Care in Senegal by Kayleigh Buckingham
Arriving into Dakar, Senegal at 6pm at night to a bustling crowd of dark smiling faces and a cheery song of simultaneous “‘Ey! Toubab! Hello! English?!’” was a daunting yet very exciting start to my 31 days in West Africa.
The middle and back seat of an old taxi was to be mine for the rickety journey to the town of St. Louis next morning, where I was greeted by my host father and the most adorable looking child I’ve ever seen; wearing a long purple dress, colourful hair tresses and a shy grin…what an actress! I was soon to find out that little Maman was a feisty 3 year old with lots of energy, a soulful giggle and curiosity to match. My American roommate, Susannah, and I spent many hilarious hours playing with her and her younger sister Aider, whilst Katerine (our host auntie) prepared a dinner for us, as our host parents were working at their lovely local restaurant La Pirogue.
Food was always eaten from a large shared platter on a silky mat on the floor of the living area, with your right hand only of course (left is for bathroom use). However, we were given a fork as the family were aware of our westernised ways! The meals were mostly traditional dishes such as thiéboudienne (flavoursome fish with cous cous and some vegetables) or Yassa (chicken or fish simmered in onion with a garlic, mustard, and lemon sauce with rice).
Everyday I woke up at 5am to one of the nearby Mosque’s five daily calls for prayer. I quickly went back to sleep for another few hours before getting up for a light breakfast and a fun-filled day at my Care placement just one minute’s walk away.
Ecole Maternelle du Nord had about three teachers and a regal-seeming Headmistress, who turned out to be like a caring auntie. I sat with them in the sandy courtyard as the small children (3-6 years) arrived and greeted us with a traditional touching of hands before lining up into their separate classes and tottering inside.
Each day began with singing and dancing and I learnt to play the djembe drum which the children moved around to whilst belting out tunes and rhymes they knew. I also got to teach them ‘If you’re happy and you know it’! Due to the lack of funding for many of Senegal’s kindergartens, facilities and equipment are limited so the books and crafts I took from home (my school donated a few things too) were a big hit with the children and teachers alike.
I was given a free reign on what activities I could do and I made sure there was a variety of fun stuff for them. For example, P.E lessons in the courtyard started with a warm up with ‘the hokey cokey’ and then we used empty water bottles as markers for a small obstacle course; we constructed a skipping rope from string for word games; had basic French lessons with picture cards and photos of home; and other creative activities using colouring sheets and drawing pictures.
I’ll never forget strolling through the town one day with another volunteer and hearing a tiny voice behind me chanting “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”. I turned to see a little darling with a toothless smile waving at me. It may be the smallest of things but it was the biggest personal reward to realise that she recognised me and had remembered what I’d taught her.
Other fond memories stem from social events like the weekly quiz with other volunteers or just chilling with Projects Abroad coordinators at their houses. Most days, after my placement at the kindergarten, I would meet with my roommate or Cara (an Australian volunteer) and go to a local market and haggle with vendors for a length of material or souvenirs for my friends and family, or take a short walk to Flamingos pool where we could sunbathe and swim without attracting too many stares. A weekend trip to the desert where we all slept in big white tents and took terrifying camel rides over sand dunes was topped off by the amazingly starry sky at night where I was lucky enough to see two shooting stars!
Celebrating my 19th birthday overseas was a debut event for me and falling ill (with a minor virus) the night before wasn’t the best present. However, I soon cheered up when I arrived at my placement to find ‘Joyeux Anniversaire Ta Ta Kayleigh’ written on the black board, lots of scribbly drawings of the French words I’d taught and some random objects like rainbow coloured bananas. My placement supervisor, Madame Diagne, even gave me a beautiful silk scarf. The surprises didn’t end there…my host family gave me a traditional African outfit, complete with boubou, long skirt and head wrap, made by their family tailor.
Soon after my birthday meal with all the volunteers, who were now good friends, Projects Abroad staff member, Issa welcomed us into his house where his friends played some songs on the djembe drums and, unsuspecting, I was brought out a candle topped birthday cake! What an amazing day!
The happiness was short-lived though, as 2 days later I had to leave the hot and dusty streets of St. Louis, my new family and friends and the wondrous faces of the kids at the kindergarten, for the damp streets of England.
Nonetheless what I took home with me wasn’t just a light tan, a tummy ache and some pretty cool presents and photos. I had a greater understanding of another culture, an astounding new lease for life and appreciation of what I have, and incredible memories that will stay with me forever. My time in Senegal will be one of the best experiences of my life for the remainder of it.
I would recommend volunteering to anyone that has the time and determination to help people less advantaged than them. It’s such a great opportunity to be part of a much bigger picture and I look forward to graduating from university when I can do it all again!