After spending two years in Swaziland before college, Rachel Mueller ‘13 was happy to return to Africa, where she devoted a semester to studying music and spirituality in Senegal.
Rachel Mueller ‘13, an anthropology major and music minor, came to Macalester indirectly from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, after spending two years at the United World College (UWC) of Southern Africa in Swaziland. Last semester she returned to Africa to study in Senegal, where she completed an independent study project on spiritual life in the country’s capital city through the SIT National Identity in Arts program.
Q: Tell me about the United World College you attended before coming to Macalester.
A: At my high school in Colorado, most of my friends graduated before me, so I was kind of bored and thought, “What other options are there?” A family friend had gone to the UWC in New Mexico, so I investigated, applied, got accepted, and was sent to Swaziland. My experience there was phenomenal. I lived there from 17 until 19, important years to be living in a “developing country” with students from around the world. I’m doing an African studies concentration now, so it obviously influenced my life path.
Q: Did being in Swaziland influence your time at Mac in other ways?
A: Yes! My freshman year I volunteered with the Jane Addams School for Democracy, working mostly with female Somali immigrants on English literacy skills and studying for their U.S. citizenship tests. I’m also in the African Music Ensemble and am doing African percussion as my minor instrument. African music is the greatest.
Q: Why did you choose Senegal for study abroad?
A: I wanted to go back to Africa, specifically someplace Francophone because I’ve been studying French for a long time. I also wanted to do a program where you learn a local language. When I was in Senegal I learned the basics of Wolof.
Q: What was your independent study project about?
A: There’s a spiritual belief—not a religion—around a certain spirit called a rab. A rab is essentially an invisible being that lives in a parallel world and has a strong impact on the daily life of many Senegalese. I found it really interesting because everyone I spoke to in the capital city of Dakar, where I lived, knew about rab and either warned me about dealing with them or were very much entrenched in the belief. To deal with rab you make sacrifices and pour sour milk in the ocean and recite Quranic verses, so there’s this mix between Islam and rab. I researched that spiritual belief for about a month and wrote a paper about it.
Q: What was your host family like?
A: I lived in a house with 17 people, two of them babies. I was sort of considered a child, too, since I wasn’t married or 30 yet. I had two host brothers close to my age, and became very close with one of them, Moustapha. We’d sit on the patio at night and watch the cars and talk about every subject you could think of. My host sister is in her thirties and runs a tailoring shop out of the house. She made me my Tabaski dress (Tabaski is what West Africans call the Muslim holiday of Eid). My mother didn’t speak French well, although she understood Arabic, Wolof, Diola, French, and Hindi. If she wasn’t teaching me to cook in the compound, we were laughing at Turkish soap operas on TV. My host dad is a former Imam of one of the nearby mosques. Every day as I left for school, he’d grab my hand in both of his and say, ‘Bon courage!’ They were worried about tmy spirits research, and every time I got sick they narrowed their eyes suspiciously at my explanations of having eaten something bad.
Q: Can you compare your two experiences of living in Africa?
A: They were incredibly different. In Swaziland I lived in a dorm with a bunch of other students, 75 percent of whom were African, but it still was a dorm with international life. In Senegal I lived with a family, so I got a real idea of Senegalese life. However, I was only in Senegal for four months, whereas I was in Swaziland for two years, so I got to know Swazi culture a lot better. In the beginning of my experience in Senegal I struggled a lot with how to reconcile the two experiences
Q: Do you plan to return to Africa?
A: Yes. I received the Anthropology Department’s Spradley Summer Research Fellowship, so I will be returning to Dakar this summer to do further research on women and rab for my honors thesis.
Rachel Mueller is a part of Macalester's Davis United World College Scholars.