Sometimes it feels like my experience in Senegal was such a long time ago, sometimes it feels like it was a blurry dream I suddenly woke up from and after which I went back to my life as it always was. Truth is while it may appear so I carry with me a little piece of Senegal every day and sometimes when I nostalgically stare at the pictures of that month, I can almost feel the hot and humid air again on my skin, I can almost hear the kids’ laughs and excitement when they had their first candy ever and I definitely experience again the shiver that shacked my entire body when looking at little boys, girls or young women I saw in their eyes a sadness that was totally new to me, deeper than anything I even thought a human being could feel, a direct rifles of their souls, naked but at the same time so fearless and pure.
Not even a year is passed since I first started my research on the internet looking for a feasible volunteer program. And feasible was kind of a strict requirement since at the time I might not have been sure about what to expect from such an experience and not even aware of where it have lead me to but something I was not willing to give up on was trying to make it on my own without asking my parents for any ‘sponsoring’. I cannot even explain where this strong determination came from but what I can say now is that since the very beginning, when that of volunteering was just an idea which was making its way inside me, it took the shape of something so personal in a way, a positive feeling that I had to follow no matter what the others around me would say even if it meant to be on my own. Later I understood it was exactly how it was meant to be. When I found Love Volunteers I had some doubts about its legitimacy at first as I could not evocate any reasonable explanation that would justify the outstanding differences in fees with other NGOs I was considering. So I started digging deeper by taking contact with the organization, talking to various people who had participated to their programs before and all my doubts just disappeared. I was fascinated by many destination but I opted for Senegal as, having taken some French classes, I thought it could be a great way to exercise a foreign language too. I was ready to go despite the perplexity of people around me, which concerned most of all the fact that they believed I was totally unprepared for what I was going to find over there. And you know probably I wasn’t but I dare any volunteer at their first experience claiming the contrary. I did not know what to expect but I knew I would have found out with my own eyes soon.
I got in Dakar at 4 in the morning but it was so hot that I remember my skin got sticky in seconds. Little did I know it not only would have stayed like that for the next month 24/7 but that, eventually, I would have even got used to it. Not even one hour later my contact in Dakar was knocking at the door of my host family with me by her side. The trip from the airport was not that long and I remember I tried to get a glance of the city or even get oriented but it was so dark that it was impossible. The cab had left us not far from my host family house but the short walk between them was the toughest ever. The reason was the sand which was not covering the street but was the street itself. Just like at the beach but in an actual neighborhood. Not bad I thought but I made a remainder to myself to bring a backpack next time instead of a trolley. When I first met Mami , as everyone calls her, I remember any doubt I may had had about what I cached myself into disappeared. She had the sweetest and most sincere smile I had ever seen and from the moment I passed her house’s door I felt home. The first week was a lot about adjusting and discovering but the host family and the local staff were so helpful that by the end of it I could already move around by myself and most of all I felt safe in doing it. Many were suggesting for me to take cabs around which are truly so cheap but I was there and I was determined to take everything Senegal could offer me, that is why I took public buses from the very beginning. Different from home but efficient in their own way as they always brought me where I needed them to. Of course you don’t have to mind the fact that you could wait for them for an indefinite time under a fired sun as in fact I didn’t. I got used to the ‘african time’, as Mami called it (which is basically not bothering about time at all) and I considered it a nice break from the daily tied schedule I use to have at home. Plus I had the chance to tan while waiting..what could I ask more? To reach my final work placement I had to take two crowdie buses but eventually I ended up knowing a lot of people habitually on both of them and they knew me. Well truth is it was not so hard to recognize me as, there, I used to stick out quite a lot with my pale skin and blondish hair. I soon realized it had not to be so usual for them to see someone like me on their buses as they kept curiously asking me if I was lost or I needed help of any kind or simply what I was doing. The interaction with local people was so easy as it would be impossible back home. They have a spontaneity and sincere ingenuity that I found myself realizing our modern society has cancelled from many of us.
The project I was assigned to was a small local school that a university sociology teacher had started with the help of Belgium government funds. Its students were from 4 to 12 years old and they came from poor families who could not afford public education. Most of them did not even have a real house but their families abusively occupied not yet finished houses that they would be forced to leave once the work was done. The school was a small reality and it could only bare to satisfy the demand of the neighborhood. But for those kids, it was probably the best thing it could happen to them. They would go there early in the morning to find a fresh breakfast waiting for them. Ahead of them they had a full day scheduled with classes of various type and different fun activities everyday and that, most importantly, included meals and hygiene assistance so that by the time they were back home they have had dinner and showered. The project also supported other kids who were referred to as Talibe’. I never heard that name before but by the time their story was told me not only I was bawling, I was also sure that name would have never left my head. It was the saddest story I ever heard, a story of violence, of kids of the countryside taken from their families, who aware they would have probably never seen their kids again, pay for them to be brought in Dakar hoping they will have there a better life. They don’t. As soon as they get in the city they are deprived of everything and forced on the streets begging for money. They don’t even get to have their shoes on. That is the symbol of their ‘slavery’ as I call it. At the end of the day they go back to where they live, or better they are kept, and if they do not have collected enough money during the day their best outcome is that they are not given anything to eat. I think at this point everyone could figure what is the worst. As this is not enough the men who are at the head of this ‘business’ are known for the particularly strong political influence they have, which in my opinion explains why they are not all in a prison whose keys have been thrown away for good. Samba, the school director, even told me that the project was threaded various times to be closed if it would keep too much the talibe’ from begging in the streets. That is why these kids cannot really attend the school as students but they know that there they can get food any time they want, some rest and they get to be just kids even if for a little time per day. That is better than nothing I guess. All this story had made me feel so powerless. I wanted to do something for those kids because it was just so unacceptable for me but I could not, just as Samba could not do more even if he wished so. I didn’t really give up though. I kind of started my personal battle against those heartless men even if indirectly. As I would run into a talibe’ I was not going to give him money as I could not think to support their abuse but what I could do was buy them something to eat. Again it was not a lot but I knew that somewhere some kids would not be starving that night. These together with the kids at the school totally filled my days which went by so fast. Also once back from work I remember I enjoyed so much talking with my host family; they were teaching me Wolof and they were so proud of the progresses I would make every day. I cannot recall any dead time not even during weekends when with other volunteers, we got to travel a lot around Senegal, from the north to the south till Gambia, where I was shocked by the beauty of the delta of the Sine Saloum.
When I got back home everything was exactly as I left it and for everyone I knew that month had passed as each one before it. I do not know if Senegal changed me but it surely changed the way I see the world around me and which role I want to play in it. The passion for international affairs is something has been growing inside me since I have memory of. I think what I have always liked the most about it is the chance to be part of something, to actually do your part in order to make the world a better place for the next generations. Now I know it is possible because there is people out there who do not care to be remembered in history books but do think that they can help out in achieving little victories every day. I want to be one of them, I want to be a drop in the ocean because I believe it can change the weather.
Now I know there are battles is worth fighting for and I found mine and at the time I decided to head off to Senegal there was no way I could expect it.