CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Artist-anthropologist finds her calling in Senegal

Alisa Hamilton and baby Penda in Dakar, Africa.
Photo courtesy of Alisa Hamilton
Alisa Hamilton and baby Penda in Dakar, Africa.
Posted March 29, 2012, at 3:50 p.m.
Alisa Hamilton in a crowd of kids, during the 3rd annual Gambian Youth Caravan that she covered for the Tostan blog in Africa.
Photo courtesy of Alisa Hamilton
Alisa Hamilton in a crowd of kids, during the 3rd annual Gambian Youth Caravan that she covered for the Tostan blog in Africa.
Alisa Hamilton with a new friend in one of the villages she visited during the 3rd annual Gambian Youth Caravan trip that she covered for the Tostan blog in Africa.
Photo courtesy of Alisa Hamilton
Alisa Hamilton with a new friend in one of the villages she visited during the 3rd annual Gambian Youth Caravan trip that she covered for the Tostan blog in Africa.

Thanks to computer technology, I was able to sit and chat at my dining room table with Alisa Hamilton, a Mainer living 3,700 miles away in Dakar, Senegal. Alisa turns 23 on Friday, March 30, (happy birthday, Alisa!) and I have had the great pleasure to know her over the last nine years. Your average Mainer likely would not fall in love with life in Africa, but for a young woman with such a unique, creative and independent spirit, it somehow makes sense.

In high school, Alisa’s artistry stood out in multiple ways — she painted portraits of my daughter (her best friend) for art class, sewed her own prom dresses, played the guitar, excelled in cake-decorating contests, redesigned old furniture in unexpected ways and delightfully horrified some field hockey freshman when she ate out of a kitty litter box that actually held cake crumbs and tootsie rolls.

Outside of the artistic sphere Alisa excelled in science and world studies. Her interests were broad, but she didn’t know how to pull them together. A high school English teacher introduced her to the idea of anthropology, which combines many fields, and it stuck in the back of her mind.

At Bates College, Alisa took a visual anthropology course about Africa.

“That’s when I really got hooked on anthropology,” she said. Another course in film that year led her to the idea of combining anthropology and filmmaking.

As a college junior, Alisa had the opportunity to study both fields overseas — fall semester at film school in Prague, then spring semester in Senegal where she studied French, anthropology and the arts.

Always an advocate for women’s empowerment, Alisa had a longstanding interest in how media images affect women. In her Senegalese host family, Alisa had three teenage sisters. Senegal is Muslim and conservative, but teenagers are bombarded with popular Western culture. Her sisters wore miniskirts in the house but covered up outside. The conflicting forces of media, religion and family fascinated Alisa, and she chose to create a documentary about teenage girls’ fashion in Senegal.

“I was intrigued by the dynamic of public versus private in their lives,” she said.

Alisa was intrigued by almost everything, and she tried to explain how Senegal and its people won her heart.

The Senegalese are very open to strangers.

“There is a local term for it, ‘taranga,’ which means hospitality,” Alisa explained. That openness and warmth is perfectly suited to Alisa’s free-spirited nature. When people are out in public, everyone talks to each other — shopkeepers say, “hello,” the vegetable ladies ask, “how is your family?” And she especially loves the Senegalese children.

“I get to really be myself here. Being a foreigner, I can be curious and ask silly questions … They think it’s hilarious when I try to dance. They laugh at me, and I laugh at me, too!” It is mutually affectionate laughter, and Alisa makes friends everywhere she goes.

After junior year, Alisa returned to Bates. I asked when she decided to return to Africa.

“I knew I wanted to go back before I left the first time. It was so hard to leave; I cried and cried,” she said.

During winter break of her senior year, Alisa spent a month in Senegal finishing her documentary. While there, she spoke with several nongovernmental organizations about internships. One NGO that caught her interest was Tostan, which works in underserved areas to empower communities to make positive social changes through human rights education.

One week after graduating last May, Alisa left for a year in Senegal. She recently decided to stay an additional six months, especially now that she has moved into communications work.

“I love communications!” she said, because of the opportunity for creative expression.

Alisa writes and helps produce films for Tostan, and she also keeps a wonderful personal blog at alisainsenegal.blogspot.com, where she tells about bucket showers, washing laundry in a tub on her roof, traveling in overloaded station wagons with livestock on the roof, fasting for Ramadan, eating a meal with her local tailor, riding a camel and meeting amazing local women who work to alter harmful traditions in their culture through art, communication and education.

“I’d stay in a heartbeat,” if circumstances allowed, she said. But Alisa’s livelihood is largely dependent on personal fundraising, and she is ready to go to graduate school in art therapy and get full-time paid work. Then who knows? Maybe she will find work here, or maybe she will return to her new African home. Sad as that might be for those who love her here in Maine, it’s hard to argue with someone who sums up her life with these four words: “I am so happy.”

Robin welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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