Field Work stories. Francesca Cortini in Senegal to increase the resilience of young people from local communities

“After high school, my aspiration was to modify the Italian political system to make it more transparent and addressed to contemporary social needs. During my studies, however, I realized that many of our country's difficulties are due to the international context and, for this reason, I decided to move towards the world of diplomacy." Thus began the story of Francesca Cortini, a 23-year-old student from Forlì, who sees in the international dimension the key element for a concrete vision of the future.

Immediately after the degree in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs at the University of Bologna, Francesca understood that her desire was to make a contribution in the area of international cooperation, in her eyes much more pragmatic than diplomacy. So she decided to enroll in Bologna at the master's degree in Local and Global Development, focusing already in the first semester on the African context. From there, the step towards the Field Work programme that took her to Senegal the following year was short.

 

In Senegal to promote safe and conscious migration

In the summer of 2019, Francesca headed towards the capital Dakar with the Certitudes Jeunes project, managed by the NGO COSPE"The aim of the project was to improve access to income-generating activities for potential migrants and young migrants returning to Senegal. In addition, a communication campaign had the task of raising the awareness of the risks associated with migration along illegal routes and informed young people of the legal possibilities of being transferred abroad," she tells us.

After the first week spent in Dakar to familiarize herself with the customs of the country and the activities of the NGO where she was in force, Francesca spent two months in Ziguinchor in Casamance, the southernmost region of Senegal. Here she completed the activities foreseen by the internship and two missions in the villages where the training of young people in agroecology and business management was carried out.

On a professional level, the experience in Senegal allowed Francesca to touch with her hand, and live in reality, what until then she had only studied from books. "I have gained practical experience in the analysis of quantitative and qualitative data. Furthermore, my skills in drafting a project for an international cooperation call have improved considerably. If I hadn't left, I would not have had the opportunity to see how an NGO works from the inside and how the funds are allocated to the projects."

The best aspect of the internship, however, was direct contact with the beneficiaries of the project. "Being able to discuss and listen to their experiences, learn with them, explain what the European climate really is compared to their beliefs. The time spent in their homes allowed me to understand their culture and lifestyle more deeply," adds Francesca.

The Field Work also allowed Francesca to deal with peers from a very different social and cultural context. “I was greeted with warmth and helpfulness by my colleagues. I met peers who became my friends, but with whom I also encountered some difficulties in socializing because we didn't find many topics in common," she says, recalling the cultural gap that was often perceived during conversations. "Unfortunately, few young people can afford to study because they have to work to help the family."

 

A hospitable country with a thousand contrasts

The first impact with Senegal has been strong. Rubble and debris of old and new buildings everywhere, dirty beaches and pollution, animals left free on the streets. Sleeping under a net to avoid being stung by mosquitoes that carry malaria. Not having access to drinking water and having to deal with low electricity.

Initially, it was not easy, but after a couple of weeks, Francesca got accustomed to the Senegalese food, hygiene, and social habits, thanks also to a meticulous preparation before departure. “I have to admit that my ability to adapt to the new lifestyle surprised me positively. I had prepared myself for the environment that I would find thanks to a training day spent in Florence at the NGO and the information gained from other students who had already completed the internship in Senegal. My biggest concern was being able to manage climatic conditions and take adequate health precautions."

The daily difficulties have been manifold and often unheard of for a European citizen. “It was difficult to find your way in the cities because there is no center or square, the streets have no name and are composed only of houses and small shops. So I found myself taking walks in the market where, however, a white girl receives a lot of unwanted attention." Attention, mostly raised by different skin color. "Most of the population still sees toubabs, the white people, as colonists who exploit their lands," says Francesca. “If you are white and go out with Senegalese people, they will always think they are your guests. In some moments it was difficult to distinguish those who approached me for friendship from those who sought only an economic advantage. Also, every time I wanted to buy a product I knew that they would make me a higher price. To show my goodwill, I learned the basics of Wolof, the national language, and to bargain in the market."

Although the color of the skin still affects relationships with the locals, the Senegalese are also famous for their calm and courteous behavior. "Despite some difficulties I appreciated their sense of hospitality, which reminded me of Italian culture, and their kindness. Furthermore, respect for other cultures prevails in the country. Senegal is a country for 90% Muslim and 10% Christian, but the two communities coexist in harmony. You never feel judged for having a different belief or custom."


An internship to understand your strengths

The Field Work allows students like Francesca to directly experience complex situations and understand how they can make their maximum contribution. "The internship in Senegal made me realize that I could not live for a long time in a country where the bathroom is located in a hut outside the house and water is collected from the well," admits the student. “However, I am grateful to have followed this path and to have immersed myself fully in the spirit of the project. It helped me understand that I would like to work in the field of international cooperation projects, and contribute to the drafting of policies to be implemented in developing countries."

Currently, Francesca is in Lyon to complete the last semester of studies at Sciences Po Lyon and to deepen the topic of international cooperation. At the same time, she is writing her thesis on a European project created together with other members of OpportuniSID, a social promotion association where she volunteers. "The project, which is part of the activities of the European Solidarity Corps, has the aim of bringing students closer to the world of work by providing them with information and skills complementary to those gained at university," she explains.

"During my experience with the Field Work program, I realized with regret that our work is often not enough to improve the condition of the population," concludes Francesca. "And it is precisely for this reason that after completing my studies, I want to work at a European institution or an international organization that deals with development and cooperation, and commit myself so that the efforts of the international community in the poorest areas of the planet become increasingly incisive and effective."

 

Good luck, Francesca!