And then it was time….

It’s been an awful long time since my last update. I’ve been busy, but this time busy doing nothing which is definitely the best sort of busy! Where I left off, we were too tired to get up in the mornings and we both ended up at the doctors with minor parasites and respiratory issues… neither of which are very funny but stem from a year of naively insisting that “we’re young, young’s don’t tire, don’t ill!” when our friends tried to pin us down. We became known as Dokh Rekk’s which means “you only walk.” We sort of zapped anyone we came across, two bundling balls of laughter streamlining through sleepy Joal on our bicycles, people would yell out “doucement!” as we turned speed bumps into jumps! Our life in Joal was always very much like an advanced mountain biking course with two amateurs with far too much attitude attempting the run!

Following the basketball camp, we decided to paint our best friend Abdou’s cart. Well he practically lives in this cart and it’s quite literally plastered in dead fish and poop and so we trundled off to the store and returned armed with paint. This was a rather fantastical project and the whole quartier waited with anticipation to see what we were doing. 2 days later Abdou stumbled out of his bed to find us, grinning from ear to ear, propped in front f the most magnificent cart you’ve ever seen. (see the pictures and agree.) That was another moment pretty high in the list, and it continued until the day we left, friends, strangers telling us they’d seen our masterpiece traversing Joal. Everyone wanted to know who did that to his cart! We wrote in English what our two best friends meant to us, but I hope that anyone in Joal who is now looking at the words we wrote “I will never forget you” knows that it was written for them.


I guess another big moment in my year was when I realised I was planning conversations and thinking inside of my head IN FRENCH! That was wierd, and I don’t know now, at what point that happened. My French really did come along and failed to trip me up towards the end although my patient partner will tell you that the subjunctive and I never agreed… she’s not entirely wrong. Il faut que tu fasse, fashe, faisse, fait, fais, fois…. IT’S TOO MUCH I TELL YOU!


Shortly after the school term ended we hosted the two teachers we were working with from the college, at our home. We made lasagne and sliced mangoes and prepared attya for them. Very proud and Senegalese, we had the hospitality “the teranga of Senegal” that everybody had showed us. A perfect way to say goodbye to the 2 most amazing teachers I’ve ever met. Now you’ll know what I mean if you ever meet them and see for yourself how their level of enthusiasm is inversely proportional to the materials they are equipped with to tackle classes of 70+. These teachers actually work miracles.


The month of Ramadan was incredible. During the day, it was too hot to do anything, so the entire population of Joal would pour out onto the streets, under the shade of trees, propped up on chairs, mattresses laid in the sand playing games and chatting. The Ludo boards replaced the tea pots. And in the evenings, at 7pm, everyone would start to prepare to break the fast, children sent their ways, all returning on their radii to the centre bearing ice or fruit or bread or fish… and at 7:45, the call from the mosque meant that not a person was in the streets. And in every door you peeped, families were gathered together sharing dates and tea. Ndogu. The breaking of the fast. With the enormous bowls of rice and the million tea pots put away for a month, Senegal really felt different, but I saw firsthand what happens when religion brings a community together in the most powerful way that it can and I thank my blessings I was there to be a part of it, to see it run it’s course. To see people suffer in the heat of the day, come together to eat, and to spend all night sitting with them as they filled their bellies. Joal slowed down which meant that it didn’t go to sleep until 2am, which meant that once again, we found ourselves trading our sleep. Sometimes it felt like a market haggle, I want it but I don’t want to miss anything. Ramadan was the month of “pentjba.” And I understand that this is the time to explain that word that you can’t pronounce. Pentj is an outdoor structure, like a house with a roof without walls, and lined with benches. Everyone from our favourite quartier poured out onto the benches, all our best friends, our brothers, and slept and whiled away the hours of the fast in each other’s company. And it is here that I spent my entire summer.


