*Disclaimer*

Please note that the opinions reflected on this blog are solely MY opinion. They do not reflect the Peace Corps or the US Government in any way.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stand by Me

Before Senegal, I wasn’t someone who kept up with a continuous blog. I didn’t feel like my daily life experiences would be that interesting to an outsider. I still feel that way with most of the blogs I take a random glance at here and there. I started this blog as a way to stay close with my family and friends while I was living in Senegal – I didn’t know how therapeutic it would turn out to be for me during those two years. I have always kept a personal diary but there’s something about posting your thoughts in a public forum that is alluring. I hadn’t intended on keeping up with this blog much post-Senegal. I have written one post since I came home and hadn’t really felt much need for a follow-up. Tonight I felt the need.

My coming home has been a whirlwind. There have been the usual readjustments that any returned Peace Corps volunteer faces such as food issues, supermarket breakdowns (there are SO many options here), and an overall feeling of gluttony (almost disgust) for all that we have here. Then, for me, there have been some deeper readjustments around family, friends, getting used to being in an office 40+ hours a week (yeah, I got a job), anxiety around making purchases (ANY purchase, literally), and even dating (everything’s online nowadays – it’s weird and makes me uncomfortable and slightly ashamed of my generation).

I have been home for over 5 months now and it still feels like I’m in a cloud some days. I have supportive people in my life but I don’t feel like I have really been given the proper venue to truly share my Peace Corps experience. Until tonight. I volunteered as a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters for… 6 years or so. I was matched with a wonderful young woman and became very close to her and her family. They had me over for dinner tonight because they wanted to hear about my Peace Corps experience. They wanted to see pictures and I mean a lot of pictures. I tend to get a little embarrassed if I’m showing people pictures from Senegal and try to stop before I’ve even really began – they were not having that. They wanted to hear Senegalese music. They wanted to relish in my achievements and listen sympathetically to my challenges. Not many other people (there have certainly been some who have) in the 5 months that I’ve been home, have given that kind of attention to what Peace Corps meant to me.  

I’m expected by many to just slide right back into life here. I probably put on the fa├žade myself by getting a car, accepting a job right away, jumping into dating, and seamlessly falling into my life as it was before. But I’m not as I was before. And sometimes I don’t know what I’m ever going to be. I still don’t know what my career path should be. I still don’t know where I belong. I feel like, at the age of 25, I’m redefining myself and my path in life. Peace Corps had been my goal for so many years and now that I’ve completed it – I need to build up my list once again or I need to just be okay with not knowing.

When I used to write these posts I would often think about the reason behind them. What am I trying to get across, what is my end goal? With this post, I think I simply needed to write. I needed to share that I’m still struggling, yes, even 5 months after being home. I needed to share with those close to me that sometimes, I just need to talk about Senegal. Sometimes I need to show a picture of my host sister and all anyone needs to do is give me an indulgent giggle or two. If there are other returned volunteers out there who didn’t jump back into “normal” life as easily as it seems like your fellow returned friends did, that’s okay.

I needed to share that I am trying to slide back into life here. But sometimes, I will have to compare prices of body wash for 7 minutes (which, in reality, is abnormally long for such a task) and you may just have to stand there with me and let it happen. I also wanted to share that I am incredibly grateful for those of you who have stood by me in that body wash aisle, metaphorically speaking. You know who you are.

xx

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

So, how was Africa?!

Well. Here I am. Back in the states – the US of A. I said that my last blog post would be my last but I think this one will really be my last. Up until now my posts have all been about getting ready to go to Senegal, my time in Senegal and then my feelings upon leaving Senegal. I think it’s only fair that I wrap up this whole experience with a final post regarding readjusting back to life in the States. You may not think that there is any sort of readjustment period required. I’m sure it must seem like because I am American and I know what life is like here, that I should be falling seamlessly back into things. Well unfortunately for both of us, that is not the case.

All Peace Corps volunteers and their families are given a handbook upon departure. This handbook goes over everything the volunteer can expect leading up to, during, and even after service. The final chapter about coming home brings up some of the emotions that I am currently feeling and while it might be easier for everyone I love to just take a peek at it, I’m going to include two of the key points in this post.

One of the points the handbook mentions that returning volunteers have a hard time with is the lack of interest or ability to properly communicate said interest by most people in what we have been doing for the past two years. If everyone could do me a favor and please never, ever ask me, “How was Africa?!” That’d be great. Life went on as normal here. People had challenges of their own and I understand that. However, the experience, as the handbook puts it, may have been the “most seminal experience of my life.” A vague, blanketed question asking, not even how the country I served in was, but the entire continent? That is simply insulting. Americans are so proud of their country and would most definitely be offended if someone asked them how North America was doing; therefore I simply ask that we educate ourselves a little bit on the big ole’ world that is out there. 

