Guest Blogger: David Silberberg, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office
Study abroad is an opportunity not only to learn in foreign institutions, but also to learn outside the classroom. Taking a step outside your comfort zone into a place unlike anywhere you have been can be a learning experience that cannot be replicated in any school, at home or abroad. When I studied and interned in Senegal for a semester, I realized that while my classes were certainly great, what made the experience invaluable was the time I spent in places that where far different from anything I was accustomed to in the US. The most profound of these experiences was the time I spent with my internship or host family in rural areas–villages that often lacked electricity or running water and usually had no more than a few hundred residents. Coming from suburban Los Angeles and the University of Illinois, this was something I had never encountered. Even for many Senegalese people, this lifestyle is foreign. The World Bank estimates that 43% of the population is urban, with that number becoming larger each year.
For Americans, hearing or seeing pictures of these villages may evoke feelings of disbelief or pity. For some, this is the quintessential image of sub-Saharan poverty–the small village with simple huts and no utilities. However, being able to visit some of these villages and those who live there reveals a far different reality, showing that these conceptions are deeply misguided.
Village life for many is a exactly as they would like it. Everyone works together: farming, raising animals, building houses, taking care of children. Everyone knows their neighbors, and lives are free of the distractions that have come to define our lifestyles. Without television, cell phones, lights to keep us awake all night, car exhaust, noise, and more, life becomes much simpler, but also much more relaxing and, for many, more rewarding.
Several of my host family’s relatives would live in town to go to school and then return to the villages whenever they had a break. My host father would often go spend time (sometimes taking me along) in the village where he was born and where his mother and brother still live. My host brothers often talked about how after they worked in the city and made enough money, they would like to retire and live in a village.
This is not to say that rural life is better than city life. Of course, there are many challenges and issues facing those who live in villages. But what makes life in villages enjoyable is the lack of the things that we cannot imagine living without in our daily lives–TVs, cars, smartphones, computers, etc. Even more, however, is the lack of rent, boring corporate office jobs, mortgages, loans, debt, bills, and the list goes on forever. To sum it all up in one word, rural life is relaxing. Which is something that I think everyone could appreciate, even if it means no iPhones.