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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

We’ve crossed the country, now I’m finding home.

The first month of this year was a busy one. For 3 days, we stayed in huts in a Sufi Islamic community by the village of Dene, not far from Dakar. We drove 7 hours North Senegal, partly along rang rang (the onomatopaeic Wolof word for bumpy, dirt roads). There we stayed on the Langue de Barbarie National Park for 9 days, surrounded by beauty. Then we stayed in comparatively plush hotel rooms in Hotel Rex, located in the bustling city of Thies. From there onto the most rural of our destinations, the village of Ndioukhane, where we stayed in bare rooms plagued with bugs.

In different communities, we’ve celebrated an Islamic festival with a lot of dancing; watched the slaughter of sheep for the same Islamic festival; taken boats across the River Senegal, where we learnt about the harmful effects of a nearby dam on the communities along the river; we’ve spent a day and a night with families in different villages; we’ve taught English in a village where the children speak two of the other local languages in Senegal (languages to which we had not been introduced); we’ve been hosted by so many generous families; we’ve played with a lot of energetic kids; and we’ve learnt from some insightful guest speakers as well as our instructors on topics ranging from history, politics, environment to religion and much in between. Moreover, a lot of time has been spent in preparation for the year ahead, getting to know the group, ourselves and what to expect in Senegal. But nothing can fully prepare you for homestays.

This is it. My home. My family. My room. For the next 8 months. That’s a lot to take in when my host mother and I struggle considerably to mutually establish where I’m going and when I’ll be back. As for how to explain this sudden rash that is inexplicable in my mother tongue, I look forward to sharing this future triumph with you (“tenna na” either means it’s improving or getting worse, I should try to find out which). Even breakfast has awkwardness. My family allows me to buy bread for the compound every morning in order to practice my Wolof.  I require money from my family, but hardly feel good when one of my few Wolof phrases is “man laa am xaalis pur ndekki?” (Can I have money for breakfast?).

But challenges are vital to the learning process, and although I had very different expectations of where I might be challenged when I signed up, I can begin to appreciate the challenges for the opportunities that they are. The language is coming on faster than I realise, as I understand more and more that is said just by gauging tempo, rhythm, intonation and pronunciation. I had not appreciated how important these are to comprehend a language, but without learning more vocabulary, I understand more just by listening to conversation after conversation. Another important tool is acting. If I were to play Charades with my homestay family, I think we’d do rather well: we’ve had a lot of practice. That method has taught me some personal favourites: “dunnu ak mellax” means thunder and lightning, though one must say it for the full effect. “Dalle loxoo” translates literally as “hand shoes,” but is the Wolof word for gloves.

I can’t pretend that I’m perfectly content with my homestay sheep following me to the toilet, or that I’d survive without my host mum’s support at the 12-person lunch bowl, or even that hand washing all my clothes doesn’t get incredibly frustrating when the stains don’t come out. But I have found a lot of joy where possessions once where, and I’m learning to spend my days in a very public space. Last night, when my homestay brother sat on my bed, laughing at how hopeless my peanut-cracking technique was, and teaching me the best way, I knew that I could be glad that this is my brother in my room in my house.