Last week our sojourn in sunny Senegal, sadly, came to an end. Our sun-kissed family has been transferred north – far north, in fact – to frosty Scotland. I can already feel a vitamin D deficiency setting in.
I’ve learned that while being married to an international man of mystery (and long-suffering camera man) definitely has its perks, one has to be ready at a moment’s notice to ‘up sticks’. Which is all well and good until you throw two babies, a post-Christmas African packing operation, nowhere to live, ten suitcases and one major climatic change into the mix. You could say, a touch of stress has seeped into the start of 2018 and nothing quite dampens the excitement of exploring a new city, like cries of,
“Where are the f*cking rain covers…”
A fortnight ago, we flew back to Dakar to say our goodbyes and pack up our house. Naturally my thoughts have turned to where our adventure began.
This time last year, I was making the final preparations to plunge into the unknown. I’d never even been to Senegal before, let alone Africa. Yet, suddenly, there I was, boarding a plane to live there with my precious newborns. I was filled with the type of vertiginous nerves, where you watch yourself from a far; going through the motions in a state of denial, with an unrelenting eye-twitch.
Our twins were just five months old and while faced with all the usual new-mum woes (such as frantically boob-combing to keep mastitis at bay), I agonised over seemingly bigger worries. Should the babies take Malarone? What about water safety? Which travel vaccinations could they have? Would the healthcare be up to scratch? Would my breast-pump be compatible with a different voltage? Were there sharks in Senegal? Or, lions for that matter?
Then I arrived and realised that moving country actually wasn’t that big a deal. Despite getting locked in a shop on my first day, any relocation fears have proven totally unfounded. In fact, it’s since dawned on me that Dorothy and her gang of yellow-brick-following drama queens, really didn’t give Oz much of a chance. Perhaps, if she’d poured herself a gin, joined an expat group, adopted a few local customs and occasionally FaceTimed her Kansas friends, she might have enjoyed life in the Emerald City.
Senegal, is far from perfect. And there have definitely been days, I’ve felt like a castaway – desperately clinging to ‘Wilson’ and pining for home comforts. For fresh air. Parks. Pavements. Museums. Online shopping and paying ‘with card’. The anonymity of London. Real seasons; not moderately hot, or blazingly hot. Ocado. Deliveroo. Soft play (I’ve actually never set foot in one, but apparently little people love them). Taxis that boast windows, seatbelts and don’t belch black smoke. Diet tonic water; what girl wants her G&T to come with a glut of extra calories?
There has been much to miss… but ‘having it all’ is an impossible notion. And the benefits of life in Dakar, have more than made up for the drawbacks.
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson
The twins, now 16 months old, have flourished in a country that boasts year-round blue skies, beautiful beaches, French food, and a culture that adores children.
We haven’t once sat down in a restaurant and witnessed the standard glares of horror. If you have children, you know ‘the look’. You feel it upon you every time you push your offspring through an eatery doorway. And chances are, before you had children, your eyes were responsible for the delivery of said look… that reads, “If your babies dare disturb my Eggs Benedict, prepare to leave immediately.”
In Dakar, children are revered. And hands clamor to help you, wherever you go.
The sunshine has also made a big difference. Back in Blighty for Christmas, the girls sadly mistook the snow for sand, and their disgust was palpable. British babies spend much of the year bundled up like pigs in blankets, while in Senegal, letting the twins run around like feral nudists has literally saved days of time. Pre-bedtime has been spent watching the sunset over the Atlantic; Cbeebies has barely had a look in. And their passports have been stamped more times than their determined little feet.
On a personal level, the richness of a new culture and its people has been priceless. Twelve years in London left me blinkered. And dare I say it, spoiled; blissfully complacent in a bubble of brunches, lunches and late-night munches. Cocktails, soirées, and a shameful shoe addiction…
But living in a developing country makes the rawness of ‘the real world’ unavoidable. You can’t just turn it off, like the 9 o’clock news.
The daily scores of tiny beggars – the six-year-old sisters, clutching six-month-old siblings – tap, tap, tapping at the traffic lights. Driving through rural villages where the children carry water (and their school bags) home. Delivering orphanage supplies and before you can even blink, you have a bottle in one hand and a bereaved newborn in the other. Sharing the city with a daily menagerie of cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, and chickens. Or, how about catching sight of a sheep, slaughtered on your morning jog… not the sort of thing one might see in Green Park. The dirt, the noise and the disorder. However, amidst it all, smiling and generosity. And a rock-solid sense of community that the UK lost, many moons ago.
BEST BITS GALLERY
To quote Gustave Flaubert,
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
And how true that is.
Senegal has been a magical experience. It’s one that has left me grateful for the privileges I took for granted, however big or small. We leave glowing with appreciation for how easy we have it in the UK. It’s just a shame I had to leave in order to realise it. And as with any great experience, the people have made it shine. We owe a huge amount to the many Senegalese who welcomed us with open arms.
Thank you for all your kind words of encouragement over the last year about my travel journal. I hope you’ve all enjoyed learning a little about life in Senegal. I don’t know what Edinburgh will have in store for us. Haggis, no doubt. But if we encounter the same warm hospitality as we have in Dakar, we’ll be as right as the inevitable Scottish rain.