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.

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,


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,


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems

I wanted to start this post by adding one final note on my last topic. I didn’t write that last entry to air my family’s dirty laundry or to make us look like any less of the loving family that we are. The best times I’ve ever had in my life are with my family and, as most of my friends can attest, we usually have a blast when we’re together. I adore my family. Every last person in it and that is exactly why I wrote what I did. When there are issues, it affects me deeply and I started this blog to write about what affects me. I wasn’t trying to offend or upset anyone. I was just maybe trying to make people think, as I always try to do with what I write. So, there ya go, that’s my last little blurb about that subject (for now… hehe).

Moving on… The other day while I was bumping around in the 3rd (very back) row of the sept-place (car), I found myself thinking about things in the states and also in life in general that I am very grateful for. These are things that are not necessarily obvious such as family and friends. I already had a post about those last year so this time I want to talk about the stuff that you may not really give much thought to.
  • I am super thankful for speed bumps. They may seem like an annoyance in the states but wow, thank god for those here. Often times the drivers are young, inexperienced and like to pretend that they are the only ones on the road/speed racers. Speed bumps luckily make them at least go a bit slower in overly populated areas. Speed limits are also something that I wish that Senegal would adopt for these same reasons.
  • Along those same lines of transportation. I am grateful for seat-belts. You rarely have a functioning one in the cars here and it’s very discomforting. I miss cars that have leg room (a plane seat felt roomy to me...) and air conditioning (or even just windows that roll down all the way) on long road trips or just life in general. Here, those things just don’t exist. They cram enough people in a car as possible and typically Senegalese people don’t like having the windows down. I guess it messes up their hair (or lack thereof) or something. This means that if you’re unlucky enough to be in the middle without access to a window or in the dreaded 3rd row, you’re most likely going to be sticking to the stranger next to you. Yummy.
  • Here, we are in dire need of garbage men, proper waste management systems and also proper sewage systems. There is simply trash everywhere and during rainy season, the “sewers” get backed up and so then there is also human/animal shit everywhere which is floating the trash along. Poop-trash rivers and lakes are a common sight in Senegal this time of year and I’m just very grateful for the systems that we have in the states in order to avoid this problem. As volunteers, it’s certainly something we’re working on but it’s about more than just providing a sanitary dump site for people, it’s changing their entire way of thinking which presents a whole other challenge. 
  • I am thankful for and really miss freshwater that is safe to swim in without catching odd parasites. Also, salt water that isn’t disgusting.
  • Veterinarians. The animal situation here is awful. I feel more sympathy for them than the humans sometimes. There are stray cats and dogs everywhere that are often rabid and are not fixed. The fact that there is no neutering here means the feral animals re-populate quickly and constantly. There is also definitely no form of PETA or anything like that so the donkeys that power (run, drive, lead?) the charettes (carts) are horribly abused. I have yelled at many a driver beating the donkeys with a club-like stick to get them to go faster but they usually don’t really pay my anger any attention. I’m just very grateful for the fact that animals are taken care of (for the most part) in the states and I wish there was more that I could do about it here. Veterinarians without borders… where you at?!
  • Crosswalks that people actually acknowledge as a crosswalk. There actually are crosswalks here but I’m not sure that Senegalese people know what they are there for or that they even notice them. Same with stoplights. Yes, they actually have stoplights in Dakar (I hope you know by now that's the capital of Senegal) but I’m not quite sure most people here know what they are supposed to do at said lights considering they drive right on through the reds.
  • The gym. Yeah yeah, you all gripe constantly about having to go to it but man do I miss having one! Working out, in air-conditioning, wearing shorts or actual comfortable work-out clothes, without getting harassed... sounds like bliss to me!
  • Organized activities for children. Sure, during the school year, most kids go and are occupied for some of the day but during summer vacation, all bets are off. The kids go wild. They literally Go. Freaking. Wild. They are running around all over the place, harassing me even more than usual, all hopped up on the enormous amounts of sugar you find in the diet here, completely unsupervised. This is why volunteers attempt to have activities such as summer camps and other organized events to try and give these children some kind of structure during the off-school months. Still, more needs to be done by the Senegalese adults.
  • I miss easier access to cold beverages and/or refrigerators. I suppose the two go hand in hand but you don’t appreciate the true value of a cold drink until you never really have one.  
  • Non-creepy males + respect for women. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, I’ll try not to elaborate too much. I basically just am grateful for men that are actually respectful of women instead of immediately making kissing noises at me and/or demanding that I become their wife.
I think that’s a pretty good list for now but along the lines of what the people from here want from me, I wanted to talk a little bit more about the expectations that Senegalese (and perhaps other African nations) have of us “aid workers” or foreigners in general. They want money. That’s about it. The idea of development here is often thought of as “getting more stuff.” I think I’ve mentioned this in previous posts but many NGOs and even just tourists come in here and literally just throw money at the problems. In the wise words of Biggie Smalls, "Mo’ money equals mo’ problems."

When I give my schpeel that I am here to teach and to offer my knowledge and not so much in the way of monetary incentives, I’m met with some pretty steely glares.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to help a promising project write a grant and search for funding that they deserve. The problem is that there are far too many hands out and not enough people thinking of truly great ideas. Before joining Peace Corps, I was under the impression that volunteers were brought into communities that already had motivated individuals with certain ideas about how to get their village or town further developed. I assumed that I would be bombarded with plans for what I could help them do. Instead, I find myself faced with the same, already present, idea being pitched to me time after time again. Everyone wants to raise chickens. There is no thought to the fact that there are already 91058 other groups already doing so, they all want to do it. There is no such thing as product specialization here and introducing a new, unique product to the population. This idea might work if there was any type of competitive advantage but not only does every person raise and sell the same thing, they all do it for the exact same price and quality. Along those lines, there is also no concept of problem solving. You would think that wading through poop lakes for the past cajillion years would encourage SOMEONE to build foot paths or some way of easier crossing during rainy season. But, no. They instead just throw rocks into the puddles and hope for the best when they have to just plunge on in.