The second point that struck me was in regards to the intensity of the Peace Corps experience and what happens when that goes away. Contrary to most of my Facebook posts, I was not just on a two year vacation over there. Every time I left my apartment was a challenge. I was continuously speaking another language, dealing with harassment, dealing with heat, dodging rampant cars/street animals, and the ordeal was exhausting yet also exhilarating. I would go out of my house, walk to the post office and buy some vegetables at the market. Upon arrival back home, I felt like a champ. That small errand was tough and the completion felt incredibly satisfying. Here, still in my first few weeks back, my free time is devoted to similar tasks such as laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking but the amount of ease with which all of these things are done is odd to me. The list I just rattled off would've easily taken me a week in Senegal and I would have had to devote each day to a separate chore. The convenience here and lack of difficulty completing basic duties is oddly debilitating.

Moving away from the handbook stuff now... I've been home twice and now that I am finally here for the long haul, it feels different. I’m not on vacation anymore. Life is real. I need to find a job or else I’ll go stir crazy sitting around. I need to figure out how to manage a schedule, not just one big reunion meal, with friends and family. There is also the matter of other people getting used to fitting me in their lives again. I know this isn’t a one-sided transition.

In Senegal, or I guess being physically removed anywhere, it seems like the problems are there but also aren’t really there. It is as if when you come back, everything will magically fall into place. America is the land of wonderful possibilities. I still believe this, but it’s also not all it’s cracked up to be. Difficult or confusing situations that existed before I left are still here and waiting to be dealt with.

A final note on the hard readjustments is just fitting myself into conversations again. I am having a hard time connecting with some of the topics that people deem important here. I find myself experiencing something I dealt with in Senegal which was being in a room full of people yet feeling alone. I am not hip on the latest gossip, technology, or even local issues so sometimes I’m unsure how to contribute to group conversations. I also feel that when I go off about my time in Senegal, some people just don’t care or know what to say. It goes back to simply asking me how Africa was. I get it that a lot of people don’t really know what the Peace Corps entails and I don’t blame them for feeling slightly uneasy. There have also been great conversations with relative strangers who were genuinely interested in what I had to say. I know that this is something that will come with time. I will come to realize the situations in which Senegal talk is appropriate and sought after or the other times when I need to know what the hell snapchat is all about.

After the hard stuff there are, of course, the wonderful readjustments that come with seeing the people I’ve missed so much regularly. The comfort that comes from understanding what people are saying to me, almost all the time, and being able to respond in my native language. The beauty that is Utah, I’m not kidding you. It is so incredibly, overwhelmingly, undeniably beautiful here. With the mountains, the trees, the grass, the clean streets, the fresh streams, the clean smells, etc. 


Then there’s the ease of working out and being able to go running without receiving stares and harassment. And finally, hot showers, clean clothes/bed sheets/towels, the ability to go where I want when I want, GOOD FOOD, and staying clean all day long have been lovely to get used to again.

To wrap this up, the readjustment is hard. I want people to know that and to try and be patient with me. I will do my best to be patient with people as well. As far as my next steps in life go… I’m still not quite sure. That’s probably my second least favorite question – What are you doing next? Not because it’s something slightly ignorant like the Africa question but because it sends me into a fit of panic and mutterings, “I don’t know yet, I’m job hunting, we’ll see!” I have an opportunity to teach English in France which I have accepted but I’m also applying for jobs in Utah in order to be around my family and friends. After all, if I find a good job with an organization that I care about, it’s not going to hurt me to stay put for a little bit and regain some sense of normalcy in my life.

Until the next adventure then,


xx

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Privileged Problems"

Variety is the spice of life, right? In Senegal, I’m not so sure this is the case, and that appears to be just the way many people like it. There are around 4 or 5 meals that constitute the Senegalese diet. They eat these same 4 or 5 meals throughout their entire lives and seem to continue to enjoy them. There is no large supermarket to ponder over lunch/dinner options for hours. There are usually no options except for whatever is grown in your area or imported. There are 4 or 5 professions that everyone knows about and aspires to be. Teachers, fishermen (in my area due to our proximity to the coast), policemen, housewives, and sometimes I even hear doctors. There's usually not years of soul-searching, pondering over these careers. If a Senegalese person does well in their science classes, they'll probably pursue a career in healthcare, because it just makes sense. Senegalese people are considered fortunate and incredibly talented if they graduate high school with their BAC, our equivalent of the GED. This test seems WAY harder than what our graduation requirements constitute, plus these kids also probably already speak at least 3 languages by now. 

