Interviewing a fruit vendor, on a street corner in West Africa’s first French settlement, about his dream of becoming an importer of European cars was never an item on my bucket list. However, along with many other unanticipated adventures I experienced during my time in Senegal, I’m glad it happened. My two months as a Micro-finance volunteer in the historical city of Saint Louis were marked by experiences I could have never imagined having, collectively forming one of the most eye-opening, challenging and gratifying periods of my life.
My Micro-finance project
The aim of the Micro-finance project in Saint Louis is to help Talibés; street children in Senegal who are sent at a young age from impoverished rural homes to religious boarding schools known as Daaras. They often receive no formal education and are forced to spend their time begging for food scraps and small change. By providing loans and guidance, the Micro-finance project hopes to help these Talibés secure sustainable futures through small scale entrepreneurship.
As a volunteer, my day-to-day tasks largely involved monitoring the beneficiaries of the project, interviewing them on the progress of their businesses and encouraging them to continue reimbursing their loan. Through a Wolof translator, I would ask questions about the background of each beneficiary, what factors led him into his current business, what obstacles he had to overcome, which challenges he continues to face, what he has learnt since launching his business, where he sees himself in the future and what advice he has for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Volunteering in Senegal
Each session of questions provided the foundation for an article profiling the interviewee. By the end of my time in Senegal, I had assembled a portfolio of articles about beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries, detailing their progression and sharing their stories of achievements and hardships. My coordinator assured me he would pass on the success stories in Wolof to struggling beneficiaries, in hopes of aiding their cause.
The stories I heard were as diverse as the Senegalese people themselves. I spoke with fruit vendors, pizza makers, electronics suppliers, coffee sellers, bag makers and others. Each had a lesson to impart, from the necessity of setting up shop in a location with minimal competition, to the importance of taking many factors into consideration when choosing a product to vend. Beyond the interviewing and article writing, my time as a Micro-finance volunteer was also marked by tasks such as taking inventories, going on market visits, and teaching classes in French, English, and maths to potential beneficiaries, all of whom are required to pass certain courses before obtaining a loan.
Outside of work, opportunities to grow and learn presented themselves at every turn. Most people spoke only the language of their ethnic group, and French if they had formal schooling. I was able to practise and improve upon the latter, and brandishing a phrase in Wolof never failed to greatly entertain taxi drivers, roadside peanut vendors, and my host family, who graciously indulged my efforts to pick up the local dialect.
My host family
Living with a Senegalese host family certainly required an adjustment period, but in time I came to genuinely enjoy and appreciate it. Showering out of a bucket, sharing a home with livestock, and understanding that our food was cooked in very close proximity to some sheep of questionable cleanliness were all new experiences. But routines were quickly developed.
I learnt at which times of day the water pressure was strongest and therefore when the bucket could be filled up for my next shower. I learnt that the ominous looking blood stains that occasionally appeared splattered on the stairs when I returned home indicated nothing more sinister than that it had been a chicken slaughter day. I learnt to try to coordinate my schedule so that washing my clothes would not coincide with these days, as the nearness of the laundry lines to the chicken coop always posed the risk that some article of clothing might end up in a pool of decapitated poultry parts.
My host family was kind and hospitable. Although the smallest daughter spoke very minimal French, she always appeared at the door to inform my roommate and I of mealtimes with a cheerful “se mange!” The mother of the household dressed in beautiful, brightly-coloured traditional outfits, inspiring us to choose some fabrics from the hundreds of bold patterns available at the market and have them made by a local tailor into our own Senegalese garb.
Travelling on weekends in Senegal
Furthermore, the Projects Abroad staff members in Senegal were unwaveringly supportive and helpful. With their guidance, we were able to immerse ourselves in Saint Louis’s culture in all sorts of wonderful ways, from taking West African dance classes to patching together purses and wallets with a local artisan.
They demonstrated an exuberance and zest for life that I found incredibly admirable, best encapsulated in the ubiquitous Wolof exclamation of “begué!” The word, roughly translated to “don’t worry, be happy,” is heard as a greeting, in passing on the street, in response to any positive news, and many times simply as an expression of joy.
Senegal boasts so many stunning sights and fascinating flavours, and I was fortunate enough to be able to experience quite a number during my time there. Various weekends took me to Touba, the sacred city of Mouride Islam; Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary for breath-taking bird-watching on the Senegal River; the Lompoul Desert for camel rides and camping out; Palmarin, a rural community of isolated beaches and serene mangrove forests; and Dakar, the nation’s exhilarating and vibrant capital. With so much to see and do, I feel strongly that a return trip at some point in my future must be in the cards.
My final thoughts
There are many words I could use to describe my Senegalese sojourn: formative, offbeat, thought-provoking. There were a fair amount of frustrations and challenges. I became well-acquainted with the general disregard for timeliness, organisation, and commitment to appointments. The efforts of some of the beneficiaries to meet us halfway in helping their businesses grow were often less than wholehearted. And there was the constant knowledge that for every bit of progress you helped make, there were still many more hungry children out begging on the streets.
But there were inspiring successes and substantial strides to celebrate. And there were two months of gaining valuable experience in interviewing, writing, practicing French, and learning about businesses in the developing world – all in the context of a fascinating city and country. So perhaps the best word to describe my experience is not one of my own, but that one of which the Senegalese are so fond. I first heard it on the crumbling colonial streets of Saint Louis, and its message will remain with me for many years to come – begué!