*Disclaimer*

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.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Stand by Me

Before Senegal, I wasn’t someone who kept up with a continuous blog. I didn’t feel like my daily life experiences would be that interesting to an outsider. I still feel that way with most of the blogs I take a random glance at here and there. I started this blog as a way to stay close with my family and friends while I was living in Senegal – I didn’t know how therapeutic it would turn out to be for me during those two years. I have always kept a personal diary but there’s something about posting your thoughts in a public forum that is alluring. I hadn’t intended on keeping up with this blog much post-Senegal. I have written one post since I came home and hadn’t really felt much need for a follow-up. Tonight I felt the need.

My coming home has been a whirlwind. There have been the usual readjustments that any returned Peace Corps volunteer faces such as food issues, supermarket breakdowns (there are SO many options here), and an overall feeling of gluttony (almost disgust) for all that we have here. Then, for me, there have been some deeper readjustments around family, friends, getting used to being in an office 40+ hours a week (yeah, I got a job), anxiety around making purchases (ANY purchase, literally), and even dating (everything’s online nowadays – it’s weird and makes me uncomfortable and slightly ashamed of my generation).

I have been home for over 5 months now and it still feels like I’m in a cloud some days. I have supportive people in my life but I don’t feel like I have really been given the proper venue to truly share my Peace Corps experience. Until tonight. I volunteered as a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters for… 6 years or so. I was matched with a wonderful young woman and became very close to her and her family. They had me over for dinner tonight because they wanted to hear about my Peace Corps experience. They wanted to see pictures and I mean a lot of pictures. I tend to get a little embarrassed if I’m showing people pictures from Senegal and try to stop before I’ve even really began – they were not having that. They wanted to hear Senegalese music. They wanted to relish in my achievements and listen sympathetically to my challenges. Not many other people (there have certainly been some who have) in the 5 months that I’ve been home, have given that kind of attention to what Peace Corps meant to me.  

I’m expected by many to just slide right back into life here. I probably put on the fa├žade myself by getting a car, accepting a job right away, jumping into dating, and seamlessly falling into my life as it was before. But I’m not as I was before. And sometimes I don’t know what I’m ever going to be. I still don’t know what my career path should be. I still don’t know where I belong. I feel like, at the age of 25, I’m redefining myself and my path in life. Peace Corps had been my goal for so many years and now that I’ve completed it – I need to build up my list once again or I need to just be okay with not knowing.

When I used to write these posts I would often think about the reason behind them. What am I trying to get across, what is my end goal? With this post, I think I simply needed to write. I needed to share that I’m still struggling, yes, even 5 months after being home. I needed to share with those close to me that sometimes, I just need to talk about Senegal. Sometimes I need to show a picture of my host sister and all anyone needs to do is give me an indulgent giggle or two. If there are other returned volunteers out there who didn’t jump back into “normal” life as easily as it seems like your fellow returned friends did, that’s okay.

I needed to share that I am trying to slide back into life here. But sometimes, I will have to compare prices of body wash for 7 minutes (which, in reality, is abnormally long for such a task) and you may just have to stand there with me and let it happen. I also wanted to share that I am incredibly grateful for those of you who have stood by me in that body wash aisle, metaphorically speaking. You know who you are.

xx

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

So, how was Africa?!

Well. Here I am. Back in the states – the US of A. I said that my last blog post would be my last but I think this one will really be my last. Up until now my posts have all been about getting ready to go to Senegal, my time in Senegal and then my feelings upon leaving Senegal. I think it’s only fair that I wrap up this whole experience with a final post regarding readjusting back to life in the States. You may not think that there is any sort of readjustment period required. I’m sure it must seem like because I am American and I know what life is like here, that I should be falling seamlessly back into things. Well unfortunately for both of us, that is not the case.

All Peace Corps volunteers and their families are given a handbook upon departure. This handbook goes over everything the volunteer can expect leading up to, during, and even after service. The final chapter about coming home brings up some of the emotions that I am currently feeling and while it might be easier for everyone I love to just take a peek at it, I’m going to include two of the key points in this post.

