A Year in Review

I am now writing to you by candlelight, battery charged, and finally ready to write about my feelings on having been a year in Senegal. Whoa, hold the phone! Did you forget I have been here a year? Because I almost did. It’s amazing to look at the calendar and realize that at this time last year I was zooming along the streets of Dakar towards the Thies training center, bleary eyed and unbelieving as I watched hundreds of goats being slaughtered along the road for Korite. I was packed among more than fifty strangers in that Peace Corps van, our heads bobbing with jet lag and groggy with change. Although I had an inkling, I didn’t realize how strong the bonds would become between us, my beloved aggie stage. Those strangers have become some of my very best friends here in Senegal and, I’m quite certain, for the rest of my life.

Although today is my first day back in village, and I had ample internet time this past week to write you promptly on the year mark, I couldn’t quite gather my thoughts into year mark-blog material, so I figured I would let it sink in for a few days, allow myself some quiet hut time and the journey back from Dakar to think about it, and then I would write. So here I am and would like to begin my musings with my bike ride returning to village earlier this morning.

If everyone can remember, one of my first blogs I wrote when I got to my village was about a nightmarish bike ride where I managed to get myself completely lost in the back bush of Africa with minimal Pulaar language ability right as the sun was going down and the predators of the night were out to get me. Obviously since I am here writing this to you today, everything ended okay, with only some broken flip flops, a busted toe, and some very wounded pride to show for it. Well, it wasn’t until today that I even attempted to try that bush path again. But today, a year in, no longer a rookie, and feelin’ good about my next year of service, I said to myself, “Why not?” My brother had showed me where it went off the main road one day on our way back from the looma in Manda. I made him stop so that I could stare at it and memorize the tree that marked the entrance to the Sinchurio path. A year later, I also had the common sense to realize that trying to navigate a bush path in the morning is a much smarter idea than trying to find it at sunset and if I did manage to get lost, I had the whole day to find my way back to my village. So with renewed confidence, I turned my bike off the main road which I had been biking for a year now between Kumba Diallo’s (Ruth) village and my village and wheeled off onto the narrow bush path.

“Off roadin’!” I sang to myself and pedaled through the thick grass which threatened to swallow the winding clay road in its shaggy green jaws. After a week up north in Dakar, it was refreshing to feel like I was home and to realize something I didn’t think was possible: The landscape was even greener than last time I left it. The corn is way above my head now and the land pulses with so much life it almost seems that the super-sized vegetation could pull up its roots, shake off the dirt, and take off into the horizon. Vines clutch at everything and anything like needy children, threading their tendrils through branches and slinking across pathways.  My heart was almost bursting with joy and pride as I realized that this beautiful place was somewhere I called home.

On my bike ride, I tried to summarize the things I had been thinking about in the last week as I reflected on my first completed year of Peace Corps service.  And so now, even if most of these thoughts are still in the processing and metamorphosis stage of development, I give you my Peace Corps Senegal, Agroforestry stage 2011, mind of Whitney Jenkins/Mariama Camara year in review.

The biggest lesson I have learned this year: This is hard because I feel like I learn a lesson every day. My biggest lesson has been not to take myself so seriously. Sure, I am here and I am now an integral part of this community. Sometimes though, I used to worry myself sick because I thought my village was always watching me, talking about me, and judging me. As much as I stick out, most of the time they could care less what I do. Now, I live my life in village how I want. I work, I hang out with my friends in village, but I also take time for myself and take breaks when I know it’s important. Along with the idea that I am not as important as I once thought I was, is this ephiphany: change is incremental. As much as I’d like to change the world in two years, it’s just not going to happen.  I’ve had to scale back plans, work at a slower pace to fit the time schedule of my village and realize that it’s okay.

The biggest surprise: I am actually capable of getting homesick! I didn’t think twice about the two year part of the Peace Corps commitment. Why should I? I’d been jetting off from home for as long as I could remember and never once feeling like I wanted to come back from the trip early. Well here’s the thing everybody… Senegal is a far cry from everything and everyone that I love in the U.S. and even in Europe. There is nothing like a good dose of third world realism to make me understand how lucky I am to be American and to have the family that I do.

My greatest contribution to my village: What I want to write here is something tangible like the 12 hectare live fence or the 1,000 mango trees that are ready to be grafted for next year, but I don’t think that’s right. I think my greatest contribution to my village has been giving them a greater understanding of a world outside their small village. Now that I have become close with many people, I tell them endlessly about the differences in our culture and ways of life. I get rid of American myths that all of the women are like girls on MTV and that money is flowing from each ear of every American. I show my brothers what a life can be life with an education. Perhaps that’s the most important contribution of all.

The biggest contribution my village has made to my life:  What to say here… my village has given me far more than I could ever hope to give them, even if they don’t know it. They have humbled me. The kids play with toys they’ve made out of strings and cut up bottles. I cringe thinking about the mountain of Barbie dolls I owned. They can make a party out of some fried up goat meat, rice, and a gourd bowl they turn over in water and use as a drum. When they tell me I can’t speak Pulaar or I can’t pound rice, I have to realize that this is ultimately a correct statement and just laugh it off and move on.

