Jamie MacDermot - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Senegal
So why did an 18 year old from Edinburgh, Scotland, decide to spend his gap year in Senegal, thousands of miles away from his naturally chilly habitat of grand grey stone buildings, cobbled streets, high-street brands, night clubs, rugby, school rivalries and double decker buses.
I wanted to go somewhere completely different and exotic. I’d never traveled outside of Europe before and wanted that to change. I’d always been told how lucky I was to be growing up in a developed country but that all washed over me as I had nothing to compare it to. It does sound like a cliché, but for me going to a poorer country like Senegal was about putting my own life in perspective.
Africa had always fascinated me as I’d read and learnt so much about it without actually meeting many people who’d lived there. I also wanted to continue improving my French. Senegal just ticked all the boxes and it was great to have an organization like Projects Abroad to coordinate the whole experience.Arrival in Senegal
My 6 hour flight from Brussels arrived very late in the evening so I didn’t feel a great difference in temperature at first and in the dark it was hard to make out my surroundings. It was on leaving the airport and meeting up with Taib, the Projects Abroad member of staff, that I really started to experience “culture shock”. It can be made to sound something incredibly frightening, but what it is really is a massive amount of different things to be experienced in a very short period of time - difficult for anyone.
I especially remember the stuffy air and the strong sweet lingering smell, the cars honking and screeching, sandy ground, the intimidating looking guys hanging around on the street in the dark ( although with 6ft something Taib with us, I really didn’t care). Taib took us with our luggage (my 23kg bag swaying all over the place while trying to keep up!) to a taxi where we all hopped in and hurtled off (with a fair bit of honking) on the highway to a small hotel in Dakar where we would be staying the night. Once arrived, we went to have our first delicious Senegalese hamburger before hitting the hay, for two hours.My Host Family
The family I stayed with in St Louis couldn’t have been nicer. The father was Colonel Koné who lived alternately in St Louis and Dakar to spend an equal amount of time with his two wives. He was always joking and laughing under the corrugated iron porch with us and had some very interesting stories. Whenever I had a difficulty with my room (for example if the light or the toilet flush wasn’t working), I knew I could always talk to the Colonel about it and he was very understanding.
My host mother Mme Koné was always busy outside, whether it was preparing rice and vegetables, cleaning clothes, sweeping up, feeding the chickens. She played the role of the house general and was constantly giving orders to the servants. She was fierce at times but behind this was certainly a kind, warm-hearted mother with a great sense of humour who took great pride in the upkeep of her house and the care of her family.
Fili, the daughter (who became Fili Collins after persisting in calling me Jimi Hendrix) was in her early twenties and took on many of the responsibilities of her mother, including most of the cooking. She was a great character who was always looking for mischief! Zé the son, slightly younger than Fili, was usually training with his football team or watching a football match on television – a fantastic existence I thought.
Some of my fondest memories are of sitting around the television with Zé and Baldé (the live-in ex-talibé servant who became a great friend) watching the African Cup of Nations final, Champions League matches, La Liga and even some Premier League games. At the house there was also Ama, a lively 12 year old grandchild and Fanbai, another servant. Although she didn’t speak French, we got on well and she taught me some Wolof (the native language of Senegal). There was a host of other people coming in and out of the house and it was tricky to keep track of who was who with all the extended family visiting. However it meant that we met a great variety of people. The house was a compound so my roommate Constantin and I stayed in a building slightly apart from the main family dwelling, giving both us and the family some privacy.
After a few weeks I had fully settled into a routine. In weeks one and two there wasn’t really any need for an alarm clock – both the loud and persistent cry of the imams and the chickens crowing meant that having a lie in wasn’t really an option. However, I soon found that I became immune to these sounds and, amazingly, was able to sleep through them.
I would get up, take my cold shower, get into my work clothes and set off to hail a taxi (there are more of these than cars!) at the end of the road. It cost about 50p for a journey to anywhere in St Louis. I had to get from my home on the mainland (Xor) to the island which took 5-10 minutes in a taxi or 30 minutes walking through the market which involved dodging horses, goats, reversing cars and lorries, buckets of fish etc.My Teaching Placement
I really enjoyed teaching at St Joseph de Cluny. This was the first time I’d taught children and it proved to be both an entertaining and challenging experience. The school was a grand old building with a large central courtyard surrounded by classrooms. I taught all 12 classes but this only amounted to around 2 or 3 hours a day. Mr N’Doye, my co-teacher was enthusiastic and a great help. We were teaching all kinds of basic things – the alphabet, numbers, salutations and of course the very popular song ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’! The teachers and staff were so welcoming and helpful – at the end they even gave me a boubou (a traditional Senegalese robe) as a present!
On Mondays and Wednesdays I would teach the intermediate adult evening classes for 2 hours at another large school, Lycee Faidherbe. This involved a bit more preparation than the kid’s classes and I’d take time to go to an internet cafe to find and print off articles to discuss in the lessons. We covered a wide range of topics and were able to have some interesting debates. It was a small group (normally 4 or 5) which meant I got to know the students individually and we became good friends –sometimes they even offered me a lift home.
I arrived back at the Konés’ to find a delicious hot dinner waiting for me – normally rice with fish, but it could be chicken, beef, salad and sometimes pasta. We all sat around one big plate and shared the food, some eating with their hands and other with forks or spoons. I became really used to this and I miss it now – it was emblematic of the way the Senegalese shared everything, welcoming everyone, even those not in their own family, to tuck in.Excursions
When I wasn’t working there was always plenty to do and see. It was interesting to meet volunteers from all over the world and we had great fun going to the beach to see the big waves or the swimming pool, visiting each other’s houses, having social dinners, dancing in bars or taking part in the weekly Wednesday quiz. Projects Abroad organized plenty of trips to allow us to get an experience of Senegal outside of St Louis. We visited Touba (a religious city), went quad biking and donkey trekking, spent the night in the desert, rode camels, attended debates on Senegalese politics as well as many other incredible and unique experiences.
As I had some time off for Easter holidays, I also managed to do the care project - looking after talibé street children (teaching them, cleaning their wounds etc) as well as training with a local football team. For several weeks I had French lessons with Mr Gueye who was a fantastic teacher but also became a good friend. Thanks to the efficiency and helpfulness of the Projects Abroad staff, I felt I managed to get as much as possible out of my relatively short stay in Senegal.Leaving Senegal
It was a sad last week – I considered extending my time but I knew that if I did, I would only want more once it was time to leave again. It was very difficult to leave my adoptive family and all the new friends I had made and I was so grateful to all of them for making my time there so unforgettable. The greatest feeling I got from Senegal was one of freedom and being part of another community completely different from my own.
As volunteers we were not just the tourists who got out of their coaches, took pictures of the beaches and the poverty and then left. We worked with the Senegalese, we lived with them, we ate with them, we talked to them about their lives, their troubles, joys and aspirations and we befriended them. Although Projects Abroad were always there to support us, they weren’t over protective, resulting in a satisfying feeling of independence. I’d love to go back one day, but I’m not sure if I would have the same experience as a tourist.
I received a few odd looks when I got off the plane at Edinburgh airport wearing my ‘boubou’ - so bizarre that just a few hours previously and thousand miles away no-one would have batted an eye-lid!I received a few odd looks when I got off the plane at Edinburgh airport wearing my ‘boubou’ - so bizarre that just a few hours previously and thousand miles away no-one would have batted an eye-lid!
I lived in Senegal from February 3rd to April the 16th 2012, I’ve now been back for a month and a half but my memories of the place are as strong as ever and I’m longing for an opportunity to go back!