Spotlight on...Alison Parish '24, Bridge Year Senegal

The Novogratz Bridge Year Program's "Spotlight on..." series features unique stories from our current Bridge Year participants. Students will share a short story about an aspect of their Bridge Year experience that they have found particularly meaningful. In this spotlight, Alison Parish '24, reflects on her homestay family in Yoff, Dakar, Senegal. 

After trying several times to turn the lock, my yaay[1] Khadi and older brother Abdou realized that my room door did not close. I lived in a compound where each door led to the outside courtyard. Yaay Khadi kindly offered for me to sleep in her room. I had a better idea. Turning to Abdou, who speaks English, I asked somewhat jokingly, “How about we switch rooms for the night?” He laughed at first, but realized it was a sound idea and agreed. I convinced him to sleep without his air conditioning, private bathroom, television, and a door could close. I was surprised that he agreed to do this after only a few hours of knowing me. This marked the beginning of my membership in the house of Mbayen.

The first requirement for being a part of the household was to shed my Western name. My host father, Papa Babacar is the uncle of my instructor, Babacar, who was named after him. Once the host families were decided, the wife of Babacar named me Astou which means “full of life.” Thus, I became Astou Mbaye. I helped the women of the house in the kitchen from peeling the vegetables of thiebu djen[2] to pounding the spices tucked inside the fish. I began watching and enjoying soccer matches with my family - something I considered boring with my family in the US. My little siblings taught me Senegalese dances and words in Wolof. Within a few days, I felt comfortable with my host family and my new identity.

Then, I needed to get to know those in my household. Fortunately, Abdou embraced the big brother role as my guide, translator, and comedic relief. My family is Muslim and I have 2 mothers, yaay Khadi and yaay Fatou. Yet, the compound comprises 18 people who are my siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Learning the names of everyone was quite difficult with four women named Fatou and pronunciation challenges. Once I knew the names, Abdou helped fill in the links between each person often during what we called “LNV,” or late night vibes. Abdou, my other host brothers, and I would spend time together practicing Wolof, watching National Geographic nature movies, and dancing to Michael Jackson hits. Sometimes, we would have thiackry[3] and once Abdou called my brother who has a motorcycle to buy me ice cream. We had debates in a mix of English, Wolof, and French about differences between the United States and Senegal. They helped me negotiate prices with the tailor of the house for my first traditional taibass[4] top and pants. The first few weeks of LNV with my brothers aided in my adjustment to living in Dakar and allowed me to feel welcomed into the family.

Four people sitting on a couch

Although I quickly grew close to my brothers, I needed to have patience with forming relationships with others in my family. Mbayen was one of the first host families for the program, but until last year, they had only hosted boys. As the second girl, I was constantly compared to and reminded about the first Princeton girl in the Mbayen family last year. I felt frustrated about not understanding Wolof fast enough and spoke less French, even though I had studied the language for several years. One moment, I would be playing with my siblings and speaking in Wolof. The next moment, I felt defeated when I was told “Deguloo Wolof”, “you do not understand Wolof,” after not understanding a command by an adult. I often wondered when they would come to embrace me and my differences. My cohort, my family in New York, and Abdou affirmed me during those low points, but it was still a mental struggle.

A couple of days after our winter excursion, I sat in the salle with my family and shared pictures with them. The conversation led to teasing one of my brothers and eventually a stroll down memory lane about the student last year. Annoyed, I removed myself from the conversation and quietly watched the soccer game. Shortly after, my first yaay touched my hair and asked me to twist her hair like mine. I was a bit surprised, but agreed. As I parted and twisted the strand of hair, I realized that I am moving forward with my family. I have nicknames for my little siblings and know the best places to hide during cache-cache (hide and seek). My papa and I have conversations about religion in Senegal. One of my cousins gave me an outfit for a wedding and helped me practice my Pulaar before our Bridge Year group’s excursion. Whenever I am tired and want to stay in the salle, I can put my head in yaay Khadi’s lap. Yaay Fatou always gives me the vegetables that I enjoy during meals. I am creating meaningful relationships with those around me. Once my eyes were opened to this fact, comparisons and references no longer carried the same weight.

On my birthday, my Bridge Year cohort, my instructors, and my homestay family threw me a surprise party. The whole neighborhood, including drummers and men dressed as lions came to dance and celebrate with us. The women of Mbayen cooked Yassa, my favorite Senegalese dish. I was feeling down, but this moment brought me such joy and gratitude to feel the love and support from everyone around me. As Bridge Year shortens to a few months, I am cherishing the time left with the Mbayen family. Although, I know that just as those who have come before me, I will always be a part of the family.

A group photo of many people at a birthday party


[1] Wolof word for “mother”

[2] Senegal’s national dish consisting of rice, fish, and vegetables

[3] Vanilla yogurt with millet

[4] A type of traditional fashionable top

Alison Parish '24, Bridge Year Senegal