The point I’m getting to here is that there are less choices in almost every aspect of life. While some of this lack of choice may make life more complicated, mostly this simplifies life here. I think that I am beginning to see Senegal in the positive light that I want to remember it in. The peace of mind that comes with fewer choices is easy to spot here. I often speak about the hardships I have faced but this experience has given me more than I ever expected. Life doesn’t always have to be the serious, scary, fast-paced, and complicated situation that many Americans and those living in a more developed country see it as.

Many famous philosophers and historical figures have discussed the notion of “1st world problems,” or “privileged problems.” Now, we’ve all seen the funny videos where first world problems are “issues” such as a hot tub being too hot, a house that’s so big you need 2 wireless routers, etc.

(See this video for a great ad campaign) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/05/first-world-problems-read-by-third-world-kids-ad-campaing_n_1943648.html?ir=World.)

But I am here to say that privileged problems can definitely be a real and scary thing. Privileged problems come often from having too much time on our hands and too many options at our disposal. If you don't have to hike 10 miles for enough water to bathe in that night, that can free up some thinking time. Once your basic needs for survival are taken care of (food, shelter, water, clothing, etc.), you end up having more time to ponder the other needs in your life. These are things such as a fulfilling career, a loving companion, and material things (a fancy house, car, clothes, etc.). While it’s wonderful that many of us have freedom in deciding these areas, it also adds substantial amounts of stress, anxiety and depression to our lives. The anxiety level is palpable in the US. People are constantly chasing the next slew of “things” and losing sight of enjoying the beauty of nature, relationships, and other human interactions.

I’m not saying I would prefer no choices or that these extra needs are not equally important. I'm also not saying that there aren't problems for many people acquiring these basic needs in developed countries either. I’m only saying that I wish that sometimes we could just take a step back, get some perspective and appreciate all that we really do have. Even just having the opportunity to live in the United States and the freedom to chase after whatever dream we may have is something I for one will always be immensely grateful for.

Anyway, as my time has pretty much come to an end here in Joal, I find myself feeling very… weird. This whole “leaving Senegal behind possibly forever thing” is kind of resulting in me having a surreal, out-of-body experience. I feel as if I’m watching myself pack up some of my stuff, give away most of my stuff, and say goodbye to my friends and family who’ve been in my life for the past two years. I can’t believe it’s actually happening. I don’t think I’ll believe it until I am on that plane out of here, for good, not just for vacation. This is something I’ve wanted for so long and now that it’s finally here, I don’t really know how to feel or what to think. As previously mentioned, I just feel weird.   

Although I do feel like I’m finally receiving the validation from Senegalese that I’ve craved for so long. For every hard goodbye, an accompanying tearful and heartfelt thank you has followed. People I didn’t even know that well have been praising me for my projects, thanking me for what I did to help their country and been overwhelmingly sad to see me go. It’s not as if I thought that my projects and relationships here meant nothing, I just didn't realize the extent of their meaning and I feel deeply validated and truly touched.

Even though I wanted to go home for most of it, I will always treasure this experience and I am so grateful that my stubborn nature forced me to stick it out. I feel like I have changed and grown in more ways than I could have if I had just been working in the states. I’ve learned to really cherish the relationships I have and to focus on what’s important in life. Coming back to the earlier discussion of privileged problems, if I have my basic needs fulfilled, I’m going to try to do my best to not freak out so much about the other stuff and also to reach out and help those who are working on fulfilling their basic needs.

I have a couple more weeks in Dakar, celebrating and tying up loose ends. After that, America, I’m comin’ at ya and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Until the next time,
  
xx

Thursday, February 27, 2014

You live, you learn

I wanted to start this post by sincerely thanking everyone who I know has followed my blog from day one. I hope that you have laughed, learned, and reflected throughout it all. I am flattered and truly honored by the idea that people care what I think and that you are all interested in learning how my perspective has changed over the past couple of years. The 3rd goal of Peace Corps is to help Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries. I hope that I have achieved that to some extent with this blog.

I have been told by many of you who follow me consistently that you appreciate the honesty with which I share my experience here and, well, it’s time that I admit that the Peace Corps maybe wasn’t for me. I know what you’re thinking… what?! What happened? Did something catastrophic lead you to this conclusion? Or maybe you’re thinking, well, obviously. As my time here in Senegal is rapidly winding down, I find myself reflecting quite often over my life here.

Upon finishing our service, we have to fill out several different reports. There’s the description of service (DOS) report which is the only official documentation we will have to give to future employers and graduate schools in order to measure our experience here. There’s also the close of service (COS) report. This is typically given to our replacements but, as I am not being replaced, this will simply describe my experience in more detail and go on file in case Peace Corps Senegal decides to place someone in either one of my towns again.