Lauren and I decided simultaneously that we would spend the summer in Joal. We would make these hideously crazy plans to tour the country, spanning each and every border. But every time it got close to booking or organising, there was a reason it just didn’t happen. We weren’t making it happen, because we didn’t actually want it to happen. The waterfalls of the south were calling, the northern deserts were calling, the beaches, the camel rides, the villages, the cities, the journeys, but actually that beautiful Pentj, 1 minute walk from our beautiful balcony, had the loudest call of all. And so I don’t have a story of traversing borders, winding myself out of scrapes, meeting a million new faces and places. I don’t have that story to tell you. But I hope you understand, and even if you don’t, that’s ok, that my story might be boring to hear, it’s not really a story, but to me, it was a month of having the time to be accepted in our community, as a daughter, a sister and a best friend. And that story, whilst being quicker to write about, will take so much longer to forget. I can return to Senegal any day and go on that camel ride or watch those enormous waterfalls surrounded by faces I don’t know, but what I’ll never have again, and what you only get once in a lifetime, after you’ve worked for it for a year, is that feeling of being part of their lives, and the value of doing nothing, but doing nothing with them. I’m just so glad we both realised that soon enough.


I would trade a million waterfalls for one day at Penjba.


In that time, propped against my best friends at Pentj, Lauren and I both fell in love with Joal. I never knew you could love a place like that, and the people there, just going about their daily tasks. Yes, I could have been bathing on the white beaches or at the hotels of Dakar’s coastline but actually feeding the pigs with Paul, eating rice on the floor with Ousmane, going to the fields with Badou, making tea with Pierre, watching football with Samba, singing at choir with Ankhaty or sitting on the roof with Adama, looking over all of Joal. That was enough for me. And the best part is that it wasn’t just “enough” it was more than perfect. Sometimes you can go looking for treasure when you should have seen that all along, it was right there beneath your feet. Pentj taught me some serious life lessons! And I’m left thinking that anyone who would trade Joal for a touring ticket of Senegal has sort of missed out.Deciding to stay was the best decision I’ve ever made. What I had was time to complete those relationships and bring them to an end properly.


The rains came late this year, a month late, which really badly affected some of our best friends farms, destroying their months of work and effort which was soul destroying to see. And when it did come, it came erratically and unreliably. Senegal needs rain. The few days it rained, the streets flooded, the ground too hard to absorb anything, the air was cleaned and the rainforest smell lingered and Lauren and I stood on our balcony in t-shirts. The sort of rain you can’t talk over, or through, or in and you shouldn’t try. Just let it drum and let it soak you!


We recuperated in a very touristy house, or I should say, in a very touristy pool, for a day before facing our last trip to Yenne. We spent a week there, just being. Relaxing and saying our goodbyes.


Let me give you the extract from my journal, my last night in Yenne.


“Saturday 19th July I’m writing this from Yenne, it’s my last night here and I don’t know how to feel. When I arrived here, I knew nothing, not the project, not the family, nor the friends. I didn’t know Joal. Now so much has changed. I’ve walked these little paths in every month of the year. I’ve seen this place grow and die in the heat and the rain, transformed into a brown wasteland and then a field of green. I’ve watched the new houses pop up. I’ve grown. I’ve watched these people grow. The expressions change. And I can’t help but feel a longing; I’d do it all again in a heartbeat but I guess what I should be thankful for is that I got to do it at all, you only live once but if you do it right, once is enough. In 14 hours time, I have to say goodbye to Yenne. I wish there was a rulebook, how to leave a part of your heart behind. All those memories, the homesickness at the beginning, crying in the bathroom, tears into my bucket shower. Each time we returned here, it was like driving home. Worth the long journey and everyone would be doing exactly what they were doing when you left. “Yenne almost didn’t happen for me, a snap decision made by ProjectTrust, the difference of 3 weeks. “Sunday 20th July Today we did it. We pulled our roots our f the ground and said goodbye to Yenne and to all of our friends. The hardest goodbye was leaving our family. Our parents. My Yenne mother never spoke French or English and with only Wolof, at the start thought we could never have a relationship but she taught me so much about communication without language. She cried every time we left and embraced us every time we returned with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. And as our wolof developed, we started to understand her and how a few words and a smile was enough. We were her daughters and I know she loved us like we were her own. You don’t need a language to love someone. I have no words to describe our host father; no adjectives would do him justice. He was the man who took responsibility for us and wanted that. When we did something wrong he told us, when we did something right he told us. He cared in a way that I’ve only ever encountered several times in my life. Writing about him fills me with this pride. He was my father and he gained all of my trust. He understood us. Driving away from Yenne was like losing your right foot but since I have both feet firmly attached I guess what I really left was a part of my soul. And that won’t ever change. That strange little village turned a foreigner into a local. Yenne for me is in some sort of parallel universe and nowhere will quite be able to compete with it. Not ever.”


