On the way back to Dakar from Thies today, one of our Peace Corps doctors asked me if I ever thought about everything I’d learned since coming to Senegal. Three years ago when I got off the plane in Dakar for the first time, would I have been able to guess everything that would be in my head today? The answer is unequivocally no. This conversation happened after we had spent the day at the Peace Corps training center facilitating a session on malaria for a new group of Health and Community Economic Development trainees who are going through their first week of what will be 9 weeks of language, cross-cultural, and technical training. After that, they’ll be sworn in as Volunteers and installed in their communities.
Being around PC trainees in their first week in Senegal is exciting; everyone is so motivated to soak up information and do good things. There are also telltale signs that they haven’t been here long- the way they interact with people, perhaps paying no mind to whether they pass or accept an item with their left or right hand, or getting right to business before the customary Senegalese greeting ritual. These things will change with time, and the next two years will be a tremendous learning experience for everyone as it was for me. I sometimes wish that I could transplant all the information I’ve learned here into their brains to get a head start on things.
Learning what it means to be human, American, a woman, and uniquely me is a road that Senegal is guiding me down; being a woman is surely the most sacred part. The strength of Senegalese women never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Over the last three years, I have seen women in all sorts of situations that I couldn’t have imagined before. From being raised to be a ‘good woman,’ marriage, becoming a mother, raising children, succeeding in education and the workforce, weathering hardship, losing friends and family members, women are so often the glue that holds this place together.
One of my favorite memories from the village happened late at night. After the kids had played with their friends until they couldn’t play anymore- singing, dancing, and joking at one or another’s house, each would file in. Wherever their mother, Ndeye was sitting, the six would find places to sit or lounge near her. They would ask her all sorts of questions, she’d answer and ask her own, they would chat, and inevitably there would be lots of laughing. When I was lucky enough to catch one of these moments, we would laugh together- sometimes at each other, sometimes at a joke, sometimes at a ridiculous situation. The trust in and love of their mother alongside such closeness and honesty with the realities of life is what always got to me. If every family could have these warm joy-filled conversations, the world would be a much different place.
|Ndeye with her oldest son in a photo she |
accidentally took with my ipod.
|Ndeye is on the right, chatting with our neighbor|
More of my favorite moments came with my 5-year-old host niece Codou during my second year in the village. Not long before, her mom had died a few months after giving birth to Codou’s younger sister, leaving three girls in the care of their grandmother. As with her mother and I, Codou and I hit it off right away- it was a no-questions-asked bond. She started by coming into my yard on laundry day to “help” wash my clothes, which usually involved dunking her head in the rinse water, coming up with a gasp for air and a huge smile on her face, and repeating until I intervened. Next, she started coming for breakfast. Sometimes she would bring her own bread and coffee, sometimes I’d give her some of mine, but either way, we would sit on the floor of my hut and chat while we ate. My efforts to get her to chew with her mouth shut were to no avail. When we finished, she’d go on her way. If she was early, she would crawl into bed with me and we’d chat there before breakfast. Finally, during the last few months of my service, after all the family and neighbors had started calling her my child because of our closeness, Codou started coming at bath time. I would get tub of water and have her stand in it while I scrubbed her with soap then rinsed and dried her off; she’d giggle every time water poured over her. We would comb her hair, clean her ears, clip her nails, put on lotion and chapstick. She would have brought me the outfit she wanted to wear that day, which I’d help her put on. The final step was handing her my mirror to check herself out. She had the biggest, proudest smile on her face when she saw what she looked like.
|Codou with a belly full of meat on Tabaski|
|Neighborhood hoodlums in their lineup. |
Codou is in the center.
With these wonderful times come just as many difficult ones. The pain, injustice, violation, and inequality that women here so often go through is heart-wrenching. The saving grace of this country is the strength of the women; they guard so many secrets, bear so much burden, work so hard, and give up so much to move forward. I was shocked the first time I saw a pregnant woman with a baby on her back pounding millet for hours in unbearable heat; next to her a little girl with a baby doll strapped to her back pretending to pound millet and cook food for her family. It’s more strength than I have that gets these women through. I am so grateful for being let in on a few of the sacred secrets, moments, and memories that make the unbreakable bonds between women, and I can only hope to carry with me a fraction of the character of the women of Senegal.
For the new Peace Corps trainees, I wish for them a fruitful service filled with the feeling that someone has changed their life, that they’ve changed someone else's, and that they clearly see the richness of Senegalese women.