Andrew Stephenson - General Care Projects in Senegal
Andrew Stephenson is my name. I lived in England for year when I was young, Japan for two years during middle school, the States for high school and just recently Senegal for a month as a volunteer for Projects Abroad. Now I am at university in the States (Washington State University) and next year I will be living in Switzerland to study French.
I was born in 1993 and am addicted to football (soccer as the Americans would say), learning foreign languages, chocolate and travel.
The Shock of Arriving in Africa
I was tired and scared when I walked off that plane and touched ground on African soil; my first thoughts were: “Africa is real.” After walking through customs getting my first African passport stamp and witnessing guards with guns slung across their chests, I eventually found Habib and Tayib amongst the crowd outside under the hot midnight sky.
That night I stayed in a nice house in the suburbs of Dakar before leaving the next morning to meet my host family and roommates. We eventually arrived in Saint-Louis and drove around the town dropping off each volunteer.
A warm, gentle breeze blowing in the wind ruffled the parts of my white shirt and cargo shorts that weren’t stuck to my sweaty body as I stepped onto the ground next to the van; every road was soft sand always warm from the blazing sun. I heard a boy from inside the house yell something in Wolof, but I could only guess he was announcing my arrival. The boy took a look at me with a huge smile; I looked back at him attempting to smile as well, though exhausted, hungry and still in disbelief my two feet were touching the continent of Africa. I carried my bags inside and Madame Aida, my host mother, showed me to my room to put my stuff and take a nap.
Having spent two weeks in the French Riviera attending intensive French classes prior to Senegal, I could say some things to my host family; later I found out, however, that French wasn’t their first language as well. The family communicates with each other in Wolof.
Starting my Projects
The next morning, a staff member from the Projects Abroad office in town came to pick me up and I was taken into town for orientation and a tour of the city centre. On this hot day I was shown the post office, bank and ATM machines as well as popular hangout areas. The next day, another person came to pick me up and I went to the large four-story school between my house and the city centre. I was introduced to the directors in charge of the junior high and young adults on the third floor learning English.
That day I sat in the English class the Danish volunteer was teaching and became very excited to teach English, but rather nervous. After three hours of watching a volunteer teach a class and later being talked to by the director on the curriculum, I returned back to my home for lunch and a rest. At 3:30 that same day, the same staff member that picked me up yesterday for orientation took me to the Centre de Talibé near my house and was introduced to the director there.
He gave me an orientation in French as that was the only Western language he knew and the staff member helped with some translation. We visited three locations around the Eastern suburbs of Saint Louis while I watched the volunteers and staff from the Centre de Talibé clean the wounds on many street children and bandage them with gauze. After visiting the first location, I knew I would never be a doctor.
As the days passed, I started to acquire better skills as a doctor walking around the city. I memorised the steps I had to take: clear liquid, red liquid, dry with gauze then bandage with new gauze. Even though I would cringe at every procedure made by removing a scab for closer contact with medicine, I felt like I was doing the most fulfilling thing in my life. After a couple hours in the late afternoon heat under the sun, I would return home that evening and either enjoy a beer with my friends at this restaurant hidden in the neighbourhoods or go to an internet café for Facebook, blogging, football videos of the Seattle Sounders or listen to Western music on YouTube.
Whichever way I ended the day, I would return back to my host family and eat dinner with them around 9-10pm (most Senegalese families eat very late the day) and enjoy a couple Western snacks I bought in town such as Pringles or Oreos I only bought twice during the month. My roommate and I would listen to music and lie down right in front of the rotating fan to cool off. Family members would walk into our room often to say hello, admire our cameras or just see how we were doing. We would fall asleep to start a whole new day.
As an English teacher, I asked to have Tuesday and Thursday off to plan my lessons in the morning since never before have I taught English in a designated room for me – just me by myself, let alone it being the first time I ever lesson planned for a large group having to balance educational with interesting. I would start at 9am Monday, Wednesday and Friday and chat with the other volunteers about my age about their lesson plans and their plans later in the day. I would walk into my classroom and the students would scramble to their desks and I would say, “Bonjour”; a couple would respond. I would clear the board and review what I talked about last lesson no longer than when the break came at 10:30. The break would last 30 minutes which left enough time to brush the chalk dust of my clothes and go get nibble to eat on the street near the school which was coffee and small beignet (doughnut hole) if I lucky.
The three other volunteer teachers from Canada and the States and I would chat until 11:00 and start teaching again until noon and could leave with a sign of relief.
After a few hours of rest, I arrived at the Centre de Talibé and would begin my journey yet again performing my tasks as doctor a little bit faster after each day. Thursday and Fridays were special however at the Centre de Talibé. On Thursday we would wait outside the bakery where hundreds of baguettes could be made about every half hour.
After 20-30 minutes has passed, we would take the bread back to the centre and prepare it with a chocolate and water mixture. Fridays, the children would show up instead of us leaving to find them, and they would take showers in the shower room, they would often get new clothes and be bandaged-up if needed. We would play games out on the terrace, but as most the children didn’t know a word of French, no one could communicate with them except through hand gestures and actions. The children would eventually leave and we would return home more exhausted than ever but enjoy Fridays at a bar, the beach or a nightclub.
With a couple planned excursions by Projects Abroad to the desert and north near the Mauritanian border, this experience was the greatest experience of my life. For the longest time I thought living in Japan for two years attending an international school and living without a car relying on the metro was the greatest and most important time of my life. But in retrospect, I chose Senegal for adventure, perspective and language proficiency; I gained all of this. I came to Africa to witness the truth about the continent I only saw through Animal Planet and the Travel Channel. Senegal changed almost everything about me.
If you are on the edge on travelling to an African or Southern Asian country, then you must go. If you want adventure and more perspective on your own country, I recommend Senegal or another African country and spend at least a month as a volunteer (or work if you have the chance). But remember, that if you live in another third-world culture and hope to change that society, you are widely mistaken. You will in fact return to your home more changed mentally than the change you hoped to give.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.