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.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Always talk to strangers

It’s been a while since my last post and not a lot has really changed. I’m still doing my best each day to integrate into my village. This means fumbling through the language and just trying to find my place here in Senegal. Along the way I’m learning more and more, not only about the Senegalese way of life but also about myself. Some of the things I am learning go against those fundamental rules that we are taught growing up. For example, the title of this particular post goes against one of the first things we are told as children which is to never talk to strangers. Here, not talking to strangers is definitely a major faux pas. It’s considered impolite if you are walking down the street and you don’t greet each person that you pass by. This rule stands whether you know the person or not. You might think this would apply only in your village or town that you live but it’s also when you travel. When traveling it’s important to make friends with the other passengers in case you need them to have your back for one reason or another. I could and probably will one day devote an entire blog just to transportation in this country so that’s all I’ll say on that for now. Along the lines of behavior towards strangers; we were also taught to never take candy from a stranger. When eating here in Senegal it’s thought of as rude to not offer some to those around you. This can even include those complete strangers you happen to be traveling with. Although, if you followed rule one, they won’t be strangers anymore!

Another piece of advice (and common sense) given to us as children is to always look both ways before crossing the street. This is good but here it’s also important that you look behind you, in front and sometimes even above. You never know where the next stray animal or horse-drawn buggy is going to come from. Aside from those basic do’s and don’ts we are also usually told how to behave when eating or drinking. You know, things such as always chew with your mouth closed, don’t slurp when drinking, and don’t eat with your hands. Those forms of food etiquette are definitely not important here. In fact, here slurping your tea is the way it’s done so, slurp away!  Basically, if there’s not at least one person sitting next to you at the communal bowl (yeah, you all eat around the same bowl, sometimes up to 10 people) eating with their hands and spitting fish bones on the ground next to you; then you just aren’t in Senegal!

Those first rules are mostly fun parts of this culture that I have adapted more or less easily to. Then there are the things that are harder to tackle. I’ll tell you one thing; it’s not easy living in Senegal. It’s even less easy to be a young, foreign female living in Senegal. I’ve been having a hard time lately figuring out my place here in Senegal. I am here to work, this is true. But, the work women are typically expected to do here is very different from what I am trying to accomplish. Women in Senegal work very, very hard. They spend hours cleaning, preparing meals, taking care of the children, and taking care of the men. I’m not saying women in the states don’t do this as well but there’s something different about it here. They have no other choice. If a woman here was ever to ask a man to maybe help with the dishes after she just spent 3 hours preparing the midday meal bent over a hot coal fire; that wouldn’t go over well. I’m also not saying that the men don’t work hard. They work very hard. It just seems so much less balanced here. Men here legitimately don’t believe me when I tell them that men in America often help prepare meals, clean and spend time taking care of the kids. I try to explain that men and women are seen more as equals in America and help each other out. This is just not a concept they are comfortable with although that is slowly changing. With a new generation of Senegalese women chasing after jobs that were traditionally male dominated and going to college, things are becoming more equal. In the meantime though here I am; trying to find a balance between being taken seriously as an educated woman who knows what she’s talking about (hopefully) and also just simply being a woman in Senegal. I think I’ll get there, after all part of my job is to assimilate into this culture as well as share my own.

Until next time then,


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I really do want world peace...

Last night as I was tucked nicely into my mosquito net, drifting off to sleep, I thought of some of the criticism that I have heard about the Peace Corps. This includes from people I know and also just criticism in general. “Why don’t you help people of your own country” is probably one of the top questions I heard after, “Wow, so you’re going to be living in a mud hut and stuff, right?” On the latter point, I actually live in a cement room in a house so I have it slightly nicer than the hut volunteers but I assure you, they do exist. As far as the first question, it’s definitely a valid point. I know that there are plenty of people in America that are impoverished and need help. I have volunteered at various organizations and plan on continuing that trend when I get back to the States. For the most part though, Americans tend to like other Americans. This is not always the case with people from other countries.

The media alone reflects very poorly on Americans. People from other countries unfortunately catch a lot of our trash TV (aka reality TV) and assume that all Americans have…we’ll just say “loose morals.” An issue on top of the trash TV is that the media tends to highlight fanatical maniacs. One of these people highlighted was a pastor (who shall remain nameless, he has received enough publicity) who was organizing International Burn a Qur’an Day. The Qur’an is the holy book of Islam so this was an incredibly offensive movement. I don’t care if you’re religious or not, that’s just something you don’t do. It has shocked me to my core how many Senegalese people (who are 90% Muslim) thought that this man was an accurate representation of Americans. I had to explain that there were far more Americans that were outraged at this man than who supported him but that’s not what the media likes to portray. To avoid this post becoming too political or heavy I’ll end the rant by simply saying; some of us Americans have to do something to change our worldview. After all, the second goal of Peace Corps is to promote better understanding of the American people on the part of the people served. In a world that is becoming increasingly more global, this notion of world peace becomes even more essential. It doesn’t hurt that I am hopefully teaching the people I’m working with sustainable skills to help pull them out of poverty.

Phew, on to other news! You may be wondering what it is I’m doing over here to make us Americans look good. I have now officially been a volunteer for about a month now. As far as what I’m doing to shed a positive light on Americans, I hope that I’m doing at least something. Each day is spent with me trying my hardest to learn a language I’ve never heard. I’m eating, traveling, dressing, bathing and simply living how the Senegalese are. I am also sneaking in mini-America lessons wherever I can. I show videos and pictures of my family and friends back home in order to make Americans more relatable. I show maps of the US and talk about different states and how many times Senegal could fit inside America. I have conversations with Senegalese people about strong American women and the impressive roles women can achieve. I get reactions constantly about how peculiar I am that I don’t really enjoy household duties and that I desire education and a career. They might think I’m strange but at least it has them thinking. Amidst all of this, there are days where I experience what I like to call the high highs and the low lows.

Some of the high highs are when I finally nail every greeting a particular villager happens to throw at me. They are when I spend the long afternoons learning how to prepare Senegalese meals (which is especially entertaining as I mentioned previously, I’m no chef). I enjoy the time at the beach I have with my family. One day a local artisan profusely thanked me for coming to Senegal to help his people. I love the days I am able to fit a run in (this makes it sound like I’m so busy; by fit in I mainly mean work around the rain and /or my own laziness). It’s nice to have conversations with people about the work I may be doing here. Then there are the afternoons when my adorable 3-year old host sister is teaching me Serer (my local language).

But there are also some low lows. Some days I nail the greetings but most of the time I feel unable to properly communicate what I want to say. There are creepy, crawly creatures everywhere. Certain days I feel unbearably lonely and isolated. Other times people often assume I’m a tourist and simply hound me to buy things or make me feel like an ATM. Through it all though, I am ultimately happy. As a lover of culture, I feel incredibly privileged to be completely immersed in such a colorful one. Yes, the low lows aren’t great but the high highs make it all worthwhile.

I know I’ve jumped around a lot but I hope it somewhat made sense where I’m coming from here.

Until next time,