Leaving Yenne gave me a small taster of what it would be like leaving Joal. All I can say is that I was scared.


Then came the Final push with FasJom. We decided to finish it officially by doing several recap lessons and a final award ceremony. For these final sessions we took them to the High School as a change of scenery which they got very excited about. We were always so exhausted by FasJom but more exhausted by the thought that nobody else really cared about their education. And so we decided to make a “big deal!” We told them to wear their best boubous for the ceremony and we spent an entire day writing certificates for each of them and riotously decorating them. I’ll never forget that moment, our final day with our wonderful girls. We arrived in the quartier and I remember seeing them standing together in a group, they hadn’t seen us yet, and then one girl turned around and they all came charging towards us, all wearing absolutely beautiful boubous. Bear in mind these girls practically live on the streets.


The award ceremony was extraordinary, each one waiting in anticipation for her name to be read out, to come to the front, to shake our hand and to have a year of education acknowledged by someone. To know that there were at least 2 people who cared. We had a modest party but they were so excited, at one point I looked over to one of the older girls who had stood up and completely unable to hold it back, had her face in her hands and let out an enormous squeal! Those girls became our children. Their thankyou’s were some of the most sincere I’ve ever known, they left us saying that they couldn’t speak French before or write or count and now they can. They just kept calling us their teachers. And we just kept smiling. If you’ve managed to read my other blog posts you may have an idea now of the scale of what I’m talking about when I say FasJom was a military operation. Fighting for a good cause against all odds, grabbing it, tackling it to the ground and every now and then, winning through. Well that day, we won through. This group was without a doubt, the best thing I’ve ever done. A good thing to have done. The most humbling experience of my life.


Then came Vanessa’s visit, my best friend from high school who was working in St Louis with the Talibe beggar children. I’m so proud of the work she’s done. But it was the strangest thing to pick her up at the garage and take her home and spend the weekend showing her my life and my friends. Thanks V for coming down to visit, it was such a wonderful weekend.


And then we found ourselves on the eve of Korite, the festival marking the end of the month of Ramadan. A month had shot past in the blink of an eye. On the final day of the fast we made copious amounts of bissap juice and loaded our backpacks and toured all of our friends houses giving out the juice for the final Ndogu. Korite was my favourite Senegalese festival once again involving a million plastic chairs and “boissons” and a whole lot of doing nothing. However in the morning, men and boys head to the mosque and so we woke up early, wore our best boubous and watched as they streamed past, for an hour, an endless pilgrimage of polished shoes, prayer beads and prayer mats being clutched firmly.


Shortly after Korite it was time to say goodbye to Joal, to do the inevitable. That date had been looming since the beginning, the 15th August. Quinze Aout. A day we both dreaded. Our last few weeks were just incredible, seeing everybody and saying our final goodbyes. We resorted to packing during the night so as not to miss a single moment of Senegal and so sleep went out the window! In a whirlwind of mess and organising and people and emotions in packed boxes we decided to save the last day of Senegal, our final full day, and keep it sacred, untouched.