This goes the same for constructing buildings. They would much rather economize on costs now by using mostly sand in their cement blocks rather than using only cement to build more efficiently. There is no thought process as to how much time and money they would save in the future if they just did it right the first time. The future is a distant and unattainable realm that is typically never given a second thought. This idea of not looking forward also applies to almost every aspect of life here. Family planning is not a real thing. Neither is savings. You just live day to day with what you have. This way of life can be beneficial in some instances but it's not a successful model for every single major decision.

A campement (small hotel) that I tried to work with in my old village told me that they refused to work with the other campements in the area. I tried to explain the idea that because one of them only offered horse-back riding and the other only offered kayaking, that they could refer customers to one another and ultimately gain much more business! They were not convinced. They told me they preferred to keep their customers at their respective campements and not participate in any sort of exchange. This is typically how my suggestions of innovation are met. Creativity is not something that is encouraged in this culture and tradition is the way they prefer to “progress.”

There are a number of things volunteers are trying to do in order to thwart this behavior. We hold seminars, training sessions, show videos of success stories and even involve local Senegalese who have managed to change their thought patterns. Unfortunately, for most of the people we work with, the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is more than applicable. This is why many of my projects focus on youth development. They are truly who we need to reach in order to facilitate real development here. Whether it is through the schools or through after-school activities, these children need to learn to be creative and to use their imagination. When I first heard that one of my program’s main goals was teaching the next generation of entrepreneurs, I thought that sounded a bit… ridiculous. Now, I realize the true importance of that statement, if not only to encourage innovation and new ideas, but also to inspire upon Senegalese youth that progress equals, to some extent, change.

Until the next time then,


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It's a mad world

I don’t really know where to appropriately begin this post. I usually have a pretty clear direction of where I want to go and what I ultimately want my blog posts to be about but this one is different. I have followed my typical pattern of writing up random thoughts in a word document as well as cataloging my observations when I’m out and about. I’ve gone through the habitual steps but I still feel like this post will be even more all over the place than usual. You see, I’m doing pretty well here overall. Sure, right now things are a bit slow with Ramadan and the fact that the air is completely stagnant and incredibly hot (I know you’ve seen all my sweating stories on Facebook). I don’t really have a lot going on work wise but it will come soon and I’m not too worried about it. As you all have probably figured out by now, when I have a significant amount of down time, I end up thinking about various random things.

Recently thoughts of my family and various dramas going on back home have consumed a lot of my time. My dad recently lost his younger brother, my uncle Norbert who I have mentioned in various posts. He was incredibly close to him as was my mother. She lost one of her best friends.

Norbert was the kind of person that even though he was going through something more painful than most of us can imagine, he still took the time to be considerate and he cared deeply about his family and friends. I think that we could all benefit if we took a page from his book. Lately I feel as if some people back home are forgetting what is important in life.

There is far too much focus on pettiness and resentments that are long past. Instead of thinking about the fact that our family is already small enough and that we should cherish what we have, there has been criticism and hurtful words spread. Instead of encouragement and candid conversation, there is backstabbing and gossip. I’m not saying that some of the frustrations expressed aren’t valid, but I think there are better outlets for dealing with them. I would hate to think that Norbert’s passing meant nothing to anyone. I would hate to think that he left and we continued to foster unnecessary hatred towards one another. I would hope that his passing would enable all of us to reach into our hearts and hold on to what we have here because you never know when it’s going to be gone.

Underneath friendships, jobs, boyfriends, and whatever else, family is truly all we have. It is what we are born with, for better or worse, and it is what we need to protect. I am writing this not only because I am frustrated and sad with what I see going on back home but also as reassurance to anyone who is possibly dealing with a similar situation. I encourage everyone to make that weekly phone call, to give an extra hug, and to always say I love you.

 I know this might be getting kind of personal but I started this blog in order to document what is happening in my life during my Peace Corps service. Unfortunately these issues back home consume a lot of my everyday thoughts and are truly affecting my well-being here. I’m not writing this because I expect that things will miraculously get better. I am not naïve enough to believe that. I know that all families have problems; I just love mine too much to let things slip away or get worse. I hope that my family loves me enough to read what I have to say with care and an open mind. I’m not writing this to go on the defense or attack anyone. I know that we are all going through struggles and I write this with wishes that we can support and help one another. I am writing this because I am hurting and this is one of my outlets that I use when I am having a hard time. I am hoping that my words will be heard and will possibly help but all I can do is hope.

Along with my thoughts of home, I have also been thinking a lot about all of the hatred that there is the world. I honestly don’t understand it. I recently watched the “bi-racial” cheerios commercial that has had so many people super freaked out. I am at a loss for words on what to think of our society today. I was at least reassured after watching a video montage highlighting various children’s’ reactions to the commercial. They, rightly, didn’t see anything wrong with the fact that the couple featured was of different races. I applaud the parents of these children. I believe hatred and racism is something that is often taught.  I don’t think that we are born with this animosity in our hearts. I do believe that it’s possible to break free of the chains that bind us to the opinions of our families but it has got to be difficult. I want to share a quick blurb that I read on the comments of the video interviewing the children. It really stuck with me. It’s nothing super special; actually it is quite odd where it was taken from. It’s just a few lines from Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific that was filmed back in 1949.

You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

Why do some choose to continue to perpetuate the hatred? From one generation to another? This doesn’t only apply to racism but to negative thoughts in general. Why can’t we let go of our own past pains and encourage our children to be positive and happy? I am obviously not speaking from a parent’s point of view but as a child who has experienced others growing up in a resolutely negative atmosphere. I feel bad for them. I pity those who can’t see past their own shortcomings and look forward to a brighter future for their children. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that didn’t tolerate that sort of behavior. I did have very traditional, strict, German grandparents who would occasionally make racist comments but they were not sentiments that my parents shared which made them easier for me to escape.

I guess I would like to end this rambling, incredibly personal blog, by talking about forgiveness and the true importance of the word. Our lives are so short. Why can’t we make the best of it while we’re here? What does holding onto grudges and spewing hateful jargon really do for anyone? Why can’t we let things go and instead of criticizing others, why don’t we work towards our own personal betterment? Why can’t we lean on one another and offer support and guidance to those we know are hurting? There are people in the world, who are going through struggles that are beyond our magnitude to comprehend. I feel that as someone who has been living in a developing country for over a year, I have some room to speak on this subject. The people here may be “suffering” but they sure as hell do love each other. Family is number one.

