Saturday, August 11, 2012

2 Years in Senegal

730 days ago today I landed in Dakar with my fellow PCT's.  We stepped off the plane at 5am on an unbearably humid Wednesday morning and proceeded to pick up our luggage and push away the "helpful" locals at the airport who wanted to do it for us.  After much struggle we made it to the buses and looked around at the current volunteers who came to help.  They all looked so confident, so calm, so dirty... All I could think was Peace Corps has made a mistake, I'm nothing like these people, I can't do this, please let me back on the plane.  That first week was hard.  I missed my girlfriend and family, I felt overwhelmed by everything, I felt like I didn't fit in, and in truth I really didn't think that I could make it two years in this terrifying new place. 

Oh what a difference two years makes.  I've not only learned how to survive here, I've come to love Senegal, her people, her beauty, her quirks, and even her disgusting dirty streets.  I'm not the same person I was back then. This experience has changed me in so many ways.  Some for the good and some not so good.  I'm a stronger person now, but I'm also more cynical and jaded.  That's not always as fun as simple righteous idealism but its helped me do the things that might actually make a difference and not the ones that just make me look like a hero "saving" the poor people of Senegal.  Development work is a process, its not a well, or a latrine, or electricity or vaccinations or anything that we can give to anyone.  Its a road that we walk on, often times in the wrong direction, but hopefully overall moving towards something better.  That's vague isn't it.  Exactly my point.  This work is vague and complicated and multidimensional, and conflicted, and good and bad and everything in between.  Anyone who says it isn't is selling something... or more likely asking for your money for their NGO.

Peace Corps is the same way.  It's about the journey not the destination. Yeah that's a cliche.  Guess what?  Most cliches are true!  I know that some of you in the new ag Stage are reading so this is for you.  Don't come here to save Senegal.  In the end Senegal is or isn't going to save itself.  Come here to learn from Senegal first, and work with Senegal second to be a catalyst for people here to help themselves.  This is not a new concept and any Development 101 intro course will tell you the same thing.  Its different though when you're on the ground, and its different when you're having to explain your life here to people back home who think of Africa as a singular entity for which me must feel sorry.  When you get here you're going to see a lot of things that look like terrible "Poverty".  Eventually that will change, your standards will shift and you'll see that lack of shoes, or dirty streets, or no running water etc. doesn't mean that people aren't happy, intelligent or capable.  Make that shift sooner rather than later and your work will be much more effective.  To those of you who aren't about to join Peace Corps do some research and don't let NGO's or your government or friends turn a billion people into a simple stereotype so they can take your money to "help" them. Charity work conducted by people who don't know what they're doing harms the very people it tries to save.

Wow where did all that come from.  Rant rant rant rant rant.  Sorry I've just been thinking a lot and have recently been trying to explain what makes good development to a lot of people.  So yeah Peace Corps is a process.  Its going to be frustrating, but that's a good thing.  If it was easy chances are you'd never learn the complexity of this work and then you'd never really do any good.  Sweet are the uses of adversity.  Don't worry about failure, its going to happen regardless and its necessary.  You're coming to help Senegal but I've come to realize that one of the most important benefits of Peace Corps is that in the course of two short years it creates incredibly knowledgeable Americans who understand the complexities of international development and charity in general.  We are an amazing catalyst for America to be better both at home and abroad.

OK bare with me I need to tie in more random thoughts.  So yes learn, fail, find out how it really is, lose some idealism, all that jazz.  After you do all that though do the exact opposite.  Once you've learned, teach; once you've failed, succeed; once you've been beaten down and lost all motivation and idealism, get back up and in spite of it all find the idealism that got you here in the first place and cherish it.  Before you get to Senegal you're going to have a very idealized vision of what this organization is.  In reality it is a flawed institution run by flawed individuals in a flawed world.  That frustrated me so much for a very long time.  Then I realized no ones going to make it the organization we want it to be, that's up to us. Don't try to change everything as soon as you show up, but once you know what you're talking about don't just sit around when things could be better.  Volunteers over the past two years have made incredible improvements to our programs.  Most every successful program, or change in this institution has come from volunteers.  Personally I've spent a lot of time on a couple of issues that I thought were impossible to solve, and now amazingly I'm seeing results.  It's not perfect but we're moving in the right direction.

When I got here I felt under qualified and out of place, now I'm helping to shape Peace Corps Senegal into a better organization, more capable of serving Volunteers and the Senegalese People.  I'll be at the airport when the new stage arrives.  I'm going to be one of those strange, dirty confident volunteers. I never would have thought it but I've become everything I hoped I would be here.  I can't wait to meet the new stage.  You guys are gonna do great.  Study hard, gain the experience you need, and question everything all while assuming you know less then you think you do.  Do that and you'll become the experts we need to take this program to the next level.  We need to be better and you're going to take us there.  Don't worry you'll be able to do it.  Want to know how I know?  I was in your same shoes and against all my own predictions I did it. 

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