It’s over 100° out and 90% humidity. The power is off. Even with battery back-up, our internet is only working sporadically for a minute or two. I would take a shower to cool off, but the ‘cold’ water is over 100° coming out of the reservoir. My phone is acting up, so I can’t even text Cheikh (or Jenn, or Julie, or any other lucky recipients) to gripe about my day.
It’s amazing how quickly I forget to be thankful and turn to complaining.
On Monday I volunteered as an interpreter with a non-profit called Shelter Box. They had sent a team down in response to a request for aid and first needed to assess the flooding crisis, and they needed someone who spoke French and Wolof. Well, mangi fii. (I am here.) And Cheikh mungi fii too and he offered to watch Pape for the day so I could go help out.
With the Pape-care challenge taken care of, my next challenge was deciding what to wear. The photos we’d seen showed waist-high standing water mixed with raw sewage and garbage in some places (and reports said there could be snakes in the water). So you’d think wear nasty clothes, right? But in Senegal they say to ‘dress for others’, meaning that your attire is a way to honor the other person. When you go visit someone, even a relative or friend, you dress up to show them respect. I wanted to do the same for the people whose water-submerged homes we’d be going to visit. Tough call. (Just curious… what would you have worn in this situation?)
Our first stop was the Red Cross office downtown to meet with the disaster relief manager and get some preliminary info about the people affected by the flooding in Dakar (1,500+ currently homeless) and around Senegal (another 1,000+) and what was being done to help.
Suburban Dakar is nothing like suburban Atlanta, I can tell you that. It’s more(ish) like certain areas of downtown Atlanta, but just goes on for miles and miles. Navigating these narrow jam-packed roads filled with people, horse carts (okay, so here we begin to deviate from Atlanta), flowing sewage, shops we’d call shacks, deep impassable water holes, loaded down trucks blocking the road, children running around… Even though I’ve been here for several years, my eyes just couldn’t stop bouncing around, trying to take it all in.
At the temporary shelter sites we found families who literally waded out of their homes carrying children and anything they could grab. The rest of their belongings are either still under water in their homes or probably stolen. I spoke with women for the most part, asking to hear their stories so that I could then tell them to the team in English. I heard about water leaking in first through their ceiling, then pouring in the front door and reaching thigh-level all at once.
I met an elderly woman who crawled into the courtyard where we were standing using her hands to drag her body across the sand. As I shook her hand, it felt rough and calloused from years of ‘walking’ with her hands due to whatever illness crippled her. She’s from a neighboring country and has no family here. Her neighbors rescued her and carried her to the shelter site.
One woman’s husband had actually drowned in the rushing rainwater mixed with sewage. I shook her hand… and found no words at all to say to her. Eventually, “God’s peace to you.” She looked up, her eyes empty, receiving the words.
At another site, an older man walked around awkwardly. He smiled and lifted the wet hem of his long robe, then used his cane to tap the rubber boots on his feet. “My son got me these,” he said proudly. “Now I can walk through the water back to my house and sit in my chair.” I asked if there was still standing water in his house. “Oh, yes. But my son put my chair up on a little table so I can still sit in it without getting wet.”
The stories we heard were sobering. But the local community leaders were doing amazing things with the very little resources they had. We knew that we couldn’t help everyone, or even anyone at that point. So the next step was figuring out how to connect with people in charge so that Shelter Box could help in the most effective way possible.
We drove back to Dakar, tired, very hot and probably quite disgusting. Sweat and sewage. Not coming to a perfume counter near you…
Over a thousand displaced people were being housed at the fairgrounds in Dakar. Our thought was that if 1,000+ people are there, someone has to be in charge. Maybe that someone could help us get plugged in. We were right. Really right!
Immediately when we arrived, the man running the show spotted us and came over. Handshakes all around, a quick explanation of our purpose and we were in the gates about to get a tour of their set-up. “But first, do you want to meet Madame the First Lady?”
Umm… excuse me? Did you just ask… Oh wow!! (Suddenly my choice of outfit for the day seemed horribly inappropriate.)
What we didn’t know was that the organization heading up the relief efforts is the one founded by the First Lady. Not just founded though, she is out there in it 100% – as we saw firsthand.
If you haven’t yet met the First Lady of Senegal yet, here are three things to know:
- If you can speak any Wolof, she will encourage you to do so, even if you make mistakes. So keep studying those lessons, you know, just in case.
- She is gorgeous. I mean really, really beautiful.
- She doesn’t care if you are wearing old nasty flip-flops. But she does care about helping the people of Senegal.
The rest of this story, including a planning meeting at the Presidential Palace the following day (no, I did not wear flip-flops that day) and another tomorrow, is still unfolding. We’ll keep you posted on how you can help the flooding victims in Senegal once the details are in place.
For starters though, we can focus on the many things we have to be thankful for. Like the power that just came back on…