One of the things that struck me the most during my drives through Dakar was the contrast that I saw everywhere. Outside of my window, I watched mesmerized as we passed by large white buildings decorated with elaborately colorful tiles standing adjacent to the most dilapidated, run down houses I had ever seen. There were many instances where I couldn’t distinguish between the construction and destruction of these buildings; it certainly didn’t seem to me as though any person could safely call these places home, and it also struck me as odd that there could be such beauty in the architecture right next to them. Shiny new BMWs and Mercedes Benzes cruise the streets, bumper to bumper with vehicles so old and so banged up that I am certain they would never be allowed on the streets in America. Rich adults in their classy cars are approached constantly by poor children in tattered clothing, walking amidst traffic barefoot with the hope that someone will roll down their window and give them some money, any money.
On the day of our internships, Sophie, Carmen and I careened through the busy streets of Dakar in a typical taxi cab—cracked windows, brave driver, and window decals of religious figures. Upon our arrival at Ecopole, after paying the driver the previously agreed upon amount for his service, we were ushered into a classroom through a large door. Like most buildings I encountered in Dakar, even the rooms inside had a very outside feeling to them. The room we were in was lit by the sunlight that streamed in through the windows. There were handmade toys, bags, and candleholders along two of the walls and pictures of Senegalese communities with captions written in the meticulous handwriting of children along the other. A few tables and chairs made up the majority of the furniture in the room, although there was also a large display shelf for the art and a desk in one of the back corners. I didn’t really know what kind of school Ecopole was at first, and I was surveying the room thoroughly, taking everything in when a man came into the room, shook our hands, and got straight to the business of talking with us. I listened carefully as he described the conditions of the slum that was set up across the street from Ecopole: how it began, the process of reorganization, and how it exists today. I was following along, not completely sure if the ideas he was elaborating upon were simply ideas or if they had already been put into action. This basic piece of information had been lost in translation, and, as was my choice during many similar situations in Senegal, I chose to harbor some confusion for the time being out of my slight fear of asking a question immediately after the person speaking finishes addressing that exact subject.
After speaking with this man, we were taken on a tour of the school. Ecopole, as I discovered, is geared toward children who live in the slum. It focuses on teaching them how to use their imaginations to better their economic realities. The children who attend Ecopole spend their days using their hands to bring their imaginations to life. They do this by, among other things, making crafts and toys out of objects and materials that would otherwise be considered garbage—soda cans, scraps of wire, bottle caps, plastic bags. The money that they make when these items are purchased is divided by three, one part going to the school for supplies and the like, one part going to the community in which the child lives, and one part going directly to the child and his or her individual family. As they are painting and building, these children are also educated on their situation and their community so that they understand not only how to make the wonderful toys and art that they create, but they also why it is important for them to be spending their time in school and how their contributions help them and their community.
The work that these children were doing was incredibly impressive! After buying a couple of objects from them—I came away with a two necklaces, two bracelets, and a tray made out of flattened Orangina cans—we headed outside and began to walk directly into the slum. I must say that this is something that I have wanted to experience for a long time, and something I never thought I would be able to do—at least, not on this trip. As a white girl, my appearance in impoverished sections of Dakar is not exactly something that can be concealed, and the last thing I ever want to do is make a spectacle out of the difficulty of other people’s lives. The people who live in this slum are poor. There is no denying that the lives they lead are difficult. I didn’t know what kind of reaction my presence was going to elicit.
This was one of the most important days I have lived through in my entire life. The slum was organized exactly how the man had described it to us when we first arrived at Ecopole, and upon my realization of this I gained a newfound level of respect for the work that goes into maintaining their community. The intricate details of living arrangements, divisions of property, and spaces for work are invisible from the street because they are so well contained within the seemingly thrown-together exterior of the slum, the one part that is visible to every passerby. I had no idea how many houses and people and families called the place where I was standing home. I wish I could keep every sight I saw, every voice I heard, and every experience I underwent during those few hours in a bottle so that I could open it up and share it with all of the people in my life. No number of photos or verbal details can bring to life the feelings that soared through my heart while I was walking through the slum. The little boy who stared excitedly into my eyes and held onto my pants while his mother prepared food smiling less than five feet away…the old woman preparing dinner who invited us to stay and eat with her family…so many people greeted us with a smile. Through my brief interactions with these people whose names I do not even know, I was able to gain some very powerful insight. Poverty is not something to justify or forget about, but it does not necessarily preclude people from living, from sharing, from singing, or from leading a happy life.
I was able to have so many important experiences during my short time in Senegal simply by living there day after day and I am very grateful to everyone who put this trip together. The program was designed beautifully. Ousmane, Honorine, and Samba continuously made me feel comfortable, offering themselves as resources available twenty-four hours a day, yet giving me and the rest of the group the respect and freedom that we needed and deserved in order to make this trip our own. The level of flexibility within the program was commendable: I was very impressed with the extent to which the three of them took our suggestions to heart, such as when we expressed a desire to leave for the beach a day ahead of time. We inquired about the possibility and—just like that!—we were on the road that evening. I thought that the beach itself was wonderful, a lovely touristy break from the difficulties that arose from living in a situation where I felt as though I had to be “on” all of the time. I loved living with another Mount Holyoke student—we were able to feed off of each other and help each other through the difficulties of being immersed in a partially francophone environment. One suggestion that I will make for future J-Term trips is to have more internship opportunities available so that each student can experience more than one. My internship proved to be such a valuable part of the trip for me; I wish that everybody could have experienced it, and I also would have loved to spend an afternoon at the AIDS clinic or with a drum and dance group as some of the other students did. I had an eye-opening and horizon-broadening time in Dakar, and I am very thankful for the opportunity that I was given.