Leaders of the Future

Velingara High School

Velingara High School

WARNING: In this post, I will shamelessly ask for donations!

This summer, I’m working with 9 local organizations in my community to place 10 students, 5 girls and 5 boys, in internships during their summer vacation. These internships will be in the fields of business, hospitality, health, agriculture, communication, education, and development.

Through this 5-week program, students will gain knowledge in their desired field as well as a better understanding of the educational path they must follow to achieve the career they want.

Although most high school students receive an excellent education in Senegal, many lack knowledge about possible careers following graduation. Most students are aware of jobs as teachers and doctors, but don’t know about the plethora of opportunities available with governmental offices, small businesses, and nongovernmental organizations.

Through the ‘Leaders of the Future Internship Program,’ students will gain experience in relevant fields while networking with community leaders. As students either return to high school or continue in higher education, they will have a better understanding of the type of career they desire.

But why do you care about high school students in Vélingara, Senegal?

You probably don’t. You might care about me. You might even care about the general welfare of people in Africa. But, really, the only thing you have to gain from donating to this project is a good feeling.

But that’s not entirely true.

With a student population of about 2,000, over 25 of the top pupils at the high school applied for internships. After oral interviews, 10 were selected as interns.

And these interns have names: Ablaye, Anta, Lamine, Fatou, Mamadou, Dienabou, Oumar, Mariama, Simon, and Bintu.

After conducting interviews with all of these students, I truly believe these are the next leaders of Senegal. These will be the men and women with visions of vibrant local economies working alongside international development organizations to continue to better their country long after I’ve returned to America.

I’m not saying the next president is among them, though he or she might be, but these students are motivated, determined, and strong nevertheless.

You should care about them because they will make Senegal better. And, as Senegal becomes better, so will you. The world is connected through the global economy, no country is isolated from another, and people are forever bonded to each other.

With your help, we can make Senegal a stronger member of our world.

Already, the community has contributed over half of the total amount for this project. But now we need your help. Costs include meals for students and facilitators during trainings, a stipend for the interns after they complete the 5-week program, and printing expenses.

Now, can you help me raise the remaining $677.50?

Click here to donate!

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Shoes & Solutions

Tomorrow, April 21, 2015, students across the campus of Northwest Missouri State, my Alma mater, will forego shoes in an effort to raise global awareness for children’s health and education. Organized by Toms Shoes, men and women across the United States will take off their shoes to alert their peers about the impact of shoes on a child’s life.

Beyond the stinking feet and the “no shoes, no service” ban in the student cafeteria, “One Day Without Shoes” is causing many problems.

It’s not just “One Day Without Shoes,” but the entire Toms buy-one-get one model.

In 2006, Toms was created to solve a social problem: children without shoes. While visiting Argentina, Blake, the company’s founder, saw this issue and had a vision for a business model. For every shoe it sells, Toms gives one away to a barefoot child in a developing country.

This sounds like a wonderful, charitable organization. “What’s wrong with giving away shoes to needy children?” you may ask.

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In fact, in giving away shoes, Toms is actually undermining local economies by providing a short-term solution to a long-term problem. By undercutting local prices, Toms is hurting local manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of shoes.

As Time noted, “an increasing number of foreign aid practitioners and agencies are recognizing that charitable gifts from abroad can distort developing markets and undermine local businesses by creating an entirely unsustainable aid-based economy.”

Contrary to popular belief, Toms isn’t actually a company designed to build the economies of the developing world. As a for-profit company, it would be unable to sustain revenues under this business model. In reality, Toms’ model is built on making western consumers feel good.

Unfortunately, western consumers feel good at the expense of children in the developing world.

But what’s the solution to this issue? As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you may think I have all the answers to these development questions. However, in all actuality, I probably have more questions than you.

Let’s try to tackle this problem together.

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Firstly, let’s understand the issues. Toms points out that children without shoes are at risk of contracting hookworm and other foot diseases. But simply providing a pair of shoes will not eradicate hookworm. Only vibrant, local economies with knowledge about these problems will have the power to create real change.

