Sushant Mukherjee - General Teaching Projects in Senegal
I didn't really know what to expect as the taxi lurched down the sandy road towards the white house with a neatly trimmed hedge that was to be my home for the next two months. Having spent almost half of my life in Southern Africa, I wasn't really fazed, but I did expect it to be a huge change from the culture of my home country, India, as well as starkly different from the other parts of this vast continent that I had grown to love, and become accustomed to. As I hauled my dusty backpack out of the taxi and slung it over my shoulder, I recalled the rapid sequence of events of the past few months that had brought me here, to the city of Saint Louis in northern Senegal, France's first colony on the African continent.
Six months earlier, I had decided to quit my comfortable yet ultimately unfulfilling job with a UN agency in Johannesburg, South Africa, in order to take some time to travel the world and remind myself why I had chosen a career in international development in the first place, as well as to improve my French, a skill that was so useful for a development professional in Africa. After a couple of months of backpacking in South Asia, I headed to Paris where I enrolled myself in intensive language classes. I had planned on spending the subsequent couple of months travelling through West Africa, a region I had wanted to visit since I was a child.
One day, while searching online to plan a tentative itinerary for my upcoming trip, I came across a link to the Projects Abroad Senegal site. At a first glance, it seemed like something targeted more towards gap-year university students looking for some volunteer experience than for a 29-year-old backpacker. The more I read, however, the more I became convinced that the Projects Abroad programme could be a substantive introduction to a completely new culture. Particularly appealing was the opportunity to live with a Senegalese host family. In the first few days of my stay with the Niang family, I learned quickly that my anticipation of a dramatic cultural transition couldn't have been further from the truth. In fact, the most astonishing part of my time in Saint Louis is how familiar the Senegalese culture really feels to me.
Many aspects of daily Senegalese life have struck a personal chord, perhaps none more so than the food, which I have found to be astonishingly good, particularly the mouth-watering fish maffé. The emphasis on heavy, onion, garlic and ginger-based sauces reminds me of my own North Indian food, and the cuisine is more packed with flavour than anything I have ever tasted in Southern or Eastern Africa. The succulent Senegalese piement, as flavourful a chilli as any I have tasted in India, was a particularly pleasant surprise, and the Niang family often watches in amusement as I pop whole chillis into my mouth with relish.
In fact, mealtimes are usually my favourite times of the day in Saint Louis. Every evening, as the family crowds around the communal bowl for dinner on the floor of the salon, my host mother flicks the biggest chillis, as well as the choicest pieces of meat or fish, in my direction. Her example is dutifully followed by my little host sisters. Initially, I was reluctant to accept the best portions of the meal, but began to realize that this was yet another manifestation of the legendary Senegalese teranga - Wolof for 'hospitality.'
Life with the Niang family has settled into a comfortable routine. My host sisters constantly amaze me with their intelligence and grace, their hard work around the house at an age when I was too spoilt to even make my own bed, and their constant laughter. The only times of strife occur during World Cup games, when they would rather be watching a French dubbed Hollywood romantic comedy - certain gender differences, it seems, are universal.
I teach them English whenever I get a chance, and in return, they teach me rudimentary Wolof. During these impromptu language lessons, the occasional word pops up which I recognize as being identical in Hindi, as a result of the historical influence of Arabic on Wolof, and the age-old link between Semitic languages and those of the northern half of the Indian subcontinent.
Three weeks into my sojourn in Saint Louis, and in spite of the occasional, almost always good-natured cries of 'toubab' from street children on the grand Pont Faidherbe, I feel almost like a local, even if I don't look or speak like one. Moreover, my volunteer work, which has so far involved teaching computer classes to high school children and teachers, and painting a primary school, is hardly earth shattering in its scope or significance, and yet I often feel more useful now than I did in my two and a half years with the United Nations.
With every passing day, I accumulate more and more memorable experiences and moments, but none more vivid than the sensation I felt when I woke up that first morning in my new bedroom in the Niang household. The evening before, I had given my new family a few Hindi films and CDs, so as to introduce them to a little bit of my own culture. When I stirred the next morning, the first thing I heard was the cloying strains of Hindi film music, and my host sisters dancing around trying to imitate the lyrics and the dance moves from the Bollywood film playing on the TV.
One of them pranced into my room and told me that breakfast was ready. When I entered the salon, I was handed a steaming cup of hot chocolate, and my host sisters crowded around me, asking me why I didn't want to be a Bollywood actor. I managed a sheepish grin, covered my baguette with a thick layer of chocolate spread, and had to remind myself that I wasn't in my own family's courtyard in New Delhi. After six months of living out of a backpack in anonymous, threadbare hostels, it was wonderful to really feel at home again.
Teranga in Saint Louis, it seems to me, is more than just a catchphrase, or a tourist gimmick - it is, quite simply, a way of being. I remember reading somewhere that one of the reasons the Senegalese practice teranga is so that they too, one day, will be welcomed into the homes of others on their own travels. I would love to have that opportunity one day with my host family, and to show them, as they have shown me, that cultural gaps and differences are rarely as great as we often make them out to be.