Katy Ohle

DSCF0626.JPGService In Senegal

When I finished College at the end of 2011, I was certain of the fact that I wanted to take a gap year, I just had to find something to do in that year to fill it. I considered loads of places but as I have never been to Africa I thought why not? How different can it be? I clearly had no idea what I was in for!

I used Projects Abroad to help me plan but the first difficulty was choosing which country to go to because I had never heard of any of them in the brochure! In the end I chose Senegal a) because it was by the coast so I had dreams of lounging by the sea and b) because it was a French speaking country and I wanted to improve my French. I was right about the second one.

Arriving in Dakar airport was possibly the scariest experience of my life. Flooded with people trying to convince me to give them money, I was a little overwhelmed and was so relieved when I finally saw the Projects Abroad sign waiting outside. After a long car drive, we finally made it to St Louis and I got to meet my new African family. A twelve hour time difference and complete language change were difficult to say the least. Many miming conversations ensued in our attempts at communication but it wasn't long before I had ‘almost’ mastered the Senegalese accent.

I worked in a Talibe Centre - a centre in the health section for street children to come and have their wounds cleaned/ learn English. For a person who was petrified of blood, my first day was very scary and I couldn't bring myself to touch any of the wounds. However it only took a few days before my fear was forced out of me and I loved my work. It got to the stage where the more infected and pus filled, the more interesting! You have no idea how satisfying it is to have a little boy come in with a massively infected wound and you send him out with a beautifully clean bandaged one! I'm no nurse but I was given complete freedom to treat the kids but I always had Amina (a properly trained doctor) there to answer my many questions and to take over if it really was too gross.

About four times a week we used to go to the daaras (where the talibes sleep and learn the Koran) which really was eye-opening. These young boys, aged from five to 20, live in dirty, cramped areas with no parental support except for one ‘maribu’ (religious leader). After witnessing beatings and hearing stories about how the kids got their wounds, you really do realise how lucky we are to live somewhere as safe as NZ. Even though we were only making a tiny difference in the greater scale of things, our work was crucial to these children. I have never met such smiling, happy children even when clearly their wound was incredibly painful. They were just ecstatic to have someone care about them and who was willing to play games with them. One of the other volunteers wore wigs and brought toys just to make the kids laugh which was really special!

A typical day in Senegal started at 8 when I woke up and had breakfast. Then it was a short 2 minute walk to work. At the centre we would spend an hour or so doing the kids’ wounds who were at the centre. Then we were off to one of the Daaras which we could either walk to or have great fun taking the car rapides which are incredibly full buses - an interesting experience!

We would then spend the rest of the morning cleaning wounds at the Daaras where you would end up being surrounded by a never ending stream of kids patiently waiting for their turn. When we finished it was then back to the centre and then home for lunch.  We were then back to the centre by 4pm ready for either another trip to a Daara or (as I was in charge of the money) on to the market. This was loads of fun as you were bombarded with sellers trying to convince you to buy their product. Luckily I had Amina with me to steer me in the right direction.

My favourite day at the centre was Thursday as this was the day when we handed out a banana and a little bag of juice to each child. This meant that the centre would be full to bursting of children - our record was over 200!  

Another day I loved was Friday when I taught an English class. My first one was only small with only four students but by the end of my trip I had a full classroom of about 20! The talibes are just so thirsty for knowledge that they are the most dedicated and motivated students I have ever encountered and really put NZ kids to shame, myself included!

I taught the class in French which was slightly difficult but we had the mutual understanding that as I learnt French, they learnt English and luckily I had some very good French speakers in the class who could explain the more difficult parts to the others in Wolof (the native African language). It really is an experience to be standing up by yourself (as an 18 year old) in front of 20 year old guys. I definitely have a new respect for teachers!

I lived with a host family which was completely different to my actual family. Mainly because I found myself with 8 extra siblings! Being an only child, this was a lot to get used to, especially the younger children who never seemed to run out of energy. It didn't take long though till I felt a real part of the family. We all ate together out of the same bowl so mealtimes were the main social times. One of my host brothers was around my age so we spent many a lunchtime watching ‘Vampire Diaries’ together and having interesting conversations. I adored my host parents who were very protective (just like normal parents) and always asked where I was going and checked to make sure I came home safely.

It wasn't all hard work though as nearly every evening there was some sort of social activity. Whether it was the highly competitive quiz night or trying to fend off marriage proposals (yes, men in Senegal are not afraid of commitment!) we were always really busy and having heaps of fun! The other volunteers were from all over the world so we had great fun sharing our cultures.

Looking back on my time in Senegal, although it was incredibly difficult to begin with, I realise now that it was definitely the best time of my life. I have a new opinion on many things and have seriously had to re-address what I now consider 1st world problems! Africa will always have a place in my heart and I thoroughly recommend Projects Abroad to anyone considering a gap year as I always felt safe and happy.

A huge thank you to the team at Projects Abroad for my once-in-a-lifetime experience