you don’t choose a life, you live one

girlwithgumption teaching english in korea, washington state, usa

As my Peace Corps service came to a close I faced one of those inevitable forks in the road. What do I do next?

I balked at the pressure of actually making a decision. You see, I’m not great at making decisions. Or actually that’s not true, I am great at making decisions, it’s just making good decisions that is a struggle. But you already knew that…

With the hangover of adventure still lingering from 2 years in the Peace Corps, I was sure that it was time to return to “real life.” Work a 9-5 job that I barely tolerated. Lease an apartment. Drink grande triple shot lattes. Apply to grad school. Go on bad first dates. Peace Corps was fun, but that hangover of adventure sucked. I woke up the next morning and swore to myself I would never to it again.

But you all know how this goes right? Now that I’ve been back a few months I’ve forgotten that terrible hangover. I can no longer fight that voice that is telling me it’s time for another adventure. Will I wake up dehydrated, exhausted and vomiting yet again? Probably.

Life is short. Let’s make the next round a double.


girlwithgumption peace corps senegal, washington state, usa

Question: I see you’ve been in the Peace Corps for the past two years. You know I once thought of applying for the Peace Corps.

What I wanted to say: Cool, I once thought of applying to Harvard.

What I actually said: Yes I was a Peace Corps volunteer and it was a very challenging and rewarding experience. While I was serving in Senegal I feel I gained some valuable skills and insights that would make me an excellent addition to your team.

Question: So we don’t allow our employees to check facebook or text during work hours. Do you think you would be able to disconnect yourself from your personal life during the day?

What I wanted to say: Well, during a particularly long power outage in Senegal I once went 2 weeks without internet, cellphones, music and electricity in general. So, yes?

What I actually said: Yes. I don’t imagine that will be a problem.

Question: We are looking for a highly motivated employee who is capable of working without direct supervision. Do you think you are capable of this?

What I wanted to say: Probably not. Motivation has never been my strong suit. That’s why I enrolled in college at age 16, traveled independently to 18 different countries before I was 21 and spent the last two years doing grassroots development work in sub-Saharan Africa. I’m such a slacker.

What I actually said: I have had extensive experience successfully completing projects without direct supervision. And for the past two years I have worked on projects while living on the opposite side of the country from my work supervisor.

Question: We work with a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds. Are you comfortable in a diverse work environment?

What I wanted to say: Nope. Not comfortable at all. That’s why I volunteered to live halfway around the world in an isolated African town where no one spoke English. I just feel so awkward around people who are different than me.

What I actually said: I’ve been extensively trained in cross cultural communication and have over 3 years of combined experience in international work and travel. I feel most at home working in an environment that embraces diversity and encourages a variety of work and communication styles.

Question: I see you’ve put down that you are interested in a salaried position. Just want to let you know that our entry-level employees are hourly positions and they usually start at minimum wage.

What I wanted to say: Last time I made minimum wage I was a 16-year-old waitress. I assumed that now with my three degrees and 4 previous years of experience that I am worth more than $8.80 per hour. Whoops. My bad.

What I actually said: Well I understand that compensation packages vary from company to company. I am willing to take a dip in salary if the company offers other employee benefits. –oh, you don’t? Not even health insurance? *Awkward silence*

becoming an american african, or what peace corps didn’t tell me about re-integration

girlwithgumption peace corps senegal, washinngton dc, usa

Peace Corps admin tries very hard to prepare their volunteers for re-entry. When the end of our service nears, they even pay for us to spend two days at a nice hotel plying us with resources to help us with re-integration. These resources are supposed to help us wrap up our service into nice little boxes and one again become functional cogs in American society.

After all, it would be bad PR if returned volunteers were constantly breaking down in the cereal isles of their local grocery store or shouting foreign profanities at city bus drivers.

Re-integration is hard. And while Peace Corps has done its best to prepare us, I’ve struggled with a few obstacles that I wasn’t expecting. Becoming an American African is harder than I thought…

First, I cannot believe that no one mentioned the reverse toilet paper shock. For two years my bottom felt nothing but the trickle of lukewarm water and the soft African breeze. No toilet paper means my butt was–well–soft as a baby’s bottom. So, you can only imagine my behind’s discomfort at being wiped with rough, chemically treated paper. Luckily with time my butt has rebuilt the callouses required for survival in the toilet paper obsessed western world.

