Why Peace Corps is not like Study Abroad — and other initial musings

I’ve done a lot of thinking about how my study abroad experiences in Morocco and South Africa may or may not be similar to my experiences here in Senegal. Sure, they were challenging and exciting – I learned new languages, dialects of those languages, a new alphabet, and how to bargain in the marketplace. I experienced intense moments of isolation and cultural friction. I stayed in home-stays and also bonded with other Americans. I made genuine connections with the people of those countries and in many ways felt that I grew into more of an adult over the course of that year.

But Peace Corps already feels different. There is a much more palpable sense of dedication, almost in a solemn sense. We have all just spent our first week with our home-stay families in various villages and returned to the Thies training center for a couple nights. Granted all of us went out to the beer garden last night to let off some steam (during Ramadan, no less). But I think that that merriment came out of a collective acknowledgment of how real this is and how much work we have ahead of us. In the vast majority of our villages, there are no “town centers,” cafes, or places to meet with other Americans who may be placed nearby, other than perhaps an unoccupied schoolyard. There are no frills like European toilets, showers, or privacy like one might have in a more developed city. In our language groups of 4 or 5 people, we have started to implement our training gardens in our villages, and are already noticing the challenges of getting work done in an unfamiliar place (are there wheelbarrows? where is the manure? where is the well?).

The first day I arrived at my home-stay, last Monday, I was so overwhelmed. I can honestly say, though, that I love my family and I’m so grateful for them. We live in the outskirts of Mbour. The family is about 15 people total. I have a mom, dad, sisters, brothers, uncles, sisters-in-law, and what they call “people of the house”–those who may or may not be related but sleep at the house and are part of the family. They understand how important it is for me to learn Pulaar, and most of them do not speak French anyway. I have advanced a lot in the language considering it has only been a week. My host father is the most gregarious, welcoming person. People in general are very socially comfortable and have great senses of humor. They know how to diffuse any tense situation and find something to laugh about. We eat out of large communal bowls (either with spoons or hands), and I’m in love with a particular dish involving grilled fish and a mustard-shallot sauce (having this dish, however, was a semi-special occasion).

Here in Senegal, wearing bright patterned clothing is the norm, and it’s still amazing to see women at the house working, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. in what Americans would consider intriguing and elaborate fabrics. There are different degrees of fanciness, of course, and having a wrap skirt here made of a certain colorful cloth might be akin to an American wearing sweatpants made of jersey or a similar material. I am starting to assert that I do not need to be given the best chair and special treatment, but I am doing this slowly because I know they probably want to treat me like a guest at first.

There is so much to say, but I can’t fit it all in here. I will say that one highlight was an intense rainstorm that occurred one night that was pretty exciting, but I’m sure thoroughly mundane for my family and the people of Senegal. I had finally fallen asleep one night after an hour or so of sweaty tossing and turning because of the heat. Then the wind whipped against my window and pretty soon rain started pounding on the tin roof above me and it was so loud! The excitement reminded me of watching a thunderstorm, except it was just me in the pitch black dark of my oven-like room, listening to the crashing bullets of water above me. I ended up digging for my earplugs because the noise was absolutely impossible to ignore.

And ahh, I love cold bucket baths. I really do. It’s so hot here.

I hope to post pictures soon. I haven’t taken any yet because whipping out a camera sort of unleashes a can of worms here, and I want to do everything little by little. But I promise, the pictures are coming. Senegal is tough, beautiful, and amazing. Peace.


3 thoughts on “Why Peace Corps is not like Study Abroad — and other initial musings

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful post. I liked the depiction of your host family. I want the recipe for the grilled fish with mustard-shallot sauce! Please take pictures of the food, specially dishes you like.

  2. Maya,
    So glad to read your newsy blogs. And, especially happy that you are enjoying all the experiences you write about. Having real people as friends and live-in family is so rewarding. You are giving a lot but getting so much back. All this will stay with you through many years and many reflective moments.
    God’s speed!

  3. Dearest Maya, It was so wonderful to speak to you the other day on our cellphones – you in Senegal, me in Seattle, sounding like we were around the corner from each other. (Now I’m back in Melbourne – I’ll call you soon.) Love and a big hug from Mom

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