Elisa Estrada - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Senegal
I went to Senegal to teach English to students 18 years old and younger as well as adults in the evenings. However, a week and a half after my arrival an unexpected teacher’s strike began! I got a text message one morning from the school saying “no class today, there is a strike”. The next day I showed up to the school to find an almost empty classroom; this time the students didn’t show up because they heard there was a strike. The questions became when is this strike over and what am I going to do with my free time? I can either go to the pool every day or I can work on another project called “Talibé children”.
The Talibé children are street orphans that spend their days memorizing the Koran. I hadn’t originally chosen to work on this project because I felt it would be emotionally difficult (I know-chicken). But now I’m there, in St. Louis, a fishing town approximately 5 hours north from Dakar, the capital and close to the border with Mauritania. I spoke to the Country Director and told him of my intent to switch projects. He understood the dilemma with the strike and how no one knew when the strike will end so we proceeded to move on.
A coordinator took me to the Aides Sans Frontiers office, an NGO that provides first aid to the Talibé children (mostly boys ages 4-19). They have 4 paid staff, 3 of which do the field work; one nurse, another nurse with no formal education, and their assistant. Three folks to go from daara to daara (Koranic School) looking for children with sores, wounds, infections, etc. It is very hard to imagine how these children live.
The daaras are more like garbage dumps. Naturally, there is no electricity, water, food or anything that comes close to having a basics-needs-met life as we know it. The boys are wearing filthy clothes as we speak, no shoes, torn sandals, no showers, no brushing their teeth. It was an unbelievable scene.
We walked from dump to dump in about 90 degree weather even though it is winter in West Africa. The next day I was treating the wounds/sores myself. The routine was alcohol, mercury and a yellow gel followed by band-aids. They average about 3-4 per boy on their arms, legs, hips and some on their heads.
They then go back to the center and sleep on top of each other on sheets that clearly haven’t been washed. I heard a colleague say “how are they supposed to get better?” These boys are wearing whatever they can get; adult shirts, adult jackets, or nothing at all. I actually saw a boy wearing a dress. No one seemed to make fun of him because they know their conditions and circumstances.
This is their reality, their daily lives. They don’t attend regular school, they are not learning French (one of the official languages in Senegal), they only speak Wolof (the local African language). They are sent by their Maribou (Koran instructor) with small buckets to area neighborhoods to collect whatever they can get: food, money. When they saw us coming they knew we were there to give them first aid. They would line up to be seen. The little ones cried when they saw cotton, alcohol, etc taken out from the bag.
At home with the host family we ate our meals together from the same pot and on the floor. They use their right hand only to eat; I used a fork and knife. The real culture shock came when I saw my host mother’s (Licka) male cousin gather rice with his hand, make a ball out of it and then shake the juices out in the pot to then slam the ball of rice in his mouth. I was stunned and I tried very hard to hide ‘that look on my face’.
The food is delicious! Licka insisted that I eat more “so your bottom can grow”. She told me that in Senegal to be considered a pretty woman you have to have a “grand fondé” (big behind). I must be unattractive by Senegalese standards! I was spoiled by Fatou who served me enormous portions of local cuisine and whole sizes of baguettes morning, day and night. I stuffed myself and I was still told “Elisa - You barely ate”!
Other things Fatou did for me was braid my hair. If you haven’t experienced braids you can’t imagine how convenient and practical they are. You don’t have to deal with your hair blowing all over and looking like you just got up. After I unbraided them my hair looked spectacularly curly. And with the tan I got it was a very different look for me. Licka also called the family tailor who showed up at home to take me shopping for fabrics. Then we went to his shop and he measured me. Yes, I got Senegalese dresses made and plan on wearing them at “A Sahara Spring” and the “Afrique Fête” events coming up in New York.
I had a good laugh one day while waiting for a taxi. A humble horse carriage showed up before a taxi ever did and Fatou asked me why don’t you go to work by horse? I paid 60 cents for an experience that could never happen back home. Fatou was laughing at me; she didn’t think I would have the nerve.
Senegalese people in general, kids in particular, are very polite and friendly. The neighborhood kids followed me while extending their hand to greet me and say “bon jour!” Little ones as young as 4 years old would shake my hand and greet me. It was such a welcoming, warm scene.
Upon my return home at least the spring had just begun. Here comes Nooroz, the Persian New Year!