We recently reconnected with Fiel Sahir, an alumni of our summer community service program in Senegal for high school students. A recipient of one of our Putney Open Door Fund scholarships, Fiel is an Indonesian-American who now studies Classical Guitar at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He detailed for us how meaningful his time on this summer community service program in Senegal was and how it helped him become a person who “loves language and culture.”
Can you tell us a little bit about how you came across Putney and how you ended up in Senegal on the community service program for high school students?
I was itching to go somewhere my sophomore year of high school. I applied for a scholarship to go with Putney Student Travel to France on the Language Learning program for high school students. I was called by one of the committee members of the Putney Open Door Fund and was told I had good news. I wasn’t given a scholarship to France like I had hoped, but I had the chance to go to Senegal which happened to be a French speaking country. After much thought and encouragement from my French teacher, I decided to go.
Can you describe the community service volunteer work you did in Senegal and the friends you made in your village during the summer program?
My group did a whole bunch of wonderful things for the village when we were there. We taught English to the children and the teenagers of the village. Using the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” was very effective, not to mention relating everything to soccer. We also helped build a huge wall around the whole perimeter of the church. We dug the foundation and molded, baked and laid the bricks for the wall as well. No one was left out from the fun. We also decided to do a huge make-over of three different classrooms in the village by painting murals on its walls. We painted everything from the planets, to zoo animals, a huge map of Africa and the United States, and lastly a mural with all our Senegalese names for them to remember us by.
The friends I made in the village were all very very nice people that I still keep in contact with today! The villagers were very kind people who looked out for our well being and took the time out of their hard lives to bring us places and show us things. According to my group leaders, the whole village still remembers me – even the little children who were two when I met them!
What do you most remember about the students and leaders you traveled with on this summer community service program in Africa?
Everyone was amazingly nice and great to be friends with. There were no conflicts that separated the group in any way. Everyone was from very diverse backgrounds and came from all parts of the states. One of our team members was even a Japanese student who was living in France at the time. Our leaders were really great and both very competent in terms of getting their jobs done. Both of them spoke French and both were able to converse in Wolof, which is the lingua franca of Senegal. Both had lived in Senegal for some time so they really knew their way around things and they both did their best to ease us into the culture.
Can you tell me about a particularly memorable experience or moment from the summer program that has stuck with you to this day?
On one particularly fine day, the village decided to take us on a trip to a nice saltwater river and have a clam bake. There were about 4-5 horse carts and at least a total of 30 people who came along. We sat in the river and gathered clams, oysters, and crabs for our clam bake, which was really delicious. It was very nice of them because it was a few miles from the village. They even let me drive their horse carts for a part of the way!
What are you up to these days? Can you connect the dots from your time on the summer community service program in Senegal to where you are now?
Currently, I’m an undergraduate Classical Guitar major studying under Eliot Fisk at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Being a musician, I’ve just been doing my best to expand and improve my art.
In what ways has your experience in Senegal colored your choices and perspectives since?
I now speak French which has been invaluable in my life. I’ve been able to make so many friends just from the simple ability of learning to speak a foreign language. Wherever I go now, I’ll always manage to meet a francophone and become friends. It’s helped me improve already strong friendships and make new ones with the many people I’ve met here in college and in general. It’s amazing how people’s faces light up when they discover that you speak their language.
My experiences in Senegal have made me see that it pays to be a person who loves culture and language. It also helps to not assume that whatever the news tells you about Africa or anywhere else in the world is true. Experience makes all the difference. Going to Senegal has also made me open to speaking with more people and actually caring about where they’re from, French speaking or not. Another big thing I learned is that it’s totally fine to sit under a tree for two hours brewing tea and having conversation. It’s ok to not be connected to the world at all times. It’s actually quite liberating.
Check Fiel out on the guitar at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston: www.youtube.com/watch?v=