On Wednesday 14th we woke up early and made pancakes with one of our best friends. And then spent the entire day touring from one house to the next crying desperately, trying to hold on, as we went from one to the other. I was heartbroken. Each family that we had come to love and who had come to accept us, welcoming us in for the last time, telling us that we had become their daughters, sisters, best friends, acknowledging all of our work and thanking us from the bottoms of their hearts. Everyone just kept saying “you are good, you are so good.” And I just kept crying! My beautiful Senegal, I wanted to say, how has this happened? How, of all the chances and changes, am I here, on this last day? How did I get here? What a journey to now be at the end of. People were giving us the most beautiful presents, filling my arms with material and bowls and photos. Treasures that if I only had one bag to take home, would fill it completely, and I would have happily left everything else.


Wednesday was the most beautiful day of my entire life. It was soul destroying but also, completely magical. I didn’t realise I cared quite so much, but most importantly, I didn’t realise they all cared. It felt like somehow, the whole of Joal had become my family. And if you ever are lucky enough to experience a ‘Wednesday,’ then you are the luckiest person in the world. I know I am.


I could never have wished for a better project, a better community of friends, a better partner to share it all with or a better year. My 18th year and I know it will be the best in my life.


Thursday, in contrast, was the hardest day of my life. On Thursday morning we said goodbye to our two best friends and then packed up the car and drove out of Joal for the last time. I can’t even write about letting go of those two friends, when I no longer had them in my arms. I remember picturing how that would be, imagining the last time I drove through Joal. I could never have imagined the pain of it. I can’t even write about it now. I just thought at the time, “this is the difference between ‘can’ and ‘must’, because I actually ‘can’t’ do this.”


But I had to. I had no control. And for that one day, I’ve never before, ever, felt more like an empty shell. We hadn’t slept in 60 hours. The last night, not a wink, all of us, just waiting for the sun, hoping that, just, this once, it wouldn’t rise. And then, through the pane of the window, we saw the sun. I know now why it’s called a window ‘pain.’


And it was time.


Somehow in a blurr of tickets and bags I found myself on a plane and then another plane and then another plane and then landing in London. I don’t like thinking about that looking back, a part of me wishes that I had never landed in London, just in Dakar, starting my trip over again because I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Then came that hideous moment that in the heat of everything, got overlooked, somehow. Then came the time to say goodbye to my Dom Ndeye, my best friend, my Delia Wone, Lauren Fenner. How could I ever have prepared for that? For 2 days, I just kept losing things, and nothing was filling the empty void that was left of me. Saying good bye to her, this girl I didn’t even know this time last year, was like someone removing your right hand and expecting you to continue, somehow. I’m so grateful that for 12 months, she was the one I shared it with. If you hadn’t already noticed (when writing my blog it doesn’t sound right if I say “I”, it’s always “we”) she was always there, we were a team, and a good one at that! I’m not the same on my own. I don’t work nearly as well. But Lauren, thank you for the millionth time, for being there. I don’t have enough words to do this girl justice.


And then came my wonderful family, waiting at the airport as if nothing had changed. And I just had to fit back in, just like before. They’ve been so good to me since being back, particularly their levels of churning out cakes and pies!


And so now I’m home. Trying desperately to continue running when all I really want to do is curl up in a heap. It took me a while to unpack. To slot these beautiful things, these remnants of a life somewhere, into my room. How do you fit Polel into Marianne. I have to somehow learn to be the two people. I loved being Polel. And now it’s all so wrong. And it’s taken me even longer to open my wardrobe and choose something to wear. Most mornings I try everything on at least once and then resort to a pair of jeans and an enormous wooly jumper (man Scotland’s freezing!) because anything else just seems, at least at the moment, unnecessary and frankly, too cold. Some days are much better than others. Some days I can’t bring myself to even get out of bed. I guess time is the only real thing that can heal this now.


I am very excited to be back, it’s so wonderful to see all of my amazing family and friends again and in just 3 weeks I’m going to embark upon my next dream; law at Durham University!


But for now, I will be cold, lost, confused, haggling, crying, laughing, remembering, talking, sleeping, eating, overwhelmed and heartbroken.


For the last time, I’m going to log off. The end of my great Senegalese adventure. Thank you for following it and for supporting me. Sometimes I wake up and wonder if it was all just a dream.


It could have been.


I’ve never had a better one.