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.

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,