The Leaving Lists

I’ve been thinking a lot about leaving lately. At 24 years old, leaving seems like the thing to do every few years. I left home to go to college, I left college to study abroad (more than once…), I left abroad to go back to college, and I left college for the Peace Corps, all in the span of six years. Every time I leave, I feel equal parts nostalgia for what is left behind and excitement for what the future holds. So today, I’m giving in to the nostalgia and leaving you with a list of things I’ll miss about life in Senegal and some other things that I absolutely, could-in-no-way-ever miss (dust storms, I’m looking at you).

The Things I’ll Miss:

  • My host siblings. They’re the light of my life in Senegal and saying goodbye to all eighteen of them will be the hardest thing about my last day here. They yank out my hair when they try to braid it, they teach me bad words in Pulaar without telling me, they requisition all my good pens, and they remind me how our relationships with each other can add more meaning to our lives than anything else.
  • Sleeping outside. One of the upsides to our brutally hot weather is cloudless skies and the fact that it forces us outside, under countless stars, to find relief eleven months out of the year. I’ve always loved stargazing and Senegal has given me endless opportunities for it. It’s so dark here at night the Milky Way looks like a cloud in outer space, and I’ve seen shooting stars that end in bursts of green light.
  • The one guy in my village who speaks English. He listens to French radio and throws down knowledge all the time. He called me Michelle Obama until the Presidential race started and now refers to me as Hillary Clinton.
  • Biking, riding my horse, and walking everywhere. Whoever said, “It’s the simple things,” hit the nail on the head. Although I’ve cursed my bike when I’ve been stuck on the other side of a flood plain in the rainy season, I love being able to get everywhere I need to go on my own power. When I was a kid in upstate New York I always wanted to be able to ride my horse into town. I do that here and it’s perfectly normal! And awesome.
  • “Alhumdulili” moments. It could be another magnificent sunset. It could be meeting my baby host sister Hawa for the first time. It could be a breakthrough in Pulaar understanding or a project that really worked and made me feel like I did something right. It could just be a very well made breakfast sandwich. The alhumdulili moments are the ones where the world seems right and I’m thankful to still be a part of it.

The Things I’ll Be So Happy to See Go I Might Just Weep for Joy:

  • The lack of water. Always. Seriously, what is it about water? It is hands down the thing I’ve come to appreciate the most after my time in Yacine Lakke. To drink, to bathe in, to have come out of a faucet without insects in, to not get schistosomiasis from, and simply to just be around… these are the things I want from our good friend, Water.
  • Triple digit temperatures/heat exhaustion/sand so hot I could boil water on it (if there was any water to boil). And anything else related to the relentless ball of fire that is the sun in Senegal. I now have to wear a jacket when the temperature dips below ninety.
  • Dust storms. Oh ye mother of all Mother Nature’s bad jokes. You’ve permanently messed up my respiratory system. You’ve gotten into every nook and cranny. You rip up my banana trees and knock down my garden fences. My father always told me to never use the word hate, so I will say I strongly dislike you.
  • Transport in rickety, death-trap cars. Cracked windshield? String holding the motor in? Holes in the floor so I can see the potholed pavement zip by and try not to lose a leg in it? Cramming 30 people and screaming babies into a van meant for ten? No problem. These are the wonders of Senegalese transport, and that’s only after you’ve sat in a public garage for four hours, waiting for the car to fill up so you could leave, while being harassed by every man between the age of 17 and 55.
  • The gender inequality. I wish this were also a joke but the poor treatment of women in Senegal and the obvious inferior status they hold have been a very stark reality of my service. It’s frustrating, sad, and ignorant. The few empowered women I’ve met here are some of the biggest change agents I know. It’s time to recognize and nurture that potential.

Disclaimer: Most of this list is meant in jest. I’ve embraced all of life here, even the hardships, because it is exactly that: life. My host family, counterparts, and friends existed with all their wonders and challenges long before I came along and will be there, making it work, long after I’m gone. It has been a privilege to live with them and learn from them these past two years. Even through the dust storms.