Oh, and then there’s the cars. Automobiles have become my personal nemesis. I hate driving and I hate being a passenger. These huge chunks of metal are nothing better than American deathtraps. After surviving two years in Africa the last thing I want is to die in a run-of-the-mill auto collision. And the more often I am in a car the more likely it becomes that this is the way I am going to bite the dust. Is it irrational? Sure, but I have never claimed to be a rational human being…

And there is the loss of adventure. When you are in the Peace Corps, just getting out of bed and taking a shower is an unpredictable and exciting. The most boring and mundane days still have obstacles and challenges. Even after 2 years you are still learning a new language and gaining insights into a new culture. Life in America is boring in comparison. Sure, hot water, English speakers and an endless variety of food are nice—but life here feels too easy and dull by comparison.

And of course the climate readjustment. I don’t know if you realize this—but America is freezing. Or at least my little corner of the Pacific Northwest is pretty damn cold. My body’s internal thermometer thinks 90 degrees is “room temperature” even a well-heated house is cold by my standards. To top it off, I don’t have any warm clothes. I have seriously considered investing in one of these, but then I remember that I am a broke, unemployed, recently returned Peace Corps volunteer and I stop myself.

And finally, while Peace Corps does a great job of training volunteers to answer that inevitable “how was the Peace Corps” question with a quick 30 second elevator-pitch response, what Peace Corps really doesn’t prepare us for, are the people who simply say, “Thank you for your service.” On the rare occasion I encounter someone who actually appreciates my work, I get overwhelmed, tongue tied and incredibly emotional. Yeah, super awkward for everyone involved…

Being a Peace Corps volunteer is a thankless job. The organization is misunderstood, underfunded and overstretched. The volunteers who give up two years of their life to represent the best of the United States while doing difficult grassroots development work deserve so much more. At the very least, they deserved to be thanked.

Oh, but if you are one of the few people who actually do thank volunteers, don’t be surprised if one busts into inexplicable tears. Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal.

so you’re saying the peace corps roofied you?

girlwithgumption peace corps senegal, washington state, usa

Random dude: Cool. You were in the Peace Corps! So what was that like for you?

Me: Well… I’m not really sure yet. It’s like I woke up one morning and my hair was 6 inches longer, my skin was two shades darker, my body was covered in bruises and scars, I had a stomach full of parasites, there was the nasty aftertaste of shitty beer in my mouth, and an Akon song was stuck in my head.

Random dude: Oh… so you’re saying Peace Corps roofied you?

stages of grief: peace corps edition

girlwithgumption peace corps senegal, washington state, usa

Stage One – Denial
This stage manifests itself by volunteers insisting that they feel “fine.” They haven’t yet acknowledged that their service is over. They may still refer to themselves as a “PCV” (Peace Corps Volunteer) instead of a “RPCV” (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). They call their village of service regularly and insist that their local language skills are not declining. Many volunteers prolong this stage indefinitely by embarking on close of service journeys to destinations even Lonely Planet has failed to cover in their Shoestring Guides.

Stage Two – Anger
Once volunteers have accepted that their service is in fact finished, they often channel their overwhelming feelings of guilt and loss into anger. Volunteers in this stage can often be heard crying, “Why me? It’s not fair!” or “Why did this happen to me?”

Stage 3 – Bargaining
At this point many volunteers start to believe that a return to the Peace Corps would solve all their problems. Many may find themselves negotiating with their former Country Directors for Peace Corps staff positions or Peace Corps Response assignments. Volunteers fruitlessly attempt to find a way to re-create their original Peace Corps experience—except vowing to be a “better” or “more effective” volunteer this time around.

Stage 4 – Depression
During the fourth stage the volunteer begins to understand the certainty of the end of their Peace Corps service. Because of this many volunteers may disconnect from the world and people around them. Phone calls to their country of service will occur less frequently. Their lives will revolve around marathons of the television shows Hoarders and Top Chef. Volunteers will spend most of their time grieving the end of their service.

