By Lynn Beauregard –in Senegal
Where to start on attempting to relate on this journey so far?
I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I had finally returned after so many years, to Senegal: the country where I spent my childhood until the age of 13. After a handful of days here, it has finally hit me that I’m back and though it is still so familiar to me, I also feel somewhat disoriented; after 30 years, I guess any place would look different. It is sad to see so very little of the points of orientation that I would have easily recognized…had nothing changed. Where there was landscape, fields and views of the ocean, it is so built up that one can barely see from one row of cement through to another, much less to the coast, which lines the whole perimeter of Dakar and its region. At the same time, it is familiar…the same noise, smells, humidity, heat, huge smiles all around…even from those just emerging from vociferous verbal exchanges…and there are many potential provocations…traffic being the most likely one: no lights, no lanes…just a rampant ‘I have no breaks’ attitude which makes it a miracle that we haven’t run over a single of the hundreds of pedestrians crossing this circus or cattle for that matter. The rainy season has just ended, and it is hot, muggy and the vegetation is lush from the rainfall while the roads are a muddy mess.
Accompanied by Willy Rangira (CODE’s representative for French speaking programs), Jeff Gilmour (a fellow CODE Board member based in Calgary and Mali’s Consul to Alberta) and Antoinette Correa (CODE’s partner in Senegal, BLD’s Executive Director) we made arrangements to rent a villa rather than stay at some of the downtown hotels we could have chosen. The villa was a more economical choice, and the fortunate location near the airport allowed us to avoid up to 45 minutes of traffic in and out of the overpopulated downtown core. The house is an oasis in and among the mayhem of the muddy “river runs through it” roads.
We arrive at the house where NDeye (the housekeeper who comes with the rental) and Modu (the night watchman) are there to welcome us. I get a hug from NDeye right away and immediately feel at home again. The one thing that strikes you (outside of the stern looking security at the airport and ‘gendarmes’ around the Dakar periphery) is the incredible gentleness and friendliness of the Senegalese people. They are approachable, respectful (for the most part), they respond to your awkward efforts to discourse even gauchely in their native Wolof (the main dialect of this country…one of 60 or so) before taking you off the hook and speaking French to you, which is the national language of Senegal as the country was colonized by the French.
The first day was a day of ‘rest’ so we spent it by going to the market, making the traditional meal (poulet Yassa), and we later had to return to the airport to get Jeff. He thought the Yassa was ‘verrry niiice’ and didn’t stop raving, so we made sure that he had at least one or two more of those over the course of the next week… The next day a visit had been organized for us by BLD (Bibliotèque Lecture Developpment) to go to Gorée island. Gorée carries an incredible history, mostly a sad one as it was the main port of embarkation for West African slaves to the Americas for over 300 years. It was first occupied by the Portugese around the 15th century, then the Dutch, then the British for a very brief time and finally, the French around the late 1700s, who abolished the trade around the time of Napoleon’s death in 1848. Gorée then became the seat of the Governor of the French colonies. The whole of Senegal then became independent in 1960 from the French and Senghor was sworn in as its first President.
The Island is just as it was when I was there. It is small and cannot be touched as it is a historical site protected by UNESCO, so whatever building has taken place since has mostly been for refurbishing its existing colonial houses and residences. The House of Slaves is the most heart wrenching place and one cannot leave there without feeling that they have been carried back in time and witnessed things that one can hardly bear to think of. It isn’t hard, as the place has been maintained almost to its original state, to imagine the cells filled with humanity and feel the despair that permeated the walls. The two circular staircases that flank the front of the house lead to the upstairs officers’ quarters and the lower portion of the ‘house’ housed its cells. There were cells for men, for women and for children. There were also cells for the recalcitrant…without light, air or space. Nelson Mandela once visited Gorée and spent 2 minutes in one of these cells. Right through the middle of the passage to the cells at the very back, is a door that opens up to the sea which is known as the ‘door of no return’. It was through this door that each slave would be taken to either be thrown in the ocean if he/she was sick or wasn’t fit for the journey ahead, or through which they were forced to walk up the plank to embark on the voyage to the Americas where over 20% of them would have perished.
The island today is not just a sad reminder. It is a beautifully maintained oasis across from the mayhem of Dakar that can be reached by a 30-minute boat ride from the port of Dakar and is a great excursion for a walk through 700 years of history of the colonies. The island is lush with manicured vegetation and flowers, vividly coloured houses, port side cafes and restaurants and boutiques and the blue-green ocean water all around gives it a sense of serenity.
On Monday we head out to the BLD offices in Sikam Mbao, a suburb of Dakar, meet the BLD staff and talk with Antoinette through the morning about our CODE/BLD program. I relate much of that in my first blog. We are once again struck that morning by the traffic, pollution and madness on the roads as we make our way there in yet another non air-conditioned cab with only one functional back door and no seat belts...There is a general sense of purpose and a buzz about the office as they are preparing for our visits as well as for their book launch on that coming Friday with the Ministry of Culture. We are excited as we are going to see three more schools that day. We have already been to the school in Sokone in the first part of the week…an incredible feeling to see these children and their school, so far out from the busy capital, to experience firsthand what you know you are working toward in a boardroom somewhere back in Canada and seeing really IS believing…
In Dakar, we have been in some of its worst slums (and Dakar is not a picnic to begin with) then our stunning drive to the Sine Saloum river 4 hour drive south Tuesday and Wednesday overnight. Visiting the schools (a total of four) that first week, was by far our most emotional moments of this trip. In Sokone, we handed out the Project Love kits which were assembled and sent from a school in Ontario. We visited other schools and libraries who are part of the network of CODE and its partner BLD in Dakar. We also met with the Ministry of Education and were guests of honour at BLD’s book launch of nine new children's books by BLD with the Ministry of Culture on Friday night. Finally on Saturday we met with the BLD board and spent a 1/2 day working with them on strategy, looking at their challenges and their strategic plan, their governance concerns and their evolution (volunteers are very difficult to find in developing countries…most people already try to carry more than one occupation to make ends meet…). It was a very rewarding and enlightening discussion. What one inevitably walks away with is the feeling that as much as we are working together and collaborating well, we are such a small drop of water in an ocean of need. So few children can read by the time they ‘reach’ grade 6, whether or not they can go to school…and if they do, they may have little choice/option but to drop out and stay close to home where they are needed to do jobs and help care for the young. Books are hard to come by, not solely in the region of Dakar and are a rare appearance anywhere else. Most of the children speak their native dialect first, Wolof second and French next if they can go to school that is. The biblio-bus concept will not leave my head. I love the idea of a library on wheels that can reach out to those communities that just do not have a chance at seeing any real and significant aid come their way for a long time…if ever.
What strikes me the most about this country…all over again is the people. Those whom we have met en route and on a day to day basis have all been incredibly welcoming. Everywhere we go, we are met with huge smiles, even from the women sweating in the fields in the mid-day sun stop and wave. The heat has been oppressive. Senegal is just out of the rainy season and it is 33 in the shade but feels closer to 40 without the breeze. We sweat even just sitting down...but we have gotten used to it somewhat by now. It has been an incredible week...very tiring but so worthwhile. Yesterday was our first day of rest and today we head South to Saly for the rest of the trip where we get to do more of that, combined with some sightseeing, day safari, fishing, village markets...it will be a welcome change to the pace that we have been keeping, and we’re looking forward to getting a bit of fresher air away from the urban pollution, crowds, dust and cattle…