News Story: Living in Thilmakha; adapting to rural life in Senegal
I went to Senegal with Project Trust in 2021. I’d like to share my experiences living, working
and socialising in a remote village.
Travelling to your project for the first time is a unique experience, I remember driving
through an unfamiliar dusty landscape, with a few hardy trees and even hardier goats. I was
full of excitement, anticipation and nerves as this is going to be my home for the next
chapter in my life. Myself and my partner (Seona) were in Thilmakha, Senegal. A rural village
in the centre of the country, acclimatising was a bit tricky at first, with a whole new culture,
language, and an average of around 38 degrees Celsius. However, in no time it became our
We were living in a room in a shared house, there were four separate houses with a
communal, and very lively, courtyard space in the centre. Our house was inhabited by men
working in the village, however in the other three houses were busy families who all took us
under their wing. We didn’t have a host family exactly, but we ate, cooked, babysat and
hung out with our neighbours daily. we had the option to either live at the school with other
teachers, or in our room in the heart of the village and we are very glad we chose the
village. This allowed us to be exposed to both worlds, school and village life.
Living with the community was incredibly enriching and meant we learned the local
language (Wolof) at speed. It is so rewarding to feel involved and accepted in the
community however it can be a balancing act, and in my experience, sometimes
overwhelming. The difference in culture is what makes the year so enriching and
interesting, however your expectations are constantly challenged. For example, our cultural
expectations of gender equality and animal rights. Over time we built up layers of
understanding which helped us process these things.
An example in our community, was a girl who lived next door. She was about 13 years old
and we assumed she was one of the family’s daughters. However, we soon noticed she
wasn’t going to school, and realised she was a live-in maid. The scenario of a child working
as a maid and being denied education is awful, and should never happen. However
culturally it is the norm in parts of Senegal. In fact, they were surprised that we were
surprised. The girl had come from a poor background and not done well in school, so the
family saw taking her in for work as a charitable act. Of course, this is still a child being
denied of their rights but It is important to listen to perspectives when staying in a
community, even if you don’t agree.
Being immersed in a community is a wonderful thing. We were in a village which meant
everyone got to know us, and we had a close relationship with our neighbours, shop
keepers and students. One cultural difference which I found inspiring but also tricky was
how privacy is viewed. In Thilmakha every door is open, everyone shares meals, kids run
freely between houses and parenting is done by everyone. This in incredibly welcoming and
facilities a warm and friendly atmosphere. However, sometimes it can be hard to find time
for yourself. I definitely got a little frustrated when kids would bang on my door asking “why
did you lock it?!” after a long day at school. I suppose the photos on our wall and fairly lights
were enticing. Kids would find where we lived and bring back flocks of others. You could say
we were novelties. However, this did all simmer down the longer we stayed. It’s worth
noting we were the first volunteer teachers to go there with Project Trust, and the first
white people since the early nineties with the Peace Corps.
At first, I think we were making such an effort to get involved and learn the language, that
we ignored our “social batteries”. We found explaining that we wanted the occasional meal
to ourselves and the odd evening on our rooms beneficial for our energy levels and mental
health. I also think it was good or our “host families” to have some space. Nevertheless, we
have made friendships that will last a lifetime.
Onto My favourite topic, the food. We often helped cook, and paid a about £13 a month for
lunch and dinner from the neighbours whom we are close with. I can now say I’ve chopped
more onions than kids in the lycée. I love cooking with people. Its one of those things that
fills people with pride, and encourages generosity and togetherness. Food is defiantly their
love language which was especially apparent at Tabaski (the Wolof name for Eid) which is a
Muslim festival, involving the killing and eating of sheep. We ate Thiebougenne pretty much
daily, which is a very popular dish in Senegal consisting of rice, fish and veggies.
Our neighbours Ngorne and Awa taught how to cook, hand wash clothes, and helped us get
good prices in the market. In turn we babysat, showed them songs, games and helped them
with school and house work. All in all, strong friendships were formed. One of the most
important ways they helped us was explaining things we didn’t understand, such as
Senegalese Islam, family dynamics and djinns (Islamic spirits who are believed to be very
Over time we definitely gained an understanding of wider Senegalese culture and Islam (the
main religion) which helped us make sense of our time there and appreciate it. We saw
some beautiful things, such as great Magals, which are religious festivals dedicated to
certain serignes (saints). But then again, also some more difficult things such as the Talibe
who are child beggars who work on the streets to learn life’s hardships and who learn the
Quran in the evening. I do think it’s important to realise that we can’t help everyone, and
are there to teach English and for a cultural exchange and not to change the world, and it’s
important to have mutual respect.
My nine months in Senegal hasn’t been the easiest period of my life, but I am so happy I
went, and will go back. The support we had from our community and friends made the
harder parts of our stay much easier. I know I will be reflecting and learning from the
experiences for many years to come.