As mentioned in my last post, there are a lot of positive word choices and assumptions that have been thrown at me upon my return to the US. (Was your experience awesome? Did you change? Did your relationship with God grow in unbelievable ways?) And my response to that whole situation is yes, I did change, grow, etc. but those simple and positive statements do not give truth to my experience. So now, I will try to explain what I mean, to wrap up the complicated feelings about my service into a (few) somewhat comprehensible statement(s):
When I applied to the Peace Corps, I sought out as much information as possible about the experience; talking to RPCVs, reading blogs, and listening to second hand accounts. There were a few common themes:
“The first year is tough, you don’t really get much work done which is really frustrating, but the second year flies by.”
“All my projects failed, but I formed amazing relationships with my family and community.”
“The climate and the work was incredibly difficult, but the PEOPLE, the PEOPLE were amazing!”
So I assumed my experience would be similar. So I sucked it up for the first year, dealing with disappointment and failure as well as the next volunteer, looking forward to when it would get better, to the point when I would love my family and build a community that would lead to productive projects. But in so many ways it never really came. I had a few projects of relative success, which I will outline later, but for the most part I still felt like an outsider in my community who had little to no respect especially when it came to my agricultural work.
My blog has so far outlined some of the difficulties I came across, but I still felt (feel) pressure to tell my story about Peace Corps through rose colored glasses, with some sort of positive conclusion on the whole situaiton. Because now at the end of it, I think about the stories I heard, and I think that many of them must have been told in a more positive light than they were really felt. How did I hear no stories about complete disappointment and questioning why you ever were there in the first place down to the day you left? Maybe those people don’t tell their stories.
But I don’t want to do that, I want to give an honest account of my experience, while acknowledging that:
I DON’T REGRET GOING.
I had my feelings hurt in Senegal. All the time. Every day.
I was put in a site with a host dad who was also supposed to be my work partner but had no respect for women and no desire to work with me. Respect by word of mouth is extremely important for any work done in Senegal, especially young female westerners trying to work in agriculture. So without a recommendation from my host dad/counterpart, no one else in the community, especially not then male landowner/farmers that I was supposed to be working with, would have anything to do with me. They would nod approvingly as I would explain new techniques or ideas for the gardens/farmers, acknowledge how clear my Wolof was, then ignore anything I ever said. Apparently I was supposed to be a “test” for that site. As a super-self-motivated volunteer it was thought that I would either get work going in this site or show that this site could not support an agriculture volunteer. Well I worked extremely hard for two years, trying to come up with anything that might appeal to my community, only to show that my community would not support that kind of work at this point. On top of a frustrating work situation, many members of my family would constantly ask me for money and things. Even though I addressed this at the beginning as being not ok and offensive in my culture, it still came up constantly. It was impossible for me to forget that I was a westerner who did not belong, because they would not let me.
I wanted to feel like part of my community, and part of my family, and my host dad (who was referred to in Wolof as someone who talks a lot, which means he’s full of shit most of the time) liked to reassure me and anyone from Peace Corps who would listen that I had assimilated SO well, I had SO many friends, and had done SO much work. But that wasn’t true. And I had the stories of my fellow volunteers to prove it. And it was frustrating and hurtful to be held out at arms length, left out of community events, and then constantly asked for money and things. Often it did not just feel like they “didn’t want to be saved,” but like they didn’t want ME there. If only I had been male, or a health volunteer, or a million other things, then maybe they would have listened to me a little bit, or included me more in the community. So it was impossible not take take failure or frustration personally.