August Updates and Pictures

We’re having an incredible rainy season in Yacine Lakke this year with more than 400 mm of precipitation already and there’s still a few weeks to go (comparatively, last year we barely made 300 mm). So my farmers are happy, the goats are fat, and I don’t even mind that my room smells the slightest bit musty.

August was busy with field visits to the 20 farmers I extended improved variety seeds to, a few zisiphis fruit tree grafting trainings, a youth camp, and a bike trip to the southern region of Kedougou to visit fellow volunteers and do some hiking.  With just two and a half months left in my Peace Corps service I’m starting the process of wrapping things up and checking off those last bucket list items. Enjoy the following pictures from the past month!

Admiring the view of the foothills of the Fouta Djallon mountains in the south of Senegal


Near Bandafassi, Kedougou


A Bedik village with a view


Caves at the top of a waterfall in the Fouta Djallon


Right before we found a spider the size of my hand…


Just when you think you’re the toughest person on the mountain a Senegalese lady breezes by with a heavy bucket on her head


Megan and I near Segou on the Guinea border


A beautiful end to the day, just before a big rainstorm


Biking home from the waterfalls in Segou with our friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Ian


Segou waterfall


More Segou waterfalls!


Morning coffee at Ian’s hut in Segou before the day’s adventures


The greenery closer to home, in the Boundou area south of Yacine Lakke


Nature walking and rocky vistas


Le Baobab


The 2013-2015 Agriculture and Community Economic Development Volunteers of Peace Corps Senegal. They’ve made all the difference in my service and I can’t imagine having done it with anyone else! (photo by Leif Davenport)


The students and counselors of Camp JAM 2015 (minus Mac Hine, who is behind the lens!)


Teaching about hygiene, health, and family planning at Camp JAM


A rowdy game of jeopardy during afternoon sessions (photo by Mac Hine)


Busting gender stereotypes in camp olympics where the boys wore wrap skirts and carried water and the girls chopped wood


One of my newest grafters in Yacine Lakke, working on the addition of the improved bush fruit variety, Pomme du Sahel, to her garden

How Many Eggs Did She Buy?

I meant to post this weeks ago so I apologize for the untimeliness but here it is.

Another Ramadan has passed! I’m finally emerging from my semi-comatose state of the last few weeks (I decided to go out with a bang and do fasting properly this year, no water and no food) and I’m reminded again of the word that’s been rattling around in my head for the past few months now: community.

As we celebrate the end of Ramadan for the third (!) day the interwoven threads of my village are at their most obvious. There is a community of reliance on one another like nothing I’ve ever seen before and the ebb and flow of people and animals in and out of each other’s lives is constant. It is its own ecosystem of sorts. Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan and known as “djoulde” in Pulaar, sees every compound in my village blend into the next. We all dress up in our best complets and migrate from household to household, asking forgiveness for wrongs done in the past year and giving blessings for the new. The children run wild in hoards, muddying their new clothes, and the women help each other slicing up the mounds of onions to be turned into onion sauce. Extended families kill a cow and split up the parts between people and households; sometimes one cow feeds one hundred people and four households.

Community is evident outside of the holidays too. One of the first things I got over fast when I moved to Senegal was a need for personal space and privacy. Although I have my own hut and bathroom space it’s almost always too hot to spend any time in, let alone sleep in. It mostly hosts my lizard roommates ten months out of the year and I only kick them out when it gets down to 65 degrees outside at night in the cold season (which lasts all of seven days). This means we do EVERYTHING together. I eat breakfast outside in a central area between the houses of the compound with 25 other people; I eat lunch and dinner there too. I take a nap next to a horse under a tree while a neighbor walks buy selling fresh milk and I wake up to a goat nibbling on my shirt, a child climbing on my back, and a farmer in my face who wants me to come look at his corn.

