The Facebook of a White Girl in Africa

Classic white girl in Africa: hanging out with my supervisor's kids

Classic white girl in Africa: hanging out with my supervisor’s kids

When a white girl goes to Africa, she inevitably comes back with a sunburn, colorful fabric, and loads of souvenirs representing her time on the continent. But the most novel symbol of her trip is the new Facebook profile picture: said white girl surrounded by nameless African children.

It doesn’t even have to be in Africa. Wherever the white girl goes, from Argentina to India, the profile picture invariably changes.

What better way to represent a vacation, mission trip, or travel destination than to pose with a bunch of local children, flash a quick smile, and upload it to social media? This is the pinnacle of the white girl’s trip: she can return home knowing that all her friends have realized the significance of her cultural excursion.

A few months ago, I worked with a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to hold a soap making training for a women’s group in a small village. It’s a pretty simple training, only lasting a couple hours. During the training, the other PCV took a photo of me leading the training.

In the photo, I’m wearing a dress made of local fabric and holding a visual aid as I explain the process to make soap. There’s a hut in the background, a mango tree in the foreground, and the women appear to be listening attentively.

It’s a great picture.

Photo credit: Barb Mitchel

Photo credit: Barb Mitchel

After the training, when my friend showed me the photo, I laughed out loud. The picture is such an absurd representation of my service in Senegal. It belongs on a Peace Corps propaganda poster at a university campus in the United States.

But, to many of my friends and family back home, that photo is a prefect depiction of my life in Africa.

For many Americans, there is some sort of exotic pull towards Africa and other developing parts of the world. Helping others supposedly less fortunate than yourself is upheld as such a noble cause. After all, these people aren’t white so they must need our assistance.
Although this blog post isn’t about racism per say, I can’t write this without touching on the subject. Racism has permeated our culture so much that many people don’t even recognize it anymore.

And many people use this racism to their benefit.

Compassion International, a nonprofit company, connects children from developing countries with sponsors in the United States. Their website is filled with photos a cute, black children waiting for a loving donor. You can even peruse through the pictures looking for the perfect kid, heaven forbid you adopt an ugly baby.

National Geographic, while running a story on Ebola in West Africa, showed a photo depicting a supposedly poor village in Guinea. Besides the tall palm trees in the background, I could have easily mistaken the compounds in the village with my own family compound in Senegal. The men, women, and children in the picture could have been my grandma, brother, mother, or nephew.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but can it also tell a thousand lies?

Although I can’t say I know the people shown in these photos, I do know their lives aren’t as terrible as we’d like to think they are. We, white America, feel the need to fulfill our supremacy by reminding ourselves that Africans are inferior to us because they are poor. They need us, we certainly don’t need them.

Economically, many people on the continent of Africa are poor. But a lot of Americans are also living below the poverty line. Western governments love to brag about the amount of aid sent to Africa, but more money is sent to the continent through remittances of relatives living abroad than through development assistance (1).

It appears as if Africans are better at helping themselves than we are.

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The men and women in my community who are my friends and family are just that, friends and family. I’m not better than anyone in America because I happen to spend time with a lot of Senegalese people. My family is one of my biggest sources of happiness, not because I’m helping them but because they’re my family. Hanging out with my Senegalese friends is no different than chilling with my American friends, it doesn’t matter that one group may be economically wealthier off than the other.

Please don’t let these words stop you from travelling, especially to developing countries. White people do need to see, taste, touch, smell, and hear Africa. But Africa doesn’t need us, they were doing just fine before the white girl showed up. As you visit these places, remember that you are being welcomed into another culture. You are there to observe and maybe participate, but it’s not about you.

For once, let’s allow the world revolve around someone else.

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/jan/30/migrants-billions-overshadow-aid

Leading the Future

Interns, supervisors, and PCVs pose for a family photo

Interns, supervisors, and PCVs pose for a family photo

Although I’m only 24 years old, I have never had a job that I loved. There were jobs that I didn’t mind and jobs that I downright hated, but never a job that I actually liked. That is, until I became a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).

