As an artist who’s at university majoring in theatre, it seemed weird to my friends and family that I would choose to do Micro-finance in Senegal the summer after my final year of secondary school. It was a little strange to me too! I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to help implement social change wherever I was.
I chose Senegal for my placement because of my desire for service and my wish to improve my French. I chose Micro-finance because it appeared to me that it would be a way to help implement sustainability in some Senegalese businesses.
Arriving in Senegal
When I arrived in the country, I was picked up from the airport and immediately made the five-hour journey to my host family in Saint Louis. I was so tired when I got there that I ate dinner by myself and went straight to bed. The next morning, the five-year old boy who lived there knocked on my door to wake me up. I didn’t understand anything the family was saying at breakfast, but I smiled and tried to use what little French I could (learning a language in a classroom doesn’t necessarily mean you can communicate with native speakers!)
Because I arrived on the Friday, I spent the Saturday and Sunday with the family without meeting any other volunteers. While somewhat stressful because of the language barrier, this was a great experience, because I was able to spend time with the family, especially the children. They were very welcoming and tolerated my naiveté about the country.
I was able to have some meaningful conversations with them, perhaps more so than the adults. My family was very kind and accepting. Through the time of Ramadan, they made lunch for me and my fellow volunteers every day, even though it took a lot of effort and they weren’t able to eat. The children were also willing to walk me around the neighbourhood and teach me about the area.
My Micro-finance project
When my placement started, I was thrown right in. I was working in the Micro-finance Office, which works with talibes (boys who are sent to learn the Qur’an and end up begging in the streets). Some of the older ones wish to start their own business in order to improve their lives and become self-reliant. It was such a unique experience.
The process for starting a business was the classes needed to run the business, a final test to see whether they were ready, having them sign off on the loan, buying what was needed, and setting up shop. The first business we helped set up was a barbershop. The two owners didn’t have all the skills or experience they needed to set up a shop, but they were willing to work hard.
As we needed to be sure that the loan they were getting went to the correct items for their shop, we spent a lot of time going to different shops around the market and asking the owners how much they would sell the items for. For instance, we had to buy a new chair for the shop, and we went to two different owners to see who would give us the lower price. We also helped in a more hands-on way. Instead of just giving them the loan and leaving them to themselves, we had a day where we helped them clean the shop and paint.
They were very invested in how the shop was set up. I remember having to paint the name of the barbershop on the outside of the door. One of them corrected me so it would be exactly how he wanted it. The other business was a craft business, with a talibe who made bags out of coconuts and another type of wood. The volunteers were very willing to buy some from him. At one point, he came to one of our gatherings and sold them to us. It was wonderful both to help him start the business and then support him by being some of his first customers.
We also taught classes to some of the talibes. They needed to be taught very basic math, which I sometimes take for granted. I helped teach an addition and subtraction class, which seems very simple, but in the world of the talibes, it can be a skill that is incredibly needed. We also taught English classes to them, so they would be able to interact with tourists or people who spoke more English. Another part of the work was to write up reports on what happened at each visit and to organise documents in a Google docs folder.
The Projects Abroad staff in Senegal are wonderful people. Fortunately, I never had an emergency where I needed their help, but I’m sure that if I did, they would have been ready at a moment’s notice to step in and help me. The staff in the main office planned events for the volunteers that were fun and also taught us a lot about Senegal.
Experiencing the culture
One of my first days, we had a little gathering where we had a trivia game about Senegal. One of the most touching events we had was on Nelson Mandela Day. We spent the early afternoon filling bags with food in the office. That was a good experience by itself, because we all got to be together as a group and meet the volunteers who I hadn’t met before.
After that, we went out into the streets and handed out the food to anyone we saw. It was very powerful to see the looks on some peoples’ faces as they got free food. One thing that really stood out to me was the amount of talibe boys that tried to get food and come back for more.
The staff at each of the sites were amazing as well. One of our staff members took a few of us shopping for Senegalese fabrics so we could have traditional clothing made. We visited the care centre and saw the volunteers playing games with the children there at one point as well. It’s clear that the staff truly care about the people they’re serving, and the volunteers that come to help.
Travelling in Senegal
I saw other parts of Senegal through travelling to the Lompoul Desert on one of my weekends, and spending a few days in Dakar at the end of my trip. This beautiful country has such an air of hospitality and warmth. Even with the constant sense of the poverty and the sadness of the street children I saw around me, the spirit and life of Senegal surrounded me everywhere I went. And there’s still a piece of it with me now.