Finding Myself in Senegal: a Peace Corps Volunteer Story
I opened Google Maps as quickly as possible to orient myself. To pin down exactly where this pacman shaped country was on the continent. When I nailed it down, the tip of West Africa, and told my friends and family that in a few short months I’d be leaving for Senegal, no matter how many times I said Senegal, I was still leaving for Africa. The image that I created in my head, of vast brown, dirt, huts, the middle of nowhere, would quickly be changed as I rode the bus with 60 or so other aspiring Peace Corps Trainees to the training center.
Everything that happened in the first few days after stepping off the airplane having departed from an iced-over, most likely experiencing a “polar vortex” East Coast to the West Coast of Africa, was in a daze. As we boarded the bus I was quickly tossed some malaria medication, a water bottle, and a granola bar; not exactly satisfying my hunger after days of travel.
[Excerpt from my journal: March 5th, 2014]
Being woken up from the middle seat of the plane, I was told to take a look at your first “African sunrise.” The bright blood orange and pink is everything I thought it might be.
On the two hour bus ride to the training center in Thiès, we saw a glimpse of the outskirts of Dakar. The Sengalese stood out from their dirty and dusty surroundings with their bright colored clothes.
When the bus pulled into the compound, the Senegalese staff were dancing and singing to welcome us - living up to my expectations of them being hospitable. Later, after much persuasion, we joined in on the dancing, and were told the songs translated to their giving thanks to us and how much they appreciate the Peace Corps.
Before a tour of the center, we were given a demonstration of how to use the turkish toilet, or more accurately described as your hole in the ground for pooping.
Arriving at the training center was a combination of thrilling and terrifying swirled together, kind of like the mafé sauce (traditional sauce made with peanut butter) over rice that I ate in those first few days. Our “gear,” duffle bags and hiking backpacks, among other things that we would either find useful or not, were thrown into the bunkrooms, not to be organized or properly unpacked for another two whole months when we would arrive at our permanent sites of service.
The mysteries of what was to come of us for the duration of the next two years was intoxicating. It was as if we were all robotically functioning off of this temporary high. We were exhausted and overwhelmed, but the mystery, the thrill of it, kept our spirits high. We could now boast to our friends and family back home that we had arrived in Africa, and yes, we were still alive. Current volunteers and staff seemed to come out of nowhere to offer up some advice or tell an unsolicited story about their experience, and “how it’s just so amazing, and it’ll be so amazing for you too.” “You have to see the South, it’s so green and beautiful!” “Oh, the North is the best, there’s the island and the old French colonial style buildings, and so much to do.” Whether in the North, South, East, or West, everyone had a story, and they all wanted to share them.
I made substantial effort not to buy into the biases of others, to be indifferent and keep my expectations low. The fate of the next two years was to be determined without my say (apart from a short questionnaire, which honestly didn’t make much of a difference) whether I liked it or not. I only slightly hoped in the back of my mind that I wasn’t going to the fiery depths of the hottest parts of Senegal, because of course, I’d heard stories about those places too.
Over the next few weeks I’d start to collect information being fed to us during our training. I compartmentalized the technical knowledge I’d need once I started "working," and learned basic cultural do’s and don’ts so as not to make a fool of myself as we prepared to be let outside of the gates of the training center and into this new and unknown home of ours.
[An excerpt from my journal: March 6th, 2014]
“Assalamou Aleikoum.” I said this many times today, in addition to replying “Malekum Salam.” Meaning “peace be with you” and “peace be with you too.” This is a greeting used between Senegalese before starting any type of conversation. I was told that in Islamic tradition, eye contact is not made during greeting (or very often at all) and hugs and handshakes are very rare, and almost nonexistent between men and women.
I tried *Baobab juice (my favorite) and *Kenkeliba, a tea that helps when you’re sick, among others (and even some that give you diarrhea).
Community bowls are used for eating, where as many as ten people gather around to share a meal. Some etiquette tips:
Only use your right hand [to eat]
Eat in the area in front of you
Distribute food to others from what’s in front of you
Only eat one ingredient at a time with the rice or millet
Do not engage in conversation [depending on the context and who you’re sharing a meal with]
Don’t look at anyone while they’re eating
Only lick your hand once finished, then wash
Leave the bowl whenever you’re full
Some things I’ve learned are important to Senegalese:
Shells (petaaw) to tell one’s future
Sticks (socu) to clean one’s teeth
Kola nuts (guro) given to one when apologizing [also given during ceremonies, especially weddings, and to the bride’s family from the groom]
Rice is the most commonly eaten grain [although it is widely imported and not grown, it was brought over by the French]
Types of fabrics that are popular for dresses are broidery, bazin and wax
Lastly, I learned that I am and forever will be a *Tubab.