Stage 5 – Acceptance
After grieving the end of their service, volunteers can finally move on and accept their new reality. They reassure themselves that, “It’s going to be okay.” Or “I can’t go back, I may as well move on.” Volunteers fall into their previous lives and their Peace Corps experience becomes something brought up only in drunken bar conversation.

thanks for the laughs africa

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

My last days in Kedougou were a steamy, hot, emotional mess. A blur of left-handed handshakes, gift exchanges, and screaming children—for some reason all the women I worked with thought it would be appropriate to “offer” me their babies to take back to America, I respectfully declined but gave them Madonna and Angelina Jolie’s contact info.

On my last day, against my better judgment I agreed to let my Dad say a prayer for me with our family and neighbors. I agreed even though I knew that I would probably do something inappropriate, like cry (in Senegal it is inappropriate to cry in public), or hug someone (also weird), or fall asleep (I hadn’t slept for like 3 days because I was so upset and stressed).

As the crowd began to gather, my father started reciting a prayer in Arabic, then switched to Pulaar, and it didn’t take long before silent tears were streaming down my face. My aunt Hali reached over and grabed my hand. But it wasn’t until my father’s voice cracked that I finally started sobbing—probably much to the embarrassment of the neighborhood Maribou (religious leader) who was there to say a blessing for my safe journey home.

As we were finishing, our 90 year-old neighbor, Neene Sylla, wandered into the compound and joined the prayer. Through my watery eyes I saw that she was wearing a pagne (a sheet of fabric wrapped around the waist as a skirt) and a shiny mesh black tank top.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve seen my share of saggy-senegalese-grandma-boobage in my two years here, I’d just never seen them accessorized so elegantly in mesh. Out of nowhere I started giggling. Yep, in the middle of one of the most poignant and emotional moments of my life, I was giggling. Girl gone cray cray.

Oh Africa. Just when I think things couldn’t get any more difficult/depressing/frustrating/humiliating you throw something so completely unexpected my way (like shiny elderly boobies) and I end up an emotional wreck, glistening in sweat and tears while I chortle to myself.

There is a saying in Peace Corps that PC Asia volunteers return home more spiritual, Latin American volunteers more political and Eastern European volunteers with a spouse. But African volunteers return home laughing because if we weren’t laughing we would be crying…

So I guess the best way to end this adventure is just to say thanks for the laughs Africa. It’s been a hoot.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

(Oh okay, there is also a version that says African volunteers come back drunk… but the laughter version fits my post better.)

future biographers please read this entry only

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

As my two years of service comes to a close, I assume that I am supposed to feel some grandiose sense of relief, happiness, or accomplishment. This incredibly life changing experience is about to come to finish, but honestly all I can do is worry about whether my World Trade Center flip flops are appropriate plane attire and how you say “dramamine” in Spanish–my stomach doesn’t really like planes, trains and automobiles, which isn’t a problem in Senegal since most people here are pukers too, but I have a feeling that people in the western world will not appreciate my puking-into-a-ziplock-and-double-wrapping-it-in-a-black-plastic-bag routine.

Anyways, in an effort to be introspective and deep (also, just in case someone ever writes a biography about me—I don’t want them to write that these were my “drunken, animal slaughtering, bike riding, semi-lucid Peace Corps years”) I have made a list of the tangible and intangible ways that Peace Corps changed me.

I’ve become fluent in a second language. And I didn’t do this because it would look good on my resume, or because it was a requirement of my college major—I did it because I came to love my city, my new country and my new family. I learned Pulaar for them. I learned Pulaar so that I could connect with them and share my life with them.

I learned to live in the moment. To stop micromanaging my life. My Peace Corps service taught me that life is better when plans are loose and spontaneity is embraced.

I’ve become infinitely more humble. The things that gave me confidence the USA—my intelligence and (ahem, damn good) looks—did not translate to Senegal. Intelligence in Senegal isn’t measured by how many degrees you have, but instead by the wrinkles on your face. And without clean hair, nice clothes, high heels and makeup it’s hard to feel beautiful. Stripped of these things I listened more and spoke less. I was a more effective volunteer because of this.

And most importantly—I’ve learned to laugh. Peace Corps service is impossibly hard and if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. And eventually my tear ducts became so dehydrated from the hot African sun I was left with no other choice but laugh. So I laughed. I laughed a lot.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

so this is awa

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

Meet my youngest Senegalese sister, Awa.