One of the best aspects of being a PCV is that you can choose the types of projects with which you will work. As a PCV in the Community Economic Development (CED) sector, I’m encouraged to work on projects that focus on economic activities, but I can also work on secondary projects in other sectors. Basically, if a project interests me, I can do it.

This past Saturday was the closing ceremony for the Leaders of the Future Internship Program. Nine students from the local high school completed the 5-week program with various organizations throughout Velingara. At the closing ceremony, the interns each gave a brief presentation on their experience, their supervisors said a few words of praise about each student, and we ate a big lunch.

Throughout the morning, many thanks were said. Interns thanked their supervisors. Supervisors thanked the PCVs. And PCVs thanked the interns.

But now I would like to take the opportunity to thank you, my friends and family at home.

A couple months ago, I reached out to readers of this blog for assistance in funding this project. The community contributed a portion of the capital, but we needed additional help to
cover all expenses. And you came through.

Thank you.

Thank you for helping nine motivated, intelligent, fun students gain experience in the working world. Thank you for allowing me to continue to do the job I love. Thank you for participating in grassroots development in Senegal.

Now, I’d like to introduce the interns I worked with throughout the program. It was a privilege to walk beside them as they learned about potential career paths. These men and women were already future leaders of their communities, but I was allowed to accompany them on their journey to success.

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Awa Kote worked with a hotel in hospitality. Customer service doesn’t hold a lot of value for people in Senegal, which can be frustrating for Americans. But with Awa working at the hotel, I was suddenly always met with excellent customer service.

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David Sambou worked with a campement in hospitality and agriculture. This was the first year of this project, so there were a few kinks to work out. When one organization dropped out at the last minute, David was very patient with me as I scrambled to find a new place for him.

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Oulimata Diallo N’diaye worked with a small American NGO focusing on Grandmothers as role models in communities. This girl always had something funny to say. Although she originally wanted to work in hospitality, her friendliness was an asset in the office.

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Mamadou Diallo and Abdoulaye Barry worked with a cotton manufacturer in the industrial and agricultural sectors, respectively. Both of these interns ended up with less than ideal jobs with the company, but they never complained. They both now know what type of job they don’t want, but still learned a lot from the experience.

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Moukouto Camara worked with a NGO focusing on adolescent and women’s health issues. She was able to gain a lot of field experience as well as in the office. Before the program, she thought she wanted to be a doctor, but, after working with this NGO, discovered that there are many opportunities in the health sector.

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Ze Djo worked with a pharmacy. He loved to practice his English with the PCVs, blowing our minds with his extensive vocabulary. No one could ever pronounce his name correctly, but he still gained experience in inventory management.

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Fanta Minth worked with an insurance company for teachers. She once told me that her father was her role model because he worked so hard. She wanted to follow in his footsteps and was one of the best interns.

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Terema Traore worked for a radio station. During her oral interview, she wouldn’t stop talking about how much she loved journalism. Whenever my family listened to radio, they always commented on her strong radio presence.

Over the course of the program, these men and women have become my friends. As they return to their villages for the remainder of the summer, I made them promise to stay in touch. Some will return for their final year of high school while the rest will be off to university. I feel like a proud mother.

I love my job.

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!

One Man’s Trash

Plastic collected by my counterpart, Amadou

Plastic collected by my counterpart, Amadou

While most children were dreaming of becoming firefighters or princesses, I was dreaming of a life as a garbage worker. To this day, I’m not even sure of the official job title. You know the person: riding along on the back of the garbage truck, jumping off to dump trash into the crushing arms of the compressor.

As a young girl, I wanted nothing more than to ride beside smelly rubbish wearing an orange vest.

When I accompanied my mom to the grocery store, I would hang onto the shopping cart, leaping off to throw groceries into the cart. Cereal and gallons of milk became trash cans and recycling bins. To become a garbage worker I would need to gain experience, and trips to the supermarket with Mom provided just that.

But then I grew up.

Instead of wanting to become a garbage worker, I imagined becoming a teacher or a nurse. Then, as reality set it, I decided to study accounting and international business. A practical undertaking with no career path leading towards the garbage truck.

