I want this blog to be an honest representation of my Peace Corps service here in Senegal. And while everything I’ve written about have come from my real experiences here, I haven’t written about all my experiences. Almost everything I’ve posted thus far has been happy and relatively carefree. Of course I’m very glad that many of my moments here have been as such, but not all have been so positive. So I’d like to try and share some of them with you.
First of all I want to say that this blog post doesn’t mean that I’m unhappy here or that there is something seriously wrong. No, instead it is an attempt to show you that my life here is like any other in its ups and downs. New jobs and new living situations all have their advantages and disadvantages and I feel like it wouldn’t be fair to only write about the positive aspects.
Just the other night I was feeling frustrated at the lack of independence living in a host family affords me. Every night after I get my dinner I return to my room to eat and then read a book or watch some TV. This is my daily routine and usually around 9:30 or 10:00 I’ll close my front door and get ready for bed. But recently my host grandma has been either yelling my name and banging on my window shutters or coming up to my door to tell me to close it. In a way it’s funny – she is quite old and doesn’t really know Wolof so our conversations are usually short and somewhat confusing.
But for some reason one night it really bothered me. It wasn’t even 9:30 yet but there she was yelling “Fanta, Fanta, Fanta! Close your door!” And all I could think was “I know, I know – I close it every night. I’ll get to it!” It is in moments like these that I wish I didn’t have a host family fussing over me. It can be hard making the transition from living as an independent adult in the US to once again living in a family and needing to inform them of your movements at all times.
But then there are so many times when I am grateful to be living with my family. For example – I get to watch my younger cousin Issa toddle around, beam his little smile at me, and just be the cutest kid ever! They help me integrate into my community and are there to answer my questions about language and culture. And I’m sure that if I lived in an apartment by myself I wouldn’t have nearly as many connections in the city and my knowledge of Wolof would be less proficient.
Sometimes cultural differences are really hard to wrap my mind around. Corporal punishment is much more common and accepted here and I have had a difficult time seeing and hearing it in my community.
** I want to add a disclaimer here that these are my experiences and do not represent the country of Senegal or its people as a whole. They are also occasional occurrences within my family – please don’t think ill of my family! **
However the fact remains that I have seen and heard corporal punishment in my family. Sometimes it is a small spank to move a child along to having a bath, after being told multiple times. Or maybe a whack if a kid didn’t do his homework or got in a fight with his brother. But then there are the more scary times when someone actually gets hit, repeatedly. This has only happened twice, but both times have been terrible to listen to – I can’t even imagine being the one under punishment. What makes it worse for me is that I can’t understand a word since my family speaks their native language of Bambara most of the time so I don’t even know what the punishment is for. Thankfully both times my cousins, sister, and aunts have stepped in to stop the beating.
Each time I struggle with not really knowing what my place is in these situations. Since I can’t understand the language I don’t know what to say and I still feel enough like an outsider that intervening feels outside my role in the family. Yet it is so hard to sit by and hear a someone yelling in pain and see a young child look so scared of his older brother or mother. No one should have to be fearful of any family member, especially when that person provides your meals.
This has brought to light something else I am realizing I struggle with – contradictions in people. One day a mother is fuming mad at her son and swinging a belt and then the next laughing and greeting me with a big smile. It is complicated to reconcile these different sides of person even though I understand that no one is one-sided.
And then there’s language; always a struggle, some days more than others. At the beginning of our service we have 3 months training in the technical aspects of our jobs and in language. During this time we are practicing our speaking, listening and writing every day with trained teachers who also know English. For me this time was very beneficial and my language learning blossomed. We lived in host families and language classes every day so there was a nice balance of immersion and interactive teacher-student learning.
But then we get installed as real volunteers and our time of handheld learning is over. Into the real world! We still live with host families but our language learning is now self-directed. We no longer have dedicated teachers just down the road whose job it is to keep track of our progress and make sure we are able to communicate and do our work.
It’s frustrating when you can’t communicate what you want to say! Sometimes you literally don’t have the words necessary for what you’re feeling or the American concept just doesn’t translate culturally into life in Senegal. Or your host family expects your language to be at the same level as your ancienne (the volunteer who preceded you) despite the fact that they had 2 years of that language under their belt by the time they left. And sometimes people speak really fast and you just can’t catch what they’re saying but they correlate that moment of confusion with your entire knowledge of the language.
These are the moments when I want to retreat from the world and hide in my room. Sometimes I do that. But however annoying and difficult it is the fact remains that hiding away will not improve my language or anything really when it comes to community integration! Getting back out there and having more conversations, making more mistakes, and learning from them will be what makes my Wolof better.
While these moments of frustration are many, and seem all the more plentiful when I dwell on them, there are just as many times of positivity and excitement that help balance it out. Just today I was in a cab with some friends, coming back from a successful fabric shopping outing, when the driver complimented me on my Wolof. He was quite a friendly and engaging cab driver, most are resolute and quiet, and we were all chatting about the heat, our last names, and just how hot it was. In the midst of this he mentioned that he thought my Wolof was clear and nice to listen to. And wow was that nice to hear! (And something I rarely think to myself.)
Whether it is a good or bad moment, encouraging or otherwise, they are all fleeting. Feeling down on my ability to communicate usually passes in a few hours or a day. Feeling good about it might last a little longer but something new always comes along. And I think it is important to keep this in mind, especially when unhappy. But of course that is one of the hardest things to do! “It’s OK self, you’ll feel better in a bit. All bad things come to an end.” “But I just want to wallow a bit…” But the good moments do increase and the bad ones become farther and farther apart – that’s what we all hope for, right?
So I hope this post has given you a more accurate and honest look into my life here and how Peace Corps, like any new experience in life, is challenging in so many negative and positive ways. Sharing this has been a challenge in vulnerability for me!
I consider myself an optimist and thus try to look on the bright side and find something positive in every day. So I guess this blog is my attempt at optimism – finding and rejoicing in the positive aspects of my time here.
Thank you for reading,