My preparations for Peace Corps included reading “Im glad that didn’t happen to me” blogs, sharing my anxiety with volunteers currently serving in Africa via emailed questions, and of course shopping to fill my luggage with everything I thought I’d need for 2 years. I got a few laughs from the blogs, some of which I wouldn’t dare show my apprehensive family, and I even got some good advice from chatting with faraway volunteers, but I still wish I only packed a fifth of what the Peace Corps guidelines recommended. My girlish love of clothes probably didn’t help the case—2 suitcases actually. During the summer before my departure, I was easily excitable over outdoorsy attire and utility pockets.
I took spring cleaning to a new level and finished it off by locking all my old quirky Jessica things up in storage (thankfully my Dad had space in his). Before I knew it, I was walking through Dulles International Airport as a shiny, new volunteer in the making with a nifty backpack, a boyish haircut, and loose, comfy cargo pants.
Sigh. I was probably most fit before coming to Senegal. In many of those blogs, I read about PC weight trends with real nonchalance-- guys trim down and girls get a little fluffy. As many probably do, I reassured myself that I wouldn’t succumb to the typical trends. Several months and 15 pounds later, I finally understood the frustrations of the freshman fifteen. Nearly a year and a half into service now, I suspect this weight isn’t going to leave until it sees America.
Those comfy cargo pants that once lay around my hips so ominously now cling tightly to my thighs. The pair of lazy-day jeans I brought along only zip after an inch-by-inch wiggle dance that leaves too much strain on the button for me to actually wear them. I shamefully admit that occasionally I try them on, hoping to reveal a prior form. Three pairs of pants are on the sidelines, but like any hopeful girl they will sit in my dark trunk as a reminder. Im quite thankful that I went for a conservative, baggy collection otherwise everything I brought would have been useless. What is interesting is that I’m hardly spending any money on food.
The culture in Senegal is tightly woven around hospitality and the food. Regardless of which household or village Im in, people want to make me feel welcomed, share whatever bit of food they can, and as many grandmothers would say, put a little more meat on my bones. For example, when I visit other families and villages for any purpose, they insist that I stay for the next meal (even if its 5 hours away), stay for a couple cups of hot tea, or take a sack of the seasonal fruit for the road. This can be exciting when people are eating something delicious, in my perspective that would be kosam (sour milk/yogurt), but discerning genuine from obligatory invitations is beyond me.
I don’t think I would worry about my womanly figure if I was gorging myself in gourmet meals. Season to season, we eat out way through the staple crops in the storage hut, which is primarily white rice for my family. As we go from harvesting with an ample supply of grain and peanuts to starving season, the variety of meals dwindles from maybe five to one sad bowl of charity rice. It’s those repeated meals of nutrient-lacking white rice that nearly bring me to tears, leave an unsatisfying rock in my tummy, and maintain the width of my hips.I wish I was kidding or exaggerating; I didn’t eat rice before Senegal and this has only left me loathing it. The understanding that Senegalese culture centers on family and food, one of the few expressions of appreciation and love, might be the last reason that I don’t try supplementing all mealtimes. I’m not going to be the foreign prude and I’m done going in circles. I’m making the most out of sharing meals with my family by buying whatever veggies I can get my hands on during trips into town. Living in- or even visiting- a foreign country will remind you of the love for your own country and its simple comforts.