Now, if any new volunteers are reading this, I do not want you to get discouraged. I’m going to start out by saying why this experience wasn't for ME in particular but I am going to wrap it up by saying what living in Senegal has done for me and why I have stuck it out this whole time. I’m sure that I have mentioned some of these things throughout the past two years so I’m sorry if this post sounds repetitive but I think it’s important to note all in the same place where I am coming from.

Most of you know that I have wanted to join the Peace Corps since I was quite young. Long before I even knew what that meant exactly. This has been both my motivation and burden while debating whether or not to finish my commitment to Senegal. This was something I had always wanted, didn't I owe it to myself to stick it out? These past few weeks have entailed a lot of reflection on the past two years. There was a close of service conference where we had career experts come in and help us figure out what we’re going to do next. We also were often asked, similarly to the forms I mentioned earlier, “What did you do with your Peace Corps service?” I kind of didn’t know how to respond. Don’t get me wrong, I have done stuff, things that I never would have imagined being able to pull off and I know that my time here was beneficial to many people (both Senegalese and back home) as well as instrumental to my own personal growth.

But, the Peace Corps is different than it used to be. We used to come here and do our best to integrate into our towns, learn the languages, and maybe complete a few projects along the way. Now, due to the wonderful advancement of technology and potential budgetary restraints, we have to be much more strict regarding monitoring and evaluating (aka, justifying) our time here.

In a way, I get it. The taxpayers and the US Government deserve to know what their money is going towards. But, at the same time, doesn’t the fact that we’re simply living over here, promoting diplomacy and making small strides towards the development of Senegal count towards something? How am I supposed to quantify the number of people who I have truly touched here? It didn’t take a formal training for me to convince a young girl to open a savings account. There was no official gauge to measure the number of conversations I had convincing Senegalese that not all Americans hate Muslims. I have no way of communicating what the impact of seeing a young, single, educated, independent woman (me, duh) did for the young girls I have mentored throughout the past two years. Where is the importance of these, in my opinion, monumental moments catalogued?

Along with the forms that we are required to complete at the end of our service, there is a form we fill out quarterly calling the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF) that has certain indicators that must be met. If our supervisors don’t feel like we've met enough targets in our particular program, (for me, community economic development) they will typically reach out to us and say something along the lines of, “Great work, but I wish you had done more in your particular sector.” Which, to me, sounds more like, “Where is the proof that I am running this program effectively? Where are the specific numbers that I can report to make myself and our sector look the best?”

The main point I’m trying to make here is that I fear the initial reasons behind forming the Peace Corps are falling to the wayside as these modern day evaluation tools inhibit and restrict the true impact that we are making. I don’t like being made to feel like I didn’t accomplish much here because my particular feats don’t fit onto the black and white forms. However, some people really like having these forms to guide them along the way, so to each their own.

Certain aspects of Peace Corps may not have been for me but working abroad and doing what I've done definitely were for me. Similarly, though, I do want to mention that the ideas of cross-cultural relationships and encouraging diplomacy (both goals highlighted in the Peace Corps's mission) are additional reasons why I have not left this experience. Also, I honestly did not belong in the business sector. There was no way of knowing this until I was too far into service. I know why they placed me there, with my background in International Business, it made perfect sense. But I have found my most rewarding projects, again for me personally, to be in either youth development or education which are not specified sectors within Peace Corps Senegal.

With that said, there is no bound to the satisfaction I feel for actually (almost) completing my Peace Corps service. I know when you look at my Facebook it might seem that I have been having the time of my life over here! A two year, paid vacation. Not so much (although, yes, obviously some of my time here has been a blast). I’m just not the kind of person to broadcast how hard things are, on Facebook at least. That’s what this blog is for, hehe. These past two years have easily been the most difficult of my life. But with these daily challenges has come immeasurable growth.

If I could share anything that I have learned from these past two years, it would be patience and acceptance. You literally never know what other people are going through. Be sensitive to that. Anything worth having is going to take time. Be patient. Be patient with others, in rough situations (hey, at least you’re not waiting, in excruciating heat, 5 hours for a car that will most likely break down to fill up with people), and especially with yourself. Additionally, I encourage everyone to make mistakes. I will be forever grateful that I tried to learn another language. You will never sound more like a babbling moron than when you’re trying to communicate in another language. It’s incredibly humbling. Go for what you want and don’t get down if things don’t work out the way you planned. This experience certainly did not go the way I planned or expected but maybe it went just the way it should have.

