Language Journey

I wrote this article for the Language Café in the Netherlands.

My name is Charlotte, I speak six languages and am learning my seventh at the Language Café in Groningen. The first time I was walking down the street towards this café, I was excited; a café full of people speaking different languages and exchanging them… That was definitely going to be something for me!

I assimilate myself with being a third-culture kid; someone who has parents from two different cultures and who grows up in a third different culture. Thus I have two mother-tongues; French and Dutch. Having lived in Germany for a few years, I also acquired German, as small children easily do. When I was seven I moved to Australia and thus I also learnt English. Even though I have been living in Australia for ten years, I have been able to go back to Europe, even live in France for a few months and thus always use all of my languages. The first language which I actually ‘learnt’ was Japanese, which I studied in high school for three years. I used to be better, but I have lost a lot of this language as I have not been able to use it consistently after graduating.

The famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, once said that “learning another language is like becoming another person.” I cannot agree more with that. For me, language is a gateway into another culture and its people. In Japanese for example, there are different ways of talking according to the form of politeness one has to show to the other person. This cannot be expressed when speaking English. Sometimes, when speaking German for example, I want to describe something with a French word, because I cannot ‘see’ this thing in German. In Danish the word “hygellig” cannot be properly translated into English for example. One would describe “hygellig” maybe as ‘a sensation of comfort when being in a nice place surrounded by loved ones’, but even this sentence is inaccurate.

After living in Senegal (a country in West-Africa) for one year and having learnt Wolof, I felt like I had become a different person. While this feeling may be biased due to complete immersion into a foreign culture (and this would change anybody), I cannot emphasise enough how language transforms the way we see others, the way we perceive the world. Learning Japanese for example, made me understand the importance of detail; every stroke in the signs we wrote had to be precise, otherwise they could mean something else.

At the moment I am learning Spanish and hope to continue practicing it at the language café throughout my studies. I don’t know how I fell in love with languages, perhaps it was the constant moving around, talking to different people, that makes one curious to acquire more, but what I know, is that I cannot live without languages. Not only do they help us to communicate with others, but they also help us understand other cultures and sometimes, they help us understand ourselves.


photograph by Charlotte O.


Apart from Islamophobes, which have increased in number in both America (with the new elections coming and candidate Trump’s constant anti-muslim statements) and in Europe (due to the number of terrorist attacks caused by ISIS and other radical islamists), there are still many liberal, open-minded people who find it difficult to not link Islam with terrorism.

“I am sure Islam is a religion of peace, but I’ve heard/read that it says in the Qu’ran that one should kill the disbelievers.”

“I am sure Islam is a religion like any other, but it is still shocking to see that so many terrorist attacks are executed in the name of Islam. There has never been as many terrorist attacks from Christians or Buddhists or Hindus…”

“If Islam would modernise itself… it would be a good religion. It’s ethics are a bit backward… It hasn’t evolved with society like the Christian religion has.”

In 2016, it is difficult not to think about terrorism without Islam, or about Islam, without terrorism. With so many attacks having happened, so much media coverage, so many people talking, Islam and terrorism have been forcefully and unfortunately linked.

Many people do not realise the power of the media and how it can manipulate and control people’s perception about certain issues. Before 9/11, Islam was more commonly seen as a religion like any other. I think however, that every country wants its revenge in a certain way and that after this terror attack, most of the American media did not promote a peaceful vision of Islam as a religion.

Many people in Europe are scared. Many think that the terrorism which has occurred these last few months is a result of from a lack of education and misinterpretation of religion. And they are right, but I think this is only a very small part of it.

After hearing that ISIS publishes a propaganda magazine every month, it made me curious and want to read it. ISIS seems so inhumane, so unreal and completely alien.
While reading the article I became conciously aware that it had been written by a human being, by someone made out of flesh and blood, someone ‘real’…
The article’s title was “Why we hate you and why we fight you” and talks about ISIS’ hate for the West and its unislamic society.

The title predicts the content; every sentence is filled with hate, the hate is so strong that one wonders what this person behind the letters, the invisible author, must have gone through to write such a text.

