Senegal – Breaking ground on our 2nd school

Two weeks ago our team came back from Senegal, where we helped build another school. It was one of the most surreal and rewarding experiences of my life. It almost feels impossible to distill the week I spent in Senegal, the feelings, and the impact it had on me.  Thankfully, images are universal and convey more about an experience than words can ever do. I’m going to share lots of photos in this post; hopefully you can get an idea of how amazing our experience was.

Senegal is one of those places that shake up your beliefs and worldviews;  Anthony Bourdain said it perfectly – “it takes your assumptions and prejudices and turns them upside down. ” A colony until 1960, it is not the typical state that has gone through grievous post colonial periods. It’s a country that peacefully emerged from colonialism without ever experiencing a coup d’etat or a particular authoritarian government. Senegal is hospitable and tolerant; its culture, music, dance, cuisine, and colors are simply dazzling. It is also a country whose people face some of the toughest realities of the world, especially those related to crumbling poverty.
I loved my time in Senegal so much, that I decided to go back next year and explore the country more. Senegal, vous etes extraordinaire! ❤

Here is our story narrated through pictures taken by all of us. Thank you everyone for sharing your photos and videos with me.

I’d like to thank few people first 😉

Senegal Team 2017 BLOGTeam Senegal!! ❤ From left: Kiki, Lori, Maya, Kiana, me and Paul – thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support. You left your loved ones back home, courageously hopped on this journey, traveled to another part of the world, worked hard under extreme heat conditions, and selflessly spread kindnesses and love with all the people you met along. I am forever grateful to you. ❤

Goree Island Selfie 1 BLOGThank you, Celestina and Jean!
Celestina, you made this journey unforgettable. Thank you for making us feel safe, comfortable, loved, and taken care of. You are an amazing young woman who will go far in life. I can’t wait for our next trek and school in Burkina Faso. ❤
Thank you Jean for being so cool and kind to us all! You are wonderful.

Sandra and Nafi 1 BLOG.jpgThank you, Naafi! To me, you are the best chef ever with the sweetest smile in the whole entire world. Thank you for cooking all the delicious meals for us. ❤

Sandra Fahari Benedicte BLOG.jpgThank you, Benedicte and Fakhary for all the translations and coordination on the work site!

GroupShot at the end 1To the community and all our host families, thank you for your hospitality, kindness and for working along with us on the school.

WomenWorkSite 1To all women – YOU ARE MY HEROES!
Your grit, support and love for each other was awe inspiring. You got each other’s back!
Thank you for showing me again that women are SO MUCH better off when they lift each other up. There are plenty of obstacles and challenges on the road to gender equality, we don’t need to create another one by getting in our own way. Thank you for working so hard on the school despite all the household responsibilities you had to take care every day. You truly are AMAZING. ❤

ThankYouAnd finally, thank you to my family, friends, donors, buildOn and everyone who has supported my dream. Thank you ALL for your generosity, kindness, encouragement, and love. ❤


We started our journey by exploring a little bit Dakar, the capital, before we headed on to the village. Dakar is far from dull. It is packed with diversity, vibrant markets, colorful colonial architecture and amazing restaurants by the water.

Dakar Team 1 BLOGI love this picture. This is in Dakar; we were so excited to be there. Kiki is missing from the team, she arrived the next day.

Goree Island 1 BLOGWe visited Goree Island – painful and heinous memories of the Atlantic slave trade are captured in this small island off the coast of Dakar.

Goree Island 3 BLOGThe House of Slaves and its Door of No Return – a symbol to the slavery’s barbarism and one of the greatest tragedies in humans’ history.

EnfantsBLOG.jpgChildren were taken away from their parents, stacked next to each other into dark rooms with one narrow “window”.  They were kept for days until sold into slavery.

SlavesImage Goree BLOG.jpgThe image of men, women and children being held in horrific conditions until they were sold as slaves made me feel sick to my stomach. I felt numb and ill at ease.

This experience made me reflect on the importance of defending with everything we’ve got the human rights laws that allow people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice and peace without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, or social and birth origin.
It also made me think of the racist division that sadly still exists in our country. 😦 Michael Dyson eloquently writes in his book “Tears we cannot stop” – “Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives. The spoils we reaped from forcing people to work without wages and treating them with grievious inhumanity continue to haunt us in a racial gulf that seems impossible to overcome.”