I literally have no idea what the next chapter of my life holds but I am feeling optimistic. I’m going to try to remove my own selfish expectations of all the relationships in my life and enjoy every relationship for what it is. I’m going to forgive myself and others. I'm going to do my best to support the people who mean the most to me. I'm going to realize that while I've been over here having crazy experiences for the past two years, that doesn't mean the last two years have been any less crazy for people back home. Just because some people have clear direction in their lives doesn't mean I have a problem if I don’t. I’m going to apply for jobs that seem interesting but not get discouraged if I fail. I’m going to have a hard time but I’m going to get through it how I have the last two years, by laughing and learning through it all.

I will try to get out maybe one more post before this whole shebang wraps up but in the meantime, thanks again for staying with me for these crazy, amazing past couple of years.

Until the next time,


xx



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The home stretch

As hinted by my title, it is finally 2014 and I started this whole experience in 2012 so that means… yes… you guessed it, my time in Senegal is slowly winding down! As some of you may know, the new volunteers coming to Senegal to replace my original group are coming in earlier than we expected; they will be arriving in March. This means that my group has the option of leaving 2 months earlier than planned which is this upcoming May. That is 4 months away, 4 FREAKING MONTHS.  Some of my fellow training group mates are choosing to stay longer but I am in a dear friend’s wedding the end of May so this all works out perfectly for my situation. Also, truth be told, I am getting very ready to be done with my service; although, I find myself in an interesting conundrum. I’m not really sure that I want to be anywhere. Don’t freak out, it’s not quite as dramatic as it might sound, or maybe it is. After experiencing what I have in Senegal, settling back down into life in the states isn’t going to be as easy and seamless as I originally predicted.

I recently was able to go home for the holidays and, before that trip, I was totally under the impression that America was going to be the absolute answer for my next step. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I had a wonderful trip and was made very comfortable and happy. I loved seeing my family and friends but I underestimated the effect the holiday season was going to have on me. I used to LOVE Christmas and all that it entailed; the lights, the gifts, the shopping, the snow, the music, and anything else that you could possibly name. Although, this year was different, I found myself resentful of the way people were acting and wanting to lash out at those who I felt already had more than enough. I wanted to speak about, not only Senegal, but the fact that there are people who have NOTHING all over the world (the United States included). Every time I started, though, I felt that people would shut down. They seemed to think I was getting all high and mighty and almost preaching to them. I had a very hard time trying to express where I am coming from and the things that I have seen that have truly changed me. 

The thing is that I know I grew up incredibly privileged. I am the first person to admit that. Therefore, I get where people are coming from. Although, there are a lot of things that people don’t know or they wrongly assume but no need to get into that right now. Not to toot my own horn but even before I joined the Peace Corps, for the past few years, I have been aware of what I was given and have desired to reach out to others. I was involved with Big Brother Big Sisters for over 5 years, spending time with the same little girl. I have also been closely involved with Habitat for Humanity and done a few small things with the Road Home. Again, I’m not saying this to boast but to acknowledge that regardless of your upbringing, we can all do our part to make the world a better place. 

I do want to mention, though, that there were several friends and family members who I noticed doing amazing things for those less fortunate and it truly warmed my heart. I guess all I'm trying to say is that if you aren’t ready to give up all of your Christmas gifts yet or take in an abused dog or something then start somewhere small. Even simply realizing and being grateful for all that you have and trying to be the most positive person that you can is a step in the right direction. I know that I still have a long way to go and I am always working to better myself and my relationship with others.

Aside from my own misgivings about the general state of mind in America, I am also real panicked about my professional next steps. Peace Corps has helped me realize that I don’t want to work in international development but I do still want to be involved in the non-profit realm. I have truly enjoyed my work with at-risk youth, gender equality/empowerment, and English teaching. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I am also very interested in working in the realm of human rights. There are almost too many areas in which I care deeply that it’s difficult to try to focus on just one career path. Of course, I also want to pursue an area that I am going to be able to provide for myself and hopefully a family someday. People always say, “Do what makes you happy.” What if I don’t know what that is yet? Yeah, you have time; it’s what you’re all thinking, right? That may be somewhat true but as I’m fast approaching my quarter-century birthday, the questions of the impending future are never far from my mind. Needless to say, I’m not sure if I’m ready for America and all that comes with it quite yet.

Phew, enough on that subject! I’m writing this in the JFK airport, waiting for my flight to Dakar. Sitting here, though, I am also not feeling ready for returning to Senegal. I am hearing people speaking Wolof all around me and there are men dressed in the traditional clothing. I do not remember feeling this much distress about going back to Senegal when I was able to visit home in June. The thought of leaving that airport in Dakar and having to say, “Asalaam Malekuum” (standard greeting meaning, “May peace be with you”), makes me slightly anxious. I’m not ready to go back to kids being afraid of me and to feeling like an outsider everywhere I go. I realize that I have been given two generous breaks that most volunteers don’t get within my service but I am still feeling incredibly apprehensive.