The prevalent idea that stood out for me, especially towards the end of the article, was the extreme hate for the West, but especially a malevolence towards America. The whole article tasted of ‘Anti-America’. Europe was never mentioned, but America and American ideologies were constantly implied.
After reading a few paragraphs one begins to see the reasons for the author’s, a.k.a. ISIS’ hate for the West.

It reads, “We hate you for your crimes against the Muslims: your drones and fighter jets bomb, kill, and maim our people around the world, …. we fight you to stop you from killing our men, women, and children, to liberate those of them whom you imprison and torture, and to take revenge…We hate you for invading our lands..”

And then, when one continues reading, every sentence smells of revenge…
The whole article is badly written, filled with hatred, violence and propaganda (which is not surprising), but what surprised me, was the subtle, yet repetitious allusions to America.

One cannot simply say that terrorists are killing people because they have misinterpreted religion. There are so many reasons for terrorism, it is such a complex issue, that it makes it hard to comprehend why and what exactly has happened.

However, I believe that America and Europe are guilty too. War has been waged, weapons have been bought and many innocent people have been killed.

Islam has nothing to do with this. One of the world’s many religions, a last thing that some people held onto when the world around them changed completely. It gets twisted with revenge, with hate… Maybe that was how ISIS was created. Its roots. And then there is the lack of education, brain-washing propaganda, social upbringing, experiences, mental trauma, some who are crazy in their heads; that leads to radicalisation and creates heartless humans.

Maybe if Western governments had bought their weapons, killed civilians, waged war in Christian countries (especially third-world countries in which lack of education means people are more easily manipulated through propaganda), we would now have radical Christians killing people and perpetrating terrorist attacks.

The ‘Burkini Ban’ in Cannes surprised me. (For those of you who have not heard about it, the Burkini, which is a bikini which covers the head, the arms and the legs and which is worn by some muslim women, was banned from the beaches in Cannes.) France is the country of the French Revolution, in which people fought for human rights.

Everybody has different opinions about the burkini, but it is a choice that muslim women can make. It does not cover their face in any way, thus one could not use the “there could be a terrorist underneath” excuse to ban it. Why ban this type of clothing? This means that those who wear a burkini, will not go to the beach anymore, they will not be able to take their children there and they and their families will feel excluded from society. What does this create?
Banning the burkini, means banning those women who wear it. Maybe I am exaggerating, but when I read these news, I thought about South Africa and how during the time of Apartheid, black people were banned from certain beaches. Is it not the same thing?
I have the feeling that laws like this are only creating a stronger division within a country which especially now, should be united more than ever.

It is important for us to realize how strongly the media can influence us, important to conciously try not to judge a religion and most of all to go out and talk to a Muslim. I am sure many will be very happy to talk to you and explain how they see their own religion, how they practice it and what its values and ideas are.



This is the link to the 15th issue of  ISIS’ monthly propaganda magazine, ‘Dabiq’ (propaganda and not very well written but also an interesting read):

Image courtesy:







Our Fragile Human Nature

Human Nature:
Raw. Desperation. Beauty. Fear.

Human nature is … so fragile. It is paper thin, like the wings of a butterfly. But people are so egocentric they only see themselves. And they think they are the only ones in the world who feel this intense fear inside themselves.

Isn’t it our nature to be afraid? If we do not feel fear, how will we strive, how will we become successful, how will we survive?

Maybe our fear is an instinct, like an animal’s smell of prey before even seeing it coming.

“Don’t worry this recording is going to be anonymous. Written. On paper.”

Your voice as clear as crystal, no shaking, and your knee high skirt a stark contrast to your buttoned up blouse. Up to the neck. You sit upright, no blemish on your perfect skin, your eyes hard to read…

“What are you afraid of?”

“-Failure. Isn’t that what is on everybody’s mind? What happens when we fail?
I’m scared of losing my job… and what comes with it. Sometimes I am afraid of people seeing through me, of people realising that I am not pretty… Because… I am not. Pretty. I know it. When I get home, and take my makeup off I see the ugliness of my skin and the tiredness in my eyes.
I just realised how superficial all of this is. What I’m saying…”

“No not at all. You are just being honest. When you were a child, were you scared about failure?”