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Likes: bubbles, dancing, hanging out in my room, her imaginary friend “Fatou” and bathing in big tubs (called benoirs).

Dislikes: shoes, beans, bananas, and getting her hair braided.

Superhuman power: squealing/yelling in a high pitch voice (imagine Elmo’s voice—now take it 4 octaves higher).

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

the things i missed…

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

One of my best friends in the entire world is getting married this weekend. And for the first time in a long time I have been cripplingly overcome with homesickness.

I sometimes forget that while I am trying to survive day to day life here in Africa, life goes on in the rest of the world. Two years is a really long time. I’ve missed birthdays and engagements. Breakups and graduations. New apartments and new babies. The world keeps turning–even when I am not there.

Besides all the personal moments that I have missed, there have been a lot of other things that have gone down in the world of newspapers, TVs and internet. I have compiled a short list of all the other things I missed over the past two years. Anyone want to help catch me up?

Those shoes with toes in them. Wtf? If you want the feeling of going barefoot just go barefoot—then send your shoes to Africa. People here would love REAL shoes.

The Tea Party. I’m not confident, but I am pretty sure that tiny watercress sandwiches and actual tea aren’t involved.

Jeggings. Are they jeans? Or are they leggings? Someone please explain.

The world was supposed to end. And then it didn’t. And now it looks like rapture may be going down on October 21st. I end my Peace Corps service on October 14th. 7 days later the world might end. Sounds about right to me.

Oprah’s show is over? I would have thought that was a pretty good indicator that the end of the world is near.

And LOST is over! I’m sure that J.J. Abrams wrapped that up into a nice little package. No unsolved mysteries. No lingering questions. Right? No wait, don’t spoil it for me.

Famines, riots, nuclear melt downs, and an oil spill. At least some things never change…

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

my senegalese alter ego

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

When I installed as a volunteer in Kedougou I was given a Senegalese name, Rokia. Almost all volunteers in Peace Corps Senegal are given new names. There are different reasons for a name reassignment but usually it boils down to the fact that Senegalese people aren’t especially adventurous with names and our American names are almost impossible for them pronounce. I burst into giggles every time my family tries to say my American father’s name—it has the perfect combination of sounds that render it virtually impossible for a Pulaar tongue to say. “Keith Chamberlain” becomes “keef shamaliin.” Yes I am aware I have the maturity level of a 7 year-old. I’m beyond caring about it.

Anyways,–third grade humor aside—giving your new family the opportunity to name you helps you fit in to the family and integrate into your community. In Senegalese culture you are almost always named after someone and your namesake is expected to be your unofficial guardian and teacher, somewhat like a godparent in western culture.

I really love my Senegalese name. It is like having a second (sometimes cooler) alter ego. Rokia is more adventurous. She is more patient with the children. She eats carbs for 3 meals a day. She rides a bike to and from work. She wears dirty clothes and only washes her hair once a week. Rokia has never worn high heels or makeup.

I was very content to keep my Senegalese alter-ego separate from my American name and identity. It is easier to come to grips with the reality of life here if you can find a way to get a little bit of distance and perspective—having a different name helps me do that. But it didn’t take long for things to get complicated.

My first couple months in Kedougou I was a regular at Sunday mass and I was introduced to a couple girls named Mélanie (that’s the fancy French version of my name—and St. Melanie is actually a pretty popular African saint). I felt weird introducing myself as “Rokia” in church when they obviously wouldn’t think my name was weird or have problems pronouncing it. I quickly decided to go by the name “Melanie” around my Christian friends and acquaintances.

Because of that decision, things started to get a lot more complicated. I had people showing up to my house asking for “Melanie” and my family was turning them away because no one by that name lived there. When I started working with the HIV/AIDS group I introduced myself as “Rokia” but a couple members of the group were Catholic and knew me as “Melanie” and were really perplexed by my name change.

My new family is an excellent example of the daily confusion that occurs regarding what to call me.

Since I wasn’t named after anyone in their family the name “Rokia” holds no particular significance to them—but they can remember it and pronounce it much better than my American name. My oldest brother confuses the situation by using “Melanie” whenever he is talking to me in private and “Rokia” in public. My father and uncle usually address me as “Rokia”–except on the phone. On the phone they always use “Melanie.”