One of the points the handbook mentions that returning volunteers have a hard time with is the lack of interest or ability to properly communicate said interest by most people in what we have been doing for the past two years. If everyone could do me a favor and please never, ever ask me, “How was Africa?!” That’d be great. Life went on as normal here. People had challenges of their own and I understand that. However, the experience, as the handbook puts it, may have been the “most seminal experience of my life.” A vague, blanketed question asking, not even how the country I served in was, but the entire continent? That is simply insulting. Americans are so proud of their country and would most definitely be offended if someone asked them how North America was doing; therefore I simply ask that we educate ourselves a little bit on the big ole’ world that is out there. 

The second point that struck me was in regards to the intensity of the Peace Corps experience and what happens when that goes away. Contrary to most of my Facebook posts, I was not just on a two year vacation over there. Every time I left my apartment was a challenge. I was continuously speaking another language, dealing with harassment, dealing with heat, dodging rampant cars/street animals, and the ordeal was exhausting yet also exhilarating. I would go out of my house, walk to the post office and buy some vegetables at the market. Upon arrival back home, I felt like a champ. That small errand was tough and the completion felt incredibly satisfying. Here, still in my first few weeks back, my free time is devoted to similar tasks such as laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking but the amount of ease with which all of these things are done is odd to me. The list I just rattled off would've easily taken me a week in Senegal and I would have had to devote each day to a separate chore. The convenience here and lack of difficulty completing basic duties is oddly debilitating.

Moving away from the handbook stuff now... I've been home twice and now that I am finally here for the long haul, it feels different. I’m not on vacation anymore. Life is real. I need to find a job or else I’ll go stir crazy sitting around. I need to figure out how to manage a schedule, not just one big reunion meal, with friends and family. There is also the matter of other people getting used to fitting me in their lives again. I know this isn’t a one-sided transition.

In Senegal, or I guess being physically removed anywhere, it seems like the problems are there but also aren’t really there. It is as if when you come back, everything will magically fall into place. America is the land of wonderful possibilities. I still believe this, but it’s also not all it’s cracked up to be. Difficult or confusing situations that existed before I left are still here and waiting to be dealt with.

A final note on the hard readjustments is just fitting myself into conversations again. I am having a hard time connecting with some of the topics that people deem important here. I find myself experiencing something I dealt with in Senegal which was being in a room full of people yet feeling alone. I am not hip on the latest gossip, technology, or even local issues so sometimes I’m unsure how to contribute to group conversations. I also feel that when I go off about my time in Senegal, some people just don’t care or know what to say. It goes back to simply asking me how Africa was. I get it that a lot of people don’t really know what the Peace Corps entails and I don’t blame them for feeling slightly uneasy. There have also been great conversations with relative strangers who were genuinely interested in what I had to say. I know that this is something that will come with time. I will come to realize the situations in which Senegal talk is appropriate and sought after or the other times when I need to know what the hell snapchat is all about.

After the hard stuff there are, of course, the wonderful readjustments that come with seeing the people I’ve missed so much regularly. The comfort that comes from understanding what people are saying to me, almost all the time, and being able to respond in my native language. The beauty that is Utah, I’m not kidding you. It is so incredibly, overwhelmingly, undeniably beautiful here. With the mountains, the trees, the grass, the clean streets, the fresh streams, the clean smells, etc. 


Then there’s the ease of working out and being able to go running without receiving stares and harassment. And finally, hot showers, clean clothes/bed sheets/towels, the ability to go where I want when I want, GOOD FOOD, and staying clean all day long have been lovely to get used to again.