“As a child…I think when we are young we see the world differently. I probably didn’t even know what failure meant! I was scared of the dark. When it was night I just couldn’t go outside alone.”

Imagine the world around you had no laws, no government, nobody to control you, nobody to judge you, nobody to punish you. What would you do?

Image courtesy:

The Farce Awakens

So many things that I felt during my volunteering…

Senegalese Adventures

First off, I just want to say this before turning to the actual seriousness of this blog: while I used a pop culture reference as the title for this entry, due to the fact that I live in the freakin’ African bush I have not actually seen the new Star Wars movie. The things I have given up…



A lot of blog-keeping Peace Corps volunteers write a development aid blog at some point in their service. I have been waiting until the end of my time here in Senegal to write mine and honestly, even after two years of this experience I still had a beast of a time writing this down. Its a hard subject to talk about with anybody who has never spent substantial time in the developing world.

But here goes…

Stage One: March 5, 2014 – January 2015. The “Yay aid!!!!!!!!” phase.

I joined the…

View original post 3,923 more words

The imminent arrival of departure

I know. I know.

Stop thinking about leaving. Enjoy your time now. Enjoy your last moments with the ones you love the most…

I want to forget that I am leaving in what…. 17 days, but…

Departure is in my head every single minute of the day. It is there when I talk to people, it is there when I stand on the terrace and look over Thiaroye, beautiful, messy Thiaroye. It is there when I laugh with people and when I my eyes fall asleep.

This departure looms over me like an ominous shadow, blurring the way I see things.

After having spent one whole year in Senegal, I just cannot keep calm at the thought of leaving all these people. When will I come back?

Once I leave, all these experiences, all these people, all these places will be gone, floating in a wind of memories…

But I want, I need, to promise to myself that even though I cannot stop thinking about this departure I will stay positive throughout these last few days and make the most of my stay. Most importantly of all, I don’t want to sadden people by letting the fear flowing through my body take hold of me.

So I will smile, breathe in Senegal and look forwards, forwards, forwards.


Fashion in Senegal

Beauty is defined by society, by media, by culture and even by the individual himself.

Every country has a different perspective of beauty. In Senegal, it is very common to buy one’s own fabric and to give it to the tailor to be sewn nicely. Colours and long flowing fabrics are a common everyday sight. Additionally, women tend to prefer the extravagant and the big. The more people look at you, the better.

In comparison to France, in which the colour palette is a lot more toned down and make-up is used to look ‘naturally beautiful’, Senegal uses everything from hair to shoes to stand out from the crowd.


Here are a few keypoints of Senegal fashion:

  • Like everything else, make-up is colourful. Most Senegalese women colour coordinate their eyeshadow with whatever they are wearing.
  • Taille-basse, a top and skirt sewn from african fabric is very popular amongst Senegalese females. Very tight, it compliments roundness and softens features.images     7273696-11179411
  • Hair-styles are very important. Senegalese are very good at tressing and often add false hair into their tresses to have long hair. Many women also like to wear wigs or a “greffage” (false hair sewn onto the head).42767__Feeding-Cornrows-2012-300x300     images4
  • Many young men like to do the ‘checkdown’ (wearing their jeans very low).
  • Fabrics of great variety and price can be found on every cornerstreet and change every year, influencing new fashion trends. It is for mariages, baptisms and big muslim celebrations (such as Tabaski), that people wear carefully chosen, embroidered and extravangant fabrics.

    Senegalese fashion reflects rich colours, traditional patterns and wide fabrics. Western style clothes however, are very popular as well, especially amongst the younger generations.

Photo courtesy from the following sites:


KHESSAL – Skin Whitening in Senegal

Somehow we humans are never happy with what we have.

Women with curly hair want it straight and those with straight hair want it curled.

In Europe, America, Australia, we use bronzing creams to attain a more ‘beautiful’, tanned skin, while in the whole African continent, in India in China, Thailand, Japan, women (and men as well) are considered more beautiful, the whiter they are.
Every culture has a different definition of beauty. I wonder who decides what is beautiful and what not? Is it the influence of the media? Is it fashion and its continuous changes? Is it tradition and historical background? Or is it simply the influence of society, of family and friends? I think it is a mixture of all these things.