In Senegal, you never turn your back on your family; you are always willing to take them in, to give them a second chance. This is one reason why African families are so huge (there’s also no real concept of birth control but that’s a topic for another day). These people may not ever have clean water; they may have to wait a few days before they can afford a proper meal for their family, and they may not have the best healthcare or education system but they sure do understand the importance of forgiveness. Maybe instead of continually pushing our sense of development on them, we should take a page from their book.

Until next time then,


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ramadan... For a day

5:00 AM – Wake up. Realize that the bread I bought last night has gone stale. It’s hard as a rock. Improvise. Eat two bananas and a cliff bar instead, knowing that this isn’t going to be enough to last me but also knowing there’s nothing that I can do about it. Drink a liter of water. Almost puke because of forcing said rapid consumption upon myself at such an early hour but force it down. Go back to sleep.
6:00 AM – Wake up to pee.
6:20 AM – Pee again.
7:00 AM – Pee…
7:40 AM – Take a guess
8:30 AM – Wake up sweating while realizing the electricity has gone out. Swear to myself but then remember that I need to get up for the day anyway.
9:00 AM – Meeting at mayor’s office. Naturally sit and wait for the entire group to arrive. Watch mayor drinking water in front of me (he’s catholic meaning no Ramadan) with an abnormal amount of loathing.
9:20 AM – Meeting still hasn’t started. Feeling a slight rumbling in my stomach. Thoughts of the long day that looms ahead of me are running rampant.
10:00 AM – Meeting is in full swing but I am falling asleep because I am tired and thirsty and I also do not understand the languages being spoken around me. Dehydration headache is blooming.
11:20 AM – Back home with a book, journal, cell phone, and computer to distract me for the next 8 hours. Too hot to nap so don't even suggest it.

At this point, some of you might ask, why are you doing this and also, what in the hell is going on? I am wondering that myself at this point. It seemed like such a good idea yesterday. Two of my other Peace Corps friends were doing it so I figured that we’d have each other to call and whine to. We decided to fast for one day of Ramadan. Just one day. During the entire month of Ramadan, I am asked by my Muslim friends and family here why I am not fasting. Typically I just respond with, I am not Muslim, it’s not part of my religion. This year, though, I wanted to try it. I was interested in seeing what they went through for a month. I wanted to see why this was important to them. Mostly, I wanted to show solidarity with the culture that I have been living in for over a year, even if it was only for one day.

For those of you that don't know, Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, improvement, increased devotion and worship. Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam meaning it is an essential component of the religion. The fast begins at dawn (hence my 5 AM chow fest) and ends at sunset (which ended up being around 7:30 PM). In addition to abstaining from eating and drinking, Muslims also increase restraint, such as abstaining from sexual relations and generally sinful speech and behavior. The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. Ramadan also teaches Muslims how to better practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate; thus encouraging actions of generosity and compulsory charity, zakat. (Washington Post, not sure if I have to site stuff in a private blog…)

For some Muslims, fasting may instill a sense of fraternity and unity, as they believe they are feeling and experiencing what their needy and hungry brothers and sisters are feeling. Those who are already poor and hungry are often considered exempt from fasting, as their condition renders them effectively fasting all the time; however, many still refrain from eating during the day. The fast is intended to teach Muslims patience and self-control, and to remind them of the less fortunate in the world. I especially appreciate this part as I think this is something those of us who are more fortunate often forget. Faithful observance of the fast is believed to atone for personal faults and misdeeds, at least in part, and to help earn a place in paradise. It is also believed to be beneficial for personal conduct, that is, to help control impulses, passions and temper. The fast is also meant to provide time for meditation and to strengthen one's faith (ramadan.co.uk). 

Before I decided to take a day to fast, I saw Ramadan very differently. To most PCV’s, me included, Ramadan can be somewhat of an annoyance. People tend to be quite irritable and tired (no kidding, eh, after not eating or drinking and being in oppressive heat all day). You often have to rethink your traveling as taking public transportation in the late afternoon can be quite dangerous with people rushing home to break fast. Around this time people are obviously even more tired and irritable considering that the end of their long day is finally approaching. During Ramadan, whether you live with a Senegalese family or not, eating can be more difficult. I have a friend whose town doesn’t even make bread during the month. Many restaurants are closed down or are open for very odd hours and often boutiques are sold out of staple cooking items. As selfish as it may be, many of us only think about how Ramadan is going to affect our day to day. I am so glad that I took a step back and truly realized the importance of this month and the difficulty those fasting are really experiencing. At the end of the day, after many more hours of boredom and hunger pains, I broke fast with a Senegalese family that I often share meals with here. Their gratitude and delight at the fact that I had fasted all day was well worth the few hours of difficulty. I’m not saying that I want to do it again anytime soon but now, I feel like I get it a little better, and I respect it greatly.  

Another aspect in which Ramadan affects us volunteers is through our work. Most of my projects have been halted right now because people are simply too tired to really engage in anything new. I now feel that I understand the importance of Ramadan to Muslims a little more and I have decided to take this month to reflect, meditate and work on what I truly want to accomplish in the next year.

I would like for my language to become better. I get along fine with my French and the basic conversations I can have in the local languages but I know that I can improve. I’m sure that you have all seen the photos of the scholarship program I have been posting and I am happy to say that we were able to complete funding! This will be delivered to the girls through me this fall and I can’t wait to take them out to get all that they will need for their next year of school. In this next year, I want to further develop my relationship with those girls. Along those lines, I want to execute a successful leadership camp for them this September. I would like to start a dance club at one of the middle schools. I used to dance way back in the day and I really miss it. It would be fun to start up something that I love and could share with the kids here. I am planning on starting an entrepreneurship course at the high school that will tie in with an internship program matching high school students with a specialist in a field they are potentially interested in. I want to continue the work I have started with my various women’s groups as well as form a network for them to work together easier. I would like for the waste management and sensitization project my site mate and I are doing to be wrapped up successfully. A final work-related goal I have is to continue with my English teaching projects and also facilitate an effective series of English Camps between PCV’s and the US Embassy.