At the same time though, as you may have realized by now, I only have 4 months left. Even if my work load is winding down, these four months are going to give me the time I need to come to terms with the future. I am going to be grateful that I have the time to job search and to better myself by reading, working out, and just living a simplified existence.

Until the next time,


xx

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kids on a leash?

Well, it has been about a month since I wrote anything in here so I figured it’s high time for a new post. The reason for the lack of information sharing is that I have been quite busy and it’s hard to find the time. Also, every time that I sit down to write this, I draw a blank with where to begin exactly so bear with me if it’s slightly scattered and/or short. I guess I should start with my current frame of mind and what I’ve been thinking about lately. I feel pretty good overall, especially in comparison to where I was mentally this time last year. There actually is not even a comparison. I am much happier, fulfilled, and just at peace this year. I am very grateful that I stuck this experience out until this point. There were SO many times that I wanted to quit, to “early terminate” as we call it here, to go home. I was asked almost daily as I was crying to my parents or feeling upset here why I didn’t just come home. I didn’t necessarily see that as the easy way out.

In retrospect, I’m not sure which took more courage. I give volunteers who early terminate a lot of credit. It is not an easy thing to do. You may or may not face negative feedback from family and friends but you will certainly feel an amount of dissatisfaction from yourself that you couldn’t or wouldn’t finish. It takes a lot of guts to acknowledge that something of this magnitude wasn’t right for you and to withdraw yourself from the commitment. I know that I largely stuck it out here due to my own stubborn nature and also due to the support/encouragement from other volunteers and some people back home. I guess, long story short here, that I finally feel that what I have done here meant something. This is referring to both the success of my recent projects as well as me finally having a greater appreciation for Senegal and for myself.

Speaking of that appreciation for Senegal, I’ve been thinking lately about the things that Americans do that would totally freak out Senegalese and I think I have a pretty good list going:

  • First of all, keeping goats on leashes. As a pet. I saw this while I was home in June and it freaked me out also. Goats are food here. Not pets.
  • The idea of pets in general is odd to most Senegalese. Keeping, feeding, taking to the vet, and nurturing an animal for a reason other than eating it or using it to tow stuff around? Preposterous.
  • Keeping kids on leashes (I think most of us can agree that’s messed up). Or just even keeping a close eye on children. Here, the children run wild. I see 2 and 3 year olds running around unsupervised all the time and it's perfectly normal here.
  • Tanning beds. I can't even imagine the reaction. What, just what?
  • All you can eat buffets. I think that even patron (well-off, rich, swanky) Senegalese would be shocked at all that gluttony. I, on the other hand, can’t wait to get home and get me some of that.
  • Mountains. Real mountains. The grandeur is hard to understand when you aren't standing at the foot of them. 
  • Snow, and along those lines, seasons. Senegalese freak out and bust out the parkas when it's in the 70s here so snow... I can't even imagine.
  • Baby carriers. In cars, on people's bodies, wherever. Here the baby is strapped on the back and that's it. I did see a woman one time with a baby carrier and it was incredibly out of place here.
  • Along the baby line... Maternity leave. You literally see a woman who maybe gave birth a week ago, out in the field, hacking away at a tree, with her week old infant tied on her back.
  • Vacuums, washing machine, dishwasher, lawn mower, really any of those modern day conveniences that make our lives so much easier. Some of the more well-off Senegalese have these things (except maybe a lawn mower) but most people would be in awe of them.
  • Plastic surgery. Collagen, people getting surgically enhanced to look like an effing cat, tig ole bitties (that are perky... Whaaaa), butt implants (they might like that one as a big ass is a sought after commodity here), and any other creepy thing people are doing these days.
  • Anti-aging techniques. This kind of ties in with plastic surgery. I feel that here people really embrace aging and see it as a sign of respect and prosperity that you have lived that long.
  • Tattoos. I actually have seen maybe one or two Senegalese with tattoos (typically quite small and not the greatest quality) but compared to some of the western world who are covered head to toe, those are nothing. Even my small mountain range on my back confuses a lot of Senegalese. They don't understand why it won't just rub off and trust me, they've tried.
  • Our complete lack of acknowledgement towards other humans would really upset most Senegalese. Everywhere you go here, you greet the people. In the street, getting onto a bus, walking into a store, entering a restaurant, and a million other places. I have even been told bismillah (welcome) by people standing in line for a bathroom. They would feel very unwelcome in most western countries. 