At first, I found the culture of community in my village overwhelming. If I went to the corner shop 100 yards from the front door of our compound and brought two eggs, one of my scholarship girls who lives across the village would ask me the how my omelet was the next day. Everyone had an opinion on my work or my language skills, even if I had never met them or talked to them before. People heard about it from their brother/mom/grandmother/sixth cousin.

Despite the lack of privacy in this life I have now, the sense of community in our 3,000-person village (all packed into a stretch of land about a half mile long) is something I cherish. Now, when someone asks me about the eggs I bought yesterday I ask them about the extra loaf of bread they ordered. I love that I can walk into any compound in my village just to say hi and stay for the whole day without anyone asking me what I want. We might get nosy and people definitely get in fights over goat damage to gardens, but I don’t know any place else where a couple thousand people can comfortably call each other family and know each other well enough to really mean it.

The openness of my village community is something I’m happy to have gained during my time in Peace Corps and always want to retain. Maybe not to the extent of knowing my neighbor’s grocery list but in the ability to know the people around me well and foster an environment of mutual support. These individual threads of connection to other people are so incredibly important to our society, yet so undervalued in the fast-paced environment much of the world lives in today. As I move toward the next stage of my life I want to take time to appreciate community and bring it with me wherever I go.

Month by Month, Day by Day

The monthly news from Yacine Lakke (in a highly condensed format)

January (the month of my return from the lands of snow, craft beer, and bacon)

I had an incredible three-week vacation over the holidays and return to site was an abrupt reality check on the work I have yet to finish. I spent most of January getting the materials for building our women’s garden fence in order and then a few days with the construction team putting it up. The result is an extremely satisfying, (hopefully) goat proof, shiny, new work of metal wire and concrete. Around the middle of the month we had the first fruit from our first grafted zisiphus tree! The improved variety fruit tree is something I have been working very hard to extend in my site because of the low availability of nutritious fruit in our arid area. It grows incredibly fast and my Master Farmer, Djinde, has plans to incorporate this on a large scale into our demonstration farm. At the end of the month we had a visit and overnight stay from Peace Corps Senegal’s very own Country Director, Cheryl Faye. My village and work partners were incredibly excited to meet her and she spent time visiting and greeting various people and even eating my family’s leccheri hakko (corn couscous and leaf sauce) for dinner.

Our first fruiting Pomme du Sahel!

Our first fruiting Pomme du Sahel!

Country Director Cheryl Faye visiting the Yacine Lakke Master Farm

Country Director Cheryl Faye visiting the Yacine Lakke Master Farm

The fence going up at the new women's garden site

The fence going up at the new women’s garden site

February (the month of my 24th birthday! And gardening. LOTS of gardening)

I spent half of February with my hands in piles of old goat manure and the other half sweating in cars around Senegal. Most gardens in my village are temporary, half thrown together jumbles, encased in dead brush fences within people’s compounds. Because of this, I focused on small, five people trainings on improved gardening techniques. We worked on incorporating more manure into garden beds, stressing the importance of not compacting the already rock-hard clay soils by stepping in the garden beds, and varying the types of vegetables grown. I’ve also been encouraging women to leave zisiphus trees in their compounds so we can graft them later, during the rainy season. The rest of the month I was in Thies and Dakar celebrating my birthday with an incredible peanut butter and chocolate cake that took my friend and fellow volunteer, Megan, a half a day to make. The effort was worth it; it was by far the best birthday present I could have had after weeks of not leaving site and a diet of oily rice. I also spent time with the first year agriculture volunteers during their in-service training and got to help train them on their way to becoming full fledged, oily rice tolerating, goat manure picking, Peace Corps volunteers. Happy five months in site guys! You’re an excellent group.