Lack of shoes is not the problem.

Secondly, let’s consider different business models. Toms could build more manufacturing facilities in developing countries. Currently, Toms has six factories for the more than sixty countries it donates to around the world. That’s less than one factory for every ten countries.

More factories means more people are employed in local economies.

Over the course of the past couple decades, a new business had popped up all over Africa: the trade of second-hand clothes from more affluent Western countries. In Senegal, these small boutiques and market stands are called fukinjays.

Clothes arrive from the United States, Europe, and even some Asian countries in cargo containers. After arriving at the port, middle men purchase bales of clothes, break them down, and sell them to vendors around the region. After passing through many middle men, these hand-me-downs arrive in local markets.

Although it may appear as if this is just as damaging as Toms, this industry is actually boosting local economies.

Second-hand clothes sold in a market. Photograph: http://www.compassion.com/haiti/port-au-prince.htm

Second-hand clothes sold in a market. Photograph: http://www.compassion.com/haiti/port-au-prince.htm

In her book, The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy, Pietra Rivoli describes this as the only time in a T-shirt’s life that it encounters a truly free market.

A nice pair of khaki pants may be sold for $5, a local fortune, while the jersey of a losing sports team will fetch a lower price than that of a winning one.

Each unique item is sold at the equilibrium price – where both buyers and sellers are happy with the price and quantity – unlike when a T-shirt lives in the commodity markets of cotton and manufacturing. This industry is dominated by small entrepreneurs while large foreign firms face high barriers of entry.

Although this fukinjay system is controversial – a few African governments have banned it to protect local garment businesses – it creates many jobs, 24,000 in Senegal alone, while providing low-cost clothing and shoes for men and women and children across sub-Saharan Africa.

As you can see, dumping free shoes in developing countries won’t solve these problems. The fukinjay system may be a possible solution, while continued health education and job creation for entrepreneurs is surely in the best interest of developing countries as well as the entire global economy.

The impact of Toms in the developing world is only one of many ongoing debates within the international development community. Aid, whether in the form of roads, schools or maternal health is a constant subject of consideration at any world forum.

This blog post can’t even begin to touch on the many issues faced in local economies.

With all of my heart, I believe the wearers of Toms want to do good. This post isn’t meant to offend or do harm, but to invite you to join the international community in making our world a better place. At the end of this post, you can find further readings.

In light of this, tomorrow, keep your shoes on. Instead, let’s look for the solutions to improve the lives of children all over the world that businesses like Toms can provide in partnership with local economies.

And to look for solutions, you’re gonna need your shoes.

Further reading:

The Case of TOMS Shoes in El Salvador
The Impact of Second-Hand Clothing Trade on Developing Countries
The Economics of TOMS Shoes
Aid to the Rescue

Alone

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Having grown up with five brothers and sisters, I’ve lived most of my life surrounded by people. As a teenager I hated that I had to share a room with my sisters, but most nights turned into giant sleepovers with my best friends. I learned how to share the bathroom, get along with others, and keep my room clean.

Even after departing the nest to go to college, I always lived with several roommates. Surrounded by some of my closest friends, I was always happiest around other people. Alone time was hard to find, but I was used to that.

As an extravert, being around people fills me with energy. I love meeting new people and being an insider in every social circle. Simply walking into a room filled with people makes me excited.

My bike is a constant companion

My bike provides an opportunity to explore by myself

During the summer after my first senior year of college, I took an internship with an international logistics company in Kansas City. A friend’s parents generously let me live in their basement for the summer in a suburb with a short commute to my job.

For the first time in my life, I was living alone.

That summer was one of the most difficult times of my life. Although I had many friends in the Kansas City area, none of them lived near my suburban basement. After a long day at work, it was difficult to find the motivation to drive 30-45 minutes to hang out with friends in other parts of the city.

Fortunately, my friend’s parents were very welcoming, treating me like one of their own children. We spent evenings watching the news together and cooking family dinners. Over the course of the summer, after many good conversations, various house projects, and my car breaking down in the driveway, I gained an extra set of parents.