After two years here I am experiencing an identity crisis. For better or worse my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer has considerably changed my life. Who I was before all this and who I am now are two completely different people. I honestly don’t know who I am more now, “Rokia” or “Melanie.”

Maybe I can mix them together like they do with celebrity couples. “Melkia” kinda has a nice ring to it…

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

mefloquine dreams

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

As a Peace Corps volunteer in a malaria zone I am required by the US government to take a malaria prophylaxis. My particular prescribed poison is Mefloquine.

Mefloquine is not a pretty drug. It has an incredibly long list of side effects and it has been blamed for some pretty freaky shit.

The TGA–which is the Australian equivalent of the FDA– goes so far as to say “mefloquine frequently produces annoying adverse neurological effects such as insomnia, vivid dreams, dizziness, mental clouding, anxiety and coordination problems…consequently any person requiring a clear mind and good co-ordination should not use mefloquine. “ Good thing I have absolutely no need for a clear mind. Right?

So Mefloquine is not good. And us Peace Corps volunteers are the only people (at least that I am aware of) that take it continuously two years.

But malaria is not good either. It kills nearly one million people (mostly children) each year. I happen to be one of the lucky few who have access to a drug that will keep me from getting malaria and possibly dying, so you can bet your last dirty CFA that I take my Mefloquine every week like clockwork.

Since we have to spend two years together I have tried to focus on the bright side of my Mefloquine use. Sure it makes manic at times. And it gives me terrible insomnia and nasty heartburn. And my extremities get all tingly if I sit in the same position for more than 45 seconds. But the bright side? Awesomely vivid dreams. Yeah. We’re talking seriously vivid.

Oh get your mind out of the gutter. I;m not going to write a blog post about THOSE kinds of dreams.  I have boundaries—kinda.

I never really had memorable dreams before Mefloquine, so this is an entirely new experience for me. Plus it happens on a regular basis, at least once a week. And the dreams are so real. Real enough that sometimes I have a hard time differentiating between sleep and reality.

Once I dreamt I was in the frozen food section of a grocery store sitting on the ground eating a frozen cheesecake. When I woke up I was sitting on the cement floor of my hut, shivering from the “cold”.

Another time I dreamt I had won 100,000 dollars. And I actually went through most of my morning believing it was true. What an amazing feeling.

I have been scuba diving in Australia and hiking in the Swiss Alps. I’ve become a principal dancer at ABT. I have had dinner parties and drank bottles of wine with people I haven’t seen or spoken with in years.

Some people would be freaked out by the dreams, but honestly I think they are partially responsible for keeping me here over the past two years. My dreams allow me to escape—even if it isn’t real, it sure does feel real.

I guess I am suffering from a kind of pharmaceutical Stockholm Syndrome. I have almost even become reliant on my weekly mefloquine fix. And I think I will actually miss the Mefloquine when it is gone.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

in which i attempt to listen to the bbc and fail miserably

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

After two years in the African bush I am so out of touch. As a previous NY Times/NPR/Huffington Post/US weekly (yeah I admit it) addict my distance from “reality” has been especially hard. Any newspaper or magazine I read is at least 3 months old—but honestly I would read anything that was written in the last two years since it would probably contain “news” to me.

Of course I have access to the internet, but most of my internet time is eaten up with facebooking, emailing, skyping, and of course writing these awesome blog posts—you’re welcome. If I had a spare moment I certainly wouldn’t spend it reading the NY Times or the Economist online. I would spend that time staring at food porn and downloading the newest Savage Love Podcast—duh.

So a while back I tried to remedy my lack of current affairs knowledge by purchasing a radio. A lot of volunteers can pick up the BBC World Service on their radios out in village and I thought that listening to the BBC every night before bed would be the perfect solution to my current state of dumbness.

At the market I picked out a nice compact radio and had the vendor tune it to the channel where they “hallii angalis” (speak English). I came home incredibly proud of myself and excited that I would soon become a world affairs know-it-all.

Every night before I went to bed I turned on the radio and listened while I dozed off. And then each morning while I took my bucket bath I brought the radio out to my latrine with me to keep me company. The reception was very spotty and at times it was nearly impossible to hear anything over the static.