To wrap this up, the readjustment is hard. I want people to know that and to try and be patient with me. I will do my best to be patient with people as well. As far as my next steps in life go… I’m still not quite sure. That’s probably my second least favorite question – What are you doing next? Not because it’s something slightly ignorant like the Africa question but because it sends me into a fit of panic and mutterings, “I don’t know yet, I’m job hunting, we’ll see!” I have an opportunity to teach English in France which I have accepted but I’m also applying for jobs in Utah in order to be around my family and friends. After all, if I find a good job with an organization that I care about, it’s not going to hurt me to stay put for a little bit and regain some sense of normalcy in my life.

Until the next adventure then,


xx

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Privileged Problems"

Variety is the spice of life, right? In Senegal, I’m not so sure this is the case, and that appears to be just the way many people like it. There are around 4 or 5 meals that constitute the Senegalese diet. They eat these same 4 or 5 meals throughout their entire lives and seem to continue to enjoy them. There is no large supermarket to ponder over lunch/dinner options for hours. There are usually no options except for whatever is grown in your area or imported. There are 4 or 5 professions that everyone knows about and aspires to be. Teachers, fishermen (in my area due to our proximity to the coast), policemen, housewives, and sometimes I even hear doctors. There's usually not years of soul-searching, pondering over these careers. If a Senegalese person does well in their science classes, they'll probably pursue a career in healthcare, because it just makes sense. Senegalese people are considered fortunate and incredibly talented if they graduate high school with their BAC, our equivalent of the GED. This test seems WAY harder than what our graduation requirements constitute, plus these kids also probably already speak at least 3 languages by now. 

The point I’m getting to here is that there are less choices in almost every aspect of life. While some of this lack of choice may make life more complicated, mostly this simplifies life here. I think that I am beginning to see Senegal in the positive light that I want to remember it in. The peace of mind that comes with fewer choices is easy to spot here. I often speak about the hardships I have faced but this experience has given me more than I ever expected. Life doesn’t always have to be the serious, scary, fast-paced, and complicated situation that many Americans and those living in a more developed country see it as.

Many famous philosophers and historical figures have discussed the notion of “1st world problems,” or “privileged problems.” Now, we’ve all seen the funny videos where first world problems are “issues” such as a hot tub being too hot, a house that’s so big you need 2 wireless routers, etc.

(See this video for a great ad campaign) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/05/first-world-problems-read-by-third-world-kids-ad-campaing_n_1943648.html?ir=World.)

But I am here to say that privileged problems can definitely be a real and scary thing. Privileged problems come often from having too much time on our hands and too many options at our disposal. If you don't have to hike 10 miles for enough water to bathe in that night, that can free up some thinking time. Once your basic needs for survival are taken care of (food, shelter, water, clothing, etc.), you end up having more time to ponder the other needs in your life. These are things such as a fulfilling career, a loving companion, and material things (a fancy house, car, clothes, etc.). While it’s wonderful that many of us have freedom in deciding these areas, it also adds substantial amounts of stress, anxiety and depression to our lives. The anxiety level is palpable in the US. People are constantly chasing the next slew of “things” and losing sight of enjoying the beauty of nature, relationships, and other human interactions.

I’m not saying I would prefer no choices or that these extra needs are not equally important. I'm also not saying that there aren't problems for many people acquiring these basic needs in developed countries either. I’m only saying that I wish that sometimes we could just take a step back, get some perspective and appreciate all that we really do have. Even just having the opportunity to live in the United States and the freedom to chase after whatever dream we may have is something I for one will always be immensely grateful for.

Anyway, as my time has pretty much come to an end here in Joal, I find myself feeling very… weird. This whole “leaving Senegal behind possibly forever thing” is kind of resulting in me having a surreal, out-of-body experience. I feel as if I’m watching myself pack up some of my stuff, give away most of my stuff, and say goodbye to my friends and family who’ve been in my life for the past two years. I can’t believe it’s actually happening. I don’t think I’ll believe it until I am on that plane out of here, for good, not just for vacation. This is something I’ve wanted for so long and now that it’s finally here, I don’t really know how to feel or what to think. As previously mentioned, I just feel weird.   

