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Care in Senegal by Tim Romain

Children studying

I was in my room looking at my bag. My rucksack was filled to the top with all my belongings, some which I’d brought with me from London, and some that I’d picked up in the last three months from various places during my time in Senegal. Old clothes faded and frayed from too many miles on dusty roads, a small wooden hippo with a broken foot given to me as a present by Halil the street seller, my shiny brown boubou tailored especially for me so that I could enjoy Tabaski feeling like a true-born Senegalese, my lonely planet guide to Senegal and the Gambia with a broken spine, filled with routes and comments in the margins, and a bracelet I bought on my second day for quadruple its worth before I fully picked up the art of haggling.

Next door, Moustapha Diakhate, my adopted papa was sitting on a stool in front of a big bowl of Tieboudien with a spoon full of rice trying to coax Diarra, my baby sister who was on his lap into eating Senegal’s favourite dish. Sitting around him were Menoy, my mama, who was picking around in the communal bowl with her bare fingers trying to find the prime bits of fish, potato and carrot to put them in front of Raddik, my little brother, and Ami, my little sister. They, along with Djiby, (my French roommate/brother who was off showing his French parents Dakar) had become as close as anyone can to being my family for the last three months.

From the moment I entered into their lives, they made me feel so welcome and they quickly managed to evaporate all my worries about staying with strangers from such a different background to mine. By the time I went to bed that night I was no longer Timothy. I was called Issa Diakhate and I was part of the family.

Dressed up with other volunteers

I shared so many of my best times in Senegal with my family, whether it was eating around the same bowl fighting over the best bit of chicken, or running all the way home from town just to catch the next episode of Marina, going to the Holy City of Touba with Moustapha to see the Grande Mosquée built for Shiek Amadou Bamba, or travelling through the Gambia to Casamance with Djiby, Tala and Ibrahima. I could easily go on. During Tabaski when we all partook in killing, skinning and cooking two sheep to celebrate Abraham sparing the life of Ishmael, then spending two days eating it and walking around HLM showing off as a family in our colourful new boubous fresh from the tailor.

My phone went off and I saw it was a text from Babacar wishing me luck for the future and thanking me for my help at Espoir de Demain. Babacar is a Senegalese volunteer who I worked with at the talibé centre. I started there after a couple of weeks improving my French with the eccentric Professeur Tendeg in the Shiek Amadou Bamba High School in St Louis.

In the morning, depending on how hot the sun decided to be that day I would walk or take a bus or a taxi from my house with Djiby to the centre and after shaking hands and greeting all the other volunteers who came from all over the world in a mixture of French and broken Wolof, we would of course all share a few cups of coffee, and start treating the talibé.

Depending on the day, or where I was working, or which Talibé I was with, I could have anything from a hard working productive day to a day of relaxation and games, or a depressing eye-opening experience, or feelings of real self worth and pride from my own positive impact, or anything and everything in-between in the same day.

St Louis

‘Treating’ had plenty of different meanings too. The talibé are children sent to learn the Qua’ran in schools called Dharas. We worked with the poorest and most unfortunate talibé from the Dharas in the worst conditions. Many of these had cramped and dirty living spaces with far too many children to feed or look after properly. Any cuts or blisters became infected immediately, and things like conjunctivitis and scabies were rife. So treating could mean cleaning and dressing wounds, or giving eye-drops, or shaving their heads to stop lice. And because many of the talibé were orphaned or had been sent away from their families, treating them sometimes involved just spending time with them playing football, or colouring in, or making a hundred paper planes an hour while they ran about screaming and throwing them off the roof racing them and arguing whose plane got further.

Once a week on Friday the centre would be completely full as talibé from all the local Dharas came to the centre for our weekly complimentary menu of baguette with chocolate spread and a cup of milk. This was always hectic and always fun. That was when all the volunteers would be working together on the roof in the sun messing about and trying to figure out which talibé had already had milk and who hadn’t. We normally ended the day with a kickabout and a cup of tea …

Now a Senegalese cup of tea is very different to what we get in the UK, it takes a lot of time and is more of a social occasion than an afternoon pickup. It’s a perfect allegory for the Senegalese way of life – slow and sweet. It takes a good forty minutes to make a round of small shot-glass-size-fulls and that time is spent putting the tea on the heat, sitting about, chatting, waiting, making it frothy, chatting more, tasting, waiting, cooling it down, adding mint and sugar, more waiting, making it frothy again and finally drinking it in small slow sips, chatting some more then repeating the whole process again for the second cup. And you might think this sounds like a waste of time but I totally loved how calm and relaxed the Senegalese are. People in the streets have time to sit on the curb and drink tea and chat and watch people walk past. How often in England have I got in a conversation with a random stranger for no real reason except to get to know them?

With my host family kids

So sitting on my bed on my last day, waiting for my English mum to come from her hotel where she had been staying the last few days because as she, like me, loves travel and going to new places, so she came to see me and meet my family and see St. Louis and the centre. I was thinking of what I’d achieved in three months, how I’d grown, who I’d made friends with, where I’d been and now the last thing I wanted to do was to go home. I had already extended my stay another month, preferring to remain in Senegal over Christmas than going skiing with my western family but now I had to go and it was rubbish.

I didn’t want to go home to England where you can walk down the high street without talking to anyone. I wanted to keep going out with everyone from Projects Abroad for dinner or for drinks at La Taverne or the Patisserie for a croissant avec jambon et fromage. And go to the beach on the weekend or on a day off. And ride around in dying cars with no paint and broken doors. And take a cramped sept place down to Banjul with a fever feeling like death again. And get hissed at by sellers at the market. And hear the call to prayer five times a day. And learn more Wolof. And drink Bissap juice. Everyday.

Tim Romain

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