Arriving in Diokoul For The School Build

After an early group breakfast, we met to have our pre-trek orientation. At this orientation, we would be discussing what to expect in a “typical day” in the village and on the worksite, including how to stay safe and healthy and how to interact with your host families and the village community in general. We also had a brief session regarding the local language* (which is Seereer), with a booklet and lessons given by our two translators MJ and Bouba. It’s definitely not an easy language to learn and it was a bit of a struggle for some of us to try to memorize many of the words and commonly used phrases prior to our departure.

Here’s an example of a common morning exchange in the Seereer language:

You – Mbaldo (Good Morning)

Them – Feedee Jam (Good Morning)

You – Jam som (Peace only)

Them – Jam rek keey (yes, Peace only)

*one of the things that added an extra challenge to the language is that unlike many other languages, there were different responses to greetings. So if someone says good morning (or afternoon or evening) to you, you have a different response than if you had said good morning first (as opposed to Buenos Dias, or Bonjour for example).

After our morning orientation, we had a couple of hours to pack up, check out, have lunch and take a little bit of time to appreciate the beautiful coastal setting of our hotel, prior to our departure for the village.

With a great deal of excitement and anticipation, we finally loaded up our little bus (throwing all of our backpacks on the roof) and headed off to the village of Diokoul where we would be living for the next several days while taking part in the groundbreaking and initial construction of the school that we had raised money for.

The drive was approximately 2 hours (heading east from the coast) and took us through many small villages and rural areas. As we got closer to where our village was located, there were several times that our driver needed to stop and ask locals for directions to Diokoul!

On the way

The local transportation in all of the smaller villages

On the way

We got a warm welcome even as we stopped to ask for directions to Diokoul!

After several miles along a dirt road, we knew we were finally arriving in our village when we saw a large group of people gathered together, waiting to greet us. As we got closer, we could hear the drums playing and see all the smiling faces. A bunch of the kids were holding handmade signs saying “Welcome” and “BuildOn” and as soon as we stepped off the bus, the dancing started! Of course, Roxy’s tears started to fall right about this time, as it was such a beautiful and heartwarming site!


We were immediately pulled into the gathering of the villagers, immersing ourselves in’ the celebration!

At the beginning of every BuildOn school build, each village holds an “Opening Ceremony”, welcoming the crew of people that have come to help them build their new school. In addition to performances by the villagers, there are generally speeches from the village leaders welcoming us and sharing their gratitude, as well as speeches from members of our team addressing the villagers with the help of our translators. Desmond and Whitney volunteered to give the speeches representing our fundraising team.

More ceremonyMore opening ceremony


Desmonds speech

Desmond giving his speech on behalf of our group

The Opening Ceremony is also the time when all of the villagers and all of the BuildOn team sign the covenant. The covenant outlines the requirements of both parties in order to complete the school. BuildOn and sponsors (like us) provide the funding for the materials and oversight of the construction site, and the villagers agree to provide the land and local materials needed to build the school, work on building the school with the BuildOn team until it’s complete, and send an equal number of boys and girls to school. And so we all took turns signing the covenant. In some cases, villagers did not know how to read and write, so they were able to just mark their signature with a thumb print.


The Village Chief signing the covenant


Of course, the most fun part of it is listening to all of the traditional music and watching all of the locals dancing in their colorful outfits! The villagers were definitely dancing from the moment we arrived, but it wasn’t long before they were pulling each of us out there to dance as well.

We did our best to keep up with them, but of course, we couldn’t help but feel silly at first. But it was so much fun!!

After a lot of dancing, a lot of drumming and many speeches, we were finally more accessible for many of the local kids to come “check out” the foreigners….and that’s when our love of the children of Diokoul started! They were so curious, sweet and joyful. Looking back now, the kids are what we miss the most.


Lillian in our group was the one that initially drew in a crowd of kids and started exchanging the few words we had learned in Seereer, which the kids got a kick out of. Within a matter of moments of engaging with them, she was surrounded by kids, with a couple even sitting in her lap.


Lillian drew in all the kids!

