Working Hard & Playing Hard

Teacher Elizabeth Stanley takes a group of London students to renovate a school in a remote village in Senegal and experiences an unforgettable concert under the stars on the edge of the desert.

CONTRIBUTOR

CONTRIBUTOR
Elizabeth Stanley, a teacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy in London, recently took a group of students to Senegal to renovate a school and was treated to a very special concert by Baaba Maal.

 

I have been visiting Senegal for twelve years; three years ago I decided to combine my passion for the country with my work as a teacher. I established a partnership with a school in a remote village near the historic town of Podor. The school is as far removed from our school in London as is possible - our school was built in 2007 costing £40 million; our partner school in Senegal consists of twelve basic classrooms and receives just £1,000 per year - £1.54 per child. As my students learnt about their peers in Senegal, they decided they wanted to help and raised £7,000 over a year. The teachers and students in Senegal decided the priority was to improve the existing classrooms, and build a new library and computer suite. In June 2010, the British Embassy in Senegal offered the remaining £9,000 to enable the work to go ahead and so my colleagues, students and I are here in Senegal armed with tools and bags of enthusiasm to start the work.

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We spend the first two days in the vibrant city of Dakar – a ‘gentle’ introduction to Africa for our first-timers. Once settled into our hotel, we head out with a sense of adventure in search of some culture and end up in a small nightclub at 11pm. We appear to be the only people there but are assured this is the place to be - Viviane Ndour, one of Senegal’s singing superstars will be performing. Three hours later, other people start to arrive, the stage lights up and the band begins. But it was certainly worth the wait and we dance the night away with the local crowd. My students declare the nightclub ‘sick’ (great to you and me) and I have instantly been elevated to ‘peng’ (cool) status. They already love Senegal!

We wake early the next morning bleary-eyed to board our bus to Podor for the 16-hour drive. We arrive exhausted but exhilarated, although nothing could have prepared us for the welcome we receive. The whole community has organised a welcome ceremony and we are treated like royalty. As the leader of the partnership I am treated to a front row seat next to Christopher Trott, the British Ambassador. We enjoy two days of speeches, traditional costumes, singing and dancing; on the second day Mme Viviane Wade, First Lady of Senegal, flies in to offer her support. Goats are killed and cooked in our honour and we truly experience the famous teranga (hospitality) that the Senegalese are renowned for. The generosity of our hosts is overwhelming, especially when we consider how little they have in comparison to us. The icing on the cake comes in the form of internationally acclaimed musician Baaba Maal, he performs a special concert for us with his full band, dancers and fireeaters. Nothing can describe the atmosphere of sitting under the stars on the edge of the desert, watching such an amazing performance. Our third morning in Podor and we are finally ready to start work. After a hearty breakfast, we make the short journey to the school in a taxi that has a hole in the floor and has to be hot-wired to start. We are slightly amused and surprised when we arrive in one piece and as we inspect the classrooms reality sinks in. The rooms are in a terrible state – there are holes in the walls, the furniture is broken and some rooms have no tiles on the floor, plus the rooms are filthy. We set to work in the 40° heat – this is going to be much harder than we thought. We have been promised help by the locals but they are thin on the ground, we are told that they are tired after the welcome ceremony and they will join us tomorrow.

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The next day, a few men arrive and sit under the shade of a tree making attayah, the local green tea; they watch us with much interest and congratulate us on how hard we are working. They help for about 20 minutes then declare it is too hot to work and return to the shade of their tree and entertain us by playing music. Evidently we need to take a more direct approach, I call a meeting with the Village Chief. He is a sensible man and the next day a team of children and women join us – the men stay under the tree but are eventually persuaded to help. After eight days, despite the lack of some basic equipment (notably ladders) and numerous encounters with dodgy toilets and insects, we have achieved a great deal. All twelve classrooms are re-plastered and painted, we have also painted colourful murals in each room and fixed the furniture. Everyone is pleased with the results and we toast our handiwork with coca-cola, lollipops and popping candy much to the delight of the local children.

 

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Podor is not a place that is geared up for Westernstyle tourism and is most definitely not a place for the faint hearted, but does offer a truly authentic Senegal experience and as our time there draws to a close we discuss how we will miss our new home.

As we say our farewells, we know that this is a partnership that will continue to grow and develop. The construction of the new library and computer suite is due to start in November and we will continue our fundraising.

 

To read this article in full please visit our School Development Fund website: www.schooldevelopmentfund.org

If you are interested in finding out more about their work or volunteering, please visit www.smmacademy.org/senegal or contact elizabeth.stanley@smmacademy.org

 
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