Stephan Heinz - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Senegal
It’s already 4 months since I’ve been back in the UK, after my three month experience teaching English in Senegal. My memories of my time in Senegal are still so vivid and Senegal has undoubtedly left a lasting impression on me beyond mere cultural nuances, and for that I am extremely grateful.
There’s nothing like arriving at a crowded, dimly lit, hot and stuffy West-African airport at 3am to disorientate even the most well traveled adventurer. I had played out my arrival in my mind a few times when anticipating what it would be like. I had the dim lights, the heat and the crowds covered but each time it was with ease that I found Banda, the Projects Abroad co-coordinator who I knew would be collecting me.
When I was met by Banda we exchanged brief pleasantries, I in my very much-in-need-of repair French, and hopped into a taxi to head to…well, to tell the truth I didn’t really know. Of course I knew where I would be spending the next three months working as an English teacher in Saint-Louis, but it was clear that at this unsociable hour we weren’t going to be starting the five hour drive north to the town – or at least, I hoped not!
It felt like it was all part of the adventure, and anyway, I’m usually far too pre-occupied with gazing outside at the passing sights of a new world to worry about where exactly I’m heading. This time was no exception and Dakar’s dusty backstreets clattered by as we drove into the muggy night.
I spent my first night in a charming auberge, not far from Dakar’s airport. The next morning, following a continental breakfast, Banda and I set off north for Saint-Louis. Four hours passed quickly and very soon the hustle and bustle of Dakar was replaced by the relative calm of Senegal’s most northern coastal town, Saint-Louis.
Driving through the town’s center, on a small island sandwiched between the mainland and the Langue de Barbarie on the Senegal river, the French windows and balconies draped in bougainvilleas hinted to a bygone colonial past.
Still slightly blurry eyed, I arrived at the house where I would be spending my Senegalese days. Its tall white walls and Arabic-like curves set it apart from its slightly more disheveled neighbors and gave it an heir of regency. Before I had time to take too much in I was introduced to Mame Diarra, my host mum. With a welcoming handshake and a warm smile Mame Diarra showed me to my room where I was introduced to my new roommate, as Ousmane, a common Senegalese name.
If you ask any volunteer in Senegal to describe their host family to you it will undoubtedly be followed by a chuckle or a “how much time do you have.” The Senegalese household is built on a very strong communal spirit. People are continuously passing through the house, stopping by for meals and generally socializing.
Very soon the line between friend and family appears blurred and essentially, everyone becomes a cousin, brother or sister. This was a fantastic way to get to know the community and it wasn’t long before walking through the dusty streets I would hear my name being called by young and old alike, often accompanied with an invitation for tea, a simple chat or even a meal.
I was eager to get into a routine in my first few weeks in Senegal. As well as helping with settling in, I was sure that a routine would really make me feel like a resident of the community, living and working alongside everyone else. Having said that weekends were often taken up by excursions with fellow volunteers to nearby sights; including the Desert de Lampoul and the mosque at Touba or some recharging by the pool at a nearby hotel.
Wednesday’s quiz nights were a great opportunity to catch up with the other volunteers during the week, and of course brush up on some general knowledge. Put a group of young western volunteers together in a country and culture they have never experience before, and you can imagine the weekly experiences that are shared around the table. Stories of house-trained cattle, Senegalese dance instructors, strategies to dodge persistent street vendors and who got the best bargain abounded.
The days I spent at L’Ecole Sidi Ndiaye, teaching English as part of the Projects Abroad summer school filled me with the fondest memories of my time in the country. My main class included teenagers in their final year of school. Engaging with these students, not much younger than myself, was a truly gratifying experience. Time went by too quickly and when awarded with a vast amount of farewell gifts from a visibly upset class upon my departure, I really understood what Senegal had given me.
The humility of the students, and their appreciation for my simple efforts was heart-warming. I still write to some of them regularly, and have heard that they still meet each week to practice their English together in the same time slot in which we had our classes. It’s not often in our fast-paced, Western lifestyle that we give ourselves the opportunity to make a real impact on people’s lives.
I’m not talking about donating to charity or sponsoring events but actually delivering the benefits on the front line and gaining so much in the process. Yes, my French has improved and yes, I can explain the difference between the English past perfect and past perfect continuous, but the feeling that I’ve truly had an impact, in a world far from my own, is beyond rewarding. Without even realizing it, the experience has become an integral part of me and I know that will be many a time in the future when my friends will have to bear “oh, that really reminds me of this one time in Senegal when…”