Although I do feel like I’m finally receiving the validation from Senegalese that I’ve craved for so long. For every hard goodbye, an accompanying tearful and heartfelt thank you has followed. People I didn’t even know that well have been praising me for my projects, thanking me for what I did to help their country and been overwhelmingly sad to see me go. It’s not as if I thought that my projects and relationships here meant nothing, I just didn't realize the extent of their meaning and I feel deeply validated and truly touched.

Even though I wanted to go home for most of it, I will always treasure this experience and I am so grateful that my stubborn nature forced me to stick it out. I feel like I have changed and grown in more ways than I could have if I had just been working in the states. I’ve learned to really cherish the relationships I have and to focus on what’s important in life. Coming back to the earlier discussion of privileged problems, if I have my basic needs fulfilled, I’m going to try to do my best to not freak out so much about the other stuff and also to reach out and help those who are working on fulfilling their basic needs.

I have a couple more weeks in Dakar, celebrating and tying up loose ends. After that, America, I’m comin’ at ya and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Until the next time,
  
xx

Thursday, February 27, 2014

You live, you learn

I wanted to start this post by sincerely thanking everyone who I know has followed my blog from day one. I hope that you have laughed, learned, and reflected throughout it all. I am flattered and truly honored by the idea that people care what I think and that you are all interested in learning how my perspective has changed over the past couple of years. The 3rd goal of Peace Corps is to help Americans understand the people and cultures of other countries. I hope that I have achieved that to some extent with this blog.

I have been told by many of you who follow me consistently that you appreciate the honesty with which I share my experience here and, well, it’s time that I admit that the Peace Corps maybe wasn’t for me. I know what you’re thinking… what?! What happened? Did something catastrophic lead you to this conclusion? Or maybe you’re thinking, well, obviously. As my time here in Senegal is rapidly winding down, I find myself reflecting quite often over my life here.

Upon finishing our service, we have to fill out several different reports. There’s the description of service (DOS) report which is the only official documentation we will have to give to future employers and graduate schools in order to measure our experience here. There’s also the close of service (COS) report. This is typically given to our replacements but, as I am not being replaced, this will simply describe my experience in more detail and go on file in case Peace Corps Senegal decides to place someone in either one of my towns again.

Now, if any new volunteers are reading this, I do not want you to get discouraged. I’m going to start out by saying why this experience wasn't for ME in particular but I am going to wrap it up by saying what living in Senegal has done for me and why I have stuck it out this whole time. I’m sure that I have mentioned some of these things throughout the past two years so I’m sorry if this post sounds repetitive but I think it’s important to note all in the same place where I am coming from.

Most of you know that I have wanted to join the Peace Corps since I was quite young. Long before I even knew what that meant exactly. This has been both my motivation and burden while debating whether or not to finish my commitment to Senegal. This was something I had always wanted, didn't I owe it to myself to stick it out? These past few weeks have entailed a lot of reflection on the past two years. There was a close of service conference where we had career experts come in and help us figure out what we’re going to do next. We also were often asked, similarly to the forms I mentioned earlier, “What did you do with your Peace Corps service?” I kind of didn’t know how to respond. Don’t get me wrong, I have done stuff, things that I never would have imagined being able to pull off and I know that my time here was beneficial to many people (both Senegalese and back home) as well as instrumental to my own personal growth.

But, the Peace Corps is different than it used to be. We used to come here and do our best to integrate into our towns, learn the languages, and maybe complete a few projects along the way. Now, due to the wonderful advancement of technology and potential budgetary restraints, we have to be much more strict regarding monitoring and evaluating (aka, justifying) our time here.

In a way, I get it. The taxpayers and the US Government deserve to know what their money is going towards. But, at the same time, doesn’t the fact that we’re simply living over here, promoting diplomacy and making small strides towards the development of Senegal count towards something? How am I supposed to quantify the number of people who I have truly touched here? It didn’t take a formal training for me to convince a young girl to open a savings account. There was no official gauge to measure the number of conversations I had convincing Senegalese that not all Americans hate Muslims. I have no way of communicating what the impact of seeing a young, single, educated, independent woman (me, duh) did for the young girls I have mentored throughout the past two years. Where is the importance of these, in my opinion, monumental moments catalogued?

