Gretchen McCarthy - General Care Projects in Senegal
When I started taking Spanish in middle school I immediately knew I loved it. After getting a grasp of the language, I enrolled in French during high school. The start was a little rocky – and I confused both languages a lot. However, my love for languages continued to grow as I progressed in each.
Before going to college, I had already decided that I wanted to continue learning a foreign language. This is what initially sparked my interest to venture to Senegal. During my freshman year at school I began researching different volunteer organisations around the world. I stumbled across Projects Abroad and it seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I kept in contact for months with the extremely helpful staff, which answered every single one of my questions. I knew that I wanted to volunteer somewhere where I could not only practise French, but also make a difference in the community.
My Host Family
For my placement, I stayed with a host family in a wonderful open-air house. It is difficult to describe this; however it was not like houses here in the United States. It would be better to describe it as having an open-air hallway through several rooms, each of which had a roof. In my house, there were two parents and a few children, as well as a granddaughter. This was a great placement and the family was very kind. The granddaughter however is the one who really stands out in my memory. I believe she was about three years old – and very full of energy.
I stayed in Saint-Louis for one month. Saint-Louis is a lively town and is much bigger than I expected it to be. My house was not in the heart of town, but it was in a perfect location for my placement. Each day I had about a ten minute walk to work.
I would wake up each morning, take a shower and eat breakfast so that I could be at work by nine. For breakfast, my family provided us with a baguette and Nutella, as well as coffee every morning. I must say I got quite used to this and find myself missing it from time to time. After breakfast, we would all walk to work to start our day.
My Care Project
I worked in the education section whose schedule changed from day to day. Some mornings, I would help my supervisor teach French or English to the students. The students also ranged in ages and attendance. Since the placement was not a school, but a place where people from the community could go to take classes, there would sometimes be new students in the same classroom as students who came on a regular basis.
From time to time this made the classes difficult, but it was definitely manageable since my supervisor was also an instructor. Usually if we had different demands for subjects, we would split up and each teach different groups of students. However, some days were different. Towards the end of my placement the Talibés would come to learn songs or the French alphabet. The Talibés were the main attendees and they are the children who live in Daaras (religious houses) and learn the Koran from the Marabout (religious instructor).
So after the morning classes, which usually went until 12:30 PM, we had our break. At this time, I would return to my house for lunch with my family and often take a nap. Almost every day at this time, my housemates and I went into town to visit with volunteers and the Projects Abroad staff at the office and to use the free Wifi. We also frequented a bakery, which I miss every day.
After our break, we returned to work for the rest of the day. For me, the rest of the day consisted of another class, which also depended on who came for lessons. Usually these were the older students who ranged from ages 15 to 25. For the most part these students were in intermediate levels of French or beginning English. The afternoon classes were from 4:00-6:00 PM and then the workday ended. Since the Senegalese do not eat dinner until very late at night, most days we again ventured into town for Projects Abroad coordinated events.
Friday mornings consisted of classes for those who wanted them, but also was the preparation time for the afternoon “gouté.” During this time, the volunteers would prepare the Nutella and the “bissap.” “Bissap” is a juice or tea type of drink that our placement served to the Talibés every Friday afternoon. It was made of hibiscus flowers that were soaked in water and then other flavours were added. To prepare this, we strained the flowers out of the mix and then bagged the drink into portions for the kids. After our break during the afternoon, we would return to serve the snack. Some of the volunteers would go to purchase the baguettes from the local bakery and then start preparing them with Nutella. At the same time, other volunteers would colour with the kids upstairs or play with them outside.
During this time they played with games and toys volunteers had brought. Soccer was always a celebrated activity during this time of the day. Once the snack was ready, the Talibés would sit upstairs on the roof. The volunteers had the bissap and the baguettes with Nutella ready to be served at the front. In small groups the Talibés would come to the front to receive their snack and then enjoy it in the streets while continuing to play. This part of my placement is the most meaningful to me and the feeling I felt the first time I served the snack cannot be explained.
The kids were so excited to receive it they cheered and screamed while the volunteers brought the snack up to the roof. It was such a great feeling to know that you brought such joy to the kids, especially with something so simple. I had mixed emotions during this part each Friday, because I was so happy for the kids, but at the same time very saddened by the fact that receiving this snack was so exciting. In fact, on my first Friday while serving the gouté I almost broke out into tears because of their reaction.
Although we had quite a good amount of free time during the day in Saint-Louis in between work, we had more free time on the weekends. The weekends were a time for the volunteers to travel as well as just relax around town. A few of the weekends I took trips with other volunteers to nearby destinations. One of the weekends, I travelled to Touba, which is an extremely important religious city in Senegal. It hosts a huge mosque made of Italian marble that was gorgeous.
From the time I started my research with Projects Abroad I knew the staff cared about my interests and wanted that I truly enjoy my project. I got to experience a new culture and contribute to its improvement in such a direct way. After my placement, I feel I understand myself better and know what I want to do with my life. My project confirmed that I want to teach French and to continue to do volunteer experiences around the world.
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.