On the more personal side I would like to use my bike more. This basically means getting over my fear that kids might attack me on it. I want to learn how to cook a proper Senegalese meal from start to finish. I want to work on my fitness. That’s right, I said it like that! I need to continue working on my patience. Living here has helped more than I could have ever imagined but I still can progress further. I am going to study for and take the GRE while here in Senegal. I’m going to continue pushing myself to get out in the community, even on the days where I’d prefer to hole up in my room and watch one movie after another (yes, those days still happen even after a year). As my time begins to wind down, I am hoping to either have started applying for jobs or being decided on a graduate program. Finally, I want to have at least 365 more adventures.

Until the next adventure then,


Thursday, June 20, 2013

30 books, 50 movies, and 100 pages later. 1 Year In.

By 1 year in, I mean I have been living in Senegal for over a year now. This is not necessarily one year that I have been sworn into the Peace Corps, that comes August 10th. How did this happen!? I remember my post after I was one MONTH in. My, time sure flies when you're having fun.... or also when you're not. My one year anniversary of living in Senegal just so happens to fall shortly after I had been vacationing in the states for about three weeks. I was originally supposed to go for under two weeks but then there was a death in my family so I was able to get my trip extended. Cancer finally won the battle against my sweet uncle Norbert. The void that has been left in our family is unexplainable but at least we can all find peace in the fact that his suffering is finally over.

Other than the obvious unfortunate reason that I was home early, the trip was amazing. There were nice dinners; that food that I had been missing for months and months was plentiful and in every direction that I looked. The air conditioning and use of my old car in order to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted were amazing. I couldn’t put a price or quantifiable value on the time with my family. My nieces didn’t forget me. They warmed up to me and realized who I was again almost immediately.
Everything was so clean. My adorable family had my room spotless and there were fresh sheets!!!! I’m telling you, hand-washed sheets just don’t smell the same. The mountains were incredibly beautiful and I spent a fair amount of time in them just relishing in what I had missed so much. I was able to see old friends, laugh and catch up on their lives. I played my favorite sports, golf and tennis, and wasn’t even that horrible! I went running with my mom and was able to do so without feeling completely harassed and signaled out (other than the fact that the altitude about obliterated me). In fact, I could go anywhere I wanted and perfectly blend in. No one shouted anything at me; no one demanded money or treats and no one made me feel unwelcome. It was bliss.
During my visit, I was asked if it was hard to be home, if I was having trouble readjusting. Honestly, I thought that it would be a lot harder. It was too easy to get back into the routine of having my own transportation, speaking English, having a refrigerator, having cold and clean drinking water, sleeping in a comfortable bed not in a pool of my own sweat, taking hot showers every day, seeing my family, and just being back in normal life. However, it wasn’t easy to see the excessive wealth. It was difficult to adjust to the price of things and to realize how much crap everyone has. Driving on the freeway legitimately scared me. The technology everywhere honestly grossed me out. It’s all over the place. I saw multiple groups of people that would sit there, not saying a word to each other, and just be messing around with their gadgets.  

Another common series of questions that I was asked by virtually everyone was obviously about my time in Senegal. “How’s Senegal, do you just love it?!” (No, no I don’t. I’m actually not just on an extended vacation there, contrary to popular belief). “What’s Africa like?!” (It’s hot there. If I went past this response, eyes tended to glaze over unless they were my close friends). “So, like, what are you even doing over there?” (Good question. Helping the people? My standard response: Working with underrepresented groups such as women and children and teaching them ways to alleviate their poverty (The typical response to that? Silence.  And then, oh…awesome!). “Did you learn that clicking language?” (Um, no). People mean well but ultimately the only ones who truly understand my time in Senegal and what it has been like for me here are my fellow PCV friends.
I guess that brings me to the last question that I was consistently asked, “When are you coming home?” This one was a little more difficult for me to answer. Like most PCV’s, I go back and forth every day, such is the rollercoaster life of our emotions here. One day I want to slap every Senegalese person I see in the face (don’t worry, I don’t actually do this) and run all the way back to the states but then the next day, I’m walking around greeting everyone and loving life. For me, I came to Senegal to work, to help people, to make a difference in the world. I knew I would have downtime but I thought that would be minimal compared to my work load. I have found this is not the case.  I can’t say though that a part of me didn’t come here for the selfish reasons as well. I know what this experience will do for my professional life as well as my own personal growth that I am going through here.

I think, though, sometimes I forget what I signed up for by coming here. It’s not supposed to be a cakewalk (as one of my good friends here put it). Every day is hard. Every single day is a challenge but what is life anywhere if not a series of different challenges? Yes, I miss everyone and everything familiar to me but my visit home definitely taught me that nothing has changed in the states. Some people have moved away and there are more babies, different jobs, but overall, everyone and everything are exactly the same.
I guess the moral of all this insane rambling is that I’m going to do my best to keep pushing on here. The answer to the question is that I don’t know when I’m coming home. I’m not making any promises and I’m just going to try to live simply and take things one day at a time.

Now I’d like to end this on a fun note. You’re probably wondering what in the hell I do with myself amidst all of this downtime that I ramble on and on about. Well, in the past year, I have read over 30 books. I re-read some of my favorite books that if you haven’t read, you need to. These include The Passage, The Terror, The Giver, The Last Lecture, and Under the Dome (among 7 other Stephen King books, him being my favorite author and all). I have watched about 7 different full series of TV shows. New favorites included Modern Family and New Girl along with re-watching one of my favorite series of all time, Arrested Development. I watched around 50 movies. Of course, the best Pixar and Disney were on repeat (Tangled, Up, Wall-E, Toy Story, How to Train Your Dragon, Mulan, etc.). Finally, I wrote. I wrote this blog and I wrote over 100 pages in a journal. I also sat a lot and just reflected. I reflected about many of the things I’ve written here so no need to get into any of that again.
Overall, I am so grateful for this journey and what it has taught me about the world and myself. Not many people can say they spent a year in Senegal: learning new languages, dancing, crying, laughing, and just living. I can. And I will never regret it.