Another birthday in Senegal celebrated with good friends and food

Another birthday in Senegal celebrated with good friends and food (and a fire hazard of a cake)

March (the month of tree nurseries and quiet moments)

Things slowed down and temperatures started to heat up around this time. We planted 400 zisiphus trees in our tree nursery at the Master Farm and I’m not sure if there is anything as mind numbing as filling tree sacks. We’re very happy they’re done! All the trees will be out-planted into a live fence demonstration in August and will be pruned into a thorny wall of terror to men and goats alike in the coming years. I also had some wonderful down time this month and got to spend it riding my host dad’s horse on long rides going nowhere in particular. Those evening rides are my absolute favorite part of life here. Call me biased after a lifetime of growing up around horses but there’s nothing so calming or peaceful as a fast gallop on sand and that brief moment to feel like you have all the time in the world. With the arrival of 110 degree or more daytime temperatures I’ve also resumed my early morning running schedule. I’m usually home in time for coffee and local announcements on the Pulaar radio station by 7 am. It’s these small moments that allow for the greatest times of self-reflection and appreciation. My Peace Corps service hasn’t always been easy and fun but it’s absolutely been the most formative experience of my life and allowed me to grow in ways I never imagined a year and a half ago.

April (the month of the bat, the spotted genet, and the blisters)

This month starts with the story of a bat. A sickly, mean little bat that I had the misfortune of having to dispose of because of a tiny little thing known as Ebola. The outbreak isn’t over yet and Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will continue to struggle with the consequences of the outbreak for years. Here in Senegal, people are terrified of bats and call their local exterminator (that’s me, didn’t you hear?) to get rid of them whenever they show their faces in daylight hours. And so, at the very beginning of this month, when my host sister was stuck in her bathroom cornered by a hissing bat, my 200 lb, six foot tall host brother came sprinting to my hut, banging on the door, and shouting for me to make it better. With some gardening gloves and a rake I did just that. Then, a few weeks ago, when some fellow volunteers were visiting the area and my site, we ran across a (dead) spotted genet in the tree management area of our Master Farm. Google it! What an interesting find in a place with very elusive wildlife. And finally, after another month of meetings and organizing more materials and labor, the 300-meter trench for water piping was dug to our women’s garden project over the course of three days. We broke two pick axes and one shovel and blistered and re-blistered every finger on our hands, but our garden has water! We will spend next month building basins to hold the water in and then the individual plots will be assigned to the women in the group and we will be gardening in time for rainy season.

The intense sunlight created a bit of a warped image but you can see the trench developing that will deliver all the water to our garden project

The intense sunlight created a bit of a warped image but you can see the trench developing that will deliver all the water to our garden project

What Islam is Not

“I may disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

I have avoided the topic of religion as the sole focus of a blog post thus far because it hasn’t seemed quite relevant. My work, the Pulaar culture that dominates life here, and daily reflections have been my mainstay for the simple reason that they consume most of my thoughts. The politics that go with seriously discussing religion have seemed out of place. However, the recent attacks in Paris, namely the murders at the Charlie Hebdo office, have permeated even my small village in Senegal and have brought about the topic of Islam until they seem one in the same. Yet those attacks were not about Islam, they were about fear and hate. They hold no representation of the religion and culture I’ve come to know in the past 16 months. Islam, as it has been demonstrated to me, is a religion of love.

I have not studied the Koran and cannot comment on its teachings firsthand; my knowledge of Islam comes from living and working among people who are devoted practitioners of their faith. It is a faith, like any other, that is interpreted differently by every individual and so is subject to our own human failings and errors. Despite these, however, it is not a faith that condones the murder of 17 people who hold different beliefs and speak openly about them.

