One Year in Senegal
The exact anniversary of my arrival in Senegal is caught in a flux of space-time: I arrived on February 29, 2016, a leap year, so my anniversary occurred somewhere between February 28 and March 1, 2017.
I find this fitting, since being in the Peace Corps is like constantly being in flux. You are suspended between two cultures, both competing simultaneously for your time and attention. Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” the slogan drilled into our heads during training. Here are some things I wish I could tell myself a year ago.
Yes, it does get hotter than this. Rest assured, after your first hot season, 105 degrees doesn’t feel as bad as you once thought. You will realize that all of those health trainings on combating diarrhea are critically important to your survival. You will get bug bites, sunburns, unexplained rashes, and the worst cystic acne of your life that only heals when you take an antibiotic.
People back home will ask what you are doing, and you won’t know what to say. You know that you’re somehow supposed to teach economic development, but you won’t know what that means. You will learn to define the job yourself and do work you are passionate about, which turns out is soap-making. (Seriously, you will make a lot of soap. People will tell you that you’re obsessed. Embrace it. They’ll call you about soap trainings eventually.)
While you are busy getting acclimated at your site, you will have moments where you wonder what on earth you signed up for. You have to find your own work to do. You have to make connections with people. You have to design and report projects. And you have to do all of this in two or three languages, in the heat, and with little guidance. Be patient with yourself. You will find yourself at home here soon enough.
You will have days where your Wolof language is almost impeccable, and then days when you struggle to understand a single phrase in a conversation with a Wolof speaker. You will dream about walking down a busy street unnoticed. You will feel exasperated as every beggar child, or talibé, approaches you for money, but you will feel guilty about ignoring children or turning them away. You will see interconnected problems everywhere and no easy solutions.
A year will zoom past you. Before you know it, you realize you don’t have enough time to accomplish all the projects you dream of doing. But in that year:
You will see your entrepreneurship students understanding economic and business concepts that you taught. You will share in the joy of a women’s group celebrating selling all of the soap they made and investing it back into their business. You will have genuine conversations with your host family at the lunch bowl, and your host mom will chide you for not eating enough. You will watch 50 teenage girls blossom over a five day-long camp where they gain confidence to change themselves and their communities. You will laugh and joke in Wolof and miraculously be understood. You will not regret coming to Senegal and pledge to try and make each day memorable for the rest of your service.