An Englishman in New York

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Well, more precisely, a few Scotsmen in Senegal. But the conundrum remains – as native English speakers, how did Power A Life manage to communicate in the predominantly French speaking West Africa?  First, let’s take a look at some common greetings

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Bonjour

Na nga def

Salaam aleekum

Jai-rruh-jef

in-i-che

ete-sen

met-al-ee-khah

no ngoolu daa

How de body?

… Hello

These should be in the arsenal of all who plan on travelling to West Africa, a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-national region. The impact of European colonisation, and the globalisation brought on by this century, have produced an array of African dialects. These dialects are, in many cases, not mutually intelligible, causing communication difficulties even amongst West Africans themselves. Our team has experience of working in Senegal and The Gambia, countries separated by no more than a poorly defined border and an imposed national language (French in Senegal, English in The Gambia).

The team taking a break and looking over Dakar, Senegal's capital.

We chose to start our mission in West Africa for three main reasons.

  1. The need for light, due to a lack of electricity, is greater and more concentrated in West Africa than anywhere else on the continent.
  2. It’s easily accessible geographically, with many small nations that share a huge need.
  3. Very important for a fledging start-up filled with sparkly eyed ideas and trying to find its feet, the region’s political history is stable, more so in Senegal than almost any other African nation. The culture of the people is inspiringly welcoming and humbling. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, as one would find anywhere in the world. Those who have helped us along the way have called Senegal ‘Africa by Numbers’.

But still, why Senegal? Surely not being able to communicate with the people you want to work with is going to make things pretty difficult?

Our first ever meeting with Cherif, our project coordinator.

Enter our wildcard CEO, Jeremie, with his Belgian heritage (hurrah!). Jeremie acts as our chief interpreter when working in the region. In 2012, when we took our first trip out, we relied on Jeremie for everything, from negotiating accommodation to pointing us in the direction of the bathroom (if it even existed).

One slip-up in this foolproof system happened when we were offered the chance to sample a local delicacy. What we understood to be a refreshing, thirst-quenching beverage turned out to be raw, unpasteurised cow’s milk. Our doctor’s advice before leaving was simple – you’ll be fine – just DON’T DRINK THE MILK. Oops…

However good Jeremie’s French skills are, though (slip-ups aside), the multitude of languages spoken in Senegal and The Gambia mean having to find other ways of communicating.

All over the world, there is a shared passion for visual communication. And Power A Life puts this to good use.

From our initial trip visit when we conducted our Photography Workshop ‘My Favourite Place’, we have been sharing stories with local communities and leaders by telling a visual story. Our project co-ordinators, who facilitate the giving of our lights, fill in the gaps in between.

The village meeting where we enjoyed our deliciously lumpy milk.

In return, the stories we are told paint a picture of life in developing West Africa. Children have drawn us pictures, families have shared photos of their heroes, teachers have proudly guided us around their schools and show us the work kids have produced. We also learned of local culture – international R&B superstar Akon was born and raised in Senegal, and every teenager with access to a mobile phone or radio proudly belts out his latest tunes!

A drawing from Carol, one of the kids who took part in the project.

So, the daunting task of working in West Africa suddenly becomes less scary when you are humbled by the reminder that, regardless of language, there is a sense of place and identity that we all want to communicate. The Senegalese tradition of hospitality, referred to as ‘Tourranga’, has helped us get on our way with Power A Life. With your help, we’re able to return this hospitality by reducing a major barrier to education for children in West Africa.

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A child studying at night using one of our solar lights.