Michael Nicholas - Human Rights in Senegal
Going travelling anywhere can be disorientating: new climate, new noises, new smells, new people, new everything, really. Senegal is no different. From the moment you step off the plane in the early hours in Dakar to after you’ve settled into Projects Abroad’s base in St. Louis in the north, you become ever more aware that you’re somewhere different: somewhere vibrant, exciting and fascinating.
As a language graduate with experience working in the public sector, the Human Rights placement in French-speaking Senegal was the perfect choice. Working for RADDHO, the African Council of Human Rights, I worked on a number of different humanitarian issues: one week saw me writing a report on immigration, the next on the upcoming elections in Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau, then a visit from the UN and the month was topped off with advising the victim of domestic violence and taking her to a solicitor. In my final few weeks, we three volunteers did some investigative reporting on the welfare of street children in St. Louis’s Qu’ranic schools. We interviewed religious leaders and political campaigners, as well as gaining privileged access to the schools themselves. No prior knowledge is required, but if you’ve got the energy, initiative and curiosity, you’ll see the difference you make to others and they make to you.
As you can see, the placement was a real mixed bag, though it was what I came to expect after my first day at work. Up at 6.30am, on a bus by 7.15 and at the Mauritanian border by 9.30. With my project supervisor and a group of students from the local university, we had a front row seat at a provincial conference celebrating Senegal-Mauritanian migration: all-singing, all-dancing, at times a free-for-all, but never dull. After that, I was armed with a clipboard and told to go with some university students and interview the local immigration police and officials to assess the situation for immigrants crossing the border:
“But what if they refuse to talk to me?”
“Be creative – they don’t know who you are. Exploit that.”
A fantastic experience and nothing better than diving head-first in at the deep end to build confidence and quickly get to know the massively different country in which I would be spending the summer. Before I left the UK, I read all the books, internet articles and testimonials on Senegal I could find and thought I was prepared for anything. How wrong I was…
I now know it’s not surprising to struggle to find a place on the bus for your suitcase because the luggage rack is taken up by a herd of goats, that the reason you pay 60p for a taxi journey is that they’re held together by sticky tape and “I’ll see you at 6” actually means “I’ll see you at 8, but probably nearer 10”. Those bits aren’t in the guidebooks, nor is quite how friendly and welcoming the Senegalese people are.
My host family, as with all the other volunteers, bent so far backwards to help me feel at ease they could have embarrassed circus gymnasts, always willing to explain their country, their religion, their culture, their food and – most importantly – why their football team was supposedly “better” than mine.
The idea of family is so important to the Senegalese that when Moustapha and Mbenoye, my host parents, took in this twenty-three year-old Englishman as one of their own, I was really touched, though it was a bit of a leap from their other children of six, three and four months! You’re always invited to eat with the family (though perhaps not always with chairs or cutlery) and they’re as interested to find out about where you come from as much as you are about them, even if they struggle with a few concepts, though you’ll never meet with a frosty reception:
“Well, how cold does it get in Senegal?”
“Oh, actually, once when I was a boy, I remember it getting really cold. It must have been about 20 degrees Celsius. It was freezing…!”
Hospitality (or as the locals would say: teranga), it seems, is the national past-time, running a cup of tea into a close second. If you get the opportunity, however, to go and see a day of the other local obsession – traditional wrestling – take it: the carnival of ancient ritual, traditional music and quite remarkable feats of strength are not to be missed. I could describe it a bit more but it’d spoil your experience and, quite honestly, you probably wouldn’t believe me.
Life at home and at work were never dull, but the weekends were just as exciting. It might seem amazing to think that away from all the satellite television, broadband internet and other creature comforts of home you can find such an enormous amount of things to do. Need some new clothes? How about a tailored-made pair of trousers for £3? Perhaps a weekend lying back on a stunning secluded beach is more your thing? Or maybe a trip to Africa’s largest mosque in Senegal’s holiest city? If you’re feeling brave, then there’s always a cross-country 4x4 trip to the middle of the desert and a camel ride over the dunes.
I was very, very sad to have to leave St. Louis and my host family, though I was just as excited because I then spent ten days travelling south through Senegal and the Gambia. The outskirts of the Sahara Desert and the colonial relics of St. Louis gave way to the lush greenery of Senegal’s mangrove swamps, monkeys chattering away in the Gambian rainforest and the buzz and energy of Dakar. I cannot recommend doing some extra travel enough – just make sure you have enough room on your camera for all the things you’ll see:
“Is…is…that crocodile real?”
“Don’t be stupid: it’s an alligator and it’s very friendly – go on, stroke it.”
So how would I describe Senegal? It’s a country that strolls and sprints at the same time; where you are almost knocked down by the masses of people swarming around the market or almost horizontal with everyone being so laid back. You will be woken up by the mosque’s call to prayer at 5am and fall asleep to the cool Atlantic waves lapping at the shore; building up a mahogany tan in the 40 degree heat or putting on a thick woolly jumper round the camp fire in the Sahara. When you get back, people may ask you where on Earth Senegal is and what it’s like: just tell them that at 16˚02 ‘N and 16˚30 ‘W, it’s a country of contrasts, discovery and excitement that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
But don’t take my word for it – in any case, words can’t fully do the country justice…go and see it for yourself!