Until the next time then,

Friday, May 10, 2013

Expectations vs. Reality

As I sit here listening to the sounds of Senegal; namely animals (I can’t believe I used to think that the sound a donkey made was cute and don’t even get me started on the roosters), vague cries of screaming children, arguments in the local language and birds pleasantly mixed in there somewhere, I can’t help but think about what my expectations were for this whole experience. Most of my life has been defined by the expectations that I set for things. I criticize my relationships because maybe they aren't living up to my unrealistic expectations of how they “should” be. I criticize myself because I feel like I’m not using my time in the best way that I can or that I'm not trying hard enough. I get way too excited for things and then I’m often disappointed (hello New Year’s Eve, yeah, you actually really suck). I expect more from people than I should. I tried my best to come into this whole Peace Corps experience without high expectations but, of course, I was and still am somewhat disappointed with my time here thus far. Those of you who know me well probably already know this and even if you don’t know me well, you could probably figure that out from reading this blog. Now, I’m not saying this to be dramatic or that my entire time here has been bad by any means, some of it has been really great but some, not so much.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, one of the main reasons that I wanted to join the Peace Corps was because of the experience that I had in Tanzania (East Africa, Senegal is West, you’re welcome). I expected my experience in Senegal to be similar to the one I had in Tanzania, this is why I specifically requested Africa on my application. This request doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will get to go where you want to go but considering no one really ever requests to go to Africa, I had a pretty great shot. I expected to be welcomed into Senegal, more or less, with open arms. I didn’t expect the sudden and unrelenting general resentment that I feel here constantly. I expected to stand out and to be made fun of because of my funny accent. I didn’t expect to feel ostracized, discriminated against and to have my every move criticized. Here, pretty much everything I do is amusing, scary, confusing and/or incredibly interesting to most Senegalese people. I can be simply sitting on a chair outside and draw a crowd of 20 people. Don’t even get me started on the time I tried to go to the beach when I lived in Palmarin with my host family. Let’s just say there were children literally clinging to me from the moment I stepped onto the sand. Sometimes I use this to my advantage and like to have a little fun by chasing kids. Not in a menacing way… I just sort of run after a group of them that have been harassing me waving my arms in the air and sometimes laughing maniacally. Don’t judge me. You’d start doing weird stuff like that too if you’d been here as long as me. Don’t worry, if I really frighten the children I stop and kindly greet them and then proceed to carry on with my day.  

Moving on, I expected to feel useful and that my information and training were things that my communities really needed and wanted. There are some people that I interact with who feel this way but mostly they look at me, find out I’m an American, and instantly just want hundreds of thousands of CFA and my hair. Yeah, they love white peoples’ hair. At least I mitigated that little problem by cutting all of mine off. I’m pretty sure many Senegalese people think that we are basically bathing in money over there in the states.  A lot of people here assume that if they could just get to America, then all of their problems would be solved! I try my best to explain that we have problems with unemployment, education and poverty in the states too but my heartfelt talks rarely get through to people here.

I didn’t expect to miss my family this much. I know what you’re thinking, what a baby, always talking about missing her family! Well, it’s true, I am a baby then. I miss them so much almost every single day. It is really hard for me to be here when there are struggles going on back home. Even when there aren't struggles, just not getting to hug them and joke around with them is hard. I also didn't expect to be this homesick for familiarity. I always considered myself a traveled individual who loved exploring new cultures, eating new foods, learning new languages, living abroad and having these wild experiences. The more time I spend here, though, the more I can’t wait to go back to what I know and love. I still think that I love the international experience but I’m not sure I’m willing to spend an extended amount of time like this away again.

Aside from my skewed expectations, I think that the overreaching goals of the Peace Corps as an agency are somewhat flawed. Is it an agency of development or of fostering cross-cultural friendships? Should they be more focused on recruiting older volunteers who are more experienced in the designated sectors or college grads that are fresh and ready for an exciting adventure? Integrating into a community is hard when your host family views you as their next big paycheck. Plus, it’s hard to make any sustainable change happen in some of these towns that are simply used to various NGO’s coming in, dumping money on them, and leaving. Alas, I suppose that is why I’m here. I joined the Peace Corps for a challenge. I joined to try and learn a new language, to experience a new culture. I joined to try and help people.

In my new town, the helping is coming a bit easier so it’s high time I share with you all a little bit of what I’ve been doing this past month or so. I am currently working with a scholarship program at one of the middle schools. This program was established in order to reward girls who are getting good grades but who also come from lower income families. The drop-out rate for girls of the middle school age here in Senegal is quite high. Many of these girls end up having to quit school in order to help out their family around the house. Another issue is that they sometimes become pregnant and have to quit school to start raising a family of their own. This program works to keep girls in school and out of trouble by providing benefits for those who are excelling academically and making an example out of these girls in order to inspire others. It is my job to proctor essay-writing sessions, hold personal interviews, visit their homes, collect teacher recommendations and become a mentor to the 9 selected girls (the 3 highest in 3 of the grade levels who were also deemed worthy of financial aid). At the end of the program, a group of us volunteers will be holding a Girls Leadership Camp. At the camp we will be focusing on health, environment, finances, and the future. I am very excited and will be sure to post more details as that gets closer.

Another one of my other projects is a waste management sensitization. There is a new system being established in my town and it’s been my job to organize how to inform the population about the benefits of this system and why they should partake. My site mate and I have mobilized several youth groups to attend training sessions on how to explain this sensitization and they will eventually be going out in the community to train their peers and community members.

I’m working with several women’s groups on marketing, product development, small accounting lessons and business formalization. I am hoping to start an adult informal English language club and I have been collaborating with the US Embassy in Dakar on providing training for volunteers who have received requests to teach English in our various sites. Finally, I’m hoping to start a youth entrepreneurial program at the high school this next school year while continuing random work with various other schools such as helping organize a Bob Marley Day (happening tomorrow) which will include me teaching a dance to some middle school girls, chhyeah, excited!

Needless to say, I’m pretty busy, but somehow I’m still just not feeling very fulfilled here in Senegal. I think that with my trip back home hanging over my head, I’m having a hard time thinking clearly here. I know that this trip is going to decide a lot for me. I know it’s going to be so hard seeing my family and having to say goodbye to them, again, but if it’s just too hard then I will have learned something. Maybe this experience was only supposed to be one year for me. Maybe I’ll be anxious to get back to Senegal. You never know, all I know is that I’m never going to be sorry or disappointed in what I chose. I am so happy that I took this chance and that I continue to learn more about myself every single day.  

Until next time,


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Air-conditioning, Mexican food and...equality?