I also noticed that the accents of the reporters seemed a little off—but I didn’t think much of it. I assumed the “queens English” probably wasn’t standard on the BBC nowadays. Besides this was the BBC in Africa. Obvi they would have some reporters who spoke English a little differently. I was starting to feel that wonderful sense of superiority you get when you think you are better informed than everyone else.

After a couple of weeks and a few conversations with other Peace Corps volunteers and my family back in America, I realized that I wasn’t as well informed as I originally thought. I hadn’t heard about a lot of really important events like the oil spill in the gulf and the election of a new Prime Minister in the UK. Which is odd. You think the BBC would cover shit like that. I mean I know it’s the BBC World Service, but surely they don’t flat out ignore events in their home country. Right?

I also started to notice that I was intimately aware of the internal politics of Nigeria. How the hell did that happen? I probably can’t even identify Nigeria on a map and yet I knew all about the religious violence and revenge attacks on various Christian and Muslim villages throughout the country and about political instability because of the illness of their President, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. I could even pronounce Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

Then on one particularly clear morning when the signal was coming in strong I heard the radio announcer proclaim: “You’re listening to the Voice of Nigeria”. The fucking voice of Nigeria. How the hell could I have gone so long without noticing? I am such an idiot. I took a tumble off my high horse and damn did it hurt.

In the days that followed tried and failed to try to pick up the BBC World Service signal. I eventually gave up and gifted the radio to my senile grandmother who uses it to listen to an Imman reading the Koran—even though the only language she understands is Pulaar and she is almost completely deaf.

But really, who am I to judge. I can’t even tell the difference between the Voice of Nigeria and the BBC.

there are starving kids in Africa but am not one of them

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

I didn’t join Peace Corps because I thought it would be a creative way to lose weight. I’m not that stupid (I know, evidence suggests otherwise). But I did think that one of the perks of living in a food insecure sub-Saharan country for two years might be weight loss. Damn was I wrong.

My first couple weeks in Senegal things were looking good for my waistline. A bout of food poisoning combined with my training family’s reluctance to feed me during Ramadan meant that, even though the most exercise I was getting every day was the ab workout from crying myself to sleep, I still managed to lose weight.

But all good things (even hunger) must come to an end. I moved into my permanent site in Kedougou, and despite the fact I was eating for 412 (I am counting all the internal parasites) I started to gain weight.

Food here falls into 3 categories: 1) empty carbs. 90% of what I consume is white rice and corn cous cous. 2) Oil. Lots of oil. 3) Sugar. If I make it out of this without becoming diabetic it will be a miracle. Protein? Fruits? Vegetables? Yeah right.

I wasn’t doing my body any favors either. For the first time in my life I wasn’t exercising. Unless you count the calories I burned running back a forth from my bed to the latrine.

All this would be fine, if I hadn’t turned into an avid beer drinker since arriving here. Oh okay, so I can’t really blame Senegal for this particular character flaw. But I bet my penchant for terrible tasting Senegalese beer hasn’t really helped the situation.

When all was said and done my parasites put up an epic fight but they were no match for the killer combination of shitty food (pun intended), booze and laziness. It didn’t take long before my ass reached epically enormous proportions. And when I stepped on the scale after a year and 8 months in Senegal I almost burst into tears. That’s a lie. I cried. I cried like the big fat baby I’ve become. But despite how upset I was, I didn’t do anything about it.

This never would have happened in America. Because in America I am a self-hating bitch. On my bad days no one hated me more than me. And that was possible because I lived in a world where every time I shot myself down, someone else would pick me up, my friends, my family, that hot guy that just checked me out at Starbucks. In America I had the luxury of being self-hating.

Here in Senegal I don’t have that luxury. I get told every day my skin is the wrong color. My clothes are wrong. I don’t speak the right language. My nose is ugly. My ears are red. I am stupid. If someone notices me it’s for all the wrong reasons. When the only attention you get is negative attention it really fucks with your mind. If that little voice inside my head wasn’t screaming back wonderful kind compliments I would have self-destructed long ago.

