I have a friend — or perhaps I should say, colleague — who dislikes using the term ‘friend’ for fellow PCVs. He’s warmed up to the idea over time, but for a while it was a running joke in the Kolda region. He would use words like acquaintance or comrade to avoid it. Finally he settled on ‘government-issued friends’ as an appropriate way to refer to us.
Truth be told, that is what my fellow PCVs are to me — government-issued friends. By some chance situation we applied to Peace Corps around the same time, were assigned to serve in Senegal for the same years, and were placed in the same region. And then, forced to be friends.
Well, I won’t say forced. It’s always an option to opt out of friendship. But that’s a lonely option when you live in a place where people that come from your home culture and speak your home language are few. We could be friends with each other, or we could not have American friends for two years.
When I first arrived at staging (the meeting of my group before we boarded a plane for Senegal) we had orientation and administrative activities. I was intimidated by this group of people I was to spend two years with, and I honestly didn’t think I had much in common with any of them. Many of them had lived abroad or spoke multiple languages. Many of them came from conservative or religious, even military backgrounds. Growing up in Oak Park near Chicago and going to school in Southern California I’ve been mostly surrounded by a liberal/progressive group of people my whole life. This new mix of backgrounds threw me off.
I can be shy, especially when meeting lots of people in large groups. I’ve never been good at the whole make friends quickly thing when I’ve been thrown into these situations. So, I withdrew myself. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I was worried that the promise of making life-long friends in Peace Corps might not apply to me.
I didn’t have to be. I feel incredibly grateful to be able to say that I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had in this place. Sure, they might be government-issued, they might be people I never would have gotten to know had I met them in the States. But here I was forced to get to know them, and I am thankful for that.
It’s made me realize, as cliche as it sounds, that we’re all the same. Being in Senegal has made me realize that, of course. Shriver’s famous quotation about the pursuit of peace says as much:
“Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.”
I’ve realized this on many levels here. Not only do I notice it with Senegalese people, but also with my fellow Americans I met here. We tend to put ourselves in boxes — conservative, liberal, religious, hipster, etc — but when you’re in a new culture and out of your element, these differences seem to melt away. We’re all just out here trying to make it one day at a time. Trying to help each other, to feel needed, to feel content in our lives.
I became friends with my fellow PCVs because I didn’t have a choice. And the longer we were in Senegal together, the more we had in common. We were living similar lives and having similar problems — hut roof is leaking, work is frustrating, host family asking for money, etc — to the point where it became easier to reach out to my friends here with my problems than my friends there. A friend from home would require a fifteen minute explanation for any of those issues, whereas my friends here would get it in the first sentence.
These are the people that I am looking forward to helping me through this life transition and beyond. We’ve been through so much together: from countless stomach sicknesses to hundreds of kilometers biked together to lots of shitty beers drank to many embarrassing language mistakes and many, many, days spent in sept-places. They say people grow closer in times of stress. I say they’re absolutely right.
I am lucky that being in Senegal taught me this lesson so early in life. I am lucky that I can carry my government-issued friends with me beyond this step. They will help me to remember Senegal, and the person I’ve become here. So thank you, U.S. government, for these friends that you issued me. I can safely say that at least in this matter, you got it right.