*disclaimer* close-minded, ignorant people need not continue reading…

Sometimes I find myself wondering what life would have been like living and growing up in the 1800s before the Emancipation Proclamation, when slavery was still widely accepted. I like to think that, even then, I would have been the kind of person who was adamantly against that. I think (and hope) that most of us would probably have that same sentiment and claim, "Oh if I would have been alive then, I would have done something about it!" And to those people, I would like to pose a question, why aren't you doing anything now? Living in a developing country has obviously significantly altered my perspective but I like to think things were changing for me well before that. My whole life I have grown up believing that everyone, no matter their race, religion, gender, sexual preference, whatever, should be treated the same. This means that we should all be allowed the same basic, fundamental human rights.

I think that right now individuals of homosexual/bisexual preferences are the next human rights movement. The fact that this group of people largely aren't allowed to marry the one they love and are shown enormous amounts of hatred, discrimination and sometimes violent acts because of the way they were born?! Come on. That's horrifying. I think the United States is slowly making strides but overall and elsewhere in the world, the battle is just beginning.

Some of you may be wondering why I am writing about this. You may be thinking, wow this has nothing to do with living in Senegal; when, in fact, it does. Homosexuality is completely under wraps here. I don't think it's something I'm going to be able to change in my service here but it is an issue I care deeply about and since this is my blog, I do what I want! Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals in Senegal face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Senegal specifically out laws same-sex sexual acts, and has prosecuted men accused of homosexuality in the past. Homosexuals face routine discrimination in the society. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 97 percent of Senegalese residents believe that homosexuality is a way of life that society should not accept, which was the second-highest rate of non-acceptance in the 45 countries surveyed. (go ahead, look it up if you don’t believe me, http://pewglobal.org/files/pdf/258.pdf)! This doesn’t have anything really to do with my Peace Corps work but it’s something I care strongly about and may even pursue a graduate degree in international policy with an emphasis on human rights.

As you may or may not know, back in college, I interned with a fantastic organization in Utah called the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy. The mission of this organization is to promote respect and understanding between the people of Utah and other nations. The guiding principle being citizen diplomacy is the concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations, “one handshake at a time.” (Yes, that was taken directly off their website, utahdiplomacy.org, checkitout).

All of that basically means that this organization would host international visitors from all over the world that were studying various topics. I’m sure you’re wondering why they would want to come to Utah of all places. The visitor that I was especially touched by came to Utah from Uganda because she wanted to study LGBTQ rights in a conservative community. Salt Lake City was the perfect place for that. I organized her entire program (meetings, hotel, meals, etc.) and even got to accompany her for her entire stay. She was an amazing woman and the fear with which she lived her life every day by simply being the person she was in her home country was appalling. She confided in me that she was terrified to go home, that one of her good friends had just been KILLED because there were suspicions that he was homosexual. In certain countries, you can be imprisoned by simply KNOWING someone is homosexual and not turning them in. Before this gets too intense or goes too far, I’ll wrap it up by saying that I just wanted to explain a little bit of my background working in this area.  I also want to encourage anyone who actually reads this to do something if they are as frustrated and disgusted by how things are as I am. Join a support group, write a letter, support a friend. Even something that seems small can make a difference.

As usual, I feel that I should lighten things up a bit. My last post was about my apprehensions about coming home. As it gets closer, I’ve been thinking about the things that I’m really excited to come home to! Apart from seeing my family and some friends (that’s obviously first) there are some things that I simply can’t wait for. Things like food. Good food, available whenever I want. Good restaurants, even fast-food restaurants. Fast-food here is not exactly fast at all. Mexican food. Oh man all the cheese!!!! Café Rio. I miss Café Rio; Big, delicious, fresh salads that I don’t have to bleach all of the ingredients beforehand. I have to stop talking about food. I’m drooling all over the place.

Also, independence. I’m going to be able to drive myself wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. I can go to a grocery store, a real grocery store with every ingredient I could imagine, also while understanding what everything is I'm buying. Here, we have some large supermarket type places but obviously everything is in French so sometimes I really am not quite sure what I’m buying, just hoping for the best. That was getting to food again… clearly it’s high on my list of things I’m excited for.

It will be nice to have the option to go to the movies. Probably won’t waste my time with that but just having the option of SO MANY THINGS TO DO will be awesome.

Good beer. Man I miss good beer.  I guess I miss most alcoholic beverages that aren’t akin to lighter fluid. Not saying I indulge here often but when I do, it’s usually pretty nasty.

Hot showers erryday. Every day, I can go into a bathroom, that probably doesn’t have cockroaches a plenty, and take a hot shower, with real water pressure?! Can’t be true.

Blending in. I can’t wait to be able to walk down the streets and not get toubab, toubab, TOUBAB screamed at me. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post but toubab is the word for foreigner here and I hear it on a multiple times a day basis. It’s cool to feel sort of like a celebrity but you end up feeling like that celebrity that everyone kind of hates and wants to throw stuff at. Everywhere you go people notice you but it’s usually not good attention.

Air conditioning. Air conditioning. Air conditioning. I could say it 41943 more times. Sure, the summers in Utah can be brutal but there is repose from that. You walk outside and boy, is it hot, but then you usually get into your air-conditioned car. Then, that walk from your car to your house, office, supermarket is brutal until; again, you’re in the air-conditioning. Yeah, there’s none of that here. When we’re hot, another volunteer here has what she calls “wet noodling.” She strips down, bucket bathes in cold water, and then soaks her sheet in cold water, after she proceeds to wrap herself in the wet sheet and lie on the floor (often the coolest spot to be). This position works even better if you have a fan to lie in front of while you are “wet-noodling.” I guess that’s the Senegalese version of air-conditioning so yeah, I’m excited for the real thing.

I think that’s a good enough start to sum up what I’m excited for. Again, I’m not looking to offend anyone with this post. I’m just hoping to open a few minds and, as always, make you think.

