A few weeks ago, I visited the Matam region a more rural area in the northeast of Senegal on the border of Mauritania. To get there, I took a bus with another student for about eight hours to Ourossogui, the closest major town and then found a mini-car to take us to Thilogne, where we would stay with a Peace Corps volunteer. Because that region does not receive much tourism, the state road connecting Thilogne and Ourossogui is very poorly maintained. Although the road was once paved, it is now filled with potholes, so much so that the mini-car often swerved off the road to drive instead in the dirt on either side. A drive that should have taken just over an hour instead took roughly three hours, including several stops in villages along the way. The mini-car itself was essentially the shell of an old van, with no glass in the windows and ripped folding seats. At each stop, people would climb in and out, squishing into seats and hanging out the back door of the van. At some points, there were as many as twenty people in the van, making for a slightly uncomfortable ride especially when combined with the heat and dust. When we finally arrived, my fellow student and I tumbled out of the van and were instantly surrounded by vendors. We pushed our way through and met up with our Peace Corps volunteer, who led us away from the crowds towards her homestay.
The Matam region is made up predominately of the Pulaar ethnic group who speak a different language than Wolof, which we had been learning. Although French is the official national language, it is spoken much more infrequently because it is only taught in schools and many people do not finish their studies or speak French outside of class. Because of these language barriers, it was difficult to communicate with our host family most of whom spoke Pulaar, although there were several members of the family spoke a little bit of French. In spite of this, our host family welcomed us with open arms, feeding us delicious local dishes and making sure we were comfortable in the new environment. Each night after dinner, everyone gathered outside where is was cooler, sitting on woven mats and sipping Attaya, traditional Senegalese green tea with lots of sugar. We played with the children, showing them card tricks and they in turn, singing us songs and showing us clapping games. When we were tired, we would climb the stairs up to the roof, where we slept under mosquito nets and were cooled by the mellow breeze.
During the week, we were able to visit many areas around the town. We visited the local health post and interviewed an administrator about the main health concerns facing the town and the personnel and resources available at the post to meet those concerns. We also met with the mayor’s assistant, who outlined issues with the town in general, such as poor infrastructure and lack government resources. He also discussed environmental concerns facing the town and region as a whole, many of which would have long term implications for the climate and effect agricultural practices. Later in the week, we went to the weekly market, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from dried fish, to jewelry, to cloth, to goats and cows. One night, we attended a soccer game between two neighborhood teams. Practically the whole town was there and all the women dressed up in nice dresses, using the match as an opportunity to leave the house and let loose for a little while. When the game ended and our team had won, everyone paraded back into town with horse drawn carriages filled with people running ahead and everyone singing and cheering coming in behind.
Although we only stayed for one week, we experienced extreme Teranga, Senegalese hospitality, everywhere we went. People welcomed us into their home as if we were family, constantly feeding us and making us round after round of Attaya. Despite the high temperatures, sometimes in low 100s, and the constant dust in everything, we had a great week visiting Thilogne and truly enjoyed meeting our Peace Corps volunteer and our generous host family.