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Care in Senegal by Georgina Lambton

A market in St Louis My New Year started somewhere over the Sahara Desert, as in a moment of complete madness I had managed to book my flight to Senegal on New Years Eve…So at 00:05 on 1st January 2009, the Royale Air Maroc tannoy system came into action, and we got a deep voiced “Bonne Année” coming down the microphone.

Three taxis, one Sept Place (your average Peugeot with 3 extra seats crammed into the boot), and one hotel room later, I had reached St Louis where I was shown my home for the next 5 months. I was greeted straight away by Madame Bawa Ndiaye, my “Senegalese Mummy”, brandishing a bottle of Africa Cola. Within minutes I was given my first taste of Thieboudjenne, which is simply a very tasty heap of rice, fish and vegetables, and the occasional chilli pepper to catch people out. It was then that I realised that my previous idea of “losing weight in Africa” was not going to happen. Every attempt to put my spoon down was greeted by “mange mange” or “il faut bien manger” (later to become a catchphrase Chez Bawa!)

Learning the number three!

A few days on, and my skin had turned a shade or two darker, my French accent was becoming weirder, and my “rice and fish belly” considerably larger. But none of that mattered as the time had come for me to start my care placement in Abou Abbas Sall, a primary school where I was to help out in the kindergarten. I was allowed to choose which class I worked with (the choice being between three, four or five year olds) so immediately went for the youngest who may not have been the easiest to teach, but were definitely the noisiest, fattest and sweetest, and were being taught in a straw hut…perfect.

All attempts to tell them my name was Georgina were ignored, and I was introduced by my fellow teacher, Maïmouna Diop, as Tata Jorjeenie. It was then that I realised I had a problem – none of the kids spoke a word of French. Only Wolof! But despite being completely hampered by the language barrier, I thought I’d give it a shot, so within minutes we were singing, dancing and clapping (and unfortunately for one or two who’d been trodden on in the excitement, crying.) By the end of my first morning I was already quite proud of my new Wolof vocabulary, but also completely exhausted and felt I deserved my mounds of rice for lunch.

And so it went on…after a few weeks I was still being greeted with cries of Toubab! – My class(the local term for a foreigner), although the people on my street seemed to have realised that I wasn’t just a tourist, and that I was going to be there a while, and I had lost count of the number of marriage proposals I’d had. Breaking down in a taxi was becoming an essential part of my day, bissap juice was now my preferred drink, and I even found myself singing along to Yousson N’Dour and Ti Ti as their music blared out of the Car Rapides. I like to think I’d also become an excellent haggler, and a first-rate djembé player, although this could be taking it a bit far! Much to everyone’s amusement, I’d been forced to have my hair braided too. The locals were all convinced I looked ten times better like this. I actually thought I resembled a bald spider, but that’s personal taste for you…

My classroom in St Louis

A lot of my time in St Louis was spent planning my travels. I had allocated 3 weeks at the end of my stay to see more of West Africa with a school friend who was flying out from England. As the weeks passed, my plans became more and more ambitious, ranging from trekking fearlessly through the Mauritanian Desert, to sitting on the roof of a train for days on end to reach the legendary Timbuktu.

After a while I realised that 3 weeks was never going to be enough time for all this, so we ended up going down to Casamance in the South of the country, then into the Gambia and finally back into Senegal to the Sine Saloum delta. My only regret was that we missed the well-known International Jazz Festival in St Louis, which took place at the end of May. However, I don’t feel I missed out completely as Senegal is a hugely musical country, and concerts and performances were never hard to find elsewhere.

With our host-mum

And finally I was home. After the most memorable 5 months of my life, two stressful flights and a 6 hour wait in Casablanca, I eventually arrived at 10:30pm on a drizzly Cumbrian train station. I unpacked my two rucksacks (having originally left England with just the one, the second being reserved for my mounds of tailor-made clothes), drank copious amounts of tea, ate slice after slice of toast and marmite, and had endless hot baths. I found myself speaking to the dogs in Wolof, telling them to “caille fee” and “torgal”, and caught up with friends and family whom I hadn’t seen for months, proudly showing them all of my 1800 photos!

But after a few days, the excitements of being back home wore off, and I realised that I would give anything to hop back on a Royale Air Maroc flight to Senegal and have cold showers and rice all over again. And a month on, sitting in front of my laptop wearing my Senegalese clothes and listening to my Mbalax CD, I still feel exactly the same way…

Georgina Lambton

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