I'm sure these don't only apply to Senegalese and I'm not trying to generalize. These are simply what I've noticed after living here for a year and a half. I also don't want this to turn into another, "be grateful what you have post, we have so much," but it's hard for that not to happen. Most of the time I'm looking around thinking about this kind of stuff and I obviously can't help comparing the two very different lifestyles that I've experienced. Also, isn’t it that time of year again that we are supposed to be grateful about things?

Until the next time then,

xx

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Never let them see you cry

Never let them see you cry. I think this saying is usually using the word them to refer to our enemies. For me, it’s been something I've tried to adopt here in Senegal. This is not necessarily only applying to Senegalese people who are harassing or upsetting me but also crying, in general, makes Senegalese people super uncomfortable. My host mom in Palmarin saw/heard me cry once on a particularly tough day of just missing home and familiarity – that was the one time (that was overheard) I didn't cry out of frustration towards a specific Senegalese person. She was slightly horrified and just kept asking me if I was sick… I replied yes, super sick due to my lack of better language to explain what was really going on. Other public incidences have included my eyes welling up at the garage when I get overcharged and hassled or even when I’m particularly touched by the gesture of a Senegalese person. Maybe I’m oversensitive or maybe it’s just real hard being here (I assume a little bit of both).

Recently, though, I had a very harrowing experience. I think there were a lot of reasons why things escalated as quickly as they did. Primarily being that I was exhausted. The month of September was incredibly hectic. I helped facilitate a week-long Girls Camp which I will talk about in more detail further on in this post and then this whole past week I was leading an English camp. During all of the camps were the planning, traveling, organizing and execution of each program. They both went incredibly well but their success made them no less tiring. The English camp was down south of the Gambia in a part of Senegal referred to as the Casamance. We are not normally allowed down there but we were given special permission in order to assist with the camp. Quick back story there, the US Embassy sponsors these English programs all over Senegal in which the main goals are for Senegalese youth to be exposed to the English language with an American accent as well as to learn about American culture. Senegalese teachers need the help of PCV’s for these goals. Anyway, we had to take a boat to get down to our camp and the day we were going to leave had already been kind of a mess and all you really need to know about my frame of mind is that I was tired, sweaty and ready to just get back up north.

Basically, at the final checkpoint, after already showing my passport and ticket 5 times, this man (policeman, army, rent-a-cop, no idea) who was checking my ticket and passport (again) held me aside. He wouldn't tell me what the problem was and that is when I snapped. Everything here is so ambiguous and you never really know what’s going on but I just couldn't take it anymore this particular time. I had been sweating more than any human should all day long, traveling, running around like a crazy person, and all the time lugging around a huge backpack. Needless to say, I was as grumpy as I could have been. I asked him calmly (sort of) what he was looking for, no answer. I then proceeded to ask again, several times, what he wanted, what the problem was, why couldn't I just get on the boat with my friends? He then told me to calm down and demand that I show every piece of paperwork that I have for this damn country. Luckily I had it all with me but that still wasn't enough, he proceeded to be a complete asshole until he finally said I could go. In my usual sassy manner, I pushed past him and remember that huge backpack? It may have rammed into him a little. And that is when HE snapped. He was grabbing me, shoving me, and telling me to go wait aside and that he was going to arrest me, more or less. I did all I was capable of doing at the time, I started crying. I said I was sorry and that I just wanted to get on the boat. He was not about to let that happen until some godsend old man came and told me to just go. I shudder to think what would have happened if that man hadn't shown up.

The moral of the story is that after 16 months of living here, I am still treated like an idiot. I don’t care what any other volunteers say but I am at a huge disadvantage solely by being white and a woman. I am literally at the bottom of the totem pole here and receive little to no respect. I also can’t speak the local languages well enough which I blame on myself a little and on Peace Corps a lot. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it just never really gets easier here. Sure, the heat becomes manageable because you get used to sweating 24/7 and the bugs are something you also learn to shrug off. But truly, you can never get used to the harassment, always being the butt of every joke, the continuation of always being out of your comfort zone in every way imaginable. It’s instances like dealing with that horrible man that make me take a deep breath and say, "8 more months, 8 more months." We are sacrificing so much being here and we just get no credit for it, especially from those that we are supposed to be here serving. This is not to say that we do this out of necessity for validation but when you’re in a situation this hard, a little bit of recognition can make all the difference.