After having lived in Senegal for ten months, I have heard a lot about Khessal. Firstly, almost all Khessal creams destroy the skin. I have seen so many women with discoloured, damaged skin; their feet and hands are white but there are little black spots everywhere, while the rest of their body is their natural skin colour. It is sad to see a woman destroy her skin (and in this process making it actually worse) just in order to become whiter.
The fact that skin whitening creams destroy your skin is widely known, however women continue to use them. One young women I spoke to told me that “one just hopes that it won’t happen to us. Not all creams damage the skin, so we just take the risk.”
One of my very good friends works in a cosmetics agency and sells Khessal creams (i.e. makes Khessal creams). When I asked him if he thought whether skin whitening was something good or bad, he just said that “it is the client that makes the choice, I just sell the products and make money.” But when I asked him if he thought women to be more beautiful after they had done the Khessal he told me that “women are beautiful as they are. There are many beautiful ‘coal-black’ women.”
Senegal is a country rich in languages and ethnicities. There are the Serere, the Wolof, the Toukouleur, the Diola, the Mandinko, the Manjaque and many other tribes. The Toukouleur, who have the lightest skin of all ethnicities have had a history of supremacy over the other ethnicities, while the Diola and the Serere, who are the darkest skinned, have always and still are being placed ‘at the bottom’.
Several men with whom I have spoken have told me they want a ‘djiguene bou khes’ (which means a ‘light-skinned’ woman in Wolof), because these are the most beautiful women.
In the end however, I don’t think that a man choses his wife due to skin shade. And if he does, then that is not true love and one will never be happy in one’s marriage.
I have heard women say ‘he is so ugly’, simply because the man they were talking about was very dark. When you meet someone however, when you talk to that person, when you laugh with that person, does it matter what their skin shade is?
What truly attracts people is their personality. If you are beautiful, but arrogant, selfish etc., people will move away from you after having seen your character.
One day one of my friends told me how the older generation used to do khessal… Women used to put petroleum cream (that invisible cream similar to Vaseline which smells of petrol) upon their whole body. Then they would but layers of clothes upon their bodies, most often sport training jackets and pants and would sit in the sun so they would sweat a lot. They would sit like that for several hours, then remove everything, wash their bodies and find themselves whitened.
What they did not know was that in fact the petroleum cream burns away their skin, removing several layers and excessively damaging their skin tissue. When the skin gets exposed to the sun, especially the hot Senegalese sun, it darkens naturally. Which means that after a few weeks these women would go through the whole procedure again. When I take the ‘car rapide’ (Senegalese public transport) I see so many old women, their skin completely ruined…
It is the fault of society and the media that people continue to do Khessal. Senegalese publicity spots should more often place darker skinned women and men as a representation of ‘beauty’.
When this will happen I have no idea…

How to successfully learn a language

  • Start by learning vocabulary. Every day, learn new words and familiarise yourself with the language.
    If you live in the country in which the language is spoken, carry a small notebook with you. Every time you hear something new, ask people what it is and write it down. Also ask for new words- everyday you should have written down and learnt a few new words, especially if you are starting to learn the language.
    Don’t only write words down, get them into your head, recite them before going to sleep so that you are sure that you know them.
  • Don’t be shy. People are always happy to help someone who is trying to learn their language!
  • Learn basic sentences, such as greetings and introductions, off by heart. As soon as you know them, start using them.
  • When you hear people talk, concentrate and listen. It is very easy to fade away when one cannot understand what someone is saying, but try and truly listen to a conversation and try to see if you can recognise any words you already know. This will also help you get accustomed to the sounds and way of pronunciation.
  • Immerse yourself completely- listen to music, watch movies and try to read (children’s books are always a good beginning).
  • Get interested into the languages culture and its country. Doing this will not only motivate you more, but it will also make you understand the ways of a language. For example, the importance of greeting people in Senegal (when mearning Wolof).
  • There are some really good and free language learning apps- download them, as they can be a fun way to learn. ‘Duolingo’ is pretty good and I suggest ‘Obenkyo’ for Japanese learners. ‘Apprendre le Wolof’ is perfect to learn Wolof, but you need to be able to speak French.
  • As soon as you start to understand the language, start studying sentence structure; figure out how you can build your own sentences. Then, start learning the language’s grammar: verb conjugation, how to form past, present and future etc.
  • Continue to learn vocabulary throughout and try to challenge yourself constantly.
  • Learning a language takes time so have patience!

