency.

Peters first began studying French in high school. She initially wanted to learn the language to communicate with her grandmother, who speaks French, Italian and German, but not English.

“They didn’t offer Italian in my school, so I took French instead,” Peters said. “I now can understand my grandmother just fine. That is really nice because for the longest time I thought she was just mad at me all the time. In fact, she’s just a very passionate woman.”

Peters was placed with a lower-middle class Catholic family, which was unusual because 95 percent of Senegalese are Muslim.

She quickly was confronted with the differences between American culture and that of Senegal. For one thing, dinner time in Senegal can be anywhere from 8:30 to 10 p.m.

The luxuries Americans take for granted, like washers and dryers, are all but non-existent in Senegal. Peters’ host family washed their clothes in a bucket, while she took to washing hers in a sink. Many Senegalese families, even those of moderate income, have maids to do the cooking and cleaning, but Peters’ host family did not.

“Life is just generally harder, so having a maid is not unheard of,” she said. “It’s just kind of eye-opening, how different they live. Just the normal things we take for granted here, those are luxuries over there.”

Peters, a mother of two, also learned that Senegalese children do not have the overabundance of toys that many American kids do.

As far as she could tell, the 8- and 9-year-old children in her host family had only two toys, a soccer ball she brought with her as a gift and a Monopoly game with several pieces missing.

“On the first night I was there we played Monopoly for like three hours,” said Peters. “I was jet-lagged and not really interested, but I played with them because I wanted to establish that relationship.”

Peters’ host family consisted of a grandmother, her two daughters (one a single mother with two children), a son and another young man who was either a male cousin or nephew. Both of the males worked outside the home, while the women spent their time cooking and cleaning.

“As far as I could tell, I was their primary source of income,” Peters said.

Peters and the other Americans spent six hours a day in school studying French. During their off-hours, they were supposed to be totally immersed in French, but Peters said her host family often spoke Senegal’s other primary language, Wolof, an amalgam of several tongues.

“You hear French words thrown in, you hear English words thrown in, it’s kind of like a grabbing of all sorts of languages,” she said. “To me it sounded like they were always yelling at each other.”

The Americans banded together and used the buddy system for safety when they were in public. They had been warned about the threat of pickpockets, petty thieves or street bandits.

“Initially, I did not go out at night, at all, for the first week or so,” she said.

That didn’t last long, however.

“If you wanted to explore the culture at all, you ended up outside at night,” Peters said.

After a night of clubbing that ended at about 5:30 a.m., one of the airmen was warned by a Senegalese man not to walk down a certain street because of the presence of bandits. The man proceeded to walk the airman home.

“I really do think that averted a major issue because I think he would have gotten jumped otherwise,”  Peters said.

Besides being immersed in the French language, Peters found herself immersed in the culture of Senegal, which is based on faith, family and friendship.

“For me, it opened my eyes to the fact that there are people who live completely differently than we live, but there are a lot of the same values that underlie the cultures,” she said.

Senegalese don’t have the modern conveniences Americans do, she said, but they place great importance on family and relationships.

“They take care of each other, they are very connected,” she said.

Greeting a friend on the street does not involve a simple hello, Peters said.

“In order to say hello it is a five-minute conversation, at least,” she said. “It just shows the emphasis on relationships in their culture. In Senegal, the expectation is if your friend is sick, you go bring them a pot of soup, you sit down with them, you spend time with them, and that, to me, was just very impressive.”

Because of their strong emphasis on relationships, Peters said, Senegalese are not as concerned about things like time.

“Things would start 10, 15 minutes, two hours late,” she said. “That could be very frustrating.”