Until next time,


Thursday, April 4, 2013

So, you want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer

I know that there have been about 34719843 articles, blogs, excerpts, books, essays, etc. written about this very topic (I’ve even shared a few of them) but I figured that it couldn’t hurt to have one more personal perspective on the subject. I feel that I had sort of a unique situation coming into this experience compared to most of the other volunteers that I know. The longest I had ever been away from my family was about a solid month I would say. I had some little summer excursions and small trips but the absolute longest I went without seeing (just seeing, I talked to them plenty too) my family was, again, only a month. This brings me to my first tip if you are someone you know is considering joining the Peace Corps:
  • You need to have experienced a sufficient amount of time away from home and everything familiar to you. Most Peace Corps volunteers have studied abroad or went to college in another state or had some sort of extensive experience where they were away from their home. Or, most people moved around enough or maybe weren’t as close to their family as I am that the time apart isn’t really that huge of an issue. Maybe I’m a huge baby or something but I’m here to say, it’s an issue for me. I miss everyone every single day but it’s definitely hurting a little less the more time that I spend here. The first few months were almost unbearably hard. I cried almost every single day. Your first, real experience with homesickness can be physically debilitating. This isn’t to scare anyone off by any means. I am simply giving a fair warning, if you are as close to your family as I am; Don’t let your first extended abroad experience happen where you’ll be living in a developing country probably in a small village away from anyone and everything that is familiar.

In order to get into the Peace Corps, you usually have to have extensive knowledge of a language besides English, typically French or Spanish. French speakers are especially sought after because there are not many Americans who learn French in school.
  • The importance of actually studying and doing your best to learn whatever foreign language you’re claiming to know before you get to your country of service is absolutely crucial. Peace Corps will train you in the local language but often, if they don’t feel like your level of the official language is high enough, you will be reviewing that for most of your training. This is the route that I had to undertake and it set me back immensely. I was unable to properly communicate with my host family and many people in the community. I felt that the French review was helpful in the fact that I use French every day when I am speaking with teachers, government officials or other educated people but in the day-to-day life, I am at a huge disadvantage. I almost never fully understood what my host family was saying to me and while I was close to them, I think that with a better training in the language they spoke, I could’ve been much closer. This is somewhat past tense because with my move I don’t actually live in a host family anymore but with my first one in Palmarin, things were confusing. Communication is getting better now the more I learn (except that now I’m learning a different local language with the new town… crying a little inside) but again, those first few months of not only homesickness but also not being able to properly communicate with anyone were hell.  

The majority of Peace Corps volunteers are recent college graduates. I think that this is the demographic that recruiters most often go after because they are at a vulnerable point in their lives. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life after obtaining my bachelor’s degree and the allure and excitement that Peace Corps presented to me almost sounded too good to be true. Perhaps I am a different case because Peace Corps is something I’ve wanted to do for most of my life but for many college grads, the promise of adventure and serving others reels them right in.
  • I would suggest working for a few years in the states before going abroad into the Peace Corps. Sure, most of us that came virtually right out of college have some work experience but not necessarily the skill set that is needed in a developing country. Most of the time I feel completely under qualified to be here. I know that most volunteers feel this way for at least some part of their service but as my friend Kelly has explained to me, most of us are simply here to do the research, offer our unique western perspective and provide help with basic skills that we have known how to do for years. I think that my experience here and what I have to offer would be infinitely more valuable if I had been in a professional working environment and waited to apply for the Peace Corps for a few years before coming here. Then again, with the economy the way it is now, that’s why most of us are here is because we’re running away in a sense from having to find careers in the states. Along those same lines, if you’re a self-starter, the Peace Corps is the place for you; but, if you’re not, you’re in for a world of frustration considering that once you’re placed in your site it’s pretty much up to you to determine the needs of your town and get things started.

The challenges that we go through here are hard for people to really comprehend sometimes. We are constantly expected to be on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are consistently surrounded by people who we don’t speak the same language as who really don’t understand what we’re doing here and most of us don’t even understand what we’re doing sometimes.
  • I feel frustrated, under-qualified, discouraged, scared, lonely, terrorized, taken advantage of, ridiculed among a million other things every single day. No matter how great your projects might be going or how much your language is improving; you will feel that way too if you’re in the Peace Corps. Often the people in host countries don’t seem to understand that volunteers are here, not getting paid, living away from our families, friends and comforts to be here, to help them. They see me instead as a walking ATM, an idiot who can’t properly communicate, a woman who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, a potential wife, a meal ticket to America, someone to be made fun of and harassed when I don’t understand. But, then there are the good days that make it all worth it, which I’m sure I’ve talked about in previous posts so that’s all I’ll say there. Most days I still don’t know what I’m doing here but I’m so glad that I tried as hard as I did to get to this point in my life. It was never easy. But at least I’ll live the rest of my life knowing I tried.
This brings me to another important point that you need to know before you think of applying to the Peace Corps.
  • They aren’t kidding when they say the application process will take a year. In my case, it took a little over 2 years to get accepted. I have had some people ask me, is it hard to get in? Absolutely it is. Not only qualifications wise but you have to have the patience and perseverance in order to simply keep your application moving along. If you are serious about wanting to apply for the Peace Corps, start early. You also need to have significant leadership and volunteer experience. You must make sure you’re healthy, that you have a clean criminal record, and that you don’t have any commitments holding you to the states such as debt, children, etc. You also need to be a college graduate, the higher your grades, the better chance you have. I’m sure there’s more but if people reading this are really serious about joining the Peace Corps then I’m assuming you’ll have done your research on what you need to be and do.

I would say that about sums up the areas that I’ve had the hardest time with here. Your frustrations and challenges will surprise you. Sure, the heat, bugs, lack of resources, sicknesses, and general feelings of discomfort are tough but are much more manageable than the issues I’ve previously mentioned.

Considering this post seems to be a lot about my feelings I thought I’d continue that train and talk about the fact that I’m coming home to visit in less than two months! While I’m obviously ecstatic, I also have some reservations and apprehensions about coming home. I’m really nervous about seeing my house without my dog being there. She was there, fine and happy, when I left and to come home without her there is going to be really tough. I’m nervous about seeing my friends. I know that I’ve changed and it makes me wonder how much our relationships will have changed. Sometimes I don’t feel like I really fit in anywhere anymore. I’m certainly not integrated to the point where I feel like I completely fit in here in Senegal but I also can’t really relate with what my friends are going through back home. I’m uneasy about being surrounded by obscene amounts of wastefulness compared to what I’m used to seeing and I’m worried that I’m going to lose it on the wrong person who just doesn’t know any differently.