Along with the forms that we are required to complete at the end of our service, there is a form we fill out quarterly calling the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF) that has certain indicators that must be met. If our supervisors don’t feel like we've met enough targets in our particular program, (for me, community economic development) they will typically reach out to us and say something along the lines of, “Great work, but I wish you had done more in your particular sector.” Which, to me, sounds more like, “Where is the proof that I am running this program effectively? Where are the specific numbers that I can report to make myself and our sector look the best?”

The main point I’m trying to make here is that I fear the initial reasons behind forming the Peace Corps are falling to the wayside as these modern day evaluation tools inhibit and restrict the true impact that we are making. I don’t like being made to feel like I didn’t accomplish much here because my particular feats don’t fit onto the black and white forms. However, some people really like having these forms to guide them along the way, so to each their own.

Certain aspects of Peace Corps may not have been for me but working abroad and doing what I've done definitely were for me. Similarly, though, I do want to mention that the ideas of cross-cultural relationships and encouraging diplomacy (both goals highlighted in the Peace Corps's mission) are additional reasons why I have not left this experience. Also, I honestly did not belong in the business sector. There was no way of knowing this until I was too far into service. I know why they placed me there, with my background in International Business, it made perfect sense. But I have found my most rewarding projects, again for me personally, to be in either youth development or education which are not specified sectors within Peace Corps Senegal.

With that said, there is no bound to the satisfaction I feel for actually (almost) completing my Peace Corps service. I know when you look at my Facebook it might seem that I have been having the time of my life over here! A two year, paid vacation. Not so much (although, yes, obviously some of my time here has been a blast). I’m just not the kind of person to broadcast how hard things are, on Facebook at least. That’s what this blog is for, hehe. These past two years have easily been the most difficult of my life. But with these daily challenges has come immeasurable growth.

If I could share anything that I have learned from these past two years, it would be patience and acceptance. You literally never know what other people are going through. Be sensitive to that. Anything worth having is going to take time. Be patient. Be patient with others, in rough situations (hey, at least you’re not waiting, in excruciating heat, 5 hours for a car that will most likely break down to fill up with people), and especially with yourself. Additionally, I encourage everyone to make mistakes. I will be forever grateful that I tried to learn another language. You will never sound more like a babbling moron than when you’re trying to communicate in another language. It’s incredibly humbling. Go for what you want and don’t get down if things don’t work out the way you planned. This experience certainly did not go the way I planned or expected but maybe it went just the way it should have.

I literally have no idea what the next chapter of my life holds but I am feeling optimistic. I’m going to try to remove my own selfish expectations of all the relationships in my life and enjoy every relationship for what it is. I’m going to forgive myself and others. I'm going to do my best to support the people who mean the most to me. I'm going to realize that while I've been over here having crazy experiences for the past two years, that doesn't mean the last two years have been any less crazy for people back home. Just because some people have clear direction in their lives doesn't mean I have a problem if I don’t. I’m going to apply for jobs that seem interesting but not get discouraged if I fail. I’m going to have a hard time but I’m going to get through it how I have the last two years, by laughing and learning through it all.

I will try to get out maybe one more post before this whole shebang wraps up but in the meantime, thanks again for staying with me for these crazy, amazing past couple of years.

Until the next time,


xx



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The home stretch

As hinted by my title, it is finally 2014 and I started this whole experience in 2012 so that means… yes… you guessed it, my time in Senegal is slowly winding down! As some of you may know, the new volunteers coming to Senegal to replace my original group are coming in earlier than we expected; they will be arriving in March. This means that my group has the option of leaving 2 months earlier than planned which is this upcoming May. That is 4 months away, 4 FREAKING MONTHS.  Some of my fellow training group mates are choosing to stay longer but I am in a dear friend’s wedding the end of May so this all works out perfectly for my situation. Also, truth be told, I am getting very ready to be done with my service; although, I find myself in an interesting conundrum. I’m not really sure that I want to be anywhere. Don’t freak out, it’s not quite as dramatic as it might sound, or maybe it is. After experiencing what I have in Senegal, settling back down into life in the states isn’t going to be as easy and seamless as I originally predicted.

