"Salaam alaikum". This is something I said a lot during my time in Senegal. Meaning “peace be upon you”, it is a greeting that truly embodies the warm and welcoming nature of the Senegalese culture.
I am so excited to be writing a post to highlight some of the memorable events from our incredible month in Senegal. My University of Western Ontario (UWO) varsity basketball teammate Laura Graham and I travelled to Senegal with high spirits and big plans. We were set to distribute 300 Days for Girls (DfG) reusable menstrual hygiene kits and planned to run reproductive health educational sessions. All of the locations we distributed in were set up alongside the UW Optometry VOSH outreach for optometric care route. We also planned to run sports clinics aimed at empowerment for girls in conjunction with the distributions. We came equipped with donated team jerseys and balls, basketballs for Malika and soccer balls for more rural distributions where courts are not available.
Our first stop was in Malika at the Aywa International compound where we spent 4 incredible days at the beginning of our journey and returned for a couple more days at the end. Here we met all of the wonderful people behind the scenes of this organization’s success. The compound had tortoises living in the garden, dogs welcoming you upon arrival, beautiful handmade items in the shop, and was filled with kindness and generosity. Our host Herma Bode made sure our stay was as comfortable as possible, and her impact within the community allowed us to reach so many girls and invite them to our DfG kit distributions and basketball clinics. And where would we be without Djiby during our stay in Malika? Djiby lives and works at the Aywa compound and he made sure Laura and I had the most memorable time possible in Senegal. His generosity showed no limits; from picking us up at the airport, showing us around the city, cutting down fresh coconuts for us to drink, and helping us put together over 100 little bags filled with treats as parting gifts for the girls (he even made sure each one was tied off with a beautiful pink bow!). The basketball court on the compound was perfect for our basketball clinic. The wonderful female athletes we met in Malika showed us the incredible power sports have in bringing communities together.
One memory that will stay with me forever was the warm-up that the girls and their coaches did before our basketball tournament. They started by standing in a large circle, their coach in the middle. He would sing and they would repeat, and everyone was dancing. This eventually turned into a conga line of singing and laughter and dance. It felt like more than a basketball warm-up to me; it was like a celebration. We were celebrating the opportunity to all be there together and play basketball. To say the least, it was definitely the best basketball warm-up I’ve ever been a part of! It was amazing seeing these girls wearing KW Lightning jerseys and Western Mustang jerseys since I wore those exact same jerseys in my own basketball career.
See a video of the warm-up for our basketball tournament at Aywa International's base: https://youtu.be/BYODm5ebXII
After a competitive day of basketball, the athletes worked up quite the appetite! So we hosted the girls for a delicious meal with help from the talented chefs on the Aywa compound. This was the first group we distributed the DfG kits to and it was a huge success! The girls were so patient while we did our best to translate our education session on reproductive health and on how to use the kits, and they loved the beautiful bright colours of the hand-sewn materials. A few of the girls even followed me on Instagram and I am overjoyed when I get updates from them about how they love their DfG kit.
But this was all just one distribution! The rest of our month in Senegal was spent in Kedougou and other rural towns and villages. While our distributions were much smaller there than in the larger city, the girls responded with the same graciousness and excitement as the girls in Malika. We were distributing kits until the very last second before leaving for the airport to come home, and this allowed us to give out 291 of the 300 kits we brought with us! I feel so grateful to have had this experience working with Days for Girls and Aywa International in a goal to increase access to menstrual care and education for women and girls as well as foster women’s empowerment through sport!