In my last year of high school, I happened to walk by the guidance office and see a poster promoting an exchange program called Canada World Youth. Something about it caught my attention and I applied. After going through a relatively short series of interviews and meetings, I found myself accepted to the program and heading to Africa shortly after the last day of school. It was an intense time of my life, leaving home for the first time, being away from my boyfriend who I was very in love with, and deferring university for a year (which meant hard choices and giving up scholarships etc), but once again, my spirit of adventure and unwavering curiosity put me on a train to New Brunswick that eventually led to Diakene Diola, Senegal.
I am not sure if you are familiar with West Africa. Living in a village in the late 1980’s was like nothing I could have prepared myself for. Diakene Diola was a small village near the coast in the Casamance, tucked away from the highway that ran from Cap Skirring to Oussouye and beyond. There was no electricity, no running water, no phones, no post office and no amenities in the village. This was also the time before the existence of the internet and laptops. I was essentially cut off from the rest of the world. The closest village with access to a phone or postal service was in Oussouye. In order to get there you had two choices – walk for five and a half hours or hitchhike. Oh, forgot to mention, we also did not have access to any cars/ trucks/ motorbikes/ bicycles there. Foot powered all the way.
Adjusting to that really wasn’t a problem for me. I had grown up on a farm, surrounded by other farms and had spent the majority of my life up until that point as a guide and adored camping. What was a little more difficult for me to adjust to was the reality that I would be spending Christmas away from my family. It was my first Christmas away, and while I was on the adventure of a life time, it was hard to not miss home. We did have the ability to write and send letters, as well as receive them from time to time, but as you can imagine, the service was slow and not always reliable. When a package arrived for me through the leader of our group just before Christmas, I was stunned. It was an impossible feat, as far as I was concerned, that my parents could have sent me anything and it arrived before Christmas Day. Twenty-five years later, I don’t remember everything that was in that box when I opened, but I still have the pillow that my step-mother quilted for me.