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Senegalese Similes

-Quelques anecdotes que seuls les Sénégalais (et ceux qui ont vécu au Sénégal) comprendront…

  • Regarde ce Toubab la! Il à tellement duré au soleil qu’il est devenu rouge comme le Dieg Bou Diar! En Wolof: Xonc nga ni dieg bou diar.
    (Le Dieg Bou Diar est une marque de pâte de tomate utilisé tout le temps dans la cuisine Sénégalaise.)
  • Ce qu’il parle, c’est du n’importe quoi, c’est comme mélanger le fondé avec le thieboudienne!
    (Le fondé est une sorte de bouillie sucré à base de mil alors que le thieboudienne, le plat national du Sénégal, est à base de riz avec des légumes et du poisson.)
  • Ah… son coeur est noir comme du café Touba!
    (Le café Touba est la spécialité du Sénégal; un café épicé et très sucré.)
  • Dans le bus je me sentais serrée comme dans une taille-basse!
    (La taille-basse est un habit pour femme- jupe et haut sont tout les deux très serrés. Cela se porte partout mais surtout les jours de fêtes!)
  • Elle est café au lait, elle est métisse!
  • J’ai tellement mal à la tête qu’on dirait que je me suis tressé hier!
    (Ce faire tressé fait très mal, cela donne des maux de tête, même parfois de la fièvre!)
  • Mais c’est moche comme une poule qui vient d’être tué!
    (Une poule morte n’est pas très jolie c’est sur…)
  • Ah je me sens réveillé comme si j’avais bu 10 cases de Ataya!
    (Le thé Sénégalais est très sucré et très fort- c’est sur qu’il te fait tenir debout!)
  • Elle m’a fait attendre comme le Ndogou du Ramadan!
    (Le Ndogou est le nom Wolof pour la rupture du jeune et c’est sur qu’après toute une journée sans manger ni boire, le ‘Ndogou’ ce fait bien attendre!)
  • Il a complètement changé ma vie, comme les pluies de l’hivernage qui rafraichissent une journée de chaleur.
    (Pendant la saison de l’hivernage les matinées sont souvent épouvantablement chaudes, alors que vers l’après-midi, après que les pluies descendent du ciel, l’air devient frais et agréable. C’est un changement paradoxal c’est sur!)
  • Aimé et apprécié comme Youssou N’dour.
    (Il n’y a aucun Sénégalais qui n’aime pas Youssou N’dour, le plus grand chanteur de Mbalax.)
  • Sa peau est douce comme le Jadida.
    (Jadida, une marque de margarine très connue pour sa ‘douceur’.)
  • Elle est Toukouleur mais elle est noir comme un Diola.
    (Les ethnies des Diolas sont très connus pour être très noirs, alors que les Toukouleurs sont connu pour être plus clairs.)
  • Riche comme Thione Seck.
    (Thione Ballago Seck, un grand chanteur de Mbalax et père du fameux Waly Seck, a récemment été dévoilé a avoir faussé des milliers de billets d’argent. Alors qu’il était déjà très riche, il a voulu s’enrichir encore plus!)
  • Lourd comme un sac de riz.
    (Ici, comme l’on mange du riz tous les jours, les familles achètent de grands sac de riz qui peuvent durer quelques mois pour nourrir la famille.)
  • Il y avait tellement de gens, comme le jour avant la Tabaski au marché HLM!
    (Le jour avant la grande fête religieuse de la Tabaski, tout le monde a besoin d’argent. C’est pour cela qu’au grand marché HLM de Dakar, les foules se pressent pour faire de bonnes affaires avec les marchands.)
  • Connu comme le Wolof.
    (Pour communiquer il faut connaitre le Wolof, qu’importe si tu es Serer, Diola ou Français…)

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