This EPIC Journey

the road in front of my compound after a storm

the road in front of my compound after a storm


My journey as a volunteer will be mixed with frustrations because of language barriers, confusion about cultural norms, and difficult personalities. Managing the emotional, cross-cultural challenges and stressors of service will allow me to become a resilient volunteer.

Like a rubber band stretching without breaking.

Though American culture and Senegalese culture, language, and social norms may seem vastly different, there are four basic goals of human behavior that remain the same across all cultures. Some days these simple goals may seem difficult or downright impossible to obtain, but through personal resiliency and perseverance they will lead to a successful service.

Empowerment. All human beings need to feel some sense of control, predictability, or power over the challenges of daily living. Like learning to play the piano, if we are encouraged by those around us we will continue to practice even when our fingers don’t seem to cooperate. Likewise, without encouragement, we may simply bang on the keys without producing a single melody. Learning to re-master basic skills, such as showering and talking, may lead to frustrations, but by empowering myself through a daily routine offsets the other situations over which I have no control.

Protection. Everyone needs to have a sense of both physical and emotional protection. As a woman in a Muslim country, I tend to be objectified or insulted and may want to lash out at the offender. Instead of instantly adopting the Senegalese culture, I find myself experiencing feelings of prejudice and cultural insensitivity – feelings that are totally unexpected given my aspirations for joining the Peace Corps. Slowly, as I integrate into the culture, I will feel a greater sense of protection in my new environment.

Integration. Human beings were created for relationships. From the earliest stages of human development, one of the worst punishments a member of society could receive was banishment. Our very survival has depended on belonging to a community. However, for an outsider, integration takes time, patients, and lots of introductions. Although I am surrounded by a supporting American community, by living and working with Senegalese men, women, and children, I have no choice by to integrate and connect with this new culture.

Connection. It is said that without human touch or contact, a newborn cannot thrive. Basic connection to another human being is critical to our emotional and physical wellbeing. If frustrated in our efforts to find solidarity, companionship, and love, we risk “aloneness.” As an extravert, this need for connection is even more prevalent in my journey as I build relationships with those around me.

All four of these goals are obtained separately, but work together to create resiliency. As a ride the rollercoaster of my service over the next two years, there will be many challenges but also great successes. Cycling through feelings of vulnerability and adjustment this journey will be difficult but no less epic.

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12 Skills I’ve Learned in Senegal

cows grazing outside a rural village in Kolda

cows grazing outside a rural village in Kolda


I’ve been in Senegal for four months, and I’ve learned many things along the way. In addition to learning a new language, Pulaar, I’ve also gained a few other skills…

1. How to poop in a hole
2. How to wipe my butt with my left hand
3. How to greet people with my right hand
4. How to take a bucket bath
5. How to sleep through any noise (call to prayer at 5 AM, chickens squawking, donkeys baying, etc.)
6. How to mime
7. How to laugh at myself
8. How to live out of a backpack
9. How to gut and debone fish
10. How to eat with my hand at the community bowl
11. How to do laundry by hand
12. How to pull water from a well

Most of these skills will never find there way onto my resume, but they are quite useful nevertheless.

Family

attending a Senegalese wedding

attending a Senegalese wedding


Maybe the best and worst thing about family is that you don’t get to choose yours. You choose friends, jobs, hobbies, and even significant others, but you have no choice in your family. You’re born to a father and mother and maybe you have a sibling or two (or five) thrown into the mix. Although you can choose the type of relationship you will have with each member of the family, you will, no doubt, have to have a relationship with your family.

When I was dropped into Peace Corps Senegal, I had almost no choice in where I would fulfill my two year commitment . During the interview process I told my recruiter I would enjoy a placement in Eastern Europe, but I ended up in Western Africa. Before I joined Peace Corps, no one told me that I would be gaining a new family. Not just a host family, but a Peace Corps family.

With around 250 PCVs in country, Senegal has one of the largest Peace Corps programs in the world. About 35 of those PCVs are in Kolda, the largest region in Senegal. As I was welcomed into this strange, crazy, amazing group of people, I realized that I was gaining more than a new group of friends.

Every family has a weird Uncle Chuck, a crazy Aunt Merle, and a brother with a bad reputation. Some people always seem to know how to get on your nerves. Some people end up becoming your lifelong best friends. And some people you never would have met if they hadn’t been birthed from the same womb as you.

But you learn to love everyone for their differences.

You have fights, you laugh, you don’t always get along, and you forgive quickly. But family is always there. From birth to death, family is constant through the ebb and flow of life. Seasons come and go with changes in friends, jobs, and other relationships, but family is the steady rock when everything else seems out of control.

My new Peace Corps family includes weird uncles, crazy, cat-loving aunts, and lots of dysfunctional people, but we’re family. We stick together, we’re there for the good times and the bad, and we’re not afraid to show tough love. We all speak English (a great reason to be friends with someone in a foreign country) and we can support each other in ways that family and friends back home cannot. Many of these people I may not have been friends with in America, but, here in Senegal, we’re family.

Though I will gain many things from this experience, my new family may be one of the greatest gifts I receive.

What the Heck am I Doing in Senegal?

greeting some women in a nearby village

greeting some women in a nearby village


As I settle into a routine in my new home, go to the market, meet with work partners, and greet lots and lots of people, many people always ask what a toubob (white person) is doing in Velingara, Senegal. Although my Pulaar vocabulary is quite limited, I launch into a short explanation of what I’m doing in Senegal, what Peace Corps is, and how it effects the people of my community. Some people get it, some people don’t, but everyone wants a piece of the toubob pie.

Then I realized that, like my new family, neighbors, and friends in Senegal, many people back in the United States have no idea what I’m doing here. And so, because my English vocabulary is slightly more advanced than my Pulaar, I will briefly explain “What the heck I’m doing in Senegal.”

About year ago, as I was contemplating what to do when I graduated college, I googled “awesome jobs that involve travel and no cubicles.” Among the results were astronaut, tour guide, and Peace Corps Volunteer. Because heights are my biggest fear second only to snakes I ruled out astronaut. I’ve always hated listening to someone talk about cool places when I could be out exploring them, so I crossed off tour guide. Only Peace Corps was left.

Fast forward a year, and here I am, typing this blog in my hut (it’s actually a sweltering hot, cement room with a tin roof, but hut sounds more exotic) in Senegal. Peace Corps is a U.S. government development program that sends Americans into developing countries around the world for 27 months of service. The three goals of Peace Corps are…

1. To help the people of interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women
2. To promote better understanding of the American people on the part of the people served
3. To help promote better understanding of other people on the part of the American people

In Peace Corps Senegal, there are three large sectors: Health, Agriculture, and Community Economic Development (CED). As a CED volunteer, I will work with individuals, groups, and business to build and improve basic business skills and financial literacy. On a daily basis, this will involve working with entrepreneurs on projects in waste management, handicrafts, agribusiness, and ecotourism. For example, one project I will be working on is a trash collection service in my neighborhood.

Unlike many NGOs, Peace Corps works on a small level. We do not hand out large amounts of money, we are change agents working to alter behavior. Two years is not enough time to see the full impact of the work I will be doing here. Although I’m sure the people who live, work, and play with me will gain something, but I know I will learn a lot from this experience.

I’m not here to change the world, but I’m here to do my part.