Tuesday, July 19, 2011


It’s hard to believe that I’m at “mid-service” already.  In two weeks, I’ll have been in Senegal for an entire year. There have been weeks that have flown by and days that have dragged on, seemingly forever, but some years are like that for all of us, I suppose.  The difference, for me, has been that that everything in my world changed the moment I got off the plane in Dakar last August—the language, the culture, the food, the climate. I’m just going to say it, the whole experience has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. One year later, the languages are familiar, and although I can communicate with those around me, I’m far from fluent; the culture is less shocking, but still confusing and abrasive at times; the food has gone from interesting and new to commonplace and repetitive; and last but not least, it is still HOT.  Those of you on the East Coast have recently experienced the extreme of my daily temperatures.  I’m not sure anyone can every really get used to it.  Even the Senegalese who were born and raised here still include mention of the heat in their everyday conversation: “Dafa taang!” (It’s hot!) or “Taang nga?” (Aren’t you hot?).
At mid-service, there’s a changing of the guard or a passing of the baton, of sorts, that happens with volunteers.  Many of the folks who were here when we arrived have just ended their service and have gone home, moving my group up a notch in seniority, and new trainees have arrived taking our place as the new kids on the block.  It was difficult to say goodbye to the friends I’d made here over the past year.  Living in harsh conditions and sharing our experiences with one another creates a unique bond.  Much of what goes on over here is hard to explain to people not living in the midst of it. Part of me felt a little abandoned when a handful of my friends left a couple of weeks ago and it made the 12 months ahead of me feel a quite daunting.  At the same time, however, I was welcoming a new group of people who are just about to start their service and are so excited to be here.  They’re a good reminder of why I came and what I hope to accomplish before I leave.
July 2011 - Past, current, and future PCVs from the Dakar region.
This seems as good a time as any to take my first vacation.  Next week I’ll be meeting my parents in Barcelona for a Mediterranean cruise.  It may seem extreme to go from roughing it in a developing world to fancy living on the high seas, but I need it desperately, especially now at mid-service. A little booster will do me good and, hopefully, I’ll come back refreshed , ready to take on new projects , and motivated to push a little harder on some projects that have recently stalled. I timed this trip to coincide with Ramadan, as things here tend to slow down then.  Ninety-four percent of the country are Muslims and therefore Ramadan becomes all-consuming.  People fast (no food or water) from sunup until sundown (~5:30am ~7:30pm) which means things begin to slow down around lunchtime when people roll out their mats.  After that it’s hard to get much done.  Some volunteers show their solidarity and fast with their families, however, I've decided to spend this time recharging and regrouping. I’m totally at peace with that.  Sometimes you need to listen to what your body needs, like last week when I consumed 3 hard-boiled eggs, a bag of beef jerky, and a can of tuna, including its juice, within a 3 hour window.  Clearly, I needed a protein boost.  Other times you need to listen to your soul and mine is telling me I need to get away for a bit.  Hopefully, this vacation will leave both my body AND my soul a little more energized.
Truth be told, I’m a little bit worried how I’ll handle being in the developed world again.  I’m packing extra wraps because, even though I long to experience air conditioning again, I’m sure I’m going to freeze on the ship and then there are the socially questionable bad habits I’ve picked up since being here.  In order to integrate into a new culture you often find yourself doing what they do to try to fit in, but these don’t always translate into social norms in other parts of the world. The following is a list of 10 habits that I should probably try to break before getting on my plane next week:

  •  Burping during meals
  • Wiping my nose on the hem of my skirt
  • Flapping my arms like a chicken when I say “No”
  • Eating my meals on the floor
  • Wearing flip flops to formal events
  • Slurping my drinks
  • Scraping the filth beneath my fingernails with the page corners of the book I’m reading (ok, I admit, that one’s all me—no one reads here)
  • Adding “Inchallah” (God willing) to the end of every sentence
  • Letting insects crawl on my food while I’m eating
  • Squatting wherever and whenever when I need to pee
Wish me luck with all of that!

While I’m gone, the volunteers in my area will be continuing to raise money for a Girls Leadership Camp that we’ve planned for the end of September. We’ve been working hard these past few months to coordinate this project.  I’ve even been in discussions with NPR’s West African Correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, to join our Career Day panel.  Per Peace Corps policy, all funding for camps must be come through a Peace Corps Partnership Grant, which basically means that we have to solicit funding from people back home.  So, if you’ve been looking for a way to support some of the work I’m doing over here, this would be your opportunity.  One of the goals of this camp is to encourage girls with aptitude to continue their education, as this is a problem in Senegal.  According to a recent gender assessment study done by USAID, the ratio of girls to boys drops from 98% in primary school, to 80% in middle school, and then to only 54% in high school.  Girls are usually pulled out of school early to assist with household chores or later to get married.  Our camp will focus on the importance of continuing their education, on the roles they can play in their society, and the opportunities that are available to them.  We’ve got about 40 girls who are coming to camp, which is being held at a local university not far from my town.  To donate to this project, follow this link:  Thiès Region Girls Leadership Camp 2011.

Also, when you get a chance, take a look at the new tabs I’ve added to the top of my blog—Photos, Videos, and Sounds.  These should provide another window into my world here.  I’ll be updating these over the next year as I continue my service.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Queer Quiz

One of my proudest achievements in service, thus far, did not include attempts to end malaria, to promote nutrition for small children, or even to introduce an alternative fuel source.  No, instead, my moment of glory came in the administration of a quiz---a "queer quiz", to be exact.

At the tail end June, Gay Pride Month in America, five other volunteers joined me at the Thiès Training Center to deliver a day-long seminar on sexual orientation and alternative lifestyles.  Our target audience was a group of local staff members whose job it is to provide language training and cultural support to Peace Corps Trainees.  Also in attendance were other key members of the Peace Corps Senegal staff, including the Training Director, Safety and Security Coordinator, and the Medical Officers.   This training (called Safe Zone Training) was originally put together by volunteers in The Gambia, the small country that cuts through the middle of Senegal, and was shared at our Gender and Development Summit back in February.   It focuses on increasing the staff’s awareness of different sexual identities and instructs them on how to support volunteers that come to them with personal issues.  Homosexual acts are not only considered immoral by the religious leaders here, but they are also punishable by law.  In 2007, 96% of the Senegalese population surveyed said that homosexuality should be rejected by society and, in the past 3 years, 14 Senegalese men have been arrested and 5 imprisoned for illicit homosexual behavior. Just two months ago, several of my friends and I were stunned upon reading a front page news article declaring a “jihad” on  homosexuality, wherein one of the most prestigious religious leaders suggested that those found guilty of this heinous crime be stoned on the streets.

They say that serving in the Peace Corps is the “toughest job you’ll ever love”, but when that job comes with the challenge of masking your true identity for fear of personal harm or imprisonment, as it did for 14% of the volunteers who swore in last year, that makes the job even tougher and, frankly, this just didn’t sit well with me.  I was raised to be open-minded and accepting of people’s differences and I include in my “circle of love” many people whose lifestyles differ from my own.  My mother recalls a phone call she received from me in college after I’d witnessed a KKK march where little kids stood next to their parents holding signs with anti-gay slogans.  I was livid at them; she was proud of me; and yes, I said KKK, as in Ku Klux Klan.  I’m not blind to the fact that discrimination is still alive and well in our great nation, but I’ve never been one to tolerate it.  When I arrived in Senegal, and realized that many of my friends who had been “out” at home had to go back into the closet here in order not to offend their host families or, worse, subject themselves to possible danger or arrest, it made me feel as uncomfortable as they did.  Living in this this foreign culture is hard enough without the added burden of trying to change who you are.  So, I took matters into my own hands and pushed to have this training.

The SeneGAD (Senegal Gender and Development) Board met at the beginning of May and approved my proposal.  Shortly thereafter, we had full support from our Country Director, and we formed a Safe Zone Committee of interested volunteers from around the country to review and modify the training materials we’d gathered.  In less than 2 months, we conducted our first day-long session to 12 attendees.  We covered basic vocabulary, issues faced by homosexual volunteers, current gay rights around the world, the stages and difficulties of coming out, testimonials shared by current volunteers, and anti-gay behavior.   We spent the last hour of the session discussing the definition and role of an “ally” and how our staff can be supportive of volunteers who have issues related to their sexual orientation.  At the end, we passed out the “queer quiz”, which was really just an evaluation form, asking attendees about how their perceptions may have changed from the beginning of the class.   Across the board, the participants demonstrated an increase in understanding and a willingness to discuss these issues.  We had lively and open discussion throughout the day and everyone agreed that this was an topic that no one had felt comfortable broaching before and that this training was long overdue. 
The SeneGAD Safe Zone Team

Our Country Director opened the session to show his support.

It was an interactive training day.

We even had role-play scenarios.
We may not have changed a nation’s attitude, last month, but we connected with a room full of people who provide daily support in the lives of future Peace Corps Volunteers as they struggle to understand a new language and acclimate to a new culture. We “helped promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”, which is the second goal John F. Kennedy defined for the Peace Corps.  Even though most of our participants still hold strong to their religious/legal beliefs regarding these matters, they're open to accepting and supporting others whose beliefs are different from theirs. Like all countries where Peace Corps is present, Senegal is a developing country with a young democracy, so, of course, there is room for improvement when it comes to many rights and the concept of equality.  

Even we, in America, don't quite have this right yet, as we were reminded by the late Coretta Scott King--but we're trying.  “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination.  I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere.  Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.”