Finally, I’m absolutely terrified that I won’t be able to make myself come back to Senegal. Every part of me wants to finish my two years and successfully complete my service but, as previously mentioned, it’s just so damn hard sometimes. That’s why part of my agreement with people that I’m going to see when I’m home is that they have to be super obnoxious and difficult my last few days there so that I can’t wait to leave (hehe). Contrary to most of the tone of this post though, I’m doing fine. I just moved into my new place in the bigger town and it’s going well so far! Of course it’s taking getting used to as it does when you move to a new city anytime but overall I think that I will be much happier and more successful here.

Until next time then,


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Meaning of Life

I realized in my last post that I randomly brought up moving to a bigger town with absolutely no back story or preface as to why this might be happening and how this is possible. Sorry about that. So, as I have mentioned 54195 times, I live in a small village of about 2,500 people. The location of this village is between the coast and the Sine-Saloum Delta making it quite picturesque and unbelievably tranquil. However, as beautiful as it may be down here, I’m not sure this community is necessarily “in need” of a Peace Corps volunteer. That might sound strange seeming as most people in the Western world hear Africa and immediately think of children dressed in rags, covered in flies, dirty and surrounded by utter poverty. I assure you that level of poverty does exist here (side rant, in a few of my packages I have received celebrity magazines. They’re fun to read but also make me kind of want to puke and shake these idiot famous people. I’m sitting here next to a child who wears the same dirty t-shirt every day, reading about the latest “it” person who spent $2,000 on a wallet. It’s disgusting) but for the most part my village seems to know what they’re doing, they've had Peace Corps volunteers down here for the last 10 years.

You see, there is a sort of application process for requesting a Peace Corps volunteer in your village or town. I believe the main qualifications are that there is sufficient work and needs to be fulfilled in order to legitimize the necessity of a volunteer in the site. We also “graduate” from sites when we feel like they can take things over on their own, this obviously being a great thing as the goal of Peace Corps work is sustainability after we’re gone. Basically, we are not forcing aid upon communities. In my case, there was a locally established campement (small hotel) that needed help with business formalization, marketing, staff training, etc. I was placed here because of my international business background as well as previous experience working in a hotel that prided itself on environmentally friendly practices. Well. This all sounds fine and dandy which set my expectations significantly higher than they should have been. Each time I visited the campement for a progress update I was told, “Oh, it will be completely constructed next month!” Or, “By tourist season, we will be up and running and ready for your help.” Yeah these things weren't exactly accurate; it still remains tightly closed down. Don’t get me wrong, I have certainly come up with other ways to try and bide my time here (which I have talked about enough in previous posts, I’m sure); but, once school is out and tourist season is over, I couldn't really imagine what I would do down here. Therefore, I have been talking to my supervisors and other volunteers, trying to come up with the best solution.

Site changes are very rare and are usually only approved in serious situations; however, when I came to my supervisor complaining about a lack of work, he was more than understanding and has been working with me ever since then to figure out the best solution. Assuming I can find a suitable place to live, I will be moving to a bigger town in April. I’m slightly apprehensive. It’s just like when I was first installed into my village all over again. I will have to develop new routines, forge new friendships and integrate into a new community. There will be more harassment, less tranquility and just a new set of challenges. I’m also worried about the opinions of other volunteers. I know that I shouldn't be but as a community, other volunteers can be very judgmental. We have a tendency to constantly compare ourselves and there is this ongoing battle of who is “roughing” it more and having the “true Peace Corps experience.” Although, if people realize that I could have just relaxed on the beach for 2 years and I am choosing to move in order to have meaningful projects, I would hope that they would understand. Ultimately, I think it will be worth it.

While moving for work purposes is legitimate and all, I definitely am not prepared for how difficult it is going to be to leave Palmarin. I have started telling the people that I am closest to in the community and their reactions have been overwhelming. The artisans I help with English are sad to see me go but said they have such a positive view of Americans and the Peace Corps now because of how nice and open I always was/am with them and the teacher I work with at the high school said they’ve seen a fair amount of volunteers come through Palmarin and I am the one who has tried the hardest with the school and that I always have such a positive attitude. It was really nice to hear and made me feel like, even though I was only down here for a little over 7 months, I made a positive impact.

Well that catches you up on that whole jazz. As usual, this post is probably going to veer off into me thinking that I’m being philosophical because, as I've said a thousand times before, I have WAY too much time to think here. Lately I've been thinking very retrospectively, going over a lot of the past relationships I've had in my life. Do you ever think about that one relationship where the timing was always off or those friendships that were shattered beyond repair? The family ties that you didn't work on hard enough and eventually let fade away. I've also been thinking a lot about the grudges that people continue to foster when, in reality, they’re only hurting themselves. We only have one life, what if we pushed someone or some opportunity aside that would have been better for us all along? What if we let something fester inside us forever instead of moving on and ultimately letting ourselves feel at peace? I like to believe that everything happens for a reason but that philosophy can sometimes feel like a cop out when things don’t work out the way you wanted them to. I'm going to lighten the mood a little by inserting a beautiful picture of the sunrise this morning from my backyard. 

Now, back to it. Thinking like this is partly stemming from catching up with friends and family back home. I am constantly seeing friends who are getting into new relationships, starting families, going to grad school, getting great jobs and just moving forward in their lives. I hate that sometimes here I’m just willing time to pass quickly so that I can get to that point in my life. My parents always tell me that I don’t realize how fast time truly does go but I think that I do. It’s just that life can feel so stagnant here. What is the meaning of life anyway? Is it to find one, great, epic love? Is it to have a meaningful career? Is it to help those that were born less fortunate than you are? Is it to see the beauty of nature and explore the world? Is the meaning of life to be remembered for something, to be famous? I feel like the wisest answer to that question is that the meaning of life is to be happy and fulfilled. But, how do you achieve that contentment? A part of me is grateful that I have so much time on my hands to be able to reflect and think about what I want out of life. The problem with that, again, is that it’s too much time. I over-think everything and end up second guessing all of my major life’s decisions. I guess all that I can really hope for is to successfully complete this step of my life by setting a good example for the people of Senegal and for my friends and family back home. I’m also going to continue enjoying the simplicity and beauty of the environment that surrounds me here. As my parents have always said, all of that other stuff will work itself out the way it’s meant to.

Until next time then,