In my village, religion is the backbone of society and has the most influence over how things are done. As a result, I’m often asked if I’m Muslim. When I answer that I was raised Christian an argument usually ensues about the need for me to switch to Islam, but it’s always done in jest and leads to a good dialogue about the differences in our faiths. Mostly, people tell me Christians don’t pray enough (due to their five scheduled prayer times each day and additional meditations before and after, I can’t argue the opposite). They also usually request that I learn the prayers they say. These are always done in Arabic and despite my best efforts, any attempt at memorizing them falls embarrassingly short. I understand the basic meanings though, what they ask for, what they hope for, and what they’re thankful for: their own health, the health of their family, the things they already have that they consider blessings, a new day, prosperity, and peace. Peace, jam, the first word I learned in Pulaar and the most used one as well.

The Muslims I live and work with believe in sharing everything; what is mine is also yours, no matter who you are or what you believe. This extends to everything from a place to sleep to food to eat. They say the Koran teaches them to take care of each other. I see this in my host family each and every day. When the boys who study the Koran come to ask for food, we give it out of our own lunch bowl. If a family who recently lost everything they own to a fire is in need of something, we gather it from our own meager possessions and give it happily. If immigrant men come through our village looking for a place to sleep and a hot meal, we make space for them on our own floors and invite them in. All of this my host family does, even though they have barely enough for their own 40 plus family members, for friends and strangers alike because they say their God teaches we should take care of each other and share in whatever wealth we might have. This is the Islam I know to be true.

The few men in my village who have radios and speak French asked me about the attacks in Paris. While I myself do not agree with some of the material published by Charlie Hebdo, there are no words to describe the depths of wrong for the attack on them. “Allah does not agree,” the men say, “life is a blessing.” I tell them I know this and so does the rest of the world. But in these times that is not always true. Fear and hate have grown out of the abhorrent and cowardly acts of the growing extremism across the world. When not only innocent bystanders in a supermarket but also people exercising their right to free speech are killed in the name of Islam it is an attempt to silence those discussions and questions that cause us to reflect and improve upon our society. It is barbaric and wrong. It is a misrepresentation of a faith that teaches love for all and of the people who practice it.

Yo’Allah hokku jam. God give you peace.

Fall Updates

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of going to the hay fields in summer with my brother and parents. My mom would set up an old blanket for us on the side of whatever field they were cutting or baling that day and my brother and I would make dandelion necklaces, build forts in the hedges, and have picnics. Whenever the tractor stopped Mitch and I would race out from the shade of the trees to see what caused the break and to bring mom and dad some cold water. It was these moments that taught me to love the sweat and hard work that went into a small farm and find joy in being outside together. They were fun, hot, summer days that seemed to stretch forever. The smell of fresh cut grass and the feel of a cool breeze across my neck are so ingrained in my memory I still call them to mind on hot dusty days here when I need a little imagination.

I’ve found such a similar sense of family and camaraderie in my village this fall it gives me pause to smile and reflect on my own childhood farming. During the first few weeks of November in Yacine Lakke, families with fields near the river that flood seasonally were hitching up their donkey carts every morning and loading them up with seeds, hand hoes, water jugs, and young kids and old aunts alike. Once we got out to the fields everyone had a job to do and they split up remarkably efficiently. My middle host brother, Isma Yila, would take a six foot long, hooked stick with a piece of metal attached to the end and walk along the field, raising the stick up over his head and smashing it into the hard ground every meter. He was breaking ground and making way for the teams of women, my aunts and sisters, who followed him with massive poles sharpened on one end that they drove 10 cm or so into the ground to reach the still-wet earth below. Then, one of the other women would drop three corn seeds into the open pockets. Meanwhile, the kids had dispersed into the bush when we arrived with buckets for collecting loose topsoil. They would return and trace their way through the seeded area of the field, dropping handfuls of dirt on the open pockets as they went. After two or three hours of this, everyone retreated to whatever shade they could find from the bushy, thorny trees lining the banks of the tributary and took a break. The youngest kids inevitably fell asleep and everyone took turns looking at my blisters (and laughing at them). Then we got up and did it all over again for another hour or so until lunch, re-packing the carts and driving back over the dusty plain toward home.


