Though we spent most of our time in larger cities like Dakar and Saint Louis, we did have the opportunity to visit some smaller villages. Life there is very different from life in the city, and I loved getting to meet and talk to the people there. They have such an open, friendly, community-oriented philosophy of life, and were incredibly welcoming to us. In fact, it surprised me how willing they were to let us into their lives.
One village we visited was on an island down the river from a small town named Toubacouta. We took a boat from our hotel and spent the day on the small island.
One of the most interesting things about this village was that they had a queen, and we got to meet her! She was such an adorable elderly woman. She was more than willing to let each of us take pictures with her.
We visited the school there, which was one-room, and very small, with all different grades in the same place. They only had one or two teachers, who taught everyone at the same time. We talked with the students for a while, and they were so sweet. I even met a girl who had the same name as me!
We also visited a village which our professor called “her village,” because to her, everyone there is her family. It was easy to understand why. The village members were some of the kindest, friendliest, most generous people I’ve ever met, They treated us like their own children. It really touched me how open, trusting, and heartfelt their conduct was. Americans seem cold and aloof and absolutely standoffish in comparison. It was so different, that I didn’t really know how to respond at first, so I just followed our professor’s lead and let myself accept their offers of food and friendship and familiarity.
We visited the school there, too, and brought clothes and school supplies for the children. This school was a lot bigger. There were at least a few hundred kids there, and a couple dozen teachers or so. I learned, though, that they had hired too many teachers, so that there were some who were paid to do absolutely nothing. It’s because teachers can sometimes be hired, especially in the small villages, without having much qualification, simply because they know the right people and can claim a favor or two. They are hired, but don’t actually teach, and get paid anyway. So that’s one of the many problems with the school system in Senegal, but at least at this school there were multiple rooms, separation by grade, and better preparation for further studies (it’s also much closer to the university in Saint-Louis).
We played with the kids for a while, and one of the girls in our group had brought a violin which she played for everyone. It was the first (and maybe only) time these kids had ever heard the violin, so it was a pretty special experience. We taught them some fun songs we’d learned at summer camps over the years (and tried to translate them into French which only sort of worked). I’m not sure how well they understood, but they were entertained!
Then, they took a turn to perform for us. They sang, played the drums, and danced traditional dances for us.
After visiting the school, we had lunch with a family there. They made yassa poulet for us, and we all ate on the ground, outside, on mats that they laid out to sit on. The food was absolutely fantastic, and the company even better. We rested, ate well, and chatted with the family for at least a couple of hours. After the meal, we ate fresh mangoes for dessert, which I just couldn’t get enough of.
If you get the chance to visit a village in Africa, do! And don’t be too worried about the language barrier. Although I speak fluent French, most of the villagers spoke Wolof or Peul only, so communication with words was difficult, but it didn’t matter. I felt welcomed, and did my best to show my appreciation for their generosity, and we understood each other just fine.