BookI love this book.
It is emotional, fierce, profound and an insightful call for change. I humbly recommend it to all my friends no matter where you stand on the spectrum of confronting privilege and systemic racism. I hope from the bottom of my heart that we all find a way to redeem our nation and work together towards a better, more tolerant and just future.

Team Senegal 2 BLOGAfter spending a day and half in Dakar, we drove to the village, called Tanguish Peulh.

NameBoard.jpgOnce we got in the village, we were received with so much joy and happiness. The opening ceremony was filled with dancing, drum-beating, and lots of emotions. Children were holding little black boards with our names written on them. It melt my heart. ❤
Ceremony 1 BLOG.jpgHappy.

Ceremony 2 BLOGI love Kiana’s happy smile.

At the end of the ceremony, the entire community signed the covenant – a solemn promise between buildOn and the village outlining their duties and contributions to the school project. Because of the funds we raise, buildOn is able to provide the engineering expertise, materials, skilled labor, and project supervision. The village provides the land and the unskilled labor to build the school. Additionally, the village promises to send girls and boys to school in equal numbers.

Ceremony 4 BLOGMaya and Paul.

Ceremony 5 BLOGLori and Kiana.

Ceremony 6 BLOGKiki and I.

Ceremony 7 BLOG.jpgWomen waiting on line to sign their commitment to education for their children and themselves. In a lot of the rural areas, women don’t know how to read or write.
buildOn has a wonderful Adult Literacy Program that teaches classes for parents and grandparents in the same schools that children attend by day. 70% of the adult students are women who were denied access to education as young girls.

Ceremony 3 BLOG.jpgThe chief holding the covenant.

Next day, we broke ground on our second school. ❤
There were three main jobs as part of building the foundation – digging holes, making bricks, and tying the rebar. We all took turns, learned and tried hard to do them well. Thank you so much to all men and women for teaching us how to rebar, how to hold the pick-mattock and dig canals, how to make concrete bricks and so many other useful things that made us more efficient. We enjoyed learning from you and working alongside you.

School 3 BLOGThis is the current school, but not for long.
New school should be up and running by the end of this year.

Children in ClassRoom BLOG.jpgWe visited the school before we started our first day of work. How cute are the kids?!!
❤ ❤ ❤

Teacher Senegal 1 BLOG.jpgThe teacher – such a nice man. I felt his passion and profound appreciation for education. He told us that the village has tried to get a school since 1976. After 41 years, the community will finally get its school. ❤
Visiting school BLOG.jpgKids were so happy to see us and have their french class interrupted. 🙂 We took few pictures outside the school. I couldn’t find a photo in which we all look at the camera, haha. So sweet. ❤

School Parcel 1 BLOGLaying the groundwork for our new school right next to the old school.

WorkSite 2 BLOG.jpgGetting the ground ready. Haha, I love Kiki’s energy.

Lori Water BLOG 1.jpgGoooo Lori!
Lori, Maya and other women from the village were in charge of bringing water from the water well to the work site. We used the water to make concrete and later bricks that were used to build the foundation and the walls of the school.

MAYA Water BLOG.jpgYou got this Maya!!!

Maya Friend.jpgMaya made a new cute friend. ❤

Worksite 3 BLOG.jpgI love this picture so much. Maya, Lori and other women bringing water to the work site.

The village didn’t have clean drinking water. Thinking that children drank the water that we had hard time washing ourselves with has been keeping me up at night ever since I came back.  I made a promise to myself that I will try hard to get a NGO in the village that can bring clean safe drinking water to them.
I already reached out to charity: waterwaves for water, water for people, splash, and few more NGOs. It’s always hard and challenging to start new projects in developing countries; there are so may logistics and things to take care of, but I am not going to give up easy on this. I’ll try really hard until the community gets clean water.

Kiki Solar fan.jpgWorking in 100 degrees and Senegalese sun was tough at points. I actually got sick and had a little bit fever first day in the village. But Kiki figured it all out – she had a solar fan attached to her hat. Haha, brilliant and adorable! 🙂

Kiana Reabaring.jpgKiana and Jean having fun while tying the rebar.

