The beginning of this month marked a year since I left home for the Peace Corps. It has not been a year since I’ve been in the U.S. but nevertheless I thought it merited some reflection. This wasn’t my first time in West Africa so I wasn’t super anxious about what it would be like. I was actually more worried about meeting all the other volunteers. It’s funny thinking back to that because up to that point I had really only experienced Dakar and some rural villages in southeastern Senegal. I had never even heard of toh (corn based mush eaten various times a day in Mali). Now it stands out to me as emblematic of West Africa.
Thinking back to the first month of training I just remember being super sleep deprived. My malaria medication had caused some insomnia the first couple nights at the training center and then we were dropped off with our host families where I encountered more sleep hurdles. The most memorable things of those first nights with my homestay family were the heat and the sounds. I couldn’t imagine sleeping soundly with the stifling heat and the sound of donkeys braying and roosters crowing right outside my room. Even though we were in a suburb of Bamako people keep animals in their compounds and there are donkeys everywhere. In order to get a reprieve from the heat I would resort to wetting a sheet and putting it over me, a technique volunteers called “wet noodling”. After a couple of sleepless nights I was so exhausted that I passed out and that became the pattern in those first few weeks: 2 sleepless nights followed by a peaceful night.
I was super lucky that I didn’t get sick like many other volunteers. Some guys lost 20 lbs in that first month alone.
As hot and tired as we were those first few weeks the comradery formed was really nice. It was a very good mix of people and I still think about the Mali group often.
I’ve definitely had a unique experience by having my first year split between 2 countries. Sometimes I think the evacuation and the month back home between programs that followed have made the experience go faster but that doesn’t necessarily mean its been easier. Whereas a volunteer in their sixth month would be achieving a certain level of fluency and would be feeling confident in their community to start doing projects, evacuees have to go back to the starting line just as they may be hitting their stride.
Also you may find yourself missing your home country as well as your first host country.
Even so I’m grateful to have been given the chance to finish my service in West Africa. The volunteers evacuated due to Ebola had no such option. They were told to reapply which at that point could still take about a year.
What I have learned about West Africa:
After living in 3 West African countries I can say there are definitely similarities but attitudes and customs can vary greatly even within short geographical distance depending on what ethnic group you’re interacting with. I’d like to say I’ve learned so much about Malian and Guinean culture-and to a certain extent I have- but I still feel very confused about what is going on at least 60% of the time. In Mali, I felt like I had a better handle on things but here in Guinea I often find myself saying “I don’t understand anything here”. What I do know is that our cultures are almost polar opposites in some aspects.
Consider the following scenario: You have a cake and your friend comes in the room.
In the U.S.: However much you decide to give your friend, that friend should be grateful regardless. It is your cake and your choice how much to give to your friend. If you offer him half you would be called “generous”.
In West Africa: There is no question that you’re going to share that cake with your friend. Offering less than a quarter of the cake would most likely be considered rude.
Here sharing is the default option so if you have a little more than you need it’s not considered generous of you to share, it’s just what you do. And if you’re ever in a tight spot, people you’ve shared with are expected to return the favor. It’s looking out for each other, while simultaneously looking out for yourself, because here your friends usually also serve as your bank and your health insurance. West Africans cannot generally rely on outside institutions for financing or insurance the way Americans can so family and friends have to fill in that gap.
Lessons from the First Year
- When you come into Peace Corps you imagine that everyone doing PC will have similar interests and goals but everyone comes in for their own unique reasons. Some are looking more for adventure or cultural exchange versus the development work part of it. None of these are better or worse reasons to serve and they will not necessarily correlate to how “successful” a volunteer is.
- One of the best things you get out of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is self-confidence to try new things you may know nothing about. I feel like in the U.S. we get convinced that we need an expert or we need to take a course to learn how to do something exactly right but here I’ve been trying a lot of new things and learning by trial and error. So far I’ve learned about and tried beekeeping, soap making, jam making, gardening, composting, etc.
- Another good skill you pick up is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable/unsure of how to do something. Even with all the training we receive you will inevitably end up in situations where you feel unprepared but as long as you ask questions and seek out resources you’ll be fine. It’s like getting thrown into a pool with no floatees and not knowing how to swim. If you stay calm you will realize you can float and you will eventually learn how to swim.
- One of my goals when coming in was to be more patient. Some days I marvel at how laid back I am about things taking time or things not going as expected but other times the impatient old lady in me wrestles her way out and gets upset. I guess I won’t really know if I’m more patient until I’m back in the U.S.
- I’d also like to think that I’m a less judgmental person now. This experience will challenge everything you thought you knew about yourself. You realize that while you may think you will act a certain way under a given situation, you won’t know until you’re actually in that situation. Thus you can’t judge what someone does unless you have been in their place and even then you can’t know everything the person was dealing with at the time.
- I’ve realized that while I don’t want to work an office job year-round, I also don’t want to be away from my family for more than 6 months at a time. It doesn’t sit right with me to be over here getting close to other people’s families and neglecting my own in a sense.
- Not so sure I want to pursue a PhD in Agricultural Economics anymore. Now I’m leaning more towards something like a Master’s in GIS or possibly an MBA. My dream now is to work for some kind of social enterprise or impact investment firm.
Lessons from Getting Evacuated
As much as we may like (or feel pressured) to plan out our lives so many things are ultimately out of control. You never know what may happen next week or even tomorrow. What I do know is that if there is something I can do today I will not put it off till tomorrow or next week. I remember planning to go visit my homestay family during In Service Training (this happens 3 months after you’ve been at your site). I didn’t do it the first week because it was right after we heard about the Paris attacks and I figured “I’ll go next weekend”. By “next weekend” there had been the Bamako attack at the Radisson and we were in the process of being evacuated.
So now that I’m in Guinea I’m trying to see as much as I can as soon as I get the chance. Not putting things off here because you never know.
Values I Hope to Take Back:
Dressing Well: In the States I never cared too much about dressing well (partly because I’m lazy and partly because I thought it was somewhat superficial to worry alot about what I wear and how I look) , but here dressing well is a way of showing respect to the people around you. I think as long as I’m not spending excessive amounts of money on clothes I want to try to look more presentable wherever I go.
Making and/or Buying Plenty to Share: Here you don’t make plans to come eat at someone’s house. If they are at your house and you’re cooking you assume that they’re staying and you make a little more than necessary so you can invite them to eat. When I get back to the States I hope to host a lot more dinners and also if I’m ever buying food I’m going to buy a little extra so I can always offer plenty to anyone around me.
Checking in More with Friends and Family: Phone etiquette here is very different from what we are used to in the States. Here even people you think you see rather often (maybe once a week) will call you just to say hi. It is never a very long conversation; it usually lasts about 1.5 minutes and it’s just to ask how you are doing and to wish you a good day or evening. Not much information may be exchanged but its to let you know that person is thinking of you. I don’t want to copy that exactly but I do want to make more of an effort to stay in touch with friends and family and not just follow what they’re doing through Facebook.
We’ll see what lessons the next year brings.
Here are some pictures from when I left last year: