Tuesday, August 28, 2007


As someone who has traveled a lot and lived away from home for a long time I am used to being away from family and friends. I pride myself on being independent and not getting homesick. But there is something about being back with other volunteers and being in a city (Thies, and now Dakar) that makes me really miss home and friends and family. At site I’m so far removed from my previous reality that I’m not tempted by “normal” things. But being around other volunteers and being in a city with access to luxury, air conditioning, restaurants, going for coffee and delicious food makes me miss the normalcy and the comfort of home. Maybe not even home, but places that just aren’t as hard.

I met up with someone who was in Thies on a brief internship with a NGO. Talking to him about the Peace Corps experience and the way we PCVs live and the kinds of challenges and stories we all have, made me realize how exceptional this program really is. And how hard. It also made me incredibly proud of how much I’ve changed over these past months (almost six). I can tolerate so much more discomfort and frustration then I ever could before. Things just roll off my back much more easily than they used to. And I’m much more patient. Though that is not always consistent.

I have become totally jaded over some things, like going to the garage. The moment I walk into the garage I put my mean face on. I am ready to be harassed, to be grabbed at, swindled, lied to, and surrounded by people. So much so that today when we met a perfectly polite, nice, driver I was already so heated that it took me a few minutes to realize that he wasn’t trying to take us for all we’re worth. He was polite, helpful, and considerate. It was refreshing. Turns out that he was not Wolof. Unfortunately, the stereotype is that the Wolof men are aggressive and in my experience most times so far it’s true. I am not sure what it stems from, but my only real interactions with them are at the garage so that’s probably pretty unrepresentative.

So I’m heading back up to site later this week. Part of me is dreading it. The heat, the frustrations, the language barriers, the starting up of huge new projects etc.

But when I visualize coming home and having my little siblings and my family run into my arms to greet me…I wish I was already back…and that I had never left.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

PC training

Peace Corps.

It’s impressive as a whole, but some of the pieces are far from perfect.

As a PCV I am learning firsthand about the frustrations that come from working for a large, bureaucratic, governmental organization.

For one thing, there seems to be a lot of ‘wasted’ idle time. Particularly when it comes to training and PC policy. Many of our training sessions are repetitive and common sense based. It’s as if those planning the trainings don’t trust the initial PC selection process. As if somewhere along the line, someone decided that we needed to have basic trainings in subjects as fundamental as peer counseling techniques. I am hard-pressed to find one American college educated adult who has not had to help a peer through a difficult moment, addiction, or major loss, at some point in their lives. To spend several hours discussing how to be an active listener instead of giving us tangible teaching tools for working at our sites is a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

Talking amongst other volunteers, a lot of us feel like we are treated like children instead of as capable, educated adults. I’m not sure if this is because a lot of us are so young? In our stage, there is no one under 28. Because our training staff are all much older it is an easy trap to fall into. And to be fair, when we first arrived we were new to this culture, the languages, customs, and acceptable behaviours. In some ways we were infants in this environment. But after three months at site, having adjusted and figured things out for ourselves, it is endlessly frustrating to be thrust back into that same power dynamic.

It is also trying, after being largely independent for several months at site, to come back into a large group of other Americans and be back in a community where I do not speak the local language (Wolof). It is almost impossible for me to be thrown back in with 37 other young Americans and not feel homesick for those close friends and loved ones we have all left behind. In fact, one of the only times that I do get homesick is when I am surrounded by other volunteers. I think this is because it reminds me of the history and memories I have with friends at home. Not that we all haven’t bonded intensely over these past 5 months (5 months as of today!) but we are all still so new to each other.

Some of my most frustrating moments have arisen when I’ve been here at the PC training center, immersed in Pre-service and now In-service training. Training certainly has some positive aspects, but I am learning how difficult it is to create a cohesive and productive training curriculum, when the overarching theme of the Peace Corps is that “every volunteer’s experience is different.” Having heard this all through PST we thought we got it. But I don’t think we grasped the truth and wisdom of this statement until those first couple of weeks at site. Even in a country as tiny as Senegal, it is impossible to categorize and generalize the PCV experience. Perhaps this is one of the most appealing things about the Peace Corps?

