Episode 87 │ Make Yourself Inquisitive (SENEGAL/MOROCCO)
Updated: Sep 22
"When you go abroad, how you show up influences how you experience everything... When you experience something that you don't get to experience [in America], it raises your expectations." (Genie, Episode 87)
(Note: As the year winds down, I'm preparing to wind Young, Gifted and Abroad down as well and take my annual November-January break. Which means that this is the second to last regular episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad that I'll be putting out in 2021! Be sure to stay tuned in two weeks for my final guest of the year!)
As I was putting out feelers for the last few Young, Gifted and Abroad guests of the year, one of the places I turned to was a podcasting membership community that I'm part of (the current iteration of a now-sunsetted Facebook group that I used to mention on the show from time to time). Two weeks after posting that I was in search of guests, I received an email from Genie Dawkins. As the founder of The Parenting Cipher Podcast, much of Genie's work focuses on empowering and advocating for Black parents of special needs children. Part of empowering her own children has included exposing them to international travel, which is something Genie first experienced in high school when she spent three weeks as an exchange student in Senegal and Morocco.
In the 1980s when Genie was a teenager in her hometown of Washington, D.C., a congresswoman named Eleanor Holmes Norton decided to organize an exchange program for D.C. public high school students, and an essay contest was created to select participants. Genie had been wanting to go abroad, but options at that time were limited for students (especially students of color) who weren't members of certain specific communities and associations, or who didn't have the means or interest for fundraising. So when she heard about the essay contest, "I was like, 'Oh! this is my chance!'" She submitted an essay, likely explaining why she wanted to go abroad, and sure enough she was among the six to eight D.C. students selected to experience two autumn/winter weeks in the Dakar area, plus a few days spent in Marrakech at the beginning and end of the trip. Aside from two uncles who were in the military, Genie was the first person from either side of her family to ever go abroad simply for the sake of traveling.
However brief their time in Morocco was, it was still memorable because Genie's group wasn't as supervised as they were in Senegal, which meant they had freer rein to explore. They and their chaperones stayed at a hotel in Marrakech, and the students spent much of their time strolling around the city together with no need for an itinerary. While her arrival in Senegal was met with "Welcome home" from a few Senegalese people (even though she was obviously American), Genie didn't feel the same welcome or shared sense of connection in Morocco. She mentioned to me that her family is Muslim, and despite doing her best to respect local customs regarding young women's dress and behavior, she was not treated like a fellow Muslim sister while in Marrakech. Rather, she and the other girls in her group experienced some of the typical indignities reserved for foreign women, including prolonged staring, kissing noises from men, and assumptions that they were sex workers because they were out in public past a certain time of day. But this didn't make them enjoy their time in Morocco any less, and as teenagers in the '80s they found a way to make their own fun and defiantly give people something to stare at: they did Flavor Flav impressions!
Even though Genie and her peers went on this trip together, each of their experiences differed greatly. Aside from certain group outings to the American embassy, the House of Slaves (including its "door of no return") on Gorée Island, a local village, and graffiti murals, the students spent most of their time with their host families. These were the families of the Senegalese students who would later be coming to D.C., and they were in varying income brackets in addition to being dispersed all over Dakar. Genie's host family was an upper-middle class family of five, with a house in Dakar and a house outside the city (Genie lived in both), as well as a maid, a cook, and a driver who took Genie and her host sister to school.
At home, the family spoke French (and Wolof when visiting their relatives), and Genie spent a lot of leisure time watching TV in French with her host sister. Before the trip she'd been somewhat doubtful of how much she'd actually put her years of high school French to use, but her mind was blown to discover that after a while, she understood what everyone was saying around her both on TV and in real life. She even started dreaming in French! Of course, nonetheless, her Americanness was still evident to people, as a seller in a local market made abundantly clear to Genie one day. Despite following her host sister's advice not to speak so people wouldn't know she was American and try to overcharge her, the seller clocked Genie right away, "I know you American by the way you walk." That and numerous other instances in both Senegal and Morocco caused Genie to reflect on how Americans tend to move in the world and how they are perceived in other countries. One thing she learned to do in Senegal was to temper her facial expressions. After inadvertently offending people on two occasions, Genie (who hates bugs) made more of an effort to fix her face, no matter how many flies happened to get close to her or land on others' faces.
