In November, I went on my second vacation during my service. Destination: South Africa. One of my best volunteer friends here, Nate, has a good friend currently doing the Peace Corps in South Africa. South Africa is a place that has interested me since I learned about apartheid in high school. Nate’s friend has been living there for almost two full years, and knowing how well PCVs tend to know their country of service, I jumped at the opportunity to see another country with a PCV as my personal tour guide.
As I had hoped, it was an authentic and informative way to visit SA. I had someone to answer my many cultural questions and — perhaps equally important — to point me to all the best restaurant and beer spots in the various places we visited.
First up on the itinerary was a hike along the Wild Coast. After a slight hiccup in our flight plan (read: flight delay/cancellation until a day later, beware of Kenya Airways) 2 planes and 3 flights later we landed in Johannesburg and caught an overnight bus that took us to the Eastern Cape. The next morning we started hiking, and if it weren’t for the invigorating breathtaking beauty of the lush and mountainous scenery along the Indian Ocean, I might have been overtaken by exhaustion. As it played out, I was so excited to be in a new place that I was able to persevere. The hike was stretched out over 4 and a half days and covered a little over 60 kilometers in that time. Basically, we hiked along the beach and mountains every morning/afternoon, and relaxed in local villages in the evenings/nights. Not a bad life. Our guide was a local man who spoke perfect English (not uncommon in South Africa — one of the most jarring aspects after living so long in a place without English). We did the hike with a group of South Africa PCVs, all of whom are close to completing their service. It was lots of fun to ask/answer questions and compare our Peace Corps services.
There were many things that made me grateful to be a volunteer in Senegal. South Africa was a fun place to visit, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do my service there. Here’s a short list of things I’m grateful for in PC Senegal.
- Local language. As I mentioned above, it seems like nearly everyone in South Africa speaks English. As a result, the volunteers we spent time with seemed to not use their local languages nearly as much as we do in Senegal. Instead, they fall back on English. While this would have seemed preferable earlier in my service, I’m happy I had to go through the difficult process of learning a new language.
- Alcoholism. Alcoholism is a big problem in South Africa, and in many other Christian-dominated countries in Africa. Senegal, with a 95% Muslim population, has a pretty strong taboo against drinking. It’s rare to meet Senegalese people that drink, and usually the ones that do (that aren’t Christian) are people that live on the fringes of society and are pretty universally avoided. In South Africa there was no avoiding the drunks, and it was clear that many host country nationals and PCVs alike have serious drinking problems.
- Presence of the First World. Senegal has a relatively small amount of tourism and first world amenities, and most of both of those things are concentrated in Dakar, the capital. In South Africa, the First World is constantly staring at you from across the room, highlighting the income inequality and economic disparities. While it was wonderful to be able to drink craft beer and eat high quality Mexican food on vacation, it would be difficult to balance these indulgences guilt-free as a PCV in SA.
- Racism/ethnic tension. Senegal is an extremely tolerant, peaceful, and accepting place. Ethnic tension here is eased by joking relationships between ethnicities, and there have been few ‘real’ problems historically. In SA, this is not the case. In the grand scheme of things, apartheid didn’t end that long ago (1994) and It is still a very segregated place, both in terms of skin color and ethnicity. Negotiating segregation and racism on that level on a daily basis would be difficult.
- Food. What might seem a small difference — eating meals with family (Senegal) versus cooking for yourself (SA) seems to make a huge cultural and level of integration difference. Having to schedule my days around meals and eating communally with my family has made me more a part of my family than I might have given credit to had I not seen the difference in SA.
- PC organization. I never would have thought of PC Senegal as being organized, per se, but compared to a newer PC program (PC SA started in the early 2000s, whereas PC Senegal has been around over 50 years) we have a lot of advantages. In terms of training, resources, program structure, etc. things have had more time to develop and grow in PC Senegal, and it shows.
That being said, back to the vacation from Peace Corps (I guess you can never, truly get away?). After the hike on the Wild Coast, we paid a visit to Krueger National Park. We saw lions, a leopard, elephants, and giraffes, but the touristy vibe left a bad taste in my mouth. I was happy to move on to visiting Nate’s friend’s ‘village,’ which would be considered a town or city by Senegalese standards. He seemed to have some great friends, dedicated work partners, and a sweet family. After a short stay, we went back to Johannesburg where we spent a day visiting the Apartheid museum and then caught a flight to Cape Town.
Cape Town was a fun, first-world-filled time. Nate and I drank lots of good wine and craft beer, ate lots of quality seafood, pizza, Ethiopian food, Mexican food, etc. One of the highlights was hiking on Table Mountain, which was a beautiful green space in the center of the city. We also spent time shopping for clothes in malls and other crazy things like that. It was fun, but it was also as usual great to get back home to Senegal. For all the reasons listed above and more, I’m grateful that PC sent me to Senegal.
And, once I got back I only had two weeks before my American family came to visit me in Senegal for their great vacation adventure! Stay tuned for another post on our whirlwind tour of Senegal, hopefully with the input of some guest bloggers.
Happy holidays from Senegal and thanks as always for reading!