From IWU Magazine, Fall 2008
Grown Accustomed to this Place
By Rachel Hatch
O’Rourke and her host siblings Marianne and Mohammed go for a walk with a friend in
the Baobab neighborhood of Dakar.
Although she had many adventures in the west African country of Senegal, some of the
moments that Shannon O’Rourke ’07 enjoyed most were the quiet ones.
She recalls “laying on a foam mattress in the yard” with her host mother and siblings
on many sweltering African nights, “talking and looking up at the stars.”
O’Rourke spent six months in the Republic of Senegal this year on a Rotary Cultural
Ambassador Scholarship. Senegal is a predominantly rural, Muslim country about the
size of South Dakota, located on the westernmost point of Africa.
An international studies and political science double major, O’Rourke spent the spring
semester of her junior year in Switzerland where she did research on human and economic
development in Tanzania. “Through my research and conversations I had with a Tanzanian
representative to the World Trade Organization, I developed a desire to go to Africa.”
O’Rourke discovered the Rotary scholarship, which would allow her to study Arabic
in Tanzania or French in Senegal. “I’d already studied French in college and high
school for a few years, so I decided on Senegal,” she said.
The scholarship required her to study 225 hours of French with a professor at a small
language school in Senegal’s capital city of Dakar. O’Rourke also studied Wolof, one
of the many other languages spoken in Senegal. “Most people can speak French in Dakar
because the country was once a French colony, but once you get outside the city, fewer
people speak it. The most common language in the area is Wolof, which was tough for
me to learn because I’m a visual learner, and the language isn’t generally written
down, so I had to learn it by ear.”
O’Rourke extended her Rotary scholarship by taking an internship with the not-for-profit
organization 10,000 Girls, which offers educational opportunities to young women in
the Kaolack region of Senegal. According to its Web site, the program “helps girls
stay in school, get the most out of their education, and acquire the skills needed
for lifelong learning.” Lowering the staggering 53 percent school dropout rate among
girls in Kaolack is a primary goal.
O’Rourke (above center) poses with her honorary “aunts” and “grandmother” on their
way to a party in nearby Kaolack. The multi-day event honored a man who had returned
from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
O’Rourke helped start a bookmobile to travel to villages in the region, where books
are rare. “My project was to sort through and organize 39,000 books for donation to
high schools in the Kaolack area. The books were used in high school classes and English
clubs, and used to create libraries in the schools that do not have one. I worked
with local teachers to get them the right kind of textbooks to use in their classrooms
and also for their own continuing education.”
In Kaolack, O’Rourke had to adjust to a slower-paced life in a place with no running
water and open-air sewers. On the plus side, she says, “I was never lonely. I found
I could easily start a dance party by simply turning on some music! My host siblings
and mother would appear in my room within just a few minutes and start to dance.”
As her feelings of fondness for the Senegalese people grew, so did O’Rourke’s desire
to help in a country where, she says, almost half the population lives below the poverty
line, unemployment is near 50 percent, and infant and maternal mortality rates are
alarmingly high, especially in rural areas. She helped the Dakar Rotary Club translate
documents seeking funding from English-speaking countries for a maternity clinic that
will provide prenatal care in the country’s Diourbel region, about 90 miles east of
O’Rourke’s host brother Mohammed and a friend walk along a busy intersection in the
Baobab neighborhood of Dakar. In the background are a public bus and one of the ubiquitous
yellow taxis found everywhere in Dakar.
O’Rourke lived with a host family that included five children, including 6-year-old
Marianne, “who rarely left my side when I was around the house. She always wanted
to play Cache-Cache (Hide and Seek) and Un, Deux, Trois, Chocolat Glace (Red Light,
O’Rourke was amused to find she was considered an ‘old maid’ by Senegalese standards.
“Women typically marry young in Senegal and men can take more than one wife, so I
got a lot of marriage proposals from both single and married men. At age 23, I am
past the prime marrying age for women in the country, and some Senegalese people I
met shared their concerns that I would have difficulty finding a husband at this age,”
This fall, O’Rourke enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,
to earn her master’s degree in international development studies. She intends to focus
her studies on the necessary role that women play in development, as well as the importance
of girls’ education and basic health care — interests that reflect her time in Senegal.
Looking back on those experiences, O’Rourke realizes how far she traveled from the
day she first arrived in Dakar, staring out the window on the drive from the airport
“because everything looked so different. I had never seen anything like it.”
Now she thinks of this once-strange place as a second home. “My host families have
become my family in Senegal now, and I miss them. I will go back to visit, inch’allah,” she says, adding the Senegalese phrase for “God willing,” which is always used
when talking about things to come. “You never know what the future holds.”