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, 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,