But it was the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life.

However, in that loneliness, I learned to be alone. I trained for a marathon, I read books, and I spent time just thinking. Those were things that I usually didn’t have time for in my regular, people-centered life.

And the loneliness slowly faded into a new kind of happiness. Happiness in being alone.

That summer in Kansas City was training for my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Although I spend most of my waking hours surrounded by people, I find that I require more alone time to find energy for myself. Time to spend reading, journaling, and napping.

Most mornings are spent running on these bush trails

Most mornings are spent running on these bush trails.

In Pular, wuldegol means to be lonely or to miss. If you’re missing someone, you’re lonely. If you’re alone, you’re lonely. And none of those things are bad. It’s not uncommon for someone to ask if you’re lonely if you’re sitting by yourself or hanging out alone in your room.

It’s normal to be lonely.

In American culture, there is a stigmatism attached with being lonely. If you’re lonely, there must be something wrong with you. Alone, you’re broken and you need someone to come alone and fix you. You must not have any friends, you work too much, or you are socially dysfunctional.

So people turn to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to take away the lonely feeling. To prove to themselves that other people are lonely, just like them. But, instead, they see individuals living supposedly awesome lives and, instead of feeling cheerful, they find themselves even more isolated.

Sometimes people associate loneliness with being alone, but that’s not true. The loneliest of times can occur when you find yourself fenced in by people, somehow cut off from the human connections we so desperately desire. But the happiest times can take place when you’re alone in a room with only your thoughts.

Afternoons are spent drinking tea and hanging out with my family

Afternoons are spent drinking tea and hanging out with my family

Learning to be alone hasn’t been easy, and I still find the most energy when encircled by people, but the journey has been rewarding. I’ve learned to find happiness in alone time, peace where social anxiety used to reign.

Just like happiness, loneliness is a decision we get to make every day. We can choose to let external circumstances govern our lives, or we can resolve to rise above them. Instead of allowing the noise of our busy world to fill our heads, we can find respite in silence.

Today, I hope you choose to be alone.

A Day in the Life

Doing laundry beneath the nago tree

Doing laundry beneath the nago tree

Often times, I find that many people don’t know much about the daily life of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). My mom thinks I’m saving the world. My friends think I live in a hut in the middle of the African bush. And the U.S. government thinks I’m putting off my student loans for two more years.

So what does a day in the life of a PCV actually look like?

Although I cannot speak for all PCVs in Senegal, much less in the rest of the world. This is what life looks like for this PCV:

In the morning, I wake up around 6 AM to go running before the sun gets too hot. After returning from the run (and stretching, of course), I do a few morning “chores:” sweeping the floor, cleaning my room, and pulling water for the day. When these chores are completed, I finally shower and get dressed for the day.

Breakfast is usually a bean and mayonnaise sandwich from a woman a few doors down from my compound. The sandwich is followed by American coffee and some reading of The Economist. By 9 or 10 AM, I’m ready to begin working.

Because I’m most productive in the morning, any work requiring a computer is done before my room becomes too unbearably hot. By noon, my room begins to resemble a sauna (without the massage, unfortunately). Around that time, I’ll head to the market. Although I eat lunch and dinner with my host family, I like to supplement my diet by including fruits, vegetables, and protein.

Making and drinking tea is a popular activity in the afternoon

Making and drinking tea is a popular activity in the afternoon

After visiting the market, I’ll stop by my counterpart’s office. Sometimes we work on projects together, sometimes I work at my own desk, and sometimes I just swing by to greet him. As the Vise President of the Red Cross in Velingara, he’s a very connected member of the community and a nice person to hang out and work with.

By 1 or 1:30 PM, it’s usually time to head back to my compound for lunch around 2 PM. If lunch isn’t ready, I hang out with my grandma in her room. Fanning ourselves, we lay on her bed and chat until it’s time to eat.

