In June 2016, I embarked on a 10-week placement to Senegal with Y Care International, a government funded development programme. Along with 6 other UK volunteers, our main objectives were to raise awareness of Malaria, STI’s, Malnutrition, HIV and AIDS, and to emphasise the importance of seeking legitimate medical treatment in the region of Ziguinchor. This is not a story of sorrow or poverty, but one which aims to celebrate a rich culture and vibrant people whose indomitable spirit, generosity and resilience prevails – even in the face of little material goods.
The courtyard is cocooned by fruit trees, a single lightbulb illuminating the space. Each night, the whole family gathers, sitting on plastic chairs and wooden stools and the neighbours, Fatou and Chris, are regular attendants to the discussions that sometimes last till midnight. As in all Senegalese gatherings, ‘attaya’ (tea) is served keeping everyone awake and lively. Each night, there is a different topic or argument – but, rest assured, laughter is never too far out of reach.
This is the Bojang family with whom I stayed. To the Senegalese, ‘Teranga’ (meaning ‘hospitality’ in Wollof, the native language) is a doctrine that is ingrained in all. It is reflected in the way you are treated as family and always greeted with kindness even by strangers on the street. It is translated in the vibrancy of their character, their humour, the way they speak freely and honestly, their unrestrained laughter which is often contagious….and their tendency to overfeed.
As a self-professed food enthusiast, I am ready for any gastronomic challenge. That was until I entered the Bojang household. What I presumed to be dinner was actually a mid-evening snack and by the time dinner was presented in the form of Yassa Poulet, a dish composed of chicken and marinated onions with rice, I was teetering the edges of a food coma. But this was not the end. After dinner, the coconuts, oranges, succulent mangos and grapefruits from the courtyard make their debut….needless to say, I was very well fed!
Perhaps one of the most distinguishable characteristics of the Senegalese is there flexible relationship with time. One must learn that an event scheduled for two o’clock does not actually begin at two (and there really is no telling when it’ll start). The best way to deal with this is to expect and accept the unexpected with a pinch of humour. As a result, many bizarre events have been witnessed with awe-inspiring poise from driving in a taxi with a gaping hole on the floor, a live sheep placed in the boot of a car, baby goats being parcelled into sacks and loaded on the roof of a van and people precariously hanging off of vehicles.
Granted, these journeys were often hot and noisy and very bumpy, but they also generated a sense of excitement (sometimes trepidation) for each one came with its own surprise. On one such journey, the oil container dislodged from the vehicle resulting in an abrupt stop. This was before the two border crossings, a ferry ride and frequent stops at checkpoints so it came as no surprise when the van eventually broke down. All one could think at that point was , ‘this is Senegal’, take it as it is, or leave it.
Through these experiences, I have come to realise that the Senegalese are blessed in their own right. They have customs and traditions that may be disparate from western ideals but they are just as valuable if not more. Yes, poverty and unemployment exists, but there is life and vibrancy and joy in the people who find ways to manage the best way they can. It’s truly admirable and humbling.
So, I present to you readers a challenge. Simply take a moment to reflect, when you think of Africa, what image comes to mind?