Alice Harvey - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Senegal
Alice was a teaching volunteer in Senegal, working at the Projects Abroad Summer School and spending most of her spare time helping out at the Talibé Centre for street children. Here she writes about the experience of arriving home in England after her placement:
'So you're back! Your doting mother has travelled through the night (a 90 mile trip which required almost as much preparation and timekeeping as your own little jaunt to Africa) to greet you with bleary eyes at International Arrivals and hand over the car keys for the drive home! At which point you hurl your filthy bulging rucksack, large, medium and small djembés (Senegalese drums) into the boot and try to work out which one was the accelerator and which was the brake again? Help!
It has been said that despite the initial shock of leaving your creature comforts for the rudimentary life in a developing country - the culture shock on coming home is far, far greater - and takes a good few months to recover from. Remember those first few days, the arrival in Dakar and your mind-boggling taxi trip round St Louis - afraid the mere sight of local food/water/air would bring you down in a haze of diarrhoea, vomiting and some kind of rare life threatening rash? You used up your entire stash of Johnson's baby wipes during that 4hr sept-place journey wedged under a well-endowed African Mama's armpit.and you couldn't be further from the nearest Boots store if you tried. But then how quickly you adjusted to the less than speedy pace of St Louis life. By the end of week one, you no longer hankered for that power shower and 500g bar of Cadburys Dairy Milk - your host family's tailor had set you up with a sexy pair of pantalons, you had a genuine Senegalese name, Wolof was your native tongue and Thieboudienne your number one dish - you were a native god-damn-it and subsequently hugely offended when island touts had the audacity to perceive you as common toubab tourists!
Well upon your return, this culture shock hits you doubly - from the very instant you rock up those long bouncy flat escalator things sporting your gap-year 'I've just come back from travelling' garb complete with every set of ethnic looking beads you'd ever been given (mostly by doting third cousins of your host family who were all desperate to marry you).. For a start - no has asked you to marry them for at least 10 minutes! Then the sheer enormity and civilisation of London and Heathrow blows you away - so much money passes hands without a thought every second, and you spend much of your time calculating how many Talibé breakfasts the cost of that scarf in Accessorize would buy. If you ever visited the Talibé centre, I advise that upon your return you avoid Toys'R'Us for a fair few weeks. The sight and sound of the immense tantrums as darling seven year old Chardonnay is refused Volleyball Barbie (with ball and net not included) at £39.99 would make your blood boil!!
Apart from greed and vast expense.the second most notable difference between the cultures has to be the social interaction - or lack of it! For many people in England, it would appear that to break into a smile would in fact hurt - and very possibly cause long term damage. If you are lucky enough to establish eye contact - smile at a stranger on the street, one of two things happen - a) they smile back and feel sorry for you, as clearly you are simple and have been let out on a day trip from St Mungos, or b) they hastily cross the road and run headlong into the nearest shop, for you are obviously insane and about to mug them! This general suspicion and unfriendliness is so unlike the overpowering welcome and affability of the Senegalese, that you almost feel unwelcome in your own country. A trip to Safeway (which incidentally in your absence has mysteriously morphed into a yellow and black clad branch of Morrison's) is a nightmare for your mother.When not grumbling under your breath that in Senegal 'mangoes are half the price and certainly not cling wrapped' or that 'no one would dream of wasting £4.95 on a family sized box of teabags.what's wrong with twigs and sugar?' or 'a family of four could live for a year on what she spends on organically grown 'happy fruit and veg' each month' ..you're trying to persuade her of the benefits of Thieboudienne for Sunday lunch!
You always anticipate the shock of arriving in a new country and prepare yourself in advance; however the greater shock of return always seems to take me by surprise. I pray that the African way of life, their perspective of family, health and happiness as priorities, and the memories of each quirky individual never leave me - but should that ever happen - what better excuse to return!'