My greatest joy: If I think about the Peace Corps experience as a whole, I would have to say my greatest joy(s) are my Peace Corps friends. When I signed up for Peace Corps, I thought I was going to me and myself, alone in a village for 2 years. I didn’t think about the group of aggie volunteers I would train with or the group of Kolda volunteers that I would live and collaborate with. Now, they are my greatest source of comfort, my family, and my best friends. People often say you make your best friends for life in college. While I think this is certainly true for me, my friends from Peace Corps will be just as important and close to me. When you go through so much, there is no hiding your true colors and the American volunteers see all of you. While you can hide some of yourself in village because it’s necessary, it all comes down when you enter that regional house. We travel in uncomfortable situations together, we have disgusting and mortifying illnesses together, we cook, sleep, play, dance, talk in one house that holds around 35 people. If there’s anything I looked back on over this year, it is seeing the amazing number of really really good friends I have made here. For that, I am sincerely grateful.

My greatest sorrow: The saddest part of my service is realizing that I will leave a part of the world behind after only one year knowing that things will continue to be much as they were before. Children die, people live hand to mouth, and I am going back to my comfortable first world life of customer service and reliable health care. It is hard to attend the funerals. It is difficult to deal with the idea that I would be dead a couple of times over if I were a child living in a third world country. My heart has broken more than once watching the women wail over the still bodies of their babies and toddlers, just to watch them get pregnant again less than a year later. It is difficult to watch a way of life, which is the only way of life these people know, and believe that they could be living so much better. Whether or not that is an arrogant or misguided thought, it is the one that runs through my head almost daily.

The hardest thing to deal with:  There are 2 aspects of my life here in Senegal that are extremely difficult to come to terms with, no matter how hard I try. The first is something I was expecting because I was warned about it, but there was no way I could have understood the magnitude of the annoyance of this particular difficulty: The men. Some days, I think that if I hear one more man ask me where my husband is and if he can take me as his wife, I will literally have to be whack-evacked from this country. (This is a joke peace corps admin if you are reading this. J) I have to calm myself before my tongue (which has never been very under control, let’s be honest) releases all the fiery passion of verbal hell loose on its unsuspecting victim. I have to remind myself that this is a cultural aspect that I will never be okay with and will never understand. In Pulaar culture in particular, women are meant to be taken. They are not people in the same sense that men are. This notion drives me crazy. I often think to myself, “What skewed iota of an idea made you believe that an ugly, old, toothless, rude, uneducated man such as yourself would have an ice-cube’s chance in hell with me?” And furthermore, I am always surprised that they voice this proposition out loud usually with much beating of chest and testosterone-filled confidence, as if I might possibly say yes. The boundaries of my confusion and frustration are endless.

Secondly and more surprisingly, I have found that the lack of education and innovative thinking in village causes me so much frustration that I will admit, I wonder sometimes what I am even doing here. Not only is it frustrating to deal with the lack of depth in conversation that will obviously be found where the majority of people are illiterate, but I do not like the way my thoughts sometimes turn when I find people saying “stupid” things. I ask myself… why can my village not come to this seemingly obvious conclusion? But then I forget that I take my education for granted. I have been able to write my name since I was 3 or 4 I think, where most adults here couldn’t even dream of doing the same. I have been in school for most of my life and education makes up a majority of my personal identity. That means that my concept of the world and of people is seriously colored by education, creative thinking, and a general interest in expanding my scope on the world. This is not how it is here and it’s no one’s fault in particular. Running full tilt away from the creeping feeling of superiority is something that also plagues my days and I am in a constant struggle to process why I feel certain ways and why people are the way they are. That is the hardest thing of all.     

What I feel like I’ve figured out: On a personal note, I have figured out how to be okay on my own. Although I have always prided myself on my independence, the person I am now makes my previous self seem like a clinging toddler. I am quite confident that you could drop me in any part of the world in any culture, and I would either learn to live there or get myself out. Peace Corps has truly made me believe that I can do anything I want. The possibilities are endless.

 I guess there are a few things on a development scale I feel like I have “figured out”, although I use that phrase delicately. In my opinion, education and ownership are the most important aspects to development. If people do not go to school, do not learn to think creatively and innovatively, there will be no hope for the country. I do not mean just the kids in Dakar, or Tamba, or in the cities. I mean everyone in the country needs to have access to a functional educational system.

From my own experience, ownership is another piece of the battle. When people have to sacrifice time, money, and labor, it is much more likely that the project will endure. I cannot tell you how frustrated I have become with NGO agencies who come into communities, drop off a bunch of stuff and then leave. This kind of development bolsters two false ideas in the minds of people in villages like mine: 1. It is the obligation of first world entities to give what they have to us, the poor helpless Africans. This is why people think it’s okay to just walk up and demand that I give them my watch or my bike. If they see this kind of behavior from other Americans, than I must be like that as well. 2. We can just sit back and do nothing and wait for the rich people to drop off the supplies. I am so proud of my village because they are one of the few who are internally motivated and work hard to sustain themselves as a community. There are some Peace Corps volunteers who work in villages that rely solely on food aid to sustain their villages and even though they have the land capacity, they sit around and do nothing the entire rainy season. And even in my village, there are still signs of NGO aid in my village which have been left to the wayside because the village couldn’t or wouldn’t sustain it. The 48 water taps and motor pump is just one example of thousands of wasted NGO dollars.

