Amazing Kids! Magazine

Amazing Kids! Adventures in Senegal

By Olivia Pineda, Assistant Editor

Olivia with the Senegalese People

Senegal is a small country located in the northern part of West Africa. Its capital, Dakar, is a major arrival and departure point for a lot of transatlantic trade, and therefore is a lively and cosmopolitan city. On a school-sponsored trip, a group of eleven students from my school, three leaders and I all went for a month to Senegal. We spent about five days in Dakar, getting to know Senegal, and then spent two and a half weeks in a remote village more inland, staying with host families, and finally culminated our stay with one more night in Dakar.

To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. While I consider myself a well-traveled person, having been to parts of Asia, Europe, and Central America, I’d never explored the continent of Africa before; and although I was quite excited, I was also nervous to step into a region that was really the “great unknown” to me. As a group, our goals were to interact with the Senegalese people through service learning projects, as well as gain a more informed perspective on the culture and lifestyle of people in Senegal. Through this, we hoped that we would be able to come back home and apply what we’d learned in Senegal back in America.

The first week or so consisted of meeting with two Senegalese schools, as well as visiting Gorée Island. I found the visit to Gorée to be particularly meaningful, because the island represented the shipping of human slaves to the Americas from Western Africa during the four-century duration of the transatlantic slave trade. Walking onto the island, there were many shops and restaurants for tourists, but it was very sobering and humbling to see the actual house where hundreds of slaves went through. We stepped into cramped holding cells where women, children, and men waited to be shipped off, and we stood in the Door of No Return, a small doorway that led from the house to the waterfront. It was said that once a slave stepped through this doorway, he or she would never come back to Africa.

Adventures Senegal - Goree

Meeting teenagers from two schools, a public one and a private school named Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart in English) was also great. We learned that African teenagers are just like American teenagers! They love to dance, listen to American music, and many of them have Facebook accounts. In Senegal, the national language is French, so those of us who spoke French were able to communicate easily with them. I admired their hospitality and openness to share their culture with ours, and quickly made many new Senegalese friends!

Next, it was off to Thiès (pronounced “chess”, like the board game) to meet our host families! This was the one part of the trip that I was most nervous about. Would I like my host family, but more importantly, would they like me? What would my house look like? As quickly as we had arrived, our trip leaders were announcing the names of our host families, and I was swept away by my host mom, and a horde of young children! When I got to the family compound, I quickly realized how simply my family lived. My family’s house was three bedrooms next to each other, each door opening directly to the outdoors. The bathroom was, quite literally, a hole in the ground, and we took showers with a bucket of water, because there was only one communal water spigot for the village.

I also quickly learned that I had seven brothers and sisters! Having only one sister at home, this was a big change for me. However, I was amazed at how quickly I settled into family life. It became a ritual for me and my brothers and sisters to chase each other around outside, play hand games, and learn about one another’s culture. My host parents were also some of the kindest Senegalese people I met on the trip. While we couldn’t communicate very well because they spoke a tribal language, Wolof, that I only knew a few words to, we made up for the language barrier through songs, laughter, and smiles. My fears and apprehensions for the trip instantly disappeared as I became more accustomed to village life. I helped my family cook, clean, and do laundry, and they helped teach me more Wolof and showed me their way of life.

My school group and I also participated in numerous service projects. We painted a big mural on the side of the village store which depicted the types of goods that they sold there, helped make necklaces and bracelets that could be sold at the village store, worked in the village garden, and helped teach English and math to a small group of Senegalese students studying for a high school entrance exam. My school group was comprised of students from all different grade levels, and we didn’t know each other very well before the trip. It was great being able to get to know kids from my school that I probably wouldn’t get to know otherwise. As we developed deeper relationships with each other, it became more and more fun to do service projects together as a group.

One of the things that I came to appreciate most while staying with my host family was how much they valued the simple things in life. An example of this is during lunchtime. For Senegalese, lunch is their biggest meal of the day, and the men come home from the fields to eat with their wives and children. The way of eating in Senegal is very different. Senegalese don’t use utensils, and instead, everyone gathers around a communal bowl, and using his or her right hand (the left hand is considered “dirty”) dig in. While it may sound dirty and unsanitary for everyone to be using their hands and reaching into the same bowl, everyone washes his or her hands before, and each person has his or her own “part” of the bowl. No one reaches into another’s eating space. Lunch is the same meal every day: a national dish called Ceebu Jen (pronounced CHE-boo-jen). The Senegalese eat this dish like Americans eat hamburgers! The dish literally means, in English, “fish and rice”. The fish is usually fried, and is usually cod or mackerel, and there are numerous vegetables, such as carrots, cabbage, and an African form of potato. This is put in the middle of the bowl, and is surrounded by a lot of rice. It’s an absolutely delicious dish, but after eating it for two weeks straight, I was definitely ready for a break! However, my family always made mealtime interesting with lively conversation, laughter, and a lot of joking around. For many families in America, eating a meal around a table together isn’t a priority because everyone has such busy lives; yet for the Senegalese, sharing a family meal is often the highlight of their days.

The Senegalese also have a very deep sense of community. It truly does take a village to raise a child here. When one of my younger brothers got a deep cut which would require him to get stitches at the hospital in town, mothers, fathers, and children from neighboring compounds rushed to see how they could help; one father, who works as a taxicab driver, offered to give him and our mother a ride into town, free of charge. I was astounded by how much people looked out for each other. In America, it is often everyone for themselves, but in this small village, it is everyone for each other.

And, just as I was truly getting settled into this new life of mine, it was time to leave. While I was a bit amazed that I’d survived the bathrooms, showering with a bucket, and eating the same food for almost three weeks, I felt a strange sensation that I didn’t really want to go. I had loved my host family. They had really become my second family, and to think that I may never see them again still saddens me. I knew that I’d miss the hours of free time I spent with them, laughing, singing songs, and having a lot of fun. However, I understood that it was important for me to come home and share all that I’d learned in Senegal with my friends and family. And no matter what, a small piece of me still lives with my Senegalese family, a part of myself that I had given that would stay there forever.