Cinque mesi d' AfricaFrom Palermo to the heart of west Africa. The voice of Maria Francesca, EVS volunteer.

It “happens” to leave and go far away, so far away that you reach Africa. I arrived in Senegal in April to spend six months as a EVS volunteer at the Senegalese NGO “Enface et Paix” trough the EVS project Voices from Around the world III coordinated by CESIE.

It was not that easy to start this voluntary experience and, like every beginning, even mine here was not the easiest one. A simple description of the events which took place during these months would  decrease the tumult of sensations, perfectly disordered, that liked moving inside me up to now. Moreover, it is difficult to follow a specific line of discussion and I often wondered why writing something, why publishing intimate and controversial truths you interwove day after day. Word urgency? Shall it be the urgency of writing as indelible mark, if fate or inactivity make you forget? Shall it be the urgency to share, to  publicize a story? And so I wonder: “Does word urgency really exist?” Well then, does something that has to be necessarily said really exist? And silence, what is its value? Why wondering such a thing in the noisy, deafening Dakar? Why did my doubt arise when I arrived in the sandy, anarchic at times, capital? It seems pretty unusual at first to think about silence as one of the main paths of communication in Senegal.

Senegal is a little Babel. Yes, as different ethnic groups live together in about 12,5 million inhabitants (43,3% Wolof, 23,8% Pular, 14,7% Sérer, 3,7% Diola, 3% Mandingo, 1,1% Sonìnké, 1% Europeansand Lebanese, 9,4% others) with their own linguistic, cultural and religious codes of which 94% Muslims, 5% Christian, 1% animistic cults followers (data: Giorgi, Vado in Senegal, Terre di mezzo editore, 2008, Milan). Naturally (as  it is often said) I have a restless and curious spirit; mine is an ongoing research status and I cannot hold my tongue; the word is necessary and vital. However,  once I arrived in Senegal all this brief and common word philosophy has been dismembered  mercilessly. Leaving to a French speaking  country without having adequately studied French before (not to talk about local languages) gave rise at first to a forced silence, to listening and to a school of patience every time I would have liked to talk, stress my disappointment, give my opinion. With time, attention and passion I built and found out some ways that allowed me to see and understand many issues under a different light and little by little words followed. There is a time to say, to raise your voice  and there is a time to listen and stay silent too.  During these months I met great people who left a mark and the main part of what they taught me was not conveyed during heated debates, but observing them and learning from time and with time, as time (sorry for the play on words) seems to have plenty of time. here.

I learnt how to work with people very different from me. I mean, we learnt reciprocally putting into practice different parts of our abilities and knowledge, giving birth to satisfying work as a pilot project, Project Femmes, aimed at raising awareness of young women as regards to sexually transmitted diseases and body perception. It was more than a simple project; it was the creation of a confidence and intimacy space among the girls involved, us, the volunteers, and the sector specialists who participated with close cooperation. Once again in other contexts using “words” played a secondary role, when you can sing. Establishing a little chorus with the children of the neighborhood was satisfying for me and Fanny, a mate in this adventure. Still today, that months have passed, when I walk down the street, some children draw my attention waving at me and humming songs we learnt together. Singing  as a teaching  device also gave excellent results in the NGO nursery school. The youngest one happily learnt the alphabet this way, the cardinal numbers and the body parts.

Often hot weather, discouragement, little cooperation and population unconcern can demotivate you, creating strong frustration conditions, but we were lucky to get close as  a group of volunteers and to use our creativity, supporting  one another. A part from the chorus and other activities, Letizia together with Aloïs and with the general help of everyone (not me, I definitely do not have green fingers!) created pedagogic botanical gardens just in front of our NGO. The last month and a half was devoted to the preparation and organization of our EVS final project called Sédhiou vert. An environment awareness project about the urgency and need to protect our ecosystem from garbage danger (sore point here in Sèdhiou) and an informal education task in aid of the whole community and the youngest ones. The project considers the establishment of murals upon the walls of a sports and recreation centre which attracts the right sort of people and is well known by the young people and other people, and two shows: a contemporary dance show (first time in Sédhiou) offered by a dancer directly from ST Louis on the Senegal river water pollution topic  and a play by local artists on the deforestation topic. The following day will be destined to launch a documentary and debate with professionals in the topic. Today, unlike the first periods, I realize that six months really are too short to develop projects which will last concretely for and with the community at the same time.

