The dust, the smiles and the rhythm of the drums, West Africa, can really get under your skin; I lost count of the number of times I’ve visited this corner of the globe a long time ago. As I set out on a journey of a different kind, namely sponsoring a child in Senegal, I’ve been looking through my photographs from two fleeting visits to this particular country, and thinking about how little I really know about life here.
Sponsoring a child through Plan UK, from India to Senegal
Re-wind ten years to when I started sponsoring a little girl in India through the charity Plan UK. At least once a year I’d receive a letter from her, an up-to-date photo and a report about the work Plan were doing in her community and I, not as often as I should, wrote to her. Time has flown by and now that little girl is a young woman of 18 years old and my sponsorship has come to an end. It’s be an honour to have followed her story and it felt strange and a little sad to write to her for the very last time.
However, where one story ends another begins and I felt so excited when I received a letter about another little girl, this time in Senegal, who I now sponsor. Mareme (as I will call her here) lives in the suburbs of Dakar, a city I have visited, if only briefly.
While I’ve been to the neighbouring country, The Gambia, many times (sometimes for work but mainly on holidays and in connection with a charity I helped run) I’ve only been to Senegal twice and both visits were very short. But the two countries have much in common. Once they, as well as other West African countries, were all part of one vast Empire. Tribes such as the Mandinka, Wolof and Jola moved around settling in new places and some of the tribes found in Senegal today are also in The Gambia. The boundaries between these two countries were drawn up by the colonial rulers with no regard for the indigenous population.
Though both countries were freed from colonialism some time ago the official language in The Gambia is English, where as in Senegal it is French. Sadly my French stinks, although it is marginly better than my Wolof, the language that Mareme has been brought up speaking. I have Wolof friends in The Gambia and have asked them how I send my greetings to Mareme in her own language…Na nga def means How are you? Na ka wa keer gui asks How is your family? And Nouyoul ma sa wadiour yi bou bakh tranlates as Give my best regards to your parents. Don’t ask me to pronounce them though!
What do I know about life in Senegal?
In my two brief visits I had a glimpse of how people live in rural Senegal. Houses are made out of mud bricks, that the families will have made themselves, with either thatched roofs as shown below or corrugated steel roofs.
As in The Gambia, families live in compounds, namely a plot of land where extended family groups live together. By far the majority of people are Muslims and as such, each man may have up to 4 wifes, although fewer is more typical. They all live in one compound together with their children and often grandparents and maybe other members of the extended family.
The villages I saw had no electricity or running water. A typical bathroom (pictured above) consists of a fenced off area with a few bowls with a pit latrine next door (pictured below). Basically this is a large hole in the ground covered over with just a small opening left. Here an old tin can is used to keep the hole open. I’ve only seen such toilets in the dry season and I dread to think what they are like in the rainy season.
Years of drought and poor harvests
When I visited it didn’t surprise to find out that the area has suffered from years of drought, particularly in the 1970s and 80s.
When driving through the Sine Saloum region of Senegal I met these lads above and a little later, the ones below. It made me quite nervous when I spotted one of the boys climbing up into this giant baobab tree, throwing down fresh leaves for the cattle below, cattle that looked in need of nourishment with their ribs cages clearly visible.
Life in Dakar
Following the drought, the resulting poor harvests and land degradation, coupled with the pull of jobs in the city, a massive rural exodus to Dakar created overcrowded slums. The land is suitable for farming but it has been overpopulated and the homes have been built without any planning, sometimes in very narrow spaces creating insanitary environments. Many of the homes have been built in low lying areas and often flood during the rainy season which lasts from June to October each year.
Mareme was born in 2007 and lives with her sister, father and mother, together with other family members in Dakar. They live in a concrete house, with a concrete roof and a wooden floor, so quite different from other homes I have seen in Senegal. Another difference is that they have piped water to their home rather than having to collect it from a communal well. Just like rural homes they use a pit latrine.
Plan’s work in Senegal
I am hoping one day, and not before too long, I will be able to visit Mareme and her family and see for myself the work Plan is doing there.
Plan has been operating in Senegal since 1982, running education, health and child protection programmes that have benefited over 35,000 children in some 600 communities across the country.
Plan started operating in the area where Mareme lives some ten years later and have brought about significant improvement to the lives of thousands of families.
Currently Plan assists around 6,000 underprivileged children in Dakar, children like my sponsored girl. The low income of most households here and the high cost of tuition and school supplies stopped many children attending school. Plan provides free school supplies and scholarships to children starting high school. They also refurbish schools damaged during flooding and are working with communities to build new schools.
Of course, there are many other aspects to Plan’s work in Senegal and over the coming months I’ll be finding out more about life there, the challenges people face and the achievements that have been made.