Family

My sister-in-law, Mari, with her newborn son

My sister-in-law, Mari, with her newborn son

Two weeks ago, my host brother’s wife, Mari, gave birth to a baby boy. Like most births, it was a happy occasion. But, for me, this birth was an especially joyous event.

Whenever anyone asks why I love the life I live in Senegal, I always respond with one thing: my family.

A little over a year ago, when I arrived in Velingara with beginner Pular, three suitcases, and a sunburned face, my family welcomed me as one of their own. Instantly, I became a sister, daughter, aunt, and niece. Although I will always be the weird foreigner living in the corner room, I am the crazy white person that belongs to the family.

Most of the time, I take this role for granted. The children annoy me. My mother always asks where I’m going. And my grandma never stops teasing me. Like many things in life, it can be all too easy to overlook the good things we’ve been given.

After returning from a three-week vacation to Europe, I realized how much I missed my family in Senegal. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, but, as my little sisters ran out to greet me on the road, my spirits soared. As I walked into the house, I was coming home.

My brother, Abidina, with his baby son

My brother, Abidina, with his baby son

When my sister-in-law became pregnant, I didn’t give it much thought. In a society where a woman’s primary role is as a mother, women are often pregnant. Additionally, because many people are superstitious, it’s bad luck to talk much about a pregnancy.

Mari already had three kids, a fourth one didn’t seem like it would have a great impact on my life. The other children, Salimatou, Dienabou, and Ablaye, were just like little brothers and sisters to me. I hug them, scold them, tease them, and (occasionally) give them candy as if they were my American siblings.

Because Mari gave birth in the middle of the night, I didn’t find out until I woke up the next morning. As soon as I heard the news, I rushed over to the hospital. My mother, grandma, and a couple other women were already there.

When Mari presented the baby to me, my eyes instantly filled with tears. I hid my face from the other women in the room as I admired my new little nephew. I’ve seen many newborn babies during my time in Senegal, but this one belonged to me. He was the newest member of my family.

I was no longer the newcomer, but I was there to welcome him with open arms.

Mahamadou on his birthday

Mahamadou on his birthday

Sometimes I feel like an outsider in my family. First of all, I’m white. Secondly, the culture, language, and customs still seem foreign to me at times. Thirdly, the fact that my time here is temporary always hangs over our heads.

But babies seem to have a way of pulling a family together.

When Mari and the baby came home later that day, I was reminded that this family is my family. I belong to them and they belong to me. As I held the baby in my arms, and he inevitably peed on my lap, I was thankful for a family that had become just as much my family as the one I left behind in America.

We look like sisters, right?

We look like sisters, right?

Like all families, it’s not perfect. Living with a host family isn’t all fun and games (and babies). Often times I long for the independence that comes with living on your own. But I wouldn’t trade my family for the world.

After all, families are just like babies: although they may pee your pants, the happiness they bring makes up for all the extra laundry.

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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.