The D.C. students didn't attend school together in Senegal either, since they accompanied their host siblings to their own respective schools. At her host sister's school, Genie was wowed by how many languages the students were learning and how they were doing markedly more advanced math than she was familiar with back home. She was also impressed by how seriously the students approached their schooling, "going into school intentfully to accomplish something, versus, it's something that someone is making you do." Genie had always done well academically, but witnessing the Senegalese school system motivated her to be more engaged beyond her pursuit of good grades back in D.C., endeavoring to be more well-rounded in addition to boosting her college resume. She joined the softball team, was elected student council president, and took much more initiative in researching what she needed to do to become a psychologist, which is what she wanted to be at the time. Once in college, she opted to major in sociology instead.
As part of the student exchange, around the spring/summer following Genie's trip to Senegal, her host sister came to live with Genie and her family in D.C. for two weeks. The two girls went to school together, went on trips together, and the exchange sister met Genie's friends, did extremely well navigating in English, and seemed to have a wonderful time overall. In fact, despite having the luxury of service staff back in Senegal, the exchange sister expressed liking aspects of Genie's middle class home more than her own. The layout of Genie's home (three levels, a huge yard) and her dad's motorcycles and abundance of audiovisual gadgets played a major role in the exchange sister's fascination. None of those things were a big deal to Genie at the time, but in hindsight she recognizes that she and her exchange sister's versions of normal were different; what was normal to one was special to the other. After Genie's exchange sister returned to Senegal, they wrote a couple letters to each other and then eventually lost touch.
"A cipher is when... you get to build together."
Genie desired to study abroad in college, but she didn't have that option at her university at the time. Fortunately, however, this posed no hindrance Genie's desire or ability to travel internationally later on. A few years ago, what was going to be her solo trip to Dubai ballooned into a family affair, with Genie, her parents, her two sons (who were preteens at the time), and other relatives going to London, Paris, Dubai, and Oman all within the span of a year. The cultural insights she gained from her exchange trip to Senegal and Morocco, as well as her experience working in a Middle Eastern law firm and reading the news from other countries, helped her prime her parents (who lived through Jim Crow era segregation) to be open on this journey and less wary of potential affronts or mistreatment due to their Blackness. And it paid off, since she and her parents had a delightful chance encounter with a fellow D.C. native in a London tea room, her parents wandered together through a beautiful Muslim neighborhood that they happened to stumble upon in Paris, and her dad (a longtime cyclist and Tour de France fan) got dressed up to visit parts of the famous bike route.
Genie's sons also thoroughly enjoyed that trip, and she takes pride in the fact that she's been able to give them the world at such a young age. She's also proud that her sons have their hearts set on future destinations already, with one wanting to visit Japan and the other wanting to live in London, "If he chooses to stay here, he chooses to stay here. But his experiences aren't dictated by not being able to go anywhere else." For her part, Genie's been eyeing Egypt, Aruba, Hawaii, and the Maldives. In the meantime, she continues to use her podcast to boost parent confidence and empower parents of special needs children to obtain the knowledge and resources they need. As she explained further, "I call it The Parenting Cipher because a cipher is when there's a bunch of people with information and you get to build together. And I feel like for the community, that's what we need." Genie can be found through The Parenting Cipher's website (theparentingcipher.com) and via Instagram (@theparentingcipher) or Facebook (The Parenting Cipher).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Make Yourself Inquisitive (SENEGAL/MOROCCO)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (organizer of Genie's exchange trip)
Bokksu (Japanese snack service)