Well, it happens to be catapulted in a dimension totally different from yours. Even if cross-culture is my field of studies, some dimensions need to be lived in to be understood completely. I am even more aware that this experience, this place and this moment were and are the thing I needed the most. It is not only about discovering a different culture, but it means clashing against totally different ways of living. It may happen to feel happy in a casual moment and on the other hand to feel terribly helpless, angry.  It happens, as a woman, to get indignant, to put your hands in your hair and to bend your head,with your sight  pointing at nothing, when still today that basic and fundamental rights are systematically violated and when still today a woman is not treated as an person equal to men, when her authority is not even discussed and everything happens in front of your eyes day after day. When this country appears divided between North and the independence riots of Casamance. I got numb because of West fairy tales and of dreams of glory that often result in a desperate and poor journey towards Europe made by who, emigrated to the Old World, looks for the most desperate ways to stay there alone and even poorer just not to come back  blemished by failure. I will probably be presumptuous, but I am always more persuaded that Africa needs in primis a revolution and emancipation of the modus pensandis; a re-acquisition of the own organization skills rather than a mass of confused anaesthetizing aids from the West.

If you have never been to this place, you will feel like everything moves the wrong way round; too different form your perceptions and you wonder if  you have been  mistaken up to now. Simple men wisdom you can meet along your way demolishes your muffled and embellished certainties: they are simply dismembered. Thus you start to get rid of your arrogance and feel the need to move in order to understand by yourself how things work here. From South to the deep North I traveled throughout Senegal e I was able to meet many people and places. In that moments on a taxi during many hours, stripped, rusted and punctually with a crackled windscreen, hot and uneven streets, right in those moments I found out grace conditions for my spirit. The wind caressing your face and life revealing herself bare and beautiful, tremendously beautiful and true. The sole luggage, the useful one, is the sky, discovering pleasure and a little bit of foolishness. Crossing borders, stamped passports and biblical waiting, as a Senegalese proverb says: “Waiting is never a waste of time. Enjoy it, brother!”. Huge and golden beaches, the importance of Touba coffee, the observance of Ramadan, the Xassaïdes prayers, the Baye Fall friendiliness, the unexpected cadeau, the everlasting nights playing a Djembe with your hands that burn and your heart full of energy. The excitement in feeling fresh water of the ocean which tickles your tired feet and diving naked and free little later, every time you reach it. This piece of Africa , the land of Teranga I think it is deeply woman  and, just like a woman, it can be sensual, mysterious, cruel sometimes and it can hurt you. Her contradictions tears your soul apart. It is passion and it is as intimate as a kiss on the lips. Maybe I will not be able to see the results of the work done here, but surely I know I left a mark. I feel it every time I hear my name in the streets, for those time they told me “on est ensamble” while working, people who really believed in it when they said it. Who spent time with me, who held my hand tightly, who supported me, for all those times that – coming back home –  I really felt welcomed and respected; who told me that something inside of me is deeply linked to this country e that everywhere I might go, I will be welcomed by the greatness and beauty of Mother Africa (surely I did not believed in her big presence). But  it also happens, like an epiphany, to feel her huge hug or her severe blame. When you come back home and the rain washes everything out, with your feet in the mud, you can feel her even there.

A mattress on the floor, a suitcase as a wardrobe and a candle on the table which enlighten my room weakly. The call of the followers to the prayer from the mosque at 4 a.m. that comes along with my sleep. I do not have anything more and I do not want more. How beautiful you are, Africa, and I told someone I would have made love to this country and I fulfilled this promise. Now I get ready for the last long trip that will carry me to Toubam, Mecca in Senegal. In a month I will be back in my beloved Palermo, however I will leave a piece of me here.

It happens to fall in love and I did it with Africa.

My heart is like a cloud, it wants to wander the sky”. If I had to describe myself with a unique quote, I would surely choose this one.

Maria Francesca D’Alia