10 Things to Expect when Living in Senegal for a Year
Senegal — Uniterra
After a very colorful year, full of discoveries, meetings new people, and exploring West Africa for the first time…the moment has come to leave very soon. Here are some of the points that have accompanied me in this journey. Some of the things that I will be taking with me to any new experience that life has in store for me. I share them with you…If you have already been here, you will understand me, if not, I hope you may discover all this for yourself someday. Insha’Allah!
1-You will feel that you live in a desert from October to the end of June, dry weather, sand everywhere…until it starts raining, then you will feel like it is another country: strong storms, floods, an extreme humidity and heat. The landscape becomes green, the insects multiply, and nothings get dry…never again, including your skin.
2-You will experience a complete different culture. Family life, marriage, women’s and men’s roles, even what is considered true and lies, what is politeness, what is appropriate to ask, all aspects of cultural interactions are different from what we are used to in Canada.
3-If you are lucky to be invited to marriages, baptisms, or maybe you are in the good festival at the good moment, you will see the Senegalese people dance Mbalax… it will be for short periods of high energy, but you may feel the happiness of the human species when you see them.
4-You will notice that the Muslim religion marks every aspect of the day, and also, of the monthly calendar. Daily priers, words before any meeting, religious chants most evenings, and then the Ramadan month, the Korité and Tabaski big celebrations. Plus the Touba annual meeting, the Magal, where a big percentage of the population meets in that sacred city. An act that I really liked after Tabaski: you ask forgiveness to everybody, for all the wrongs they may have done through the year, even those that you did not realised you committed…Balma ak balnala…
5-If like me, you are fascinated by polygamy, you will have many opportunities to talk to people and see their family structure, so completely different from Western models that we are used to. If you are a single woman, you may have many marriage offers, from serious to joke, and even coming from the first wife, which I can’t believe they are offering to share their husband like that!
6-You will struggle to understand why the Talibé children exist until this day. These children are supposed to be learning their religion, but instead, they spend many hours a day asking for money and learning only how to be a beggar. At the end of the day, they have to give it to their “Marabou” or spiritual leader. International organisations classified this system as child slavery. You will also notice that many subjects are still taboo, like homosexuality, overpopulation, evolution of species, agnosticism, etc. There is a communal world view even in the more young and progressive people.
7-You will visit amazing little towns, fisher’s towns, virgin beaches and magnificent mangroves. You will admire the colorful pirogues, and the children playing on the shore. Regrettably, you will also see plastic garbage everywhere, just enough to spoil the otherwise untouched nature.
8-Senegal is the country of “Teranga”, a welcoming culture, and you will feel it! As soon as somebody is eating from the big communal plates, they will invite you to join. This happens everywhere, from an art craft market to the house of a family of friends. No door is close for a visitor, nobody will ignore you if you need help, and mostly you will be greeted by people you cross on the streets. On the other hand, not everybody speaks French, and language may be a barrier to communication sometimes.
9-You will be surprised by the extraordinary and colorful biodiversity everyday (and night), and everywhere, including in your own garden. Birds such as the fire bellied and cordon blue finches, the always present and noisy common bulbuls, black kites by the hundreds, two species of hornbills, and so many more, and all those in my city of Thies! Then, the mammals: hedgehogs at night eating peanuts and cat food, a colony of fruit bats living in the big trees and flying around at dusk, giant (yes, they are really big) Gambian rats, and in the countryside and parks, monkeys, jackal, warthogs and more….The reptiles are very interesting too, blue headed lizards and my favourite: the Senegal chameleon!
The vegetal world is extraordinary too, with the majestic baobab as the emblem tree, some of them so big that you may enter inside and see the insectivorous bat colonies in the roof! There is also a great diversity of shrubs, trees and plants with edible seeds or fruits such as the soump, siddem, solom, ditakh, mad, toll…most of them pretty dry, but flavourful when transformed into juices. Lots of grains give precious oils that are edible or that are used in cosmetic, and many plants have medicinal properties too. A whole vegetal world to discover…one year will only be enough to have a little introduction!
Domestic animals are very present too, sheep that look like goats, horses, donkeys, chickens, all share spaces with us!
So, my comment about biodiversity is the longest…may be because it is my favourite subject ever? And the one that I am always observing and researching! Even if it is not your main passion in life like for me, if you are here, don’t miss the opportunity to be surprised by the abundance of life form.
10-You will leave a piece of your heart here, even if it was difficult at times, extremely hot and sticky…the friendships that you developed here are forever, and you will miss your Senegalese brothers and sisters (plus all the other international volunteers!) every day…and the bats, the hedgehogs, your cats and dogs, the birds, the butterflies, the baobabs…
A typical landscape in Saint Louis, a colonial city in the North of the country
Gobra cattle passing by in the streets of Thies
A baobab forest, a view from the road
Mouna, the kitten that I found last April, she will live in the house I stayed all these months with other two cats and a dog