Desk Officer Dave Entwistle recently visited Project Trust’s volunteers in Senegal. Here are five things he learned on the visit:

First impressions of Senegal

It is almost impossible not to have preconceptions of a country before you go there for the first time, but inevitably a lot of those preconceptions are blown away within your first few days. Senegal is completely culturally distinct from the countries in Africa I am familiar with and it was amazing to get a first-hand feel for how the Senegalese people live their lives and in particular how our projects there operate. I was really struck by people’s welcoming nature and the care and attention that was paid to our volunteers by their colleagues and host families. Another point which stood out was the wide range of different liberal and traditional principles and political beliefs I encountered as I got to know more people in the different communities.

The cuisine is fascinating as there is a wide range of influences including food found in most Arabic countries, the staple West African dishes and the French legacy left by the colonial history of the country. French is the official language, but in reality it is a minority of the population who use French day-to-day and Wolof is used much more commonly.

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The volunteer experience in Senegal

From a work point of view the Senegal country programme is demanding: the volunteers are given a lot of responsibility and each project offers something different. At one project the volunteers have a full timetable in a secondary school, in another they teach English and ICT at a community centre and in the third they teach in three different schools and run an education group for girls not in formal education. Despite the pressures of the projects, this year’s group are doing fantastically well and are really thriving in challenging environments. They have a large but rewarding workload and are a highly motivated bunch. Our project hosts had great feedback for me on the performance of the group and I am very impressed at the positive impact the volunteers are making at their projects.

Although standards of living for volunteers in Senegal are basic in comparison to what they are used to the UK, it certainly isn’t the stereotype of mud huts in rural villages. The projects are based in small towns where there is evident poverty but there are also busy markets, wealthier areas and an active middle class. Volunteers have access to reasonably realiable electricity, internet and mobile phone signal.

Volunteers are taking the opportunity to learn about Islam

The vast majority of people in Senegal are Muslim, and some of the volunteers live with Muslim host families. For many of the volunteers it is the first time they’ve experienced a predominantly Islamic culture and it was great to hear their insights and reflections after six months. It’s an aspect of the year that all the volunteers have engaged with in a very positive way. There are also minority Christian populations and Senegal is often cited as an excellent example of religious harmony between different belief systems. The volunteers in one project live with a Muslim family but have joined a local church choir which is a great example of this working in practice.

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The need for a new frame of discourse when discussing West Africa

During Training last summer the volunteers and their parents were very sensibly asking questions about Ebola in West Africa and what precautions Project Trust had in place. The volunteers are now very proactive about voicing how safe Senegal is as it has thankfully remained clear of Ebola. The volunteers have a very strong reaction when they see the country they’ve grown so attached to represented by the single narrative of West Africa being disease-ridden, poverty-stricken and in desperate need of aid. The narrative they want to promote is of an empowered, confident and outward-looking country, which is exactly what Senegal is.

Sporting surprises

Sport in general is an important part of Senegal’s cultural identity, and people take great pride in their football and basketball teams. But what really surprised me was the massive profile of Senegalese wrestling (Lutte sénégalaise in French or Laamb in Wolof). Everywhere you go in Senegal people are talking about when the next big wrestling match is, people follow wrestlers like many support football teams and to become a wrestler is a common aspiration as it is seen as a glamorous lifestyle.