After lunch, everyone rests until 4 or 5 PM. During this time, I nap, read, or watch TV. When everyone begins to emerge from their rooms, I also come out. Any meetings, classes, or other activities usually begin around this time. I may meet with a work partner to discuss upcoming trainings, teach a class on entrepreneurship, or attend a function with my counterpart.

By 7:30 PM prayers, I’m back in my compound with my family. After prayers, we lay on mats, fanning ourselves, and hanging out until dinner. Dinner is usually around 8 or 8:30 PM. When I’ve eaten, I return to my room to shower and head to bed. Most nights I’m in bed by 9 PM, much to the amusement of my family who usually stays up until midnight or later.

Women learning how to make soap

Women learning how to make soap

Although it may not sound like my days are busy – and they are quite empty by American standards – I manage to find myself exhausted at the end of the day. Life, as well as work, happens much slower in Senegal. Projects take longer to implement and meetings can last all day. As such, busy days can yield small results, no small adjustment for an American used to productive work days.

Living life at a slower pace was one of the reasons I decided to dedicate two years of my life to serving in Senegal. Thanks to my less hectic schedule, I have time to think, read, write, and understand the people around me. It is often difficult to slow down in America, but I have learned to live an unhurried life.

I may not be saving the world or living in a hut (I am putting off my student loans), but I enjoy most days in Senegal. And, like in America, if I have a bad day… there’s always tomorrow!

Off The Road

a bush path in rainy season

a bush path in rainy season

Millennials love to travel. We dream of climbing mountains in Tibet, surfing in Fiji, and tasting wine in Italy. As the world has become flatter, we board airplanes, jump on trains, and hop into cars to see what it has to offer.

Our bookshelves are filled with books like ‘Wild’ and ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ that describe finding one’s self while travelling. The bodies of our generation are tattooed with images of compasses, maps, and anything having to do with “wanderlust.”

Traveling is supposed to be the solution. To learn about yourself, you must travel. To help other people, you must travel. To understand the world, you must travel. To be a better person, you must travel.

This is the message we hear over and over again. You will not be complete until you’ve seen the world.

From the time I studied abroad in Bulgaria in 2011, I’ve had an itch to travel more. Since then, I’ve lived in Yellowstone National Park, taken several road trips across the United States, and joined Peace Corps. Personally, I love to travel.

But travelling doesn’t make me whole.

Although I do want to learn more about myself, help other people, understand the world, and become a better person, travelling will not achieve that for me.

Travelling is not the solution to life, it is simply one of many means of reaching the end.

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Throughout my life, I’ve had many friends who don’t like to travel. For so long it baffled me. How can you be happy living and working in the same small town in which you were born? How can you be content without leaving your own backyard? How can you find joy without experiencing the world?

I didn’t know that everything you could want to obtain in life can be realized without running off to far corners of the globe.

Instead of turning their backs on their family and friends, many people decide to live beside them. Surrounded by those who love you, these people find happiness. Life is short, why not spend time with those you love?

Many times, I’ve travelled in hopes of finding myself. Usually, I’ve become more lost. Moments when I learn the most about myself are when I return home from a trip.

When I’m at home is when I’m the most helpful to people around me. Instead of needing to manage language and cultural barriers, I’m free to simply help those around me.

The world is best understood from the ground, but you don’t need to dash off to the far reaches of the globe to grasp the workings of our earth. The world is happening all around you. Your neighbors, coworkers, and running partners are just as much a part of this planet as a farmer in Senegal, a businessman Saudi Arabia, or teacher in South Korea.

If travelling is the only way to become a better person, why is the world filled with terrorists, rapists, and corrupt politicians? Now, more than ever, people are travelling both for business as well as pleasure. Maybe if these people just stayed in their own backyards, they’d be less of a problem for society.

As a millennial who loves to travel, I’m not condoning travelling. Seeing the world is a lot of fun and I probably won’t stop anytime soon. But it’s not the answer to all of life’s challenges.

You can learn about yourself, help others, understand the world, and become a better person without leaving your backyard.

Sometimes the best journeys happen off the road.