Friday, July 12, 2013

Jam Tan

“Jam tan”

Peace only, the habitual response to greetings both light and serious
any time of day. Even as I hide in my hut to write this, my host
nieces chant this over pretend phones.

It has been two years since I graduated from USCA with a B.S. in
biology and just under that since I received my official invitation to
serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I pursued the lengthy
application my senior year after looking at a range of study abroad
options. I qualified under the Agriculture program in Sub-Saharan
Africa with my science and French studies at USCA , field internship
at SRS, and tree-loving nature.

When the much anticipated invitation packet arrived, I nervously read
it over twice in the privacy of my room before finally sharing the
news. I was nominated to serve the following fall as an Agroforestry
Extension volunteer in Senegal. I received continued support and a
matching curiosity from family and friends. At the time, I only wish I
could better explain the approaching position, but there was no way of
knowing details. There are too many external (not to mention internal)
factors that contribute to this ultimately unique experience like
local language and site placement, prior NGO presence and relations,
perception of foreigners, and motivation for change.

Over the summer, I did everything I could to prepare for the vague job
description and terrifying PCV blogs that squeezed into my nightly
reading. PCVs were mugged by knife point and by tropical birds, they
fell into old latrines, and fell in love with new cultures. The
stories were rich, unexpected, and promising of wonderful
(mis)adventures. It was then that I first received the best and most
annoying advice that would carry through my service: “You’ll…figure it
out.” I had a plan, a prayer, and not much more, but was ready to put
it to work with real-world experience in an international environment.
The first two months of training consisted of “figuring it out”
through culture shock, intense emotions, and homesickness out the
wazoo. I was the exotic fish, the toubab, brought in from across the
Atlantic, and everyone tapped on my glass to ensure that I wouldn’t
forget it.

That misinterpreted thing that made me crumble early on was the same
thing that encouraged perseverance- Senegalese hospitality, or
Taranga. They shared with me their family name, their tongue-in-cheek
jokes, snotty-kiddy colds, bowls of white rice, and seemingly
redundant customs. In return, I have humbling discretions and shared
stories that change stereotypes on both sides. It seems silly to
entertain everyone I bump into with the automatic response “Peace
only!” It wasn’t until I was dropped in my rural village of 400 with
my shabby Pulaar language skills and time that I would understand.

I spent my days in the gossipy gardens and cotton fields with the
women, the afternoons making tea in the shade of mango trees with the
men, and any transition in a paparazzi swarm of kids, the most
forgiving of my Pulaar mishaps. Although the last two years of
classroom French would be next to useless at the village level, good
ol’ biology never let me down. I started off slowly, encouraging tree
nurseries and discussing deforestation, branched into sanitation
trainings about the abstract concept of ‘germs’ and ‘bacteria’, and
put my Pulaar to the test with nutrition, malaria, and sex education.
The trainings are high-points between the most basic form of
networking and connecting local needs with feasible solutions. I am a
facilitator trying to hack it out in the local community.

The water shortage makes the most routine tasks taxing, the lack of
electricity limits the day length, and the heat is only good for small
talk. How is the work? Peace only. Yes, I found the strength to make
it through another trying day and I’m just brave enough to do it

My host family says that two years isn’t long enough, even though I
was intimidated by the length of the commitment while applying. Over
that span, Peace Corps has proven to be an express life-training
program. It truly is a unique environment in which the energy put into
the system is multiplied tenfold. I now recognize subtle and profound
changes in my patience, flexibility, and my problem solving skills. I
am confident that with a deepened appreciation and curiosity for life
I will preserver in the next adventure.

I figured it out after all.