More disturbingly from the administrative side though, are the accounts I have heard from my volunteer friends about their site placements. This is probably the most important factor in determining the success and endurance of a volunteer’s service. Truly it is. And there have been several instances where it has just gone horribly wrong.

I am so fortunate to have been placed in my town and with my family. I know that I am in the perfect site for my goals, and background. But the horror stories that some of my friends have told me just highlight the lack of communication between staff and administration, and between Senegal and Washington.

One such example was a friend of mine who lives up north nearby. She was put in the second largest site amongst the health volunteers, without speaking a WORD of French. While I admire her perseverance, it is absolutely absurd that PC would place a volunteer in a regional capital without any French, negligible health experience, and only rudimental Pulaar. Upon installation the staff member turned to her and said, “You speak French right?” Ridiculous that he didn’t know that already.

Meanwhile, another volunteer who speaks fairly decent French, and who desperately wanted to be in an urban setting and has more health experience, was placed in a tiny village nearby where she has struggled to find a niche for herself. The happy ending to this story is that both volunteers have settled in for the time being, and have carved out lives for themselves. But one can’t help but wonder if they would be more productive at each other’s sites? Such a needless and easily avoidable blunder. And the lack of awareness from the administrative side does nothing to instill confidence.

These kinds of placement inefficiencies are numerous.

Another female volunteer was placed down south in an extremely difficult site where she is barely holding on. Why? The volunteer that set up that site emphatically recommended that only a male volunteer be placed down there because of the abundance of leering men who are seasonal workers at the mines in the region. She was told that she was placed there as an exception because of her HIV expertise. When she mentioned this to a staff member intimately involved with the PC Senegal health program she was told that “oh no, don’t work on HIV/AIDS issues. You should be focusing on respiratory illnesses and diarrhea.” So then why was she put there?

I am so proud that she has made it this far after hearing about everything she has had to overcome.

I recognize that one of the fundamental principles of the PC experience is patience. Patience and flexibility. But there is a fine line between expecting volunteers to roll with the punches and sheer negligence. Unfortunately for some volunteers, the latter has overshadowed their placement.

I am learning that development work is full of inefficiencies, false starts, slow progress, and miscommunication. But the most important thing that the Peace Corps has going for it that so few other NGOs and development organizations do is that we are here. We are present in these communities for two years. We intimately get to know the people, the culture, and thus the potential success of particular projects.

I have heard of so many instances of NGOs giving mosquito nets to villages, only to discover that they should have given big ones because families all want to sleep all together and they cannot fit under a single bed net.

Or that a development organization will spend hundreds of dollars to build a well in some remote village because they noticed or were told that women must walk far to pull water. When the well is finished no one uses it because lo and behold, the women enjoyed walking and that was their only social time for the day.

These are the kind of wastes that can only be avoided when you have an agent in the community. A PCV who is constantly watching with his or her observation goggles and creative thinking cap on. Paying attention to every minute detail so as to bring the most sustainable projects to our communities that we can possibly muster.

For now I’m rolling with the punches, though my patience is being tested every day, especially back here in training.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Today has been the best day ever.

This morning, about 8 of us PCVs met up at one of the volunteer’s apartments who lives in Thies. She has an incredible place. A beautiful, breezy roof terrace, full kitchen, a real bedroom and a bathroom, the works. We spent the better half of the day cooking, sipping mimosas, dancing to music, dreading hair, laughing, and talking. It felt so normal, and so good to be so decadent and indulgent. And it really was.

We made vegan pancakes and smothered them with peanut butter, bananas, and chocolate spread and put them on a huge plate and sat around Senegalese style, eating with our hands. Then we moved on to the veggies, potatoes and egg course (all cooked over a gas tank mind you), and then feasted on fruit salad, yogurt, and topped it off with horchata.

But the part that was the most fun was realizing how easy it is to spoil ourselves now. I mean, eating pancakes and pb with your hands probably isn’t most people’s idea of a delicacy, but boy was it ever!

Then I went to a hotel pool for some sun and pool time and wireless internet. It started to rain so it’s cooling off. And then a few of us are meeting up for dinner in a bit.
Who ever said Peace Corps volunteers never get time off!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Back in Thies

After only three short hours in Thies I had already eaten a hamburger and ice cream, drank a beer and an espresso, all while emailing on wireless internet at a cafĂ©/restaurant in the center of downtown. Tremendous. It feels so wonderful to be “normal.”

Being here makes me remember how much I love living in cities, and how relaxing it is to be able to be anonymous and wander the streets and run errands without running into cousins and uncles, siblings, friends and colleagues. And how much I love being independent and not having to constantly report back to anyone about where I’m going or what I’m doing. Thies feels like what I expected Africa “should” feel like. It’s mildly humid, not too hot, breezy, green, lots of trees, and you can hear birds all the time.

It’s such a treat to see all of the volunteers I have been away from for 3 months. I didn’t realize how much I missed them until we were all back together. It’s like seeing long lost friends and family. Collectively the boys have probably lost about a person in weight. I think the most anyone has lost is 43 pounds. Some of them are looking pretty skeleton-like. Many of the girls have lost weight too. At least half of the group has already been to see the medical officers in Dakar already. Most for GI problems like amoebas, and others for various skin fungi, rashes, and side effects of anti-malarials. I feel fortunate that although I have been mildly ill at site a few times (most recently last week with a lovely 24 hour full body “purge”) nothing has been serious enough to warrant the trek to Dakar.

We all just can’t hang out together enough. Everyone has so many incredible stories already. Yesterday, in health technical training we went around and shared funny stories from site. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. It’s comforting to hear that everyone has had the same kind of awkward interactions and embarrassing misunderstandings. Today we each presented the health concerns of and activities within our communities. It’s informative and interesting to hear how varied the health problems are even within regions. It really is true that every volunteer’s experience is totally different. Speaking with the few other semi-urban health volunteers made me feel better about being so overwhelmed with how much there is to do at our sites.

I know that the next three weeks are just going to fly by. It’s a challenge to be back on a 6 day a week 7am to 6pm schedule, but we are all attacking IST with lots of energy and motivation to gain the necessary skills to get back to our sites and start implementing some great projects. We’re going to receive training specific to the needs of our sites. I want to learn some teaching tools for presenting health information to children, and women, and how to make things like Neem lotion (anti-mosquito) and present effective visual aids, how to access resources for women’s groups etc. The great thing about the training during IST is it’s all going to be concrete practical information that we can actually use back at site.

This weekend we have a trip to Dakar planned. The American Club is going to hold an exclusive party for all of us with a barbecue and we’ll spend the day by the pool and have a dance party in the evening. Sunday I plan on tracking down the Ethiopian restaurant in Dakar and having a feast. (Any of you sensing a theme to this entry yet? Aka. FOOD!)
Seeing my Thies family has been so great. It’s tough to balance spending time with them and getting in time with the other volunteers. But at least this time around I feel a lot less guilty for spending evenings out with the other PCVs. Family guilt is something that was pretty all consuming during PST for most of us. It was so great to see them though. The 4 sisters ran to greet me when I came home and my Baaba and Nene were just all smiles. It really did feel like I was coming home. Even the cockroaches were excited to see me!

I was impressed with how easy it felt to come back here. The first time we went to our host families in Thies it was totally overwhelming, and that was nothing compared to installation up at site in the Fouta. So coming back felt like no big deal at all. I caught myself thinking I was such a baby for being so nervous the first time around. But it’s all part of the adjustment process. And I’m proud of myself for being able to tolerate so much more after just 5 months.

Part of me feels a little schizophrenic being back here. As one of the other volunteers said, “how many lives can we lead at once?” She is absolutely right. I am a 24-year-old American named Cait Givens, but I am also Oumou Sall, a PCV at training in Thies, but also a Pulaar Fouta inhabitant volunteer named Binta Lam. It feels a little crazy to be juggling all three at once.

Here’s to a busy and productive three weeks!

And of course, to three full weeks worth of ice cream…