*Baobab is a commonly known long-living African tree and symbol of Senegal. The tree has many uses, but most notably its fruit known as “monkey bread” which you can make into juice, jam, powder, and many other things or even find it in beauty products such as facial oils. The tree is native to Madagascar and North-Western Australia, but today can be found in many African countries as well as in many stories about Senegal and Africa.
*Kenkeliba is the French word for the tea, however in Wolof it is known (with multiple spellings as Sexaw/Sexow/Sewex, pronounced suh-how. It’s a plant that is naturally found in the Savannah and is widely grown in Senegal.
*Toubab is word used to describe (usually white) foreigners, but is also used within the culture between Senegalese when calling out someone that is well-educated or has been exposed to the West.
For the first few days in Senegal, the other trainees and I were confined to stay within the training center. I contemplated their worry of Americans wandering the town before they decided we were ready. It made sense, but my curiosity was on overdrive. I wasn’t exercising at this point. Some trainees had taken to running around in circles on the basketball court or doing other body weight activities. I decided to wait until the gates were open and brave a run on the town.
[An excerpt from my journal: March 8th, 2014]
We broke out of the center today to explore the city of Thies. I was ready and excited to see the “downtown” part of Thies, but was quickly overwhelmed.
We were first shown the “red zone” that surrounds the Peace Corps compound - abandoned buildings next to a railway, making us even easier targets for crime.
The city is small - crowded and dirty, but so incredibly interesting. The market was so extensive, from every type of clothing and accessory, to any type of food you might desire. As we walked through, we went from good smell, to bad smell, to delicious smell - an overwhelming amount of aroma.
A naming ceremony was taking place in the neighborhood and we were pulled in to dance and celebrate with them. Completely out of place with their beautiful formal attire.
After dinner we ventured to what they call a “bar,” but is more of a watering hole. I tried the local beer, “La Gazelle.” I hope they were happy for our business, as we took up the entire place.
[An excerpt from my journal: March 11th, 2014]
We’ve started to prepare for CBT (community based training). I’m excited and anxious to meet my host family. I’m crossing my fingers that I don’t embarrass myself too much.
The highlight of my day was visiting the artisans down the road. I just looked at all of the beautiful jewelry and bags, but am waiting to buy anything until I’ve learned some haggling.
I envy the PCVs who are almost finished because they know they’ve done it… survived it… accomplished it, and everyone back home is proud of their accomplishments. I want to savor the experience but I so badly want to survive it as well.
Luckily for volunteers and trainees, the Peace Corps Thiès Training Center is located right next to the Artisanal Village. The Artisanal Village could be thought of as an outdoor shopping center for everything handmade. It’s a space where all of the artisans that take part in the Senegalese government’s “Chambre de Métiers” can set up shop to sell their handmade goods - ranging from everything to handwoven baskets, gold, silver, and beaded jewelry, leather bags, shoes, fabrics, handwoven placemats and runners, and the list goes on.
It wasn’t until I came back to Thiès to serve a third year in the Peace Corps, when I really took the time to explore Thiès’s Artisanal Village and get to know the artisans personally. I was simultaneously awestruck by the beauty of all the handcrafted items and overwhelmed by each of the vendors calling me to come into their shops. When I had first come to the Artisanal Village two years prior during my training, I could never have imagined at that point on my journey in Senegal that two years later I would form partnerships with the artisans and start a small business.
Fortunately for both of us, Tapha Fall, Fulla & Fayda’s first and main artisan, got my attention to enter his shop. Tapha was very patient as I picked up different bags and wallets sprawled out across a table in the shop. I craned my neck to scan the wall of bags and shoes intricately hung up, taking every inch of space on the wall. I knew on this day that I would form a lifelong friendship and partnership with Tapha and the “Fall Brothers.” I was inspired by what they could create by hand, and knew that this had to be shared with my friends and family back home. This was the start of another journey, working with artisans to bring their handicrafts to the US, and how Fulla & Fayda was created.