Charlotte Aspinall - General Care Projects in Senegal
Senegal is found in the west of Africa. Its capital is Dakar, found on the coast. There are many languages spoken, including Wolof and Poular, however most educated Senegalese speak French fluently and as such this language serves to unite the country.
Whilst there are evidences of affluence in the country, many families live very simply and there are a high number of street children known as talibes, who beg to supplement their family’s income. It was these children I intended to help when I chose to travel to Senegal for a month.
My decision to travel Saint Louis was brought about from a passion for travel, incited by my parents’ vast experience, a desire to help others and an aspiration to become fluent in French.
Why I chose to travel with Projects Abroad
I chose to travel with Projects Abroad as they are a reliable organisation with years’ worth of knowledge. They helped me before and during my time there, providing me with answers to my many questions, and opportunities to socialise with other volunteers, some of whom were the most interesting people I have ever met.
First Impressions and my host Family
Upon arriving at Dakar airport, I was met by Habib, a representative of Projects Abroad, and after a long day of travelling and being thrown into a hot, busy and confusing country, I was grateful for his smile and friendliness. He explained a lot about Senegalese culture, such as meal time habits, Ramadan, and taught me my first words in Wolof.
Wolof is the main language spoken in Saint Louis and the surrounding area, and whilst nearly everyone speaks French, it is highly encouraged that those willing to live in the country learn Wolof. So when I met my host family I greeted them with ‘Negadef’, to which the response was laughter. This was to become a feature of my time in Senegal, as a ‘Toubab’ (white girl), locals were largely fascinated by me, and loved to be entertained by my lack of cultural and linguistic knowledge.
The head of my host family was Colonel Kone, a retired Colonel of the Senegalese army who had a hearty laugh, and at 72 was still a terrible flirt! The mother, Tata, cooked excellent food, which was always served on a large plate with the family and guests crowded around with spoon or fork in one hand, sharing between themselves. Most meals are served with rice or couscous, with fish, chicken, lamb, beef or goat (freshly killed by the family that morning in the garden!) in a sauce.
The centre that I worked at was set up by Projects Abroad. Set in the heart of the HLM’s (the poorest district of St. Louis) it was small but well kept, with two small classrooms, a first aid room, shower and courtyard. Many of the volunteers were French, which immediately put my linguistic skills to the test.
Luckily everybody was very kind and patient with me, and encouraged me to learn as much French as I could. As a volunteer I was involved in many aspects of the tailbes’ lives, from simply playing games with them, teaching basic French and English, to applying first aid and cleaning the Daara’s.
I led a mixture of basic French and English lessons - whilst being shown a group of Senegalese teenage boys and being told that I was their teacher for the next two hours was intimidating at first, I soon discovered that this was my favourite activity at the centre, as the students were very engaging and easy to get along with.
On my first day at the centre I was really thrown into the deep end, as I was told that I would be handling the money and the accounts for the centre. This was utterly confusing for me, as it meant I had to face one of my biggest weaknesses in French – numbers. To further increase the difficulty the currency in Senegal is such that £1 is equivalent to about 750 CFA, leading to prices such as 12,350CFA, which isn’t easy to understand when said at speed! My supervisor (Amenus, 36 weeks pregnant when I left and still carrying all the shopping for the centre without complaint!), taught me how to haggle for the best prices at the market – definitely a challenge!
My Best Memories
Some of my best memories include joking with my family, riding a camel in the desert, making friends with street children who didn’t speak English or French, dancing until 7am at the local night club, being scared of the huge muscular bouncer and then finding him to be the nicest guy in the world.
But more importantly, I found that I could stand on my own two feet, in a completely different country, make friends with almost anyone and have the time of my life whilst being thousands of miles away from home. My time there has given me friends and memories which will last a lifetime, and more confidence than I could ever have imagined.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.