Corn planting lasted about two weeks this year


My ride to the fields each day, on loan from my host brother


Improved variety sorghum seed grown on trial in Yacine this year and harvested in October


When they haven’t been busy planting corn in their family’s fields, the women have started gardening in earnest this month. The transition to cold season has started and daytime temps are (only!) reaching 100 degrees, with nights finding a comfortable 75. December, January, and February are the best times for growing vegetables, with temperatures reaching only into the high 80s. At the end of October, the head of the women’s group here, a no nonsense lady who also happens to be the president of the parent’s association and organizes baby monitoring and weighing activities at the local health post, approached me about the possibility of starting a community women’s garden. This is a project many Peace Corps Volunteers take on and I jumped at the chance to work on something so important to the women in my village. She and I worked out the details of what would be needed for the project with another woman from the group, using the hectare of land just outside Yacine Lakke that was given to them by the village chief.

The project would require a grant from USAID, through their Feed the Future funding, and a community contribution of cash and labor totaling 25%. The community contribution is the village’s way of proving investment and interest in the project; a promise they will see it through. After determining what materials would be needed and writing up a draft budget, the women and I called a meeting of all interested group members (I was much more nervous about planning this meeting than the women, apparently all it takes to call a village-wide meeting is a mosque loudspeaker and an hour of your time so people can spread the word). This was the first time I had ever run a meeting of over a hundred women, by myself, and in Pulaar. After a less than eloquent speech by myself and a lot of deafening foot stomping on the part of the more enthusiastic women, we agreed on a two day time frame for going around to all the compounds in the village and collecting any amount of donation interested women could afford. By the end of the deadline, the women, and some recruited boys and men, had collected over 300,000 CFA from 308 women (which translates to roughly 600 USD and about $2 per woman). It was much more than I had dared to hope for and I was blown away by the women’s enthusiasm and dedication to the project. The grant was written, submitted, and approved at the end of October and now we are just waiting on the funds to be redirected. Construction is planned for the beginning of January and we hope to be gardening in the space shortly thereafter!

In most recent news, I spent Thanksgiving a two day’s journey from my site, at the beach. Some of my closest friends and fellow volunteers also made the trip and we cooked a feast worthy of the America of our memories. There wasn’t enough sunscreen in the world to save my very white legs from a good burning and now my awkward tan lines have only been exacerbated, but it was a great holiday and wonderful time with some of the best and hardest working people I know.


The faces of stuffing and gravy deprived volunteers who see both on the horizon… Look at those smiles!


Quiet, early morning coffee break before the chaos descends


In the next few weeks, my parents will come to Senegal (!), I’ll haul myself 13.1 very hot and dusty miles in the name of self torture and raising money for girl’s education at the Tambacounda Half Marathon, and I will take a three week hiatus from Senegal in favor of Switzerland Christmas markets and a trip back to Richfield Hill Road to snowshoe in the Adirondacks and play with my slightly older and fatter black Lab.

Cheers to the big moments and the small, to 12 pounds of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, and to appreciating small town roots in the most unlikely of places.

Six Days Stateside – Blog It Home

My first hour stateside in a year was spent in customs, assuring everyone who looked at my plane ticket that I didn’t have ebola. My second hour found me at the Brooklyn Beer Garden in JFK’s terminal 2, sipping the smallest Dogfish IPA I could order (the things living in a Muslim country will do to your tolerance) and demolishing a plate of chicken wings. There was a football game on and although I can’t tell you who was playing or what the score was the whole trifecta gave me the warm and fuzzy feeling of being American and knowing I was home. I was on my way to the Peace Corps’ Top Bloggers Tour in DC, in mid September, for the winners of the Blog It Home competition.

