Thursday, March 28, 2013

Surviving my LAST MONTH in Senegal

Ladies and gentlemen, my time in Senegal is finally coming to an end. On April 30, I'll be hopping on a plane and saying goodbye to the country that's been my home for the past two years. Here's what's been going on lately...

In my village, Mbeuleukhe...

I've had some stuff going on in-village, and I'll fill you all in. I had my last site-visit from a Peace Corps employee, Daouda, in January. At that point in time, I asked Daouda if he could talk to my host father about hosting a subsequent volunteer, because he kept avoiding the subject when I would bring it up.

*Tangent-In Senegal, villages typically host 3 volunteers, then the village closes out. Villages feel very honored by having PCVs and generally go all out, showering volunteers with hospitality. As I was the first-ever volunteer in my village, it was assumed that there would be 2 more after me*

So Daouda talked to my dad and he later told me that my family still wanted to host my replacement, but they would live in another room than the one I'd lived in. No problem. All's good. Fast forward to mid-February at a Peace Corps conference in Thies- at one point, Daouda pulls me aside and tells me that my host dad had called him and told him that actually they can't host another volunteer. Sorry. So, Daouda had been in contact with other men from my village to try to locate another possible host family, but no one in my village was expressing any interest.

Imagine my surprise when I hear this news- a month and a half after the first conversation with my dad. Also imagine my surprise that all of this was going down 100% without my knowledge. I then scheduled a meeting with my Associate Peace Corps Director (who is Daouda's boss) and talked over the situation with him. He was under the impression that I knew about the situation and was actually trying to find a new host family for my replacement. Because Peace Corps employees live in Dakar or Thies, it usually falls to PCVs to do the village-based stuff like locating host families before a PC employee approves them.

The entire situation was a fiasco. The next batch of volunteers arrived in early March, so there was little to no time to find a new family. I was and still am extremely hurt that I wasn't informed about any part of this situation until too late. As a female volunteer, it's hard to be taken seriously a lot of times, but I thought that at least my host father respected me enough to talk to me about this. And the fact that the Peace Corps employee didn't even contact me to tell you about the change of plans so that I could look for another family was equally insulting.

So, consequently, my village will not be hosting a second volunteer. Truthfully, my village is very unlike most other Senegalese villages, which bend over backward to have a PCV; but, regardless, it's still disappointing. It's mainly sad for me because the hardest part of being a "first" volunteer in a site is sensitizing the village to the role of Peace Corps: why we're there, that we're not there to give them money, etc. First volunteers spend their 2 years getting the village used to Westerners and getting them ready for work projects. Every time I struggled at-site, I would remind myself that I was still making a difference because I was paving the road for the 2 volunteers that would come after me. So, obviously, I'm extremely sad my village won't be getting another volunteer.

On a somewhat happier note, I've been working hard these past few weeks to try to get my replacement put in a neighboring village 4k away. Even though it's not my village, they'll still be working nearby and may be able to keep doing the scholarship program that I've done both years. It's not what I wanted, but these things can be unpredictable.

I'm going to host that new volunteer on their "volunteer visit" in early-April. I'm excited to meet them and play the role of the seasoned, wise older volunteer and show this newbie the ropes. After that I'm out! So that's what's up in village... now let's learn about my Close of Service conference...

COS Conference-

Back in February, I went back to the PC Training Center in Thies (where I lived my first 2 months here) to attend a Close of Service (COS) conference with my group that came to Senegal together. When we arrived in-country there were 48 of us. About 35 of us made it through to the end.

The conference that we went to was really informative and helpful. They went over the obvious stuff, like what paperwork we have to fill out to end our service, travel plans, etc. But they also touched on things that I hadn't thought about before, like "how to tell your story".

Apparently one of the biggest problems that Returned PCVs (RPCVs) face is explaining their story to people back home. People will ask "how was Peace Corps?" and people either respond "good," or they launch into a 3 hour story and the person who asked regrets asking in the first place. We discussed how hard it is to try to put the past 2 years into words.

So, I apologize in advance if I either talk way too much about Senegal/Peace Corps/my host family/weird topics like bowel movements, or if I do the opposite and don't say anything. Feel free to tell me to either shut up or give a real answer. Here's an article about this topic:

They also gave us exercises to help us figure out what skills we've gained throughout our service, which included things like writing what our biggest challenges and accomplishments were. I thought you guys might find them interesting, so here's what I came up with:

·         Being so visible. No anonymity. Everyone can always see what you're doing. No privacy.
·         Isolation/loneliness- even though you're with your host family, you're still different. It can be very lonely.
·         Lack of control- you have very little to no control over what's going on in your life. You can't just hop in a car when you want to and go somewhere.
·         Having little free will- "having" to do things that are expected of you day in and day out regardless of what you want to do (like drinking tea after lunch every day)
·         Things getting lost in translation- it's hard to explain all of this to people back home

·         The knowledge that I made it. I lived over here for 2 years. I didn't leave early.
·         Integrating with my family and village. Basically being a family member with them.
·         Made life-long friends here, both American and Senegalese
·         Gaining confidence that I can handle pretty much anything now. Not much will be as difficult as there 2 years have been.
·         Grasping the language enough to have a personality here

Most Frustrating about Work Projects Here:
·         Being viewed as a young female who needs a husband, rather than an individual who is capable of doing real work
·         Having to completely adjust everything that I've learned in the US to fit this culture, i.e. things will start late, people will not show up to stuff, people will need to be reminded so many times about meetings
·         The slow pace of things that there's nothing you can do to speed things up
·         Having to come up with ideas all on my own. No one ever giving me one of their ideas to work from

Most Rewarding about Work Projects Here:
·         How the smallest accomplishment can make a huge difference to you. Every tiny victory is massively impactful.
·         When people follow through with work things, like watering trees
·         How thankful people can be when something works out

COS conference was really useful. And it was great to spend time with the people I came here with. I'm excited because now I have a close group of friends from all over the US and (the best part) is that we're all at the same point in life. Most of my friends back home have been working for years now or are engaged or married; but all of my PCV friends are the same place I am- going back to the US without a job, having been out of it for 2 years, etc. All of us are able to "get started" at the same time together.

That's all for now...

So that's all for now. Sorry if that was a lot of intense info. Now I'm in-village until April 18, when I say goodbye to my family and village of two years. Then I spend a few days in Linguere getting my stuff together, and head to Dakar on April 21. I spend a week getting med tests done and filling out a huge packet of paperwork, and then I'm good to go! On April 30, I'll be heading to Brussels, then Chicago, and then finally arrive in Philly on May 1st (if you're wondering why on Earth my travel schedule is like that, it's because I let Peace Corps book my trip back... had I known that's what my flights would have been like, I probably would've taken the cash-in-lieu and booked my own flight).

Thanks to those of you who have sent letters/packages/postcards: Anne Marie, Maureen and the whole Nixon fam, Kyle & Mer, etc. All of the things that you've sent have meant a lot to me. FYI- it's now too late for any more mail for me. If anything does get here after I leave, the other PCVS in my region can get my packages, so at least they won't go to waste.

Almost done! It's all happening!!