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Piles of trash languished throughout the city, a putrid smell lurked in the streets, a dead donkey lay to rot on the ground, and men relieved themselves in the street, amidst herds of animals and choking sandstorms. Despite her preparation, she had not expected to see such poverty and such a different way of life. When she arrived at the convent, she was pleased to see where she would be staying for the next three months. Although far from a luxurious residence, the convent seemed like a paradise in contrast to the tour of the city she had just experienced.
Elisa Dierickx, currently a freshman, chose to take a gap year before entering college. Dierickx grew up and went to high school in France. Because she was sixteen years old at the time she graduated, she struggled to find programs or internships that would allow her to participate. Most volunteer opportunities had a minimum age of eighteen.
The only option left was to organize a trip on her own. Her mother had a friend in Nouakchott, Mauritania who was a nun in a convent of the religious order Les Soeurs de Notre-Dame d'Afrique. Through this contact, Elisa was able to stay in the convent and volunteer at a small school, teaching French during the day and giving private English lessons after school. The majority of the population in Mauritania is Muslim, so the language spoken is generally Arabic, but many speak French as their second language, and French is taught in school. Dierickx taught children ages 6 to 15; the older children were only slightly younger than her.
Dierickx resided in the second poorest neighborhood of the city, the "cinqi-me," a small step better than the slums. Her first day of teaching was quite abrupt; Dierickx went to visit the school and immediately upon meeting the director, she was directed to a classroom and asked to begin right away. The children were surprised to have a sixteen-year-old, blond European girl as their teacher.
Dierickx persevered with bold enthusiasm. A few months earlier she had been the pupil, studying hard and listening to her teachers lecture in high school, and here she was so vastly removed from her former experiences, on the opposite side of the situation, in the shoes of the teacher in charge of the class, all eyes upon her. Instead of giving in to intimidation, Dierickx seized the opportunity to give all she could to these children whose general education was severely lacking on many levels. She discovered her talent for teaching; during lunch one day the children were so engrossed in the class activity that they didn't want to leave. Another teacher came in to tell Dierickx that class was over, but the children yelled out in protest. Dierickx enjoyed using creative techniques in the classroom that differed from the other teachers. Most classes consisted of mere phrase repetition again and again while Dierickx tried to get the children interested by playing games and alternating activities. The children were also very surprised when Dierickx refused to use corporal punishment. When a child was disobedient or gave a wrong answer, most children would yell out "Frappe-le! Frappe-le!" ("Hit him!") and hand her a stick for beating. But Dierickx found other ways of keeping the children in line.
Overall, Dierickx discovered that the children were very eager to learn. Dierickx did not need to keep the class quiet, she explains, "it was so different from usual, the children were really interested in what I was teaching." During her first lunch break, her students came to bring her chocolate and sweets, excitedly yelling out their newly acquired French vocabulary words.
The living conditions were quite harsh, but livable all the same. Dierickx initially became sick due to the water, which a man would bring on a donkey to the door every day. She witnessed conditions that she had never seen before: donkeys were beaten to death and left to rot in the streets, and a child was tied to a pole outside in the scorching sun because he was mentally retarded. Some days, she conversed with the city's inhabitants about Judaism and attempted to disprove many common misconceptions such as the belief that Jews are cannibals. Her daily experiences were diverse and left her continually to evaluate and re-evaluate the values and ways of life that she was accustomed to.
Overall, Dierickx is happy to have had a "real" service experience, not one manufactured by a company or program. Many programs allow you to volunteer at the price of two to three thousand dollars and everything is arranged ahead of time-
ensuring a truly pre-manufactured experience. Much of the sense of adventure and challenge is taken away. Dierickx, on the other hand, arranged her trip through a family contact and did not want to be paid for her work. She reports that Mauritania was a very good destination since her volunteer work was valued and needed. For anyone aspiring to a similar travel and service experience, Dierickx's advice is simple: "for a real experience try not to go through an organization, instead, try to arrange it through a contact, or a friend of a friend. The research and the arrangements may take more work, but in the end it is absolutely worth it!"
This article was reprinted with permission from Associated Content, The People's Media Company. Visit www.associatedcontent.com today to publish your own content and explore AC's growing multimedia library.
© 2008 Associated Content, Inc.
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