Or so I thought. Little did I know my childhood dreams would soon come true.

A landfill outside Velingara

A landfill outside Velingara

Upon initial arrival into the Senegal, one of the first things to catch a newcomer’s eye is the trash. It’s everywhere. In the streets, in the rivers, and even in the air. Plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, cardboard, and even tires litter the country. And the only thing worse than a pile of dirty, smelly trash is a burning pile of dirty, smelly trash.

Senegal is being dragged into the new millennium without a system to take care of its waste.

Within the Community Economic Development program in Senegal, there are four niches within which Peace Corps Volunteers work: agribusiness, ecotourism, handicrafts, and waste management. You probably have guessed into which category my main work projects fall.

Waste management is a nice way to describe a garbage worker.

My counterpart, Amadou Balde, is the President of a local waste management business. His organization collects household trash from over one hundred houses throughout the community and dumps it in a landfill just outside of town. The business is now sustainable, so he and a few other work partners have decided to expand into plastic recycling.

Hard plastic often finds itself discarded in the streets when it breaks or is no longer useful. Broken buckets and damaged chairs land beside the rest of the trash already being sifted through by pigs, cows, and chickens. Instead of simply throwing away this plastic, Amadou has found a way to turn this trash into a treasure.

Now, community members will be able to sell their hard plastics to Amadou. After purchasing plastics, he and the other group members will wash, sort, and chop the plastic before selling it to ProPlast, a company in Dakar. This group has conducted a feasibility study to determine if the venture is a good idea or not and then, after deciding it is feasible, written a business plan.

Pooling their money together, the group will contribute the start-up capital to purchase and transport their first five tons of plastic. Going forward, we will receive training in sorting and chopping plastic from ProPlast so as to increase our profits. As the business grows, we hope to expand into neighboring villages and towns in need of a recycling program.

After many meeting, lots of questions, and some confusion, this project is becoming a reality. A group of motivated individuals saw an opportunity in the community to generate income, and they seized the chance. This project is far from complete, but, together, we are making Velingara a cleaner, healthier, and more pleasant place to live.

After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Log Among Crocodiles

the sun sets during rainy season

the sun sets during rainy season

The wise Pulaar say, “Leggal, ko waalii ka ndiyam woo, wontataa noora,” which, when literally translated, means “No matter how long it sits in the water, a log doesn’t turn into a crocodile.” Though I’m not sure if English has an equivalent saying, I hope this blog explains the meaning.

The theme of that past few months has been integration. Learning to speak Pulaar. Becoming familiar with Senegalese culture. And becoming a daughter, sister, aunt, and counterpart in my community.

Integration will continue throughout my service.

But, no matter how well I speak Pulaar or how tan I become, I will never be Senegalese. I will always be a log among crocodiles.

Many international development agencies working in Africa come into communities with huge budget and big plans. They build wells and roads. They vaccinate and hand out bed nets. They educate and train. They know what Africa needs, yet, Africa is still underdeveloped.

Logs among crocodiles.

Coming into my community three months ago, I had no ideas. No plans. As I prepare to begin my work in Velingara, I still have no plans.

This is not my country. After two years, I’m going to return to the United States, leaving Senegal behind. If Senegal is to be a better place after I leave, the projects I implement must be sustainable. To be sustainable, the community must own the projects, making them their own. My ideas cannot be forced upon Senegal.

Senegal will develop, but it will develop because it wants to, not because I force it to.

Integrating into my community does not just mean speaking the language and understanding the culture. It means spending time intentionally developing relationships. Spending hours drinking three rounds of tea. Dropping by a compound for lunch. And having evening conversations that last late into the night.

And, slowly, the ideas begin to flow. Not from me, but from the local people. And when ideas develop, I serve as a source of knowledge and connection to other resources.

Because I am a log among crocodiles.

And a log must learn to listen instead of talking. Though I will never become a crocodile, I hope that the projects I plan and implement throughout the next two years come from my community and not from me.

They know what they need, and a log can’t stand in the way of a crocodile.