I recently was able to go home for the holidays and, before that trip, I was totally under the impression that America was going to be the absolute answer for my next step. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I had a wonderful trip and was made very comfortable and happy. I loved seeing my family and friends but I underestimated the effect the holiday season was going to have on me. I used to LOVE Christmas and all that it entailed; the lights, the gifts, the shopping, the snow, the music, and anything else that you could possibly name. Although, this year was different, I found myself resentful of the way people were acting and wanting to lash out at those who I felt already had more than enough. I wanted to speak about, not only Senegal, but the fact that there are people who have NOTHING all over the world (the United States included). Every time I started, though, I felt that people would shut down. They seemed to think I was getting all high and mighty and almost preaching to them. I had a very hard time trying to express where I am coming from and the things that I have seen that have truly changed me. 

The thing is that I know I grew up incredibly privileged. I am the first person to admit that. Therefore, I get where people are coming from. Although, there are a lot of things that people don’t know or they wrongly assume but no need to get into that right now. Not to toot my own horn but even before I joined the Peace Corps, for the past few years, I have been aware of what I was given and have desired to reach out to others. I was involved with Big Brother Big Sisters for over 5 years, spending time with the same little girl. I have also been closely involved with Habitat for Humanity and done a few small things with the Road Home. Again, I’m not saying this to boast but to acknowledge that regardless of your upbringing, we can all do our part to make the world a better place. 

I do want to mention, though, that there were several friends and family members who I noticed doing amazing things for those less fortunate and it truly warmed my heart. I guess all I'm trying to say is that if you aren’t ready to give up all of your Christmas gifts yet or take in an abused dog or something then start somewhere small. Even simply realizing and being grateful for all that you have and trying to be the most positive person that you can is a step in the right direction. I know that I still have a long way to go and I am always working to better myself and my relationship with others.

Aside from my own misgivings about the general state of mind in America, I am also real panicked about my professional next steps. Peace Corps has helped me realize that I don’t want to work in international development but I do still want to be involved in the non-profit realm. I have truly enjoyed my work with at-risk youth, gender equality/empowerment, and English teaching. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I am also very interested in working in the realm of human rights. There are almost too many areas in which I care deeply that it’s difficult to try to focus on just one career path. Of course, I also want to pursue an area that I am going to be able to provide for myself and hopefully a family someday. People always say, “Do what makes you happy.” What if I don’t know what that is yet? Yeah, you have time; it’s what you’re all thinking, right? That may be somewhat true but as I’m fast approaching my quarter-century birthday, the questions of the impending future are never far from my mind. Needless to say, I’m not sure if I’m ready for America and all that comes with it quite yet.

Phew, enough on that subject! I’m writing this in the JFK airport, waiting for my flight to Dakar. Sitting here, though, I am also not feeling ready for returning to Senegal. I am hearing people speaking Wolof all around me and there are men dressed in the traditional clothing. I do not remember feeling this much distress about going back to Senegal when I was able to visit home in June. The thought of leaving that airport in Dakar and having to say, “Asalaam Malekuum” (standard greeting meaning, “May peace be with you”), makes me slightly anxious. I’m not ready to go back to kids being afraid of me and to feeling like an outsider everywhere I go. I realize that I have been given two generous breaks that most volunteers don’t get within my service but I am still feeling incredibly apprehensive.

At the same time though, as you may have realized by now, I only have 4 months left. Even if my work load is winding down, these four months are going to give me the time I need to come to terms with the future. I am going to be grateful that I have the time to job search and to better myself by reading, working out, and just living a simplified existence.

Until the next time,


xx