Paul Worksite BLOG 1.jpgPaul and I breaking big chunks of topsoil with the pick-mattock. Paul worked so hard on this and ended up getting some big nasty blisters on his hands.

Worksite 4 BLOG.jpgI love Paul’s excitement!

Diging 1 BLOG.jpgDigging holes and canals is hard. You get some serious muscle work out. Both men and women were amazing at it though, and they all did it without working gloves and sometimes bare feet.

Kiki Digging.jpgHaha, Kiki being silly! 🙂 She dug this canal on her own. Kiki is so STRONG. I was worried she might hurt herself, but she was just fine. The villagers called her “Strong Woman”.

WorkSite 1 BLOG.jpgEvery day, the work site looked like a giant colorful party. Many women came along and helped after walking every morning 7km to the market to sell goat milk to provide food to their families. It was quite incredible, we were all stunned to hear this. Their strength was extraordinary.

School 1 BLOGWork-site view.

Workers 1 BLOGGetting the sand ready.

Chidlren waterGirls bringing water to make the concrete. I love this picture.

Kiana Bricks 3 BLOG.jpgKiana was an expert at making bricks! We made two kinds of bricks – one for the  foundation and other for walls.

Paul Rebar.jpgPaul learning to bend rebar. I like his shirt 😉
Thank you my dear friend, Kelly, for getting the shirts for us! ❤

Sandra rebar BLOG.jpgYou would think bending the rebar is easy, it’s not! As you can see, I needed a lot of assistance. 😉 Actually, there is no way, I could have done it by myself.

Worker and Children 1 BLOGChildren would come by the work site and keep us company.

School 2 BLOGWe made over 600 bricks.
On the last day, we wrote our names on the bricks. It was quite an emotional scene. I was so happy to see the team writing their names and their loved ones’. ❤

Kiki Bricks 1 BLOG.jpgKiki wrote her grandparents’ names in Chinese. They were both educators and taught in schools for many years. It was so special to see Kiki writing their names and getting very emotional. What a beautiful way to honor your grandparents, dear Kiki.
Thank you for your unwavering support to schools and education. Your grandparents would be so proud of you. ❤

Kiana Bricks BLOG.jpgKiana wrote her name, her husband and son’s names. ❤

Maya Bricks BLOG 1Maya just wrote her name on a brick. You think she’s happy?! 🙂

Lori's son.jpgLori’s son ❤

Paul Bricks Name.jpgPaul writing his children’s names. ❤

Sandra Bricks 1BLOGMy dream and I ❤

Fun after Work BLOG.jpgAfter work, walking to the lunch site was so much fun despite being pretty exhausted. 🙂

Walking to Lunch BLOG.jpg

Kiana and Lori ride home.jpgSometimes we would get lucky and get a ride from the local people 🙂

Children 2 BLOGWalking back and forth from our host families to the work site and eating spot, we met lots of children along the way. They were always so happy to see us and loved posing for us. How beautiful are these little girls?!!

Children 5 BLOGOn their way to school! ❤

Naafi 1 BLOGEvery breakfast, lunch and dinner, we got to see Naafi’s perfect smile! We ALL loved Naafi. Her food was out of this world. I think it’s fair to say that we all had some of our best dishes in our lives.

Food BLOG 1.jpgHere is one vegetarian dish Naafi cooked for us – look at all the love and care she put into it. Thank you, Naafi for cooking such good food for us. ❤

Kiki Children 2 BLOG.jpgAfter lunch we would chill a little bit, have a shot of sweet traditional tea and take few pictures with the children.

Sandra Girl 1 BLOG.jpg

Paul Funny 3 BLOG.jpgHaha, these are hilarious!

Paul Funny Face 2 BLOGKiana brought nail polish and glitter for the girls. They LOVED it. So cute how this little girl has glitter all over her face.

Kiki and child 1 BLOG.jpg

Jumping the Rope.jpgAfter work and lunch we had cultural activities and play time with the kids. While waiting for the children to finish school we had fun jumping the rope. Maya and Celestina were so good. Look at Celestina, she looks like there is no gravity acting upon her.