If you remember, the Blog It Home competition happened in the beginning of August, after eight winners were selected from a group of 20 finalists in an online voting decision. A huge thank you to everyone who voted for and shared this blog with others. It ended up being an incredible week in DC with some very special and talented current and returned volunteers. I arrived late on Sunday night, the 14th of September, to Dulles International Airport and was met at the baggage claim by some of the faces I’d missed the most in the last twelve months: my mom, dad, and Grandma Trudy. I had all of Monday to catch up with them over good food and hear all about my brother Mitch’s individual successes and team domination at his woodsmen’s team lumberjack competitions. My best friend since childhood, Sara, also flew down for my last day in the States and after my initial freak-out, so-happy-to-see-you hug it felt like only a day we had been separated. Seeing them and hearing about home did my soul some good and reminded me what a strong support network I will always have no matter where life takes me.

My roommate for the week was fellow winner, the hilarious and genuine Sara Laskowski of Peace Corps Guinea. She was evacuated from Guinea in August due to the spread of Ebola but has spent her time since educating people about the beautiful culture of Guinea, rocking complets in a way that I will never be able to, and combating Ebola hysteria with a level headed and realistic outlook. Over daily, early morning coffee and egg and spinach wraps at Starbucks over the course of the week we traded stories about West Africa and marveled at the similarities in the places we call home. The work (and the fun!) started Tuesday morning at the Peace Corps Headquarters building near the Georgetown area of DC. Once there, we met the staff who had helped organize the competition and all the headache of flying back nine volunteers from all over the world, not to mention coordinating their movements all over DC for four days. All returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Eileen, Kate, Meleia, and Ryan made us feel right at home and had an incredibly exciting itinerary in place for the next few days. Best of all, they had set up a conference room for us to work out of for the week and stocked it chock full of enough candy and snacks to make any doctor cringe. I may or may not have consumed a year’s worth of Peppermint Patties but I argue they got me through several early morning and late night presentations.


Julia (Uganda) and I multitasking in the idea room (working on presentations and eating peppermint patties!)


Brainstorming and discussion in the ideas lab

Over the course of the week we made our way around DC, giving interviews in foreign languages, meeting with top social media and digital communication experts, teaching at public schools and libraries about the culture of the countries we serve in, explaining our roles in development work to our representatives in Senate and Congress, and exchanging ideas with influential NGOs about increasing access to information about global poverty and human rights issues. Instead of repeating a prepared and memorized, and probably monotonous, speech about Senegal hour after hour and day after day, I found myself swapping stories about friends in my village or funny cultural stumbling blocks encountered in the course of the year and being constantly amazed at the thoughtful and provocative questions people asked about my country of service.

One of our first events was a tour of the broadcasting headquarters for Voice of America, the international public broadcasting institution of the US government, and interviews on our corresponding radio stations. Myself, Julia (Uganda), Anna (Cameroon), and Sara (Guinea) gave interviews live in French on the West African programming station to millions of listeners. After Voice of America, we headed to the White House where we met with the Digital Strategy team who keep up the social media accounts of the President’s administration. Brian Forde, a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Nicaragua and current Senior Advisor to the US Chief Technology Officer, gave us invaluable career advice and reminded us to appreciate and expand on the innovations and impacts of our current experience. We also had the opportunity to visit ONE headquarters and meet with US Executive Director Tom Hart and members of the communication team behind their incredibly successful and powerful blog promoting action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. The international campaigning and advocacy organization has brought crucial attention and support to the African continent in particular and talking with Hart and the communication team was a mutually beneficial conversation that I came away from feeling re-inspired to talk about my work and share information.


