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Tarah Wright - High School Specials, Care & Community in Senegal

Volunteering in Senegal

Hi! I’m Tarah Wright and during August of 2012 I stayed in Senegal for three weeks. Before going to Senegal, I knew it was the place where I wanted to spend my summer. Here at home, I am an African dancer for a company whose dances and culture comes from the Senegalese culture. Through this company I have been taught a lot about Senegal, met many Senegalese natives, and have just been completely immersed into the culture.

Because of this, I wanted to experience the real thing. And, after researching the literacy, unemployment, and poverty rates in Senegal, I knew this was where I could not only have a lasting impact, but also learn and experience personal growth as well. That is how I came to the decision to go to Senegal, which led me to Projects Abroad.

Arriving in Senegal

When I stepped off the plane at the Dakar airport, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anybody, because I didn’t speak any French. As I walked around to claim my bags and be picked up, that fear just got bigger and bigger. Things changed when I met Habib (Projects Abroad worker), who picked me up from the airport. He was honestly the friendliest person I’d ever met. He greeted me with a huge smile, helped me put my bags in the taxi, and welcomed me to Senegal.

I’d arrived very early in the morning, so we took a taxi to a hotel to stay for a couple hours. At the hotel I met up with the other volunteers, who were just as nice as Habib. We introduced ourselves, and became friends almost instantly. After leaving the hotel, we took a taxi to our respective homes to meet our host families. Meeting and staying with my host family was by far one of the best parts of my trip.

Senegalese dress

When my roommate and I arrived at the house, we were greeted by our host mother with the biggest smile; and her two little children who had even bigger smiles. She led us to our rooms, gave us a little “tutorial” of the place, and then let us alone to get situated. After we got settled in, instead of just leaving us in our rooms to do what we wanted, my house mother made an effort to establish a real relationship with us. We all sat outside together, talking, laughing, and getting acquainted.

We had to communicate through translations from my roommate who spoke French. The best thing about my house mother was that even though we didn’t speak the same language, I could still feel her warmth and kindness. She asked about my family, my home life (I did the same), and we really got to know each other on a personal level, rather than a "visitor-host” level.

High School Special community service project

For the first two weeks of my trip, I worked on two projects: care and community service. The care portion consisted of me working at a Talibe Center, for children either abandoned or sent by their parents to what was called the Maribu to learn the Koran. The center, from the staff to the children, was great. The staff, including the other volunteers from Projects Abroad, was like a family. Just as my house mother was kind, warm, and welcoming, so were the people I worked with.

Almost every person that worked there spoke English, so it was a lot easier to communicate. There were three departments that the center specialized in: Health, Sports, and Education. When I worked in the health dept., I spent a lot of time patching up and healing the children’s wounds. This was the hardest yet most humbling part of my trip. From the different wounds and bruises I saw, the hard lives that the children lived were evident. At the same time, each child was so happy and appreciative of all we did.

The sports department just consisted of my playing with the kids, and just being a friend. This was really where I got to develop a relationship with the kids. We had an awesome time playing together. It was so funny because we didn’t speak the same language, and had to come up with a sign language of our own to communicate.

Senegal host family

The same was with the English classes that I taught as a part of the Education sector. I taught older students, around the age of 18, who I had an easier time communicating with than the younger students. It was still a challenge, but the challenge made the outcome a lot more effective and valuable. When I left, I had a personal connection with almost every student I taught. We exchanged phone numbers, Facebook, emails, and Skype. A few of them I still keep in touch with to this day.

For the community service part, the Projects Abroad group renovated a Daara (the place where the Talibe are taught). Working the volunteer group on this project really gave us a chance to bond. In addition, we worked under Senegalese who were natives to the village in which we were building the Daara. It was awesome to learn the different styles and techniques they used to build and construct things. Bonding with the staff and kids that I worked with made my stay in Senegal so much fun, but also made it so much harder to come back home after the three weeks.

Other activities in Senegal

Outside of the Care & Community work, Projects Abroad had a number of activities for the volunteers to do. Each activity introduced us to different natives of Senegal, and showed us a different piece of Senegalese culture. We took a glass painting course, and I was able to make a piece that I could bring home and show my family. We took a historical tour of Saint-Louis, which informed us about the true significance of the buildings and streets that we walked pass almost every day of our stay in Senegal.

And, my favorite part, we were able to take an African dance class. Taking the dance class gave me a chance to experience a huge part of Senegalese culture. I was so glad Projects Abroad gave this opportunity, because I was able to connect it to the African dance that I do here in my hometown. The staff was really great in communicating the location and time of the activities, and made sure that each volunteer got home safely after each one.

Free time with my host family

When I wasn’t working or doing a Projects Abroad activity, I did a number of things. Most of this free time was spent with the family, exploring the city of Saint-Louis, or shopping for souvenirs. Spending my free time with my host family was again, one of my best experiences in Senegal. I was able to see Saint-Louis on with a normal, daily-life perspective, as opposed to just being a tourist.

My roommate and I got to go to the market with our house mother, dress up in traditional clothing, and celebrate holidays with our family. We were introduced to extended family when we went to celebrations, spent days at the beach with our host family, and went on personal tours of Saint-Louis with our family. I can honestly say that I felt so at home when I was with my host family. They reminded me so much of my own family. We had family dinner every day (the food was GREAT), and different people would come over and eat with us.

Building we renovated

Even though it was hard to communicate at first, I was still able to form a bond with my host mother. To this day, we still keep in touch on Facebook, and I am already trying to find a way to go back and visit! I remember one night; we were sitting in the living room after a family dinner, just chatting. During that talk, my house mother said to me, “You are Black American, I am Black African, and at the end of the day, our ancestors could’ve been slaves together”. While that is a horrible thing to think about, it warmed my heart to think about.

The time I spent in Senegal, with my family, was so enriching to me because it was a part of my heritage. That made my experience so much better in itself. This example is just one of the many ways I connected with my host family. When I first got there, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. The house structure was different, and my roommate was the only person that spoke French. But, through all of these obstacles, I truly had an awesome time with my host family.

The Projects Abroad team in Senegal

The Projects Abroad staff made my trip a lot easier. Whenever I had questions about how to get around in the city, where to get a certain item, or just general worries about being in a different country, they were there. When the volunteers first arrived, they gave us a sheet with all their numbers on it, and told us to call if we needed anything.

For example, during my first week there, I realized that my camera had run out of memory. Instead of just telling me to get a new camera, Habib walked around the city of Saint-Louis with me, for hours, trying to find a memory card that would work for me. When we didn’t find one, he offered to meet up with me another time, so that we could try other places. This is the type of kindness that all the staff showed. The office was always open for us to come hang out whenever we wanted to. They supported us so much during our stay, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people.

Tarah Wright

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