Two physiotherapists in Senegal

Anik Bélanger and Myriam Gauvin, two physiotherapists, talk about their three-week experience in Senegal as volunteers for TSF.

Week 1
We just finished our first week here in Senegal! Wow… so many great experiences in such a short time! Anik and I are more than lucky to be able to live these precious moments. Every day is a new adventure and we take advantage of every second on Senegalese soil. One of the things that surprises us here is the immeasurable kindness of the inhabitants we meet. Everywhere, people take the time to come and greet us and shake hands with us, from the youngest to the oldest. These greetings are always accompanied by a beautiful smile that lights up their face. We have never received so much love since we set foot here and we are so grateful. It is not only the sun of Senegal that is hot, but the hearts of the inhabitants. We feel welcome.

From Dakar to Mbar via Ndiaganiao, it is very difficult to go unnoticed. Our white skin makes more than one react. Here, we are nicknamed the “toubabs” which means white in Wolof. It is magical to see the children looking at us with bright eyes of wonder. We are scrutinized from head to toe and we like it.

In just a few days, we have already experienced several beautiful encounters and touching moments. And yes, we have already cried with joy. Whether it’s our visit to a Senegalese wedding, an impromptu soccer game with young children in an alley, the birth of a child or the song of a young teenage girl, these moments will remain etched in our memory forever.
As in everything, it is difficult to change already established habits. That said, we are working hard to convey the purpose of our mandate here in Senegal. In the health posts, we encourage the professionals with whom we work as much as possible to add new techniques to their practices with regard to cases of low back pain and/or pelvic floor dysfunction. In the Ndiaganiao health post, we carried out basic clinical training on the evaluation of the pelvic floor. We also gave the midwife a memory aid to put on the wall to remember the key elements. We encourage prevention instead of cure.

We are actively preparing the three-day training that we will give shortly in Kaolack. We are convinced that our visit can make a difference!

Week 2
A second week full of activities on Senegalese soil. We realize more and more the cultural differences between our two countries.

At the beginning of the week, we take the road to Kongheul, the 2nd health post that we will serve. We are welcomed by very dynamic sisters and an Italian doctor who stays with us during the week. In the morning, we have to travel 16 km through the bush to reach the Kombidia health post where the midwife stays 7 days a week to assist with deliveries. The delivery rooms always strike me so much, a single bed with stirrups, a bathroom and a heated table for the newborn. No monitoring, solute, ultrasound and no ambulance available in case of emergency. We learn that it is not uncommon to count the number of pregnancies carried to term versus the number of living children…

The children watch us through the fence during our working day and when they return from school around 4 p.m. we go out to play with them. I’m on the soccer field with the boys and Myriam is on the dance floor with the girls. What a great way to end our working days. We decide to buy them a soccer ball on the 3rd day and boys of all ages join us for the game. Barely 30 minutes later in the sand, rock and rubbish, the balloon is punctured. We go in search of a man in his hut who proudly repairs our precious using glue, sand and plastic. Children see nothing but fire.

Having few patients in the afternoon, we take the opportunity to work with the midwife to teach and practice. She is curious and asks a lot of questions. We also move to general consultations where we can intervene on some musculoskeletal cases jointly with the doctor. The Senegalese population is very young. The children are mainly affected by dermatosis, malnutrition and various infections.

We are struck by the level of autonomy and solidarity of the children of Senegal. Having large families, the brothers and sisters are called upon to carry out various tasks such as drawing water, taking care of younger children, carrying objects in the village, attending mass alone and so on. Respect for elders is evident here. No one speaks, cries or shouts at mass. A 7-year-old girl drags her one-year-old brother behind her. Different realities.

We end the week in Kaolack where we give training on low back pain and perineal rehabilitation for women. Over the weekend, we teach 18 nurses and midwives how to assess pelvic floor strength and tension and its influence on incontinence, pregnancy and low back pain. We also try to demystify some frequently encountered lumbar pathologies and their main treatments. During the 3rd day, we are proud to note that the participants have retained the essentials during the scenarios. Everyone leaves smiling with a sense of accomplishment, including us, two young physiotherapists quietly discovering a passion for teaching.

For our last week, I wish us to be as close to people, reflections with the nursing staff, common learning and the impression of leaving a unique world, but oh so welcoming.

Week 3
During the 3rd week, we ensured follow-ups with the midwives previously trained last year in Dakar. We mainly reminded about the notions of constipation, incontinence and sexual pain and the beneficial impact of physiotherapy for these problems. With practice, we became more efficient and quick in our teaching and the consultation time was almost not increased. The midwives met were happy to have this reminder, because several notions are not yet integrated. Any change to our working methods takes time, and that’s normal.
We stayed with the sisters of Dakar and we discovered a very dynamic side to community life. Outside of work, we had a lot of fun and laughter with these exceptional women. Myriam and I will always remember the particular laugh of a sister who always makes us smile. They shared their spirituality with us while leaving us free to live ours. They took care of us like mothers. We keep happy memories of these meetings.

For our last evening in Senegal, we shared a community dinner around a bowl with 10 people. Here, eating together is a sign of rapprochement and sharing. We put on traditional outfits and go out to attend cultural events of Cerer music and dance. The dance to the sound of the tamtams begins with a slow tempo, then speeds up so that people dance one by one in a circle shape. The men run, lift the sand and make wrestling movements in harmony with the group. What would feel like a riot back home is here a balance of respect and energy in the form of dance. Very impressive to watch.

Our mission is already over. We can say that the culture shock was significant, especially from the 2nd week. Living conditions are confusing in the villages, yet smiles can be read on all faces. We feel that we can definitely help in these more remote villages. We liked our mission, because it allowed us to get closer to the essential, which is the human. There is so much to give and to receive. Senegal is the country of the Terranga, the country of hospitality. We had no expectations and received the most beautiful Christmas presents; love and gratitude.

Africa, we are already nostalgic. See you soon.