Directing a summer camp for kids at my local tennis club was a perfect, post-college career with a short life expectancy and excellent swimming pool perks, but I had my sights set on something more than arts and crafts afternoons. Driven by a passion for adventure and a desire to continue my studies of French and African relations outside the classroom, I searched single-mindedly for a way to live in Senegal. With deferred student loans and a non-existent budget, most programs I found seemed impossibly expensive. My high-top All-Stars were worn through at the heels and I had learned to live entirely off of instant oatmeal. Time and effort were what I had to give.
Enter a little bit of luck and a good Google search. Tostan. The volunteer positions were exactly what I had been looking for: based in Senegal, lasting six months to a year, and focused on professional work with an NGO working to promote causes I believe in: human rights and education. I booked my flight.
The Gambia, Katie said nothing but, “Do you want to go to church?” Her invitation— to a local Christian church in a predominately Muslim country – sparked my curiosity. As the call to prayer sounded from the neighborhood mosque, I headed downtown to a gospel church. From the windows of the black and yellow taxi I caught my first true glimpses of the fascinating and diverse undercurrents of my new life in Senegal.
Although I extended my stay with Tostan from six months to a year, I’m still not ready to go. Dakar has become a second home thanks to the warm welcome of Tostan staff and older volunteers who taught me how to greet a room with Wolof hellos and handshakes, how to bargain with a taxi driver, how to share lunch around a big silver bowl without making everyone else uncomfortable, how to exist in respectful harmony with a culture that is not my own. My dedication to human rights education continues to strengthen as I see proof of positive social transformation stemming from grassroots development. I have seen hundreds of communities stand up to publicly declare abandonment of harmful practices like female genital cutting and child/forced marriage. I have been lucky enough to be a part, however tiny, of Tostan and this history-making movement.
I have also been lucky enough to weave myself into this city’s vibrant fabric, to meet and mingle with inspired Dakar dancers who have, for me—a long-time contemporary dancer—re-defined what it means to be an artist.
My experiences of dance in Dakar have included many classes, rehearsals, performances, and workshops. And the more I learn, the more I give in to rhythms and steps my legs and feet find unfamiliar, the more I understand how everything is connected—how dance is in everything, in the steps of wrestlers by the water, in the rhythmic pounding of spices with a mortar and pestle, in the celebration of women as their villages abandon ancient, harmful traditions, in the melodic lilt of Wolof phrases that remind us that we are all together. Volunteering with Tostan and my experiences in Senegal have given me more than I could have hoped; they have shown me how we are all connected in our work, in the help that we offer each other, in the belief that we all have the right and the capacity to live better lives if we just have the courage to open ourselves up to something new. We can all change ourselves for the better. I can only thank my family at Tostan, and my extended family and friends in Senegal, for helping me to see this incredible truth as it develops in communities across West Africa, and within me.
Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal