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.

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,