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Navigating Identities in Senegal

Peace Corps’ Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ICDEIA) approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

Peace Corps staff will work with differently abled Volunteers to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to support them to serve safely and effectively. Differently abled Volunteers need to consider that no city in Senegal and few buildings and transport facilities have accommodations available to address the needs of individuals with physical disabilities or requiring wheelchair access. While Senegalese are very accepting of people with disabilities, many of the accommodations considered essential in the United States are absent in Senegal, therefore everyday life is highly challenging for people with certain physical disabilities.

Gender role considerations

  • Gender roles in Senegal are clearly defined using a patriarchal lens and prioritize men as the head of the household and women as mothers and caregivers. These definitions are part of the societal norms in Senegal.
  • Volunteers may struggle with being made fun of for engaging in activities that do not align with societal expectations of their gender (ex. men doing laundry or women building a fence).
  • Volunteers may also be confronted with the societal acceptance of gender-based violence in families/communities.
  • The behavior of female Volunteers is more often scrutinized or criticized by host communities than that of their male peers. Linked to this, female Volunteers may face challenges with higher expectations of helping with household chores than male Volunteers.
  • Female Volunteers may find that they are constantly asked about their marital status and whether they have children because women of a certain age are expected to be married.

LGBTQI+ considerations

LGBTQI+ Volunteers are welcomed within the Peace Corps Volunteer and staff community in Senegal, and many LGBTQI+ Volunteers have served successfully in Senegal. It is important, however, that applicants recognize that homosexual acts are criminalized in Senegal. We encourage all potential Volunteers to review theState Department cautionsfor LGBTQI+ travelers and be aware that culturally, LGBTQI+ individuals are not accepted in Senegal and discriminated against by Senegalese communities. Due to safety and security concerns, LGBTQI+ Volunteers are advised not to serve openly in Senegal. We recognize the challenges with having to “hide” this part of a Volunteer’s identify and staff will offer support to LGBTQI+ Volunteers to navigate these challenges and post currently hosts a LGBTQI+ affinity group for peer support.

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

Due to limited exposure to diverse representation of Americans in the media, some community members will expect all U.S. citizens to be White, and may be unaware of diversity in the U.S.

For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a host country national to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. Specific experiences for Volunteers of in Senegal may include:

  • Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers: Volunteers of Asian descent may not initially be viewed as American in Senegal. It is common for all people of East Asian descent to be referred to as “Chinese” and may be called “China/Chino.” Micro-aggressions around martial arts abilities or language/accent may be common.
  • Arab/Hispanic Volunteers: Some Volunteers or Hispanic or Arab descent, who do not identify as ‘White,’ may be seen by local communities in Senegal as being White and may face similar challenges as White Volunteers. If not viewed as “White”, Volunteers of Arab or Hispanic descent may face microaggressions based on common stereotypes shown in the media and may be viewed as not ‘fully’ American.
  • Black Volunteers: Black Volunteers are often mistaken as Senegalese or as being from other parts of Africa and may not initially be viewed as American in Senegal. Local communities often expect Black Volunteers to master languages and adapt culturally more quickly than other Volunteers. Black Volunteers may also be held to a higher standard of adhering to cultural norms due to their appearance.
  • White Volunteers: Due to the assumptions that White Volunteers have some level of privilege, Volunteers should be mindful that more qualified voices are not overlooked/ignored when they are present. Additionally, some White Volunteers may face assumptions that they are French and may face anti-French sentiments or statements.

These challenges can be managed if one views these responses not as an offense, but as a lack of understanding. Volunteers generally embrace the challenge to teach Senegalese more about the diversity of the American population and the wonderful contributions that accrue from the differences in its composition. Volunteers of color sometimes may feel a sense of isolation within the Volunteer community, because some Americans may not have been educated about diversity or experienced diversity in their home communities. All Volunteers, including White Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to your fellow Volunteers.

Age considerations

“Kersa” is one of the most important values in Senegalese culture, Kersa is about respect, particularly for someone older than you. The hierarchical nature of Senegalese society and reverence for elders will impact all Volunteers differently.

Due to the cultural priority placed on Kersa older volunteers will often find they are deferred to or shown outward expressions of respect (ex. people insisting they take the chair). Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers (ex. Village elders). But older Volunteers may struggle with the constant questioning by younger Senegalese about if they need help or doing things for them. While intended to show Kersa, many American Volunteers struggle with it making them feel incapable despite their vast experience.

Older Volunteers may also struggle with pre-service training which can be particularly stressful for Trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. Additionally, older Volunteers may initially struggle with isolation in a group of younger Volunteers.

Younger Volunteers (or those who look particularly young), even those with vast experience, may struggle to gain respect initially as they are seen as less experienced or less wise. Younger Volunteers may also struggle to express Kersa sufficiently for Senegalese who may be used to automatic deference for age.

Religious considerations

  • Senegal is more than 90 percent Muslim; the rest of the population is Christian (predominantly Catholic) or Animist.
  • There is considerable religious tolerance in Senegal with community members sharing in each other’s holidays.
  • Occasionally you may find a friend who encourages you to explore/convert to Islam, but this is usually not a high-pressure situation.
  • Muslim Volunteers may find they are held to a higher standard of cultural/religious observation than non-Muslim Volunteers.
  • There is very little knowledge of religions other than Islam and Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism by most Senegalese.

Considerations for Volunteer couples

  • Couples in Senegal live together as “married” even if they are not legally married in the U.S. due to cultural/religious unacceptability of living together prior to marriage in Senegal.
  • Couples often face pressure from host country nationals to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country.
  • Host country nationals will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.
  • Couples without children may be repeatedly questioned about why they do not have children. Couples should prepare to respond to this question from the community before coming to post.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Senegal has a recently established LGBTQI+ affinity group and a Jewish affinity group for Volunteers. Other affinity groups can be formed based on Volunteer interest and are supported by a staff liaison.