Looking back on two years

By Jenna Nelson
May 3, 2017

Reflecting on my two years in Peace Corps, there have been many ups and downs.

Throughout my time in northern Senegal, I learned a lot about leadership and perseverance. No one taught me more about this than the hardest-working woman I know: Mariame. She is the president of a women’s group that makes soap, desert date oil, and cereals in my town. After receiving funding for a soap-making project through the US Embassy in Dakar, the members of her group were highly motivated to work and produce oil for the desert date oil soap. 

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Jenna and Silvia enjoy an afternoon hangout at the compound. Photo by Jenna

However, after a few months, one by one, the women stopped showing up to help with production. I was slightly annoyed because I saw Mariame continuing to work hard every day regardless of who came to help. Were they not all members of the women’s group? Did they not all agree to work on this project together? Shouldn’t everyone be pulling their weight?

All you have control over is your own actions; therefore, that is the strongest tool you have to motivate people. This is a lesson I will carry with me throughout my professional future.

Several times I asked Mariame what her plan was to motivate the group. I suggested many strategies including weekly mandatory meetings where they could delegate tasks for the week. However, she didn’t seem too concerned. Every month, Mariame would hold a meeting with the group, show them all the work she had done producing soaps and cereals, and just discuss her plan for the upcoming month. She never scolded the women for not coming. She never complained about how much work she was doing compared to the rest of the group. She just let the women know what was happening and continued to work hard. 

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Jenna's workpartners creating soap. Photo by Jenna

Now, you probably figured out her strategy after reading this. In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious--Leadership 101: Lead by Example. However, it took me a while to figure it out at the time. It wasn’t until I took a step back after months of frustration and confusion that I recognized Mariame’s strategy. She focused on what she had control over, her own actions, and hoped it would inspire others. Mariame had told me that maybe the women were not working on the group’s products because they had other activities at that time of year where they were guaranteed to make a small income. She had faith they would eventually come back to help with the women’s group when they had time. 

Mariame showed me that, as a leader, you cannot force people to do something. All you have control over is your own actions; therefore, that is the strongest tool you have to motivate people. This is a lesson I will carry with me throughout my professional future. 

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Teaching soap making was one of Jenna's favorite projects. Photo by Jenna
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Photo by Jenna
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Photo by Jenna
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Photo by Jenna

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