Posted by: The Glove | March 7, 2012

Two Years Later…

Today my replacement arrived in Senegal, 728 days after I made the same voyage.

I remember little about that first day. We arrived, 42 of us, at Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport, jet-lagged and confused, greeted by volunteers and immediately shuffled onto a bus. The journey out of Dakar was startling, probably because I had little idea what any African city would look like, let alone one of the most cosmopolitan in West Africa.

But soon we were out of Dakar, driving on roads lined with baobab trees. Because it was hot season, there wasn’t much vegetation. We arrived at the Peace Corps Training Center in the city of Thies, were greeted by Peace Corps staff, shown our rooms at the center, and encouraged to take naps. After waking up in a haze, of course Peace Corps’ next step was to quiz us on our knowledge of French. I could barely speak English at that point, but I muddled through it.  I’ve often wondered if a better test would have changed the selection of my site. I doubt it, since many factors go into site selection. However, it’s impossible to know.

After the language test, I was shuffled into a room with a third-year volunteer and two staff members. I was subjected to a barrage of questions about what I would want my next two years to be like. Almost all of us would later say that we tried to be as non-confrontational as possible. “I don’t care if I have electricity or running water. I don’t care if I’m in a big town or a small village, if I’m the first volunteer or the third. There are advantages to all types of communities.” That last part is only half-true.

As new Peace Corps trainees, no one wants to rock the boat. You’ve just agreed to give up two years of your life to work in a foreign land, where little seems familiar and every day is a new and eye-opening experience. After being told by virtually everyone in the months leading up to your departure that you’re being “selfless,” no one wants to be the needy volunteer.

After two years here, I’ve learned that final thought is wrong. Requesting to be near the road, to have electricity, to work with health posts instead of individuals, these aren’t indications of weakness. They are indicative of your personality. Just as we would never tell a high school students applying to college that narrowing your options is a bad thing, neither is it for Peace Corps. As the best arbiters of our own souls, we are best aware of our optimal working environment. If we give our peers imperfect information, we are responsible for that outcome. We are not looking to be selected for Peace Corps anymore, that decision has long since been made. But our desire to be accommodating should not obstruct our ability to do work.

Mercifully, somehow Peace Corps cut through the fog and delivered me to Dabo. Given what I know now, if I had to do my interview all over again, I would be more specific. I would tell them to place me in a town. I would tell them access to facilities (schools, health posts, etc.) was important to me. I would tell them I would want to live in a site where I never stopped meeting people, where I would never run out of new experiences, discoveries, where my relationships may not be as deep but they would be much more varied.

Perhaps this is only the type of retrospection that can occur after two years living in a foreign country, but I am hesitant. There are many aspects to life in Africa to which we cannot predict our reactions, but there are others that mirror our lives in America. Are you the type of person who prefers six close friends to forty friends you may not know at the same depth? Do you prefer to work collaboratively? Is access to “luxury,” or resources, something important to you? My belief is that all of you in America could answer those questions and more in a meaningful fashion.

I have roughly two months left in Senegal. My replacement will come to visit in just over a month, and soon after that I will pack up my life and began the journey home. The past two years have felt at times motionless, but at other moments frenetic. My experience here, while similar to that of other Peace Corps Senegal volunteers, is entirely unique. I hate that word, unique. It is overused to mean great, or even better than that, but not “existing as the only one or as the sole example.”

I can say with a fair degree of certitude, however, that my experience in Dabo has been a unique one. How many Americans spend two years living in a town of ~6000 people in Senegal? Moreover, Dabo, where I live, is abnormal even within Senegal. We have taekwondo classes, basketball courts, a school for the deaf, a once-a-week dance club, vocational classes that teach young girls to bake, a library and too many other strange happenings that to discuss my experience with other volunteers is often a puzzling one. That is, of course, until my replacement moves into Dabo in mid-May, and renders my experience no longer unique.

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Responses

  1. Well said!

  2. Great Stuff and great work! Come home the the latest Red Sox follies and know that we are proud of you!


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