The other thing the kids loved was seeing photos of themselves, so this was of course, “photographic gold” for Desmond and a great way to engage with the kids. We realized that they may have never seen a clear photo of themselves before, so taking a photo and showing it to them would immediately elicit giggles, excitement, and enthusiasm to have more photos taken. This continued to be a great way to engage the kids, as we all had phones with cameras, and they never tired of seeing photos of themselves and their friends.  And if you had one child that was posing for you, there would almost certainly be 2, or 3, or 5, or even 12 more kids within a matter of moments, ALL eager to have you take their picture and show it to them.

Opening ceremony-kids

After the ceremony was over, we were each introduced to our host families. As in Nepal, Ella and I were in one house and Desmond and Evan were in another house. But fortunately, they weren’t too far from each other!

Both of our families had many small children which we were really excited about, because we knew it would mean lots of kids to play games with each night!

Most families lived in a compound-like environment that included multiple buildings or huts for the different members and generations of the family. Roxy and Ella’s home was actually quite nice and they got to stay in a room that was part of a 3 room house. And although there is no indoor plumbing or electricity, they had a nice and very clean outdoor squat toilette and shower. Of course, we use the term shower loosely here, as it was just a small brick room with a tin roof and a drain in the floor. To shower, there would be a bucket in the little room with a cup in it, and you would use that cup to scoop cold water from the bucket and pour it over your body. You would have the same type of bucket and cup scenario in the squat toilet to use to “flush” the toilet. Both were extra challenging when being used after dark, being that there was no light, so you’d have to have your headlamp on while washing or using the latrine.


Roxy & Ella meeting their family after the ceremony. Ella was so excited we had so many young kids in our home!

Desmond and Evan’s house was slightly different….they had an individual hut with a thatched roof, that was part of a commune of 4 huts. Their Latrine/shower area was VERY different, in that the family didn’t really have a separate building for a latrine or shower, so they improvised on our account and converted an open-air area behind our hut (normally an open-air chicken enclosure) to be the “shower” and “latrine”. The Latrine was literally a hole dug about 12-18 inches deep, with a plastic tub lid put over it to act as a cover. Fortunately, we were able to work it out to be able to use the shower/latrine at Roxy and Ella’s host family’s house.

Below is a video that we took early one morning walking through the area of the village where our homes were.

Aerial view

An Aerial view of Diokoul, at least the area where we stayed, from prior to our arrival. The red marker is where the school would be constructed.

After dropping our things off at our respective homes, we headed back to HQ, which is basically where we would meet our BuildOn team for all of our meals. Normally, dinner would be had with host families, as we did in Nepal, but because all meals eaten here are communal, using just hands out of a singular bowl, BuildOn prefers that we not eat with the host families to avoid any potential illnesses. After dinner, we went back to our homes and brought out the games we’d brought (Jenga and Uno). The first night we started with Jenga, which was an immediate hit! The kids loved it, and would just crack up anytime the tower would fall! Check out the video from Desmond and Evan’s house!

Our evenings spent with our families playing games are definitely some of our favorite memories and we’d usually have a couple of hours each night to play with the kids/families.

Jenga Roxy-Ella



Playing Jenga with Desmond & Evan’s family




Arriving in Senegal!

Yesterday, after more than one and 1/2 years of fundraising, planning and immense anticipation, we finally arrived in Senegal. We landed in the country’s capital of Dakar and because we weren’t scheduled to meet with our BuildOn team until the following evening, we decided to stay at a hotel in Dakar, right on the beach. There were several western hotel options in Dakar, but this hotel stood out to us as it was not only right on the beach with a view out to Goree Island, but it also seemed a little more “local” feeling. In the end, we were very happy with our choice, and after such a long journey, it was nice to just chill at the hotel with it’s an idyllic setting, have a nice dinner overlooking the Atlantic and get a good nights sleep.


Our Dakar Hotel Restaurant had a beautiful view!

Our first morning in Senegal was clear, sunny and warm and after a nice breakfast looking out at the sea, we checked out of our rooms and met with a local guide that we had arranged in advance to take us to Goree Island, which is an island about 20 minutes of the coast of Dakar with a very tragic and horrific past. The Ferry terminal was large and very colorful. We were greeted by many women (all beautifully dressed in gorgeous outfits with vibrant colors), asking us where we were from and what our names were. They each then invited us to visit their shop on Goree Island once we got there. We ended up chatting with several of them on the Ferry as well, which was fun!

