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Journalism in Senegal by Thomas Cole

St Louis - treasure every opportunity

With host family

St Louis is what you make of it. With your own initiative, the help of the Projects Abroad office and your host family, you'll create incredible experiences and take home unique stories. I won't tell any of mine here, but yours, like mine, might include one or more of: sun, sea, sand, dream-inducing malaria tablets, marriage proposals, quad-bikes, techno-raves, Gazelle beer, elections, Macky Sall, rallies, interviews, and a lot of delicious street food in between. This is a place to make an impact quickly and make the most of what is on offer.

Integrate yourself into the town

Give it a week, and you'll already start to feel comfortable navigating the streets of the central Île, hissing for taxis and trucks on your way to work, and over-enthusiastically using your favourite new salutations: "Salaam Alekum" and "Malekum Salaam".

If you're sporty, join a gym and do some of the hardest fitness of your life with local "lutteurs". Go running along the beach - avoid the fish heads sometimes scattered around - and play football with kids half your size, or wrestle five kids double your size.

At journalism class

Play in a football match between Talibé centres in the Saint-Louis stadium. Score, and you'll be mobbed by players and supporters alike. Score twice, and you could be compared to Ba or Cisse, the Senegalese pair adored as much at home as they are in Newcastle.

If you like the local African clothing, go shopping with one of your three new self- proclaimed mothers. Buy a "bubu" and wear it around town, receiving compliments in French on every street corner.

If you're interested in art, wander into the modest stall of a street artist and ask him how he works. He'll welcome you to make blunders on his work-in-progress, laughing happily at your shaky hand.

Pratiquez votre français, embracez les traditions familiales, mangez avec vos mains, devenez confondu par tout les hommes à la maison qui se disent être frères.

Co-present a music show with King Secka, a big-time Wolof DJ and small-time St Louis celebrity. Your voice might even be recognised by someone at the gym: "C'est toi qui animes à Radio Dunyaa!"

Those are just some of my personal experiences, specific to my passions. What you do will vary with your interests and talents. Why not sing with a local band, or model for a local fashion designer? The size, geography and welcoming atmosphere of this town will allow you to pursue your passions in a totally new setting. You'll become integrated into a number of tight- knit communities: your family, your work, and your fellow volunteers.

Enjoy your journalism placement

Beach walk with fellow volunteers

If you decide to pursue a journalism project, find yourself introduced to the ex-minister for sport, or sitting in the front seats of a political rally. Ponder over morality, success and culture with your boss and new found mentor. Maybe feature in his first ever news webcast, as or maybe feature in his first ever webcast. Use your trusty dictaphone to record both interviews and memories.

Follow a daily routine and gain confidence at work. At 9am every day I’d be in the internet cafe where my host brother works, researching news online, writing up an international news bulletin which I announced on air for the 10am Radio Dunyaa broadcast. A week into my placement I met King Secka, and asked if I could join him for one of his daily music shows. I’d only expected to listen in, but after five minutes I was introduced live on air as DJ Thomas, a budding “animateur” coming all the way from Europe. I managed to pitch in with a couple of phrases in my wobbly Wolof, but anything I said, French or Wolof, didn’t compare to King Secka’s machine gun chatter.

A week later, however, I was selecting five or six Western songs to present on his show (Akon, given his heritage, always went down a treat). I learned the art of dipping into a song, as I’d heard on pirate reggae stations in South London, giving “dédicaces” (shout-outs) to anyone and everyone. I received phone-ins from Toubab volunteers, the Projects Abroad office, my host brothers and even a few of the local King Secka faithful.

Then every afternoon, I’d work with Cheikh Seye, creator of St Louis’ first news website. In the run up to the presidential election, Cheikh’s work was booming. He covered everything, tapping into the passions of a politically active city. He was setting up partnerships with universities and cultural centres in Saint-Louis, as well as news organisations across Senegal. I accompanied him to these meetings, and helped him interview all kinds of people, from fishermen to hotel owners to politicians.

Journalism class

Together we attended one Macky Sall rally, and even interviewed the Minister for Social and Cultural Affairs (I stayed silent for that one, given all the security we had to get through; Cheikh later admitted it was the biggest moment yet for the website). We also ran a journalism class every Wednesday at the central high school with an English volunteer and other volunteers. Back in his office, we’d chat (a lot), edit articles, and experiment with video and audio applications for the site. I hadn’t expected to go to Senegal and learn how to set up a live feed!

Social events and excursions

Social events and excursions are put together by the Projects Abroad staff for volunteers. Any worries you have about "organised fun", which from my experiences at school had been devoid of any fun by definition, will be instantly quelled. Wednesday Projects Abroad quizzes are a weekly highlight, and you'll have dinners, birthday parties and the chance to go out twice a weekend. You might quad bike to rural villages, or camp in the desert, or visit Touba, the holy Mouride city. These experiences will form the basis of friendships between volunteers, often set to last long after your time in Senegal. The more pro-active you are, the more impact you'll have, and the more exciting your time will be.

Wear a smile, be willing to stop and chat, and you'll find yourself making local friends everywhere.

The host family

At mealtimes they might ridicule your sunburn, or laugh when you manage to drop food on your knee every mealtime. Your host mother might throw a piece of chicken across the communal plate to you, and question your appetite if you’re not the last to finish eating. Quite soon, however, you will appreciate and enjoy these moments. However busy or crazy your day gets, each mealtime will serve as a base of familiarity. I stayed in a big home; I was amazed at the varying number of family members at mealtimes: sometimes eight, sometimes eighteen.

At pool in St Louis

However, my mum was always there, scrutinizing my eating patterns. This soon becomes reassuring, because it becomes clear that your family really is looking out for you. After only a month, the array of host brothers, sisters and cousins at home really did feel like siblings, just without any arguments. My Toubab roommate and I spent countless hours with them, lying around, drinking tea, playing music and on facebook.

I am currently travelling through Asia on my gap year. I've lived in London and France, and am about to move to university in the US for four years. Despite all this, St Louis now seems to be my second home. Why not go against the backpacking grain, and make it yours?

Thomas Cole

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