This isn’t a cliché story about a girl who lived two years in Africa and came to embrace her body and love her curves. I am not that girl. And Senegal didn’t make me love my chub. When I get back to the “real world” I’m sure I will fall back into predictable patterns of deprivation in pursuit of the illusive “perfect body”. But what Senegal did teach me is how to be my own champion. How to find strength and confidence without external affirmation. And honestly that was probably worth the extra 30 pounds.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

shit my senegalese dad says

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

Meet my Senegalese Dad, Weliba.

senegalese, dad, father, african, peace corps, family

He is a husband (multiple times), teacher, and father to countless children. He speaks mumbled Pulaar infused with French. He also insists on beginning each of our interactions with the phrase “Rokia, my daughter” and what comes after is usually highly amusing.

Dad: Rokia, my daughter, why don’t you do sport? (He means “exercise”)
Me: Because I don’t want to.
Dad: But it is necessary. Some day you may need to defend yourself. You know, like from an attacker.

Dad: Rokia, my daughter, I noticed you slept with your door open last night. You must close your door at night, otherwise vampires will come in at night and take your virginity.

Dad: Rokia, my daughter, I have something very important to talk to you about.
Me (concerned): What? What’s wrong?
Dad: You really need to learn more Pulaar proverbs otherwise you won’t be interesting.

Dad: Rokia, my daughter, the kids call you toubab because long ago the French military came to Kedougou and threw candy to all the kids.
Me: Dad, do I look like French military?
Dad: Well… sometimes when you don’t braid your hair and you wear pants you look like a boy.
Me: Ummmm okay…

a (somewhat) patriotic song

girlwithgumption kedougou, senegal, peace corps senegal

Sung to the tune of America the Beautiful

For cheddar cheese, for hairdryers
For beautiful clean clothes,
For gro-cer-y stores, oh so big
and triple shot la-ttes!

America, America
How much I do miss thee!
But very soon,
I’ll come home to you
Across the shining sea!

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

trippin out… to segou

girlwithgumption peace corps senegal, segou, senegal

The grand opening of my region-mate and friend Zach’s ecolodge project was this week. Zach is an ecotourism volunteer and he has been working for the past two years building a community campement in the village of Segou. Why the hell would someone want to visit a tiny Pulaar village in the middle of the middle of nowhere? Because there is a waterfall. And in Senegal waterfalls=tourism gold.

Getting to Segou meant a 25km bike ride. And I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this, but most of my fellow Kedougou volunteers are adventure-racing-rock-vaulting-triatheletes, and I am not. So when selecting companions to make the trip out to Segou, I choose very carefully. I assembled a group I thought would complement particular cycling style.

First in the lineup was Leah, who broke her ankle last year getting off her bike (yeah, not riding her bike—she broke her ankle on the dismount) and was med-evaced to America for 90 days. And our third was Alex, my fiery site-mate, who thinks hailing a cab in New York in high heels should be the most effort exerted to get from place to place.
segou, senegal, kedougou, bush, waterfall, ecolodge, bike

These girls were the perfect biking companions, but I kinda have a feeling that by the halfway point of the trip they were regretting their decision to come with me. I am not easy to bike with, for several reasons:

I can’t keep an even pace. Unless alternating between turtle-slow-pace and snail-slow-pace is considered even.

I am also easily distracted. Funny looking tree, monkeys, a dog, a car, weird looking shape in the mud—all excuses to stop and gawk for awhile.

Snack time is mandatory. Doesn’t matter if it is a trip across town or across the region, snacks are vital part of my biking routine.

Also I try not to look at a bike trip as “exercise”. Under no circumstances do I ever feel the need to exert myself. My definition of exertion is anything that makes me so out of breath I can no longer sing along to Rihanna on my ipod.

Oh, and I sing along to my ipod. Really loud and off-key. Loud enough to scare the monkeys, and off-key enough to probably annoy the hell out of any unfortunate person I may pass, and definitely enough to make my companions contemplate suicide by bike.

So, anyone else out there up for a bike trip with me?

what they should actually teach us at our cos conference

girlwithgumption dakar, senegal, peace corps senegal

It finally came. The event that marks the beginning of the end for every Peace Corps volunteer, our COS (close of service) conference. The conference was held quite a while before our 2-year mark because many people have gotten permission to peace out of this place early. Don’t worry, I am planning on sticking it out for my 2-year commitment. There is no way I could leave early, I am just too excited to see what kind of skin infections I can catch during one final rainy season in Africa.