Sandra Jump Rope.jpgHaha, I look terrified! I managed to go few rounds but I was pretty bad at it.

Kiki Jump Rope.jpgKiki’s turn and she did good too!

On our last working day we got to take lots of group pictures and selfies with the children and local people.

GroupShot at the end 1 BLOGGroup picture with everyone on the work site!

Team Senegal 2017 BLOGNothing stopped us – not the heat, not the tough living conditions, or the hard work –
WE DID IT, Team Senegal! ❤

Group villagers 2 BLOG

Kiki Senegal 2017 BLOG.jpg

Kiana and girl Senegal 2017 BLOG

Children Beautiful 1 BLOG
I love this picture so much. I told the children “nouvelle ecole” which means “new school” and this is the joy I got! ❤

Woman and Baby 1 BLOGStunning!

Jean 1 BLOG.jpgAww, we miss you Jean!

Sandra and Kiki Children 2 BLOG.jpg

Woman Senegal 2017 BLOG

Kiki Child.jpg

Lori w boys


Child 1 BLOG

Children 7 BLOGHaha, so cute!

The closing ceremony was beautiful and so much fun! The community dressed us in traditional Senegalese costumes. We danced A LOT, gave few speeches, took pictures and I had the honor to give our donor plaque to the leader of the women.

Team Senegal 1 BLOG.jpgTeam Senegal dressed in traditional Senegalese costumes.
How beautiful we all are?!!! ❤
Kiki Costume BLOG.jpgSo pretty! ❤

Paul and baby.jpgPaul somebody is watching you! ❤

Sandra and Mariam 1 Sqaure BLOGI love this selfie of Mariam and I.
I fell in love with Mariam from the first time I saw her. She was one of our host families’ daughters. We connected so well and I genuinely think we both fell in love with each other. 🙂 I am going back next year to see her!

Kiana End BLOG.jpgKiana is like a princess with all the little kids around her. ❤

Lori Costume.jpgLori looking so beautiful!

Kiana Kiss BLOG.jpgA little smooch from my beautiful roommate.
Look how cool Kiana’s hair is! The girls in the village did it. ❤

Lori and Maya End BLOG.jpgMaya and Lori looking stunning!

Kiana Dancing BLOG.jpgKiana and I dancing! We all got some serious dancing skills, haha. 🙂
But the women in the village were absolutely AMAZING.

Sandra Dancing BLOG.jpg

Kiki Dancing BLOG.jpgI love Kiki’s energy and joy!

Plaque Speech BLOG.jpgAfter my speech, I had the honor to give our donor plaque to the leader of the women. I explained how I raise money by running marathons around the world, and how people from all walks of life make donations because they believe that education is a human right and every child should have a school to go to.
Thank you Jean for translating everything! 🙂

Women Leader BLOGShe got very emotional. I don’t think she expected to receive the plaque. Celestina had suggested I gave the plaque to her, and I am so HAPPY I did that.

Plaque BLOG

Women Leader 2 BLOGIt’s the sweet simple things in life which are the real ones after all.

Group Picture BLOGClosing Ceremony Group Picture, Tanguish Peulh, Senegal 2017

Next day we left the village. That was quite a heavy time for me. I LOVED the trek, the people, our team, Mariam, my host family, the children, buildOn staff…I can’t really explain it but I felt so connected with the community. I was gasping for breath and I felt a sharp pain in my heart last time I hugged Mariam. Once we got back home, I could barely function the first week. I felt depressed. I left my heart in the village.
I want to go back, make sure the village gets clean drinking water. I also want to establish some sort of communication with my host family and my little Mariam. ❤


Roomates.jpgOne last selfie before we left the village with the best roommates in the world! ❤

Mama and I BLOG.jpg Our host grandmother and I; we called her Mama.
She was so dear to my heart. Every morning Mama would pack peanuts for us to have snack on the work site.

Mama 2 BLOGAll children loved Mama! She was so kind and gentle. ❤

Sandra and Mariam 3 BLOG

I love you, Mariam!
I will NEVER forget you.

Sandra Mariam BLOG.jpg
❤ ❤ ❤

Thank you so much EVERYONE for your support and love.
Alone we can do so little, together we can do SO MUCH.
You ALL are my reason to smile and stay happy.