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Joe Leather - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Senegal

Class at my school

My story begins on the afternoon of February 26th 2009 in Terminal 2 of Gatwick Airport. I was off to a great start, having gone to Terminal 1 (the wrong one) and was running as fast as humanly possible with a backpack full of 2 months worth of clothes and a suitcase full of 2 months worth of Cadbury's chocolate and toilet roll. My good luck hadn't left me when I landed in Lisbon for my transfer. Something that sounded vaguely like 'Joseph Leather final boarding call' was blared over the speakers as I once again legged it to my flight, boarding with a sheepish 'Desolé' to a chorus of tuts and a shaking of heads.

Sat on the plane as I set off towards fully fledged Africa, I finally had time to collect my thoughts. I had come prepared with my Lonely Planet guide, my head full of 'Toubabs', 'Mangy Fis' and confusion as to how you actually pronounce thiébaudienne. A few glossy photos were all I had in terms of preparation, with one fairly crap picture of a house in Saint-Louis hinting at my future abode. I was nervous. I was a little scared. Most of all I was excited, not only by the in-flight curry but also the prospect that in a few hours I would be in Africa!

Outside my school

Looking at the sea of lights that was Dakar as we landed only intensified my excitement. I waited for my suitcase on the carousel then wheeled it out, ready to meet with the Projects Abroad rep. It was 5am, so I was in a bit of a zombie-like state as we sat in the sept-place (a souped up Senegalese taxi) to Saint-Louis. A Japanese volunteer had arrived along with me, together we chatted in our limited French already surrounded by the sounds of Senegal that I would grow to love: the honk of taxis, the tap of CFA coins on the metal ceiling, the cries of 'toubab!' One amazing snooze later and we were rolling into Saint-Louis. I was surprised by how pleasant the temperature was, expecting to be sweating like a couchon, but I didn't have too much time to think as we rolled up to my house and I went in to meet my host family.

Awa, Mamadou, Nogaye, Moustafha, Ablay, Becay and Mody were all just difficult-to-remember names at first, but 2 months later they would be like my second family. We spent the evening playing Scrabble- I got beaten by a 7 year old... but then it was in French... Before I knew it, Nicole, the Project's Abroad coordinator had arrived. It was really reassuring to have another Brit there, especially one as friendly as Nicole! After she had filled me in on the social side of Project's Abroad: the weekend trips, club nights and quizzes, Nicole left me to have dinner with my family. Having already done a similar placement in Ghana I was no stranger to West African cuisine. It was a shock to discover on the plate in front of me not flavorless mush, but actual Moroccan couscous with bona-fide chips and salad! I went to sleep that night wrapped in my mosquito net, fresh out of my first cold shower with a full belly and the realization my inhibitions had gone.

Visiting a waterfall

Fast forwards one week and I was about to start my work placement. I had been put at École Telemaque Sow (I had to write that on the back of my hand for taxi purposes for about a month) with a Mr. Ndiaye. As of yet I had just been enjoying the beauty of Saint-Louis. Strolling across Eiffel's Pont St. Louis, getting down in Iguane Bar (actually a club) and going through what would be the first of many embarrassing defeats in the Project's Abroad quiz. Now it was time to do what I was here for and volunteer.

The school was surprisingly developed and charming. I was introduced to Mr Ndiaye who would prove to be an absolute legend. I also met the Principal and the rest of the staff at the school. In the blink of an eye I was stood before the first of my four classes: Cinquieme E, meaning 50 students around the age of 16. Before Senegal this for me was the stuff nightmares were made of, but I pushed down my fears and started with a song - Bob Marley's One Love. What they lacked in natural tuning they more than made up for in enthusiasm, and before I knew it I was lost in the enjoyment of it, relating vocabulary back to the song and looking over the grammar. The next class involved a bit of Celine Dion. The following day we sang Beyoncé. By 4pm I was always satisfied but exhausted, I now have huge respect for teachers and pangs of guilt for what we used to put our teachers through when I was at school.

With local kids

A month flew by and it was time for the Easter vacation; No work for 2 weeks! Myself and 13 others were finishing preparations for a trip down to Besare Country in the South-East of Senegal. True to form I had no role at all in the organization and no idea where we were actually going, but the Lonely Planet guide made the South-East sound amazing. And if there's one thing you should take away from West Africa, it is this: the guide book is never wrong.

One all-night trip later and we were there, a rustic post-card Africa style campement providing our beds for the night. We spent the following morning hiking the nearby mountain, but like all truly great Project's Abroad volunteers we were soon on the road again, never-resting and now traveling in style with two fancy 4x4s. The heat was stifling, the road was dusty and our Africa Fun (I can't believe it's not Fanta) had gone from 'warm' to 'hot' about an hour before, but we kept our spirit's up. The next few days saw us sleeping under the stars serenaded by Peter on guitar, watching a soccer game develop between two rival villages and flinging dung at each other at a nearby market town. To top it all off, two days were spent in the crystal waters of Dindafalou Falls. We all discovered another side of Africa, wild and exciting.

With one of my classes

My final day crept up on me before I knew it, and I was gutted that finances could not permit me to stay any longer. I came down with food poisoning on my last weekend, which I think was my body's effort to make me stay in Saint-Louis because I had loved it so much. I had made incredible friends, met incredible people, lived in an incredible place... And here I was rolling back to Dakar in my last sept-place after my last goodbye. Presents were exchanged. Facebooks were swapped. Crying was involved.

Now, sat in front of my shiny computer, wrapped in a dressing gown with a pack of Jammy Dodger's and a mug of PG Tips it all seems like a life time ago. The culture shock of returning home was huge, I was devastated to find taxis would no longer honk at me in the street, coconut was only available at fairgrounds and I had to eat out of my own bowl. Of course I'm sad to have left, but I'm also thankful for the amazing experience I have had - my mind has been opened, my confidence has grown and I even learned a bit of French along the way.

So, my final thoughts? If you're reading this then I would absolutely suggest that you go to Senegal with Projects Abroad. Just remember to say hi to Mr. Ndiaye and Moctar for me when you're there! And remember: being at home can be dull, but it's all just a journey to the next adventure...

Joe Leather

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