At the COS conference we learned all sorts of important things. Like how to write about your Peace Corps experience on your resume. And how not to bore everyone in America with stories about life in Africa because apparently no one really cares. And how little money the US government is giving us as a “thank-you” for two years of service. There were a couple of really crucial things we did not learn about however, and I can’t help but wonder why the following subjects were not included…

Musical Re-Education

I have a feeling that if I go up to a DJ at a club in America and demand they play the Shakira “Waka Waka” song, that’s not going to over very well. Also, describing my musical taste as “anything by Akon” probably isn’t acceptable. And I bet people in America can’t recite every word to “Mamadou Yalti Golle” and they probably won’t appreciate me playing the song repeatedly on my cellphone.

English Language Bootcamp
English is hard. Luckily, since I am in the regional capital I get to see lots of Peace Corps volunteers so my English hasn’t suffered too much. Except that French and literal translations of Pulaar phrases seem to have invaded my vocabulary. How do you say “regle that” or “robinet” or “my douche” in American? Also, “sit well” and “greet them!” apparently are not phrases commonly used in America. Who knew?

Culturally Appropriate Greetings
On a similar note, apparently it is not necessary to say hi to strangers in America. In fact, it is frowned upon. Stopping to inquire about a stranger’s health, family and work is something only salespeople do. And crazy people. I am not selling anything. And I am not crazy. (Let’s just let that that one go…)

Current Fashion Trends
We all should have gotten copies of the most recent editions of Vogue, Elle and InStyle–we have some major studying to do. In America yoga pants and a recycled shirt that says “Carpenter Family Reunion” (btw my last name is not Carpenter) is not acceptable casual attire. And dressing head to toe in the same splashy pattern does not make for good evening wear.

Appropriate Hygiene
You must immediately stop: Picking your nose in public. Walking around town barefoot. Wearing deodorant on special occasions only. Wiping your ass with water and your left hand. Washing your hair once a month. Getting your hair cut once every 2 years. Getting your hair cut only when you are blackout drunk.

Damn. Re-integration is going to be hard.

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.

saint louis: a lot of festing, not a lot of jazz

girlwithgumption peace corps senegal, st. louis, senegal

It took the allure of the Saint Louis International Jazz Festival to drag me out of my wet, soggy corner of Senegal–yeah right, all it took was for someone to mention beach, beer and party and I was on the first bush taxi outta here.  Something to keep in mind when trying to bribe me.  I am easily bought.

saint louis, senegal, st louis, french, colonial, architecture,

Saint Louis is the former capital of colonial French West Africa.  So natch it received quite a lot of attention and tlc by the Frenchies during their heyday in Africa.  The island/downtown area is filled with french colonial architecture and is often compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans.  Except since the French left in the 1960s not much has been done to preserve the old town.  Now it is essentially left to crumble and fade away to ruins.  Senegalese apathy >hurricane Katrina.

–sidenote: I seem to have lost any filter for appropriate subjects to joke about (see previous posts about abusive relationships and pooping).  If this offends you either pay for me to have access to 24-hours-a-day cable television in English and a People magazine subscription so that I can be in touch with the outside world.  Or just stop reading.  I can assure you that as my two years in Africa come to a close it will only get worse.–

st louis, saint louis, boats, fishing, colonial, west africa, senegal

So, anyways.  I have no idea if the jazz festival was all that jazzy because I didn’t actually attend any concerts (because I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, it took all the money I have just to get to the other side of the country for this shindig).  But I did do my fair share of dancing, drinking, and eating at some of the best places this side of the Sahara.

We had a massive send-off party for members of my stage (the group of volunteers I arrived in-country with and trained with).  At the party just about everyone except me managed to get pick-pocketed.  Why not me?  Well because after downing a couple beers I made friends with a Kora playing Guinean Pulaar and proceeded to spend the entire night ignoring my English-speaking American friends and instead discussing West African politics (in Pulaar/French) and pausing every once in awhile to learn a ditty on the Kora–and no that is not a sexual euphemism, I actually made (very simple) music on one of these suckers.

So, I managed to hold on to my camera and money.  My sanity on the other hand, I think we can all agree is long gone by now…

Disclaimer: The contents of this blog are mine alone and do not represent the positions or views of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Peace Corps.