A very happy birthday

Anne Cohen - Senegal


September 9, 2016

My phone alarm was set for 6:45 AM. After ignoring the incessant ringing for a few minutes, I dragged myself out of bed and put on my running clothes. I struggled to lock my door and eventually left without locking it. I was late to meet my friend Niles – we were going for a run. I started running as soon as I got out of the house, but stopped after about a block when the heat and my fatigue caught up to me. After building up a sweat on my 20 minute walk to our meeting spot, we ran for about 20 more minutes before calling it quits. I showed up at my house, with sweat dripping down my face and twelve minutes to shower and eat breakfast before I retraced the 20 minute walk to school. By nine in the morning, I had already passed the same sidewalk vendors three times.

From nine to twelve every day, we attend French classes at Yaalo suur en school – a large building, with hundreds of classrooms and a big playing field in the center. Plus there’s a HUGE cow sculpture outside the building, hence our nickname for the place: the cow school. By the time I finally hobbled into my French classroom, I had almost forgotten that it was my birthday. Until Phoebe saw me, and yelled HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Then the whole room erupted with happy birthdays and my teacher Monsieur Diallo made the class sing to me in French.

After class, we usually go home to our host families for lunch. However today, Phoebe, Gloria, Nick and I went to the beach. For lunch, we picked up some sandwiches, mangoes and juice on the way. I got a baguette with French fries and mayonnaise inside; it was surprisingly delicious. To get to the beach, we had to walk through a construction site that seemed to double as a smelly trash-dumping site. Nevertheless, the trek was worth it for the view. We spent about an hour there, listening to music, eating our mangoes and playing in the water. Phoebe had never been in the ocean before, so this was pretty exciting. It’s so salty! Not just a little salty, like very salty! –phoebe

In the afternoon, we have cultural lessons from three to six. Sometimes this means listening to a guest speaker talk about neo-colonialism in Senegal or trying different drinks and learning about new foods. Today, we first had drumming lessons. Living up to the definition of toubabs (foreigners, specifically white people), we carried huge drums through the streets of Dakar and received a lot of stares. Although I’m not exactly musically inclined (shout out to my brother who got that gene), the drum lessons were really fun!

We were told we would find out our permanent host placement site for the next seven months at 4:45 PM, so this was looming over my head all afternoon. Our team leaders didn’t help the stress levels either. After drum lessons, they made us stand in a circle with our eyes closed, while they put colored post-it notes on our back. After counting down from three, we had to find all of those with the same color as us, without looking at our own post-its. These were our regional groups, but we still didn’t know which region we were. Next we had to look for a balloon in the surrounding area that was the same color as our post-it notes. Our team leader didn’t do the best hiding job and Fernanda found ours in a matter of seconds and took off sprinting towards it. I stabbed the balloon with a stick and the scraps of paper inside spelled the name of our region: T, H, I, E, S.

The team leader of the Thies region, James, told us the specifics of each of our sites. I found out that I will be living in a large coastal town of 35,000 people, approximately 100 km northeast of Dakar, called Mboro. I’ll be living with a Muslim family that speaks Wolof and French. As for my apprenticeships, I will be working with an NGO called CREPE that helps children ages 5 to 17 who, for whatever reason, have fallen out of the education system or do not have access to it. They teach classes, facilitate sports and other activities, and visit daaras (religious schools) to teach literacy. I learned about this NGO during PDT and had my eye on it for the past two weeks! An added bonus is that the NGO is a fifteen minute walk from my house AND it’s on the way to the beach! My other apprenticeship is at the Lycée de Mboro (high school of Mboro). I have the opportunity to teach English and work with the competitive English club at their school.

After finding out all of our placements, we were generally very excited. We decided to go get ice cream. I got a flavor called “butter” which, like the sandwich, sounds gross but was actually delicious. I finished it in two minutes. I walked home by myself, eager to get home to my family, who found out it was my birthday and had been texting me all day. I passed under this beautiful tree, blooming with delicate flowers that I had never seen before. As I watched these young boys play with the little flowers, I was struck by just how incredible it was to be in Senegal, experiencing and feeling so many new things. How did I get so lucky? Although I think it’s impossible to appreciate everything that I have in my life, in that moment I felt like I was pretty damn close to that level of gratitude. I wasn’t even phased when five minutes later, a man in the street tried to get my phone number.

When I got home, I watched French TV with my host family, until my aunt brought out a little cake with a candle in it. They lit the candle, turned off the lights and sang happy birthday to me in French and then English. After I blew out the candle, my three year old cousin Cheikh insisted that it was his birthday too and so my family re-lit the candle and sang to him so that he could blow out the candle, too. We ate the cake, which was some kind of sweet bread with crème in the center. Nehna trop! Very good! Then my mom gave me a sparkly black shirt and this beautiful, soft, pink fabric that a tailor just turned into a really pretty dress.

At the beginning of the week, I had been dreading my birthday. I thought it was going to be really hard to be away from home for my birthday. In reality, home is a feeling not necessarily a place. I was (and still am) surprised by how ‘at home’ I can feel in a place that is so far and so different from my home in Seattle. The similarities between the two are in the feelings that they give me, which are based off the connections that I make and the experiences that I endure with those around me.

Anne Cohen