What I’ve become less sure about: I have always been an optimist. If someone would have asked me last year if I thought the world had the capability of becoming primarily a first world world, with a thriving African economy, I would have said, “Of course!” Now after a year in the poorest part of Senegal, I am not so sure. I would like to have hope. I would like to believe that pulling themselves from poverty and illiteracy is reality not so far away. And for all of you optimists out there, keep dreaming the dream, I believe I can still say I am one of you. But I’m just not so sure…

What I’m worried about in this coming year: Coming straight off of my last question, I am worried that I will become a jaded Peace Corps volunteer. Many of us come here with big dreams and big plans for ourselves and for our community. As I move up the totem pole and witness my older friends complete their service and leave this country, I have seen what a Peace Corps experience can do to a once hopeful and change-minded individual. It makes them bitter. I believe that each of us has control over our own attitudes and thoughts, and so I tell myself that it won’t be me. I don’t think I’ll turn bitter, but I’m being extremely honest in this blog, and I have to admit that sometimes I worry.

What I’m looking forward to in this coming year: The great news about my completion of my first year, is that I am ready and rearin’ to run full force into this next year of service. I am so relieved I feel comfortable in my village and in my language. I know people and people know me. I can navigate the garage and the streets of Senegal with relative comfort and I believe that this foundation will allow me to be even more effective in my second year of service. People are often scared away from Peace Corps service because of the length of the commitment. There have been bad days where I cursed the day I made the promise to fulfill a two year commitment in this place. But on the good days (which are the majority) I can’t believe my luck at having the opportunity to live like this for 2 full years! I truly believe I will never have more freedom to think and to do than I have here. On a development level, two years makes the most sense and is on the short end of getting anything done. It really does take most of first year to even figure out what the hell is going on. While I miss my beautiful American country and amazing family more than I ever have before (sometimes so much it hurts), I know this year will fly by and I will enjoy almost every second of it.

So there’s your year in review. If anyone has any more questions for me, I would be happy to answer them if you leave them in the comments section of the blog. I was also lucky enough to celebrate my one year here by having my cousin Kimberly come and visit me on her way to study in Spain. We had a blast and got to see some parts of Senegal I have never been to before. She was a champ—trying many of the more sketchy garage and hole-in-the-wall foods and hanging out like a natural with all my rowdy Peace Corps friends. It was so refreshing and comforting to have a familiar family face around for a week, not to mention the pride I felt getting to show her this a tiny piece of this amazing country. Hopefully she doesn’t think her cousin is too off her rocker after living a year in the African bush.

I also had kind of a fun year mark conversation with my friend Hussein who I met just before leaving for Senegal. We have essentially switched nationalities, with him being a Senegalese studying for his masters in Nebraska and me being an American living in Senegal (although we come from very different Senegal’s. He’s a city boy from Dakar, and I continue to be a country girl no matter if I’m in Nebraska or Senegal.) It was fun to talk about cultural aspects and things we miss about our own countries. It was also interesting to hear his perspective on some of my thoughts after living a year in Senegal. Shout out to Hussein, who spent at hour talking to me on Skype from my beautiful Nebraskan home state.

So I guess that’s the summarization of my thoughts during my bike ride back to village. But I didn’t finish the bike ride story of today. What I would love to tell you, what would really finish this blog with a flourish and an “everything is as it ought to be in the world” sigh, would be if I was able to tell you after a year of living here, I have figured out how to find my way back home on a random African bush path. It would really drive home the point that I have matured and learned to live like a pro in my new home. Unfortunately, this is the rest of the story as it actually happened: After spending far more time than I knew I should have, with nary a sign of civilization, I ran into an old cattleman who had taken his cows out into bush to graze.

“Excuse me, is this the road to Sinchurio?”

He laughed at me and pointed to a place where there was no road at all. “It’s back that way. You must have turned down the wrong path. If you go back, you should be able to find it.”

“Thanks,” I said, half-heartedly.

So I turned back and tried the path that I thought he had meant for me to take. Turns out that wasn’t the right path either. After several wrong turns, many curses about my heredity (sorry Mom), and a couple of scared out of their minds Pulaar boys who had to deal with an angry, sweating, crazy white woman blasting by them on a bike, I finally made it back to the road I had been taking for most of the year.

 After finding the road I started to laugh and shake my head. At least it wasn’t night, my shoes weren’t broken, and my toe wasn’t gushing blood. At least I had made a new acquaintance with a sweet Pulaar cattleman. At least I had tried something new. Because trying, especially if you are doing it with some common sense and some Pulaar language skills is much better than never trying at all. Even if it does get you lost in the African bush.



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2 thoughts on “A Year in Review

  1. Roxi Meyer

    Wow, you are some young lady. I am in total awe of you! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with all of us that are to affraid to spread our wings and fly like you. FLY BABY FLY!!!

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