Imagine getting harassed, taunted and put 100% out of your comfort zone every single day. You can’t. It’s impossibly hard. So many volunteers develop severe anxiety issues and depression and people back home continuously give us the line, “Why don’t you just come home then?” I wish it was that easy. Think about something you've wanted to do for most of your adult life. The application process alone took you over a year, and then you finally came to the realization of leaving everything familiar and comfortable to you for two years. You arrive in the place where you will spend the next 27 months of your life. It’s not what you expected but you decide to give it a shot anyway. Soon, you’re in over your head, you've already put in the effort of a few months and… we may not admit it but… we all think, what is everyone back home going to think if we give up now? Thus, the cycle continues of self-doubt, fear, and an overwhelming feeling of loyalty towards this program that you swore an oath to complete. Yes, we are “free” to go whenever we want, but that freedom comes with a high cost of inner torment.

I guess that ends my rant of frustrations for now… this past month has actually been fantastic and I want to share that positive experience along with the rough stuff.

As some of you may have seen on my Facebook with the pictures, the first week of September was the culmination of A LOT of work between some of my fellow PCV’s and myself; the planning and then actual execution of our regional Girls Leadership Camp held in Thies, Senegal. We had around 60 girls who came from all over our region. This included village girls as well as those that had lived in a city all of their lives.


Some of these girls had never eaten with a fork before, they hadn't eaten a meal that they didn't help prepare since they were probably 5, they hadn't taken a hot shower, they hadn't used a real toilet, they hadn't been able to relax and hang out with their friends, and most of them had never once been asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. That’s not a question that is typically posed to Senegalese youth, especially girls. Middle school aged girls are the most dangerous demographic for dropping out of school here in Senegal. The reason behind this is that many of these girls are pulled out of school to help with an overload of work around the house. Some girls are pulled out to be married. Some end up getting pregnant and drop out to raise families of their own. Education for girls isn't something that is stressed or a high priority in Senegal. This is the whole basis behind the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship Program which helped determine most of the girls who were invited to Girls Camp. As some of you know, I implemented this program in a middle school in my town. The idea is to choose the top 3 girls in each grade who are also from impoverished families. I ended up bringing 8 of these girls to camp and 2 other girls that were “family” friends.

Words can’t really express how successful and truly important this week ended up being. I developed meaningful relationships with these girls. By the end of the week they were calling me Mama Aisha and asking me to stay in Senegal for another two years. That is just not going to happen but if anything could convince me, it would probably be these girls. With this Girls Camp, we weren't only giving the girls a good time and teaching them a little something, we were completing shaking and breaking the gender roles that are firmly rooted in this country. We encouraged these girls and reinforced the idea that they can become ANYTHING they want, even if what they want to become is something in a typically male dominated field. In the session that I led about the future, we had girls who wanted to become doctors, basketball players, scientists, lawyers, and even the future president of Senegal. We told them that anything was possible and encouraged them to dream big and work hard. This may not seem like a big deal in the states but here, they are not encouraged like that. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Senegalese youth who had been asked what they wanted to be when they grew up or who had been emboldened to look forward and told to reach for the stars.

Along with the future we also had days themed around health, environment, and business. We had an open health forum where the girls could ask questions regarding sexual health and other issues that they had previously been afraid or discouraged to discuss with anyone. On the environment day, the girls learned why it’s important to protect their environment as well as how to make natural beauty products which are better for their skin as well as the earth. Finally, they learned about the importance of saving money and asset management.

Overall, the week was a tremendous success. I can say with ease that it was the highlight of my service. You see most of the time, we don’t feel like our efforts are worth much and that people don’t really care that we’re here. With Girls Camp, this is not the case. I felt important and I know for a fact that the work we did was essential and life-changing for these girls. That is why I came here is to have that feeling. It was amazing.

After Girls Camp, I will wrap up this post with talking about English Camp. As I mentioned previously, we were mainly there to expose Senegalese English students to our accents and to encourage the speaking of English. The week went very well. We played sports, jeopardy, sang songs, got to know each other and had several discussions. I would say the highlight of the week was when students asked us questions they had about American culture. Many of the questions were easy such as, “How do you celebrate Independence Day? What age do you have to be to vote? What kind of music do Americans prefer to listen to?” Then there were the more difficult questions which included, “What do Americans think of gays? Who wrote the national anthem?” I actually seriously didn't know the answer to who wrote the national anthem but the question addressing homosexuality was way more difficult to address. I just said, “In America, there are many people, including myself, who think that people should be allowed to love whoever they want. We believe that people are born into their sexuality and that everyone should have equal rights." We also explained that while progress is slow, laws are changing all over the world and that homosexuality issues will hopefully someday be a thing of the past. That statement was met with blank stares but I feel that something that powerful will slowly sink in. Who knows, maybe the future president of Senegal was in that room and he or she will remember that and someday, they will make the change.

Until the next time,

xx