The landmark of my anniversary in Senegal finds me overwhelmed with feelings. It’s hard to know where to begin.
I went up to Thies to be one of the volunteers to meet and greet the brand new stage. Every six months there’s a new stage of volunteers that arrive, alternating sectors (1 health/CED stage, 1 agriculture stage). This is the first new group of new health/CED (CED stands for community economic development, and that’s my sector) volunteers since my stage. I watched them take their first steps off of the fancy Peace Corps buses into the Thies training center, and couldn’t help but notice their pale skin and shiny new things. Water bottles that didn’t have dust on them yet, new bags that haven’t been through the ringer of sept-place rides, vestiges of America like Naked smoothies and leftover Chipotle burritos.
Strange to believe that I was one of them, just one year ago. They were full of questions and excitement. And I soon realized they were scrutinizing me, too. “You’re so tan!” or, “How long did it take to get your hair braided like that?” were just a few of the many questions/exclamations I was bombarded with.
The extent of their questions made me realize for the first time how much I really do know about Senegal, and how much I take this knowledge for granted. I tried to be helpful in answering the onslaught of questions (there were about 6 volunteers there to help with training matched up against about 65 trainees) but at the same time I also tried to convey that things will become clear over time and that patience is something they will most certainly need to survive here.
When I first got here, I wasn’t too sure about Peace Corps. I knew that it wasn’t for everyone, and I wasn’t sure where I would fall. I knew that everything was so uncertain — I had heard that it all depended on your placement — that would determine your language, your region, your host-family, your projects, and what volunteers were close to you.
Now that I’ve been here a year, I realize that I’ve won the Peace Corps lottery. My site is a great fit for me and my host family has been wonderful. I’ve formed close ties with the other volunteers in my region that I think we will sustain after we all disperse (inshallah). I’m happy being in one of the most remote regions and the simple life that accompanies that.
There were a couple funny cultural “shock” things that happened with me and the trainees. When you first arrive at the Thies training center, you are on “lockdown” and aren’t allowed to leave the compound for a few days. Then, after a sufficient instillation of fear via some safety and security sessions with Peace Corps staff, there’s a guided “Thies tour” which pairs a small group of trainees with a current volunteer. After this tour, there are chaperoned trips to the bar for the first few nights as well as a scheduled chance to use us volunteers as personal shoppers (aka to do the bartering) in the market before the trainees head to their first stay with their training host family.
I was on duty for all of this, and when I took my group shopping there was one such cultural moment. I had bought some cafe touba (Senegalese coffee that you can buy in disposable cups on the street) and I was leaving the market with my group. A young Senegalese man who was standing with his friends in a very crowded area called out to me in Wolof. I don’t speak Wolof, but it’s the most prevalent language in Senegal and I’ve picked up enough of it to understand that he was asking me to offer him some of my cafe touba. In Senegalese culture, if you have something to eat or drink, you are supposed to offer it to everyone. If you’re eating lunch and someone walks in, you’re obligated to tell them to come eat. If you don’t they might call you out for it. I was being called out.
That being said, usually when you offer something that is obviously meant for just you, people decline. So, if I’m eating a breakfast sandwich and I offer it to the person sitting at the stand next to me, they will probably say no thank you. Applying this logic, I stopped walking and told the young guy to “come drink.” I didn’t think he actually would, but his friends were watching him and laughing and everyone around stopped to take in the scene. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drink something a toubab was offering him, and so he came over, took a few sips, wished me a peaceful rest of my day, and then we both continued on our way.
My trainees were a little freaked out. “Did you know that guy?” “Why did you give him your coffee?” Well… I explained the cultural aspect of the exchange. It is funny how something that is now so normal to me was so shocking to them.
It really speaks to my integration into Senegalese society. A year is a significant amount of time, and I really do feel comfortable here and well versed in the cultural faux pas and expectations. And I can only hope that my trainees will feel the same way in a year.
(pictured below as proof of my integration is my latest hairstyle known in Senegal as “the Rhianna”)