Jill Streeten - French in Senegal
Newly retired I searched for something different in the way of travel, not feeling ready for SAGA, I decided to improve my language skills so I signed up with Projects Abroad for a month of French in Senegal.
I was very impressed with the care given to me by the staff before my placement and during my month long stay. As a veteran traveller it would have posed no problem to make my own way by public transport, but no, I was looked after as though this was my first time out of England. I was greeted by Louise at Dakar airport waving a Projects Abroad banner and taken to a small hotel nearby. The next morning I was joined by another arrival and we were driven by taxi for the four-hour journey to St Louis and delivered to our respective host families.
I was placed with "Maman" a widow with six children, ages ranging from 24 to 9 of which five still lived at home. Home was a ground floor two bed-roomed apartment with a living room crammed with so much furniture it was almost impossible to move, or see, as it was almost in total darkness. Each evening we would sit and watch a crackly TV with a very distorted screen, which usually sent me to sleep. There was also a concrete building with small rooms across the sandy courtyard, one of which served as my bedroom. It was very basic and there was no glass in the window, so when windy, everything became covered in sand.
On arrival I was given a plate of food I would have estimated sufficient for ten people, then shown round the town by one of the resident Project Abroad staff and given a manual with information which included emergency numbers and a list of names and phone numbers of the current volunteers.
Next day I was introduced to my school and teacher where I had three hours individual tuition every afternoon. I had a fairly high level of French at an earlier time of my life, which soon came back to me. Once Monsieur Diop realised I could get round most things, we enjoyed discussing life and customs of Senegal as well as those of some of the many countries I had already visited.
I felt totally at home, chatting with Maman and her children, not to mention the local men, who, I discovered had the mistaken idea that a white wife was something to aim for in life. Determined to find me a husband, Maman had a cousin, unable to find a wife, who came all the way from Dakar to show me his credentials. He even pointed out that 'everything worked'!
I was warned that all volunteers gained weight during their stay. I'm not surprised as life seemed to centre round eating. Maman spent the entire morning preparing the main meal of the day known as thiebou, consisting of rice or cous-cous, fish and various vegetables, (carrots, potatoes onions and sometimes aubergines) which were beautifully arranged in a huge bowl, and we all sat round on the floor and ate with our hand. One is supposed to roll the food into a ball and throw it into your mouth. I was never much good at this and most of the food ended up on my shirt. I didn't gain weight as I walked more in that month than I normally do in a year.
I loved walking through the town, fighting my way through the crowded market, picking my way over uneven paving stones along the crowded main street where women sat all day, despite the heat, selling vegetables or hens, deafened by people shouting above the noise of traffic. I was forever wary of being trampled on by ubiquitous horses and carts and often I would sit on a bench watching the world go by, never alone for long as there was always a lone man eager to make my acquaintance.
On several occasions I was accompanied through the residential areas, taken into tiny dwellings and introduced to families who never seemed to mind my intrusion into their homes. On the quayside were shoals of freshly caught fish, including lorry loads of sharks, which I was told were destined for Ghana where shark seems to be their preferred fish.
I planned a trip to the beach one weekend, but was unable to find a taxi rank. Later I discovered the heap of vehicles I had assumed were scrap, were in fact taxis. When I took my life in my hands and went in one, there was a hole in the floor by my feet. Sometimes doors or windows were missing and the exhaust fumes left a wake of thick black smoke. Taxis take as many passengers as they can cram in and on this occasion, although already four occupants, we were joined by a twenty stone woman who sat on my lap and almost fractured bones and asphyxiated me.
On the final weekend of my stay 21 volunteers piled into a truck and made the bumpy journey into the desert of Mauritania where for many it must have been the first experience of the intense cold that comes when sleeping in a tent in the desert despite the intense heat of the day, and I'm sure in future will come prepared with more than shorts and flip flops.
Although I was the only oldie, I can truly say that I was accepted and made welcome by all. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, so much so that the following year I went to Costa Rica where I struggled with four hours a day trying to learn beginners Spanish and then poured over my books for another three hours doing my home work. Again, a wonderful experience and am now wondering where to go next!