Baby on Ferry with Ella

Ella cracking up as the baby bit her finger!

Goree beach 3

Views of the Island from the Ferry.

Goree beach with hostellBoy off ferry

Woman and baby off ferry

Ella’s friend from the Ferry

Goree beach 2

We were jealous of the kids jumping off the pier into the beautiful water as it was a hot day!

From the 15th to the 19th century, Goree Island was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast and it’s where the Portuguese, French, English, and Africans would bring, hold and “process” slaves until it was time to send them off to their final destinations. Our main stop on the Island was a museum that was once one of the “Slaves Houses”. While the white settlers lived comfortably in the upper section of the buildings, the slaves were kept in unimaginable conditions right below them. We were shown small rooms (think jail cells) that would house large numbers of men, women and children in a very cramped space. They were only let out once per day to go to the ocean to relieve themselves.

Slave HouseSlave house 2

Jail cells

Anywhere from 20-30 people would be forced into these tiny cells.

Ella in Door of No Return

Evan in door of no return

Evan and Ella in the Door of No Return.

According to our guide, it’s been estimated that between 15 and 20 million slaves were “processed” through Gorée over the 3 centuries that it was a slave trade hub, all going out through the “Door of no return” and onto ships bound for far off destinations. Hearing about the details and conditions of this place and seeing this site in person was truly devastating, and there were many tears shed by all of us. It’s unfathomable to understand how humans can be so cruel. We can only hope that better education, more empathy and a true understanding of the history of atrocities such as this, will help to lessen the chances of repeating the past.

Despite Goree’s very tragic past, it’s now a charming island full of artists, friendly people, and colorful houses and shops.  We enjoyed walking around and seeing the local artist’s work. 

We stopped into an artist’s workshop where they did a demo of creating sand art paintings. The artists create beautiful paintings depicting African history using different color sand. It was very cool to watch him! It was no surprise that several of us bought some of the paintings.

Sand art 2

And of course, there were our friends from the Ferry who insisted we come and visit their shops! A common refrain was “you are my sister, come with me and I will give you the best price!”.  Sure enough, we did end up buying a few items, as there was a lot of pressure selling going on. But it’s all part of the experience and we had fun with it! After some shopping, we worked our way back to the Ferry.

Girls running

Evan walking

Evan was excited to find a Senegal soccer jersey!

Woman and baby in heart

One of the many beautiful mother and child combos we saw!

Boys playing soccerElla in doorway

After our ferry ride back to Dakar, we piled into our van and headed off to pick up our luggage from our hotel, as well as make a stop in one of Dakar’s historic markets on our way to the town of Saly (about 1 hour south of Dakar on the coast), where we were meeting the rest of our group.

Several of the ladies in our group were interested in potentially getting a colorful local style dress, like the ones we had seen so many beautiful women wearing on the island of Goree. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and only a small portion of the market was open. After looking at a couple of shops and being shown MANY different styles and fabrics, the consensus was that none of what was shown was fitting the bill of what was desired. So back into the van we went, but just before we left, one of the shop keepers came out with a pile of skirts, which sparked interest in several of our party. Then another pile was brought…..and another….and after probably 20+ minutes of showing new garments to us in the van and negotiating prices (we were told to counter offer 20-25% of whatever they said the price was), several items were purchased!

And again, we were off on route to Saly. The journey was relatively uneventful, other than the occasional waving passengers from other buses on the road and the incredible sunset we saw off in the distance.

Woman in VanSusnet

Getting off the highway to enter Saly, we were greeted with a vibrant and bustling little coastal town, with lots of restaurants, shops, markets and resorts (this is a big resort area for the French).

Upon arrival, we were met by our official BuildOn team which included our Trek Leader Dylan, Trek Coordinator Aby,  Translators Boubaca and Marie Jo, and Kim (who is one of the BuildOn staff members from the Chicago office)…….all in all, an incredible team as we would soon learn!

Being that our arrival was relatively late, we went straight to having a group dinner, followed by a short orientation about the cultural norms and acceptable behavior in the village we would be visiting staying in. After that, it was time to go to bed, so we were all well-rested and prepared for the following morning’s orientation and departure to the village.