News from Maison de la Gare
A Volunteer's Cultural AwakeningTweeter
Kaylin Zimmer, American volunteer with Maison de la Gare
Kaylin studies economics at
Seattle University, specializing in International Economic Development. Coming
from Anchorage, Alaska, she has always loved to travel and fell in love with
Africa after her
first trip in Malawi in 2013. Ever since, she has been
looking for a way to return while doing something meaningful. The opportunity
to intern with Maison de la Gare was a no-brainer, a chance to practice French,
return to a continent she loves and gain meaningful experience while making a
Kaylin’s work in Saint Louis includes helping to develop the system for monitoring and tracking the boys who come to Maison de la Gare’s centre, in addition to teaching English classes to older talibé children, helping in the infirmary and much more.
In this report, Kaylin reflects on what she has learned working with Maison de la Gare and the talibé children.
“As my time here draws near to a close, I’ve begun to realize (and to try to come to terms with) that, when working as an outsider in a foreign country, there are some things that simply cannot be done.
Perhaps most glaring has been the simple fact that one cannot expect work to be carried out in the same way as it is at home. One of the differences I’ve noticed working here is that people put life before their work. If there’s a baptism, a funeral, they’re too tired, their child got momentarily lost (all things that I’ve heard from various people), these are the things that come first. Baptisms and funerals are attended, they rest, and they find their child and spend time with them. As a result, the efficiency and diligence I am used to tend to go out the window. This relationship between life and work is one I think many people and nations struggle with. I think many Senegalese are still working out how to work in a country on the verge of development, yet with a subsistence lifestyle not so far behind them. I’ve learned valuable lessons in patience and persistence, as both are necessary to yield long-term results.
Also interesting and challenging has been my experience as a white, agnostic young woman coming from a country where none of this is out of the ordinary and women’s rights are (relatively) progressive. Working for an organization like Maison de la Gare, that deals so intimately with some of the deeply religious Muslims in Senegal, it’s impossible for me to understand the nuances and complexities of the Islamic faith, which in turn limits how helpful I truly can be in tasks such as implementing our census of the begging talibé children of Saint-Louis. While to me it may seem relatively simple, dealing with the marabouts here is sensitive both due to the fact that they want some benefit for them if we expect them to give us verifiable information, and that they may understand that some of what we do at Maison de la Gare may undermine their power as many of them are exploiting the boys we are trying to save from exploitation.
In a country where religion is paramount and some religious leaders benefit from the mistreatment of children, and where women are seen less as agents of change and more as objects to be admired, adored and responsible for a household, it’s been challenging to find where I can truly have an impact beyond the doors of the center. Part of what I’ve realized is that, even if the best I do is get to know the boys, teach an English class that many talibés desperately want to attend and help where the organization needs help, that is enough. Though I have been helping with the register and the census, the times where I feel most valuable are in my interactions with the friends I have made here, both young and old.
And, of course, what affects everything I’ve mentioned and more is the challenge of working in a country that speaks my second language, with an unfamiliar accent, and more commonly speaks a language I speak none of at all. Although this is certainly something for which I take responsibility, as I knew where I was going, and although I expected French to be more commonly spoken, I was aware that Wolof was the unofficial language. It does pose a challenge when it comes to understanding all of what’s happening around me. I miss out on conversations and, even during meetings where I am present, they often begin in French and then digress into a French-Wolof hybrid. Although between my limited Wolof, my French and my questions I always understand the key takeaways of the meetings, I still miss the nuances of why one idea may not work, or why something else is better. When these involve the marabouts and the obstacles involving them and their faith, it often becomes even more confusing as I struggle to grasp the weight that religion has for many people.
My time here has been a cultural awakening, truly. Before leaving home, my fellow interns and I were told repetitively to acknowledge that we were going somewhere we were unfamiliar with, into an organization that has been doing their jobs for long enough to likely know better than us, and that we should be open to understanding their perspectives. While all of this has been true and I have learned a lot, I feel that most of what I have learned has been incredibly humbling, not because it turns out I know very little academically or work-specific but because I know so little about the culture and the importance of religion here. Not understanding the strongest values of the people limits my ways of understanding how to best work with or around them.
My stay in Senegal has been my own sensitivity training, becoming sensitized to how the beliefs of the people we are with affect how we can and cannot make progress. I think this is a lesson that I need to continue to learn, as there are still many times when I get frustrated with the rate at which projects are accomplished. However, I am also learning how to know when my way may be better, and how to demonstrate to others why I do things the way I do them and why they may benefit from this as well.”