What I Learned on My Three-Month Journey in Ziguinchor, Senegal in 2016
The Y Care International team on the way to Ziguinchor, Senegal.
My name is Zahra Bihi and I am a member of Elays. On 26 September 2016, I embarked on a three-month volunteering programme with Y Care International as part of the International Citizen Service (ICS). My placement was in Ziguinchor, the second largest city in Senegal. I would like to share my journey with you and tell you about what I learned while volunteering.
For the lack of a better summary of the placement, and at the risk of sounding very cliche, it was the most fulfilling and life enriching experience I have gone through in my life, thus far. At the start of this journey, I was very unsure of what I would go through, what would happen and the outcome of the placement. With that being said, I was sure it would be one of the highlights of my life, and an inspiration for many years to come.
During the placement, we worked alongside doctors in local hospitals, government officials, village chiefs and community members (particularly the youth) for the development of the communities and the betterment of their quality of life. We took classes on health issues that were prominent in the region, such as HIV and aids, malaria, tuberculosis and teenage pregnancies and conducted workshops (or causeries as we called them) for the locals in each area. Due to my interest in the issue, I proposed mental health awareness as part of some of the workshops and spoke to community members about their attitudes towards it. We also worked with leading figures within the mental health and psychiatry field, and the founders and members of the Disability Association, to advocate for the vulnerable people they serve.
Towards the end of the placement, we were assigned the task of meeting with the communities to ask them what they needed most as part of our development challenge. This was one of the most physically tasking yet fulfilling parts of the placement, and a wonderful way to mark the end of the three months. For our development challenge, we built 13 toilets in the villages of Mlomp and Samatit, where most of the inhabitants didn’t have access to adequate sanitation facilities. We built the foundations, mixed the cement, made the bricks and put it all together with the help of some of the YMCA alumni and community members from the villages.
Aside from the work with the communities, local organisations and advocacy work, the volunteers had their own personal tasks to accomplish. We were all asked to set at least three personal development objectives. These were designed to help us develop personally and gain new skills or enhance current ones. The global citizen that the ICS aims to create not only works to better the quality of life of the disadvantaged, but to also experience personal growth in many aspects of their own lives.
After my meeting with the head psychiatrists at the Ziguinchor Psychiatric Hospital.
During a communicable diseases video projection for kindergarten school children.
English-French-Wolof class for the volunteers.
Now you have an idea of what my three months entailed, I can now tell you about the main difference that resonated with me between life in the UK and life in Senegal. First let me share a concept/theory I learned during my Psychology degree, ‘social identity theory of in-groups and out-groups’. In-groups are essentially a group an individual psychologically identifies with. An out-group is a group the same individual does not identify with. That is a concept that we thrive on here in the UK: everything and everyone is labeled and that dictates our outlook on life; our prejudices, ideas of other people, and other ways of life we may not necessarily subscribe to. These labels could be anything from gender, political views, religious beliefs, or socioeconomic backgrounds.
This concept, that I’d believed to be a true reflection of the world, was completely shattered by the people of Senegal. Of course, there were differences of opinion, political views, religious beliefs etc., but they never dictated how they interacted with one another, and I absolutely loved that. They all seemed to love one another unconditionally.
Volunteers in my cohort and YMCA alumni during an event for the children from the community.
Most families had members of other faiths, who were married to different tribes, but their love transcended all of these differences. The union you felt, almost instantly, vibrating between the communities, regardless of the tribal differences or languages spoken (there are approximately 36 local languages), or even religious beliefs leaves you with goosebumps. They loved one another in a way we reserve for family in the UK (it’s sad to say that we sometimes even put value on our love for family members based on conditions).
They never shied from expressing their love. You saw that with how they checked up on each other, left the door open for anyone to come in, in the way the community came together to help anyone in need. The children played together, the teens huddled together listening to the latest music and dancing, the young adults sat together on the steps outside their houses with neighbours making ataya (Senegalese tea) while chatting about school and joking with one another. Not a single person sleeps with a grudge, everyone is frank while maintaining a loving tone. This was the culture throughout the whole country.
From what I’ve heard, this is similar to how the UK was not too long ago. I just wish we can relearn this from the global south and revive this culture. I wish to see the day it returns to the UK, where neighbourhoods are open for children to play together, picnics take place, neighbours know each other’s names and can ask for a cup of sugar if need be. That should be what we aspire to: the sense of community that transcends prejudices and labels, where we discard the notions of in-groups and out-groups and connect as human beings with more similarities than differences – with more in common than we dare to admit.
Written by Zahra Bihi.