Free Chobani after meeting with Senator Schumer’s staff, I <3 New York State


Talking about topics and best blogging practices at the One campaign’s headquarters


Live interviews at Voice of America for the West African broadcasting station

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Meeting with Brian Forde at the White House to talk digital innovation. After starting his own telephone company in Nicaragua, post his own Peace Corps service, he has more than a few ideas

More fantastic meetings with Smithsonian Magazine Chief Photo Editor Molly Roberts and US Diplomat in Residence Terry Davidson followed later in the week, after a myriad of presentations and public forums. My favorite presentations were at the two middle schools I visited in DC. The nine of us were split up between several schools over the course of a day to talk about the unique culture of our countries to classes of anywhere from 20 to 100 students. The best question of the day went to a confident 7th grader who asked me how to say “twerk” in Pulaar. I told him there wasn’t one yet but I’d be happy to bring it back to Senegal and see if we couldn’t find one. The results of that have yet to be determined. A public night at MLK Library and a group presentation with individual country tables after for over 100 Girl Scouts rounded out the cross cultural sharing. At both events there were enthusiastic future Peace Corps volunteers, some currently going through the application process, and it was so fun for me to remember that exciting time and answer their questions. I admire their desire to challenge themselves and open their worlds just a little bit more. It will be worth it! I can promise you that.


Presenting on Senegal and more than likely talking about onion sandwiches…

Doing question and answer with one of my 6th grade classrooms of the day. These kids did their homework and had pretty impressive geographical knowledge of Senegal’s location and neighbors


Keith (China) made us laugh a lot this week, even in panel discussions for a crowd at MLK Library

I loved sharing Senegal’s culture and my work here with everyone we met over the course of the week. I also greatly enjoyed exchanging ideas with some of the most innovative and successful people I have ever met. Both of those parts of the Top Bloggers Tour were rewarding and re-inspiring to my service, making me more excited than ever for my second and last year in Senegal. The best part of the week for me, however, came from the connections made with the fellow winners and with the returned volunteers working at Peace Corps Headquarters. I came away from our five days together with new ideas of what my service could mean to me and my community. I also took away the appreciation that no matter what country we serve (or served) in we’re all just finding different ways to achieve the same end: to make this world a little better every day with hard work and a smile. It is this that first attracted me to Peace Corps and this I remembered through the friendships formed that week. And as much as I missed good beer, spicy chicken wings, and football games, I realize trading them in for rice, instant coffee, and donkey chases has made me happier and more fulfilled than I ever thought possible.


The whole, crazy family

Find links to the other winning blogs here and read along with their adventures to learn about their own sometimes hilarious, sometimes challenging, time abroad.

What’s In a Picture?

This is one of my favorite pictures from the last 13 months; it represents the culmination of so many things in my life here in Senegal and it deserves to have its story told.

It was taken in June of this year in my village of Yacine Lakke at an end of year ceremony for our primary school. We can admit right up front I am the Waldo of this picture, with my white skin and blue eyes, in intentionally oversized Senegalese clothes. If you have read the post ‘Pants and Onion Sandwiches’ you will know I fall under the category of volunteer who strongly dislikes wearing complets (the skirt and shirt ensemble I’m wearing) but wears them occasionally because it makes her village ecstatically happy. As Peace Corps volunteers, cultural integration in our villages is arguably the most important thing we have to master, and half of that is dressing as our families and counterparts do. It was well past 110 degrees Fahrenheit that day and if you can’t tell by looking at it, I was sweating buckets under all that dark colored fabric. It was, however, a very special occasion and I am not the only person in the photo who is dressed up. All of the women I am sitting with are members of the local women’s group, who I do gardening work with and gossip with (usually more gossip than work). They too are dressed up. No Senegalese woman in her right mind would walk around with that much jewelry, face paint, or thoissan (the threaded gold rings framing the face) on a normal day. All the kids and a select group of women from the women’s group (myself included) dressed up and put on a play and performed dances throughout the day. Senegalese women do normally wear complets, although I try to avoid them because I can’t walk in them to save my life, and most older women do still sport very real face tattoos like the ones painted on in the picture.

The beaded bowl I am holding I made myself (with the help of two eager six year olds) and it is used as an instrument; there is even a hilarious video someone took from later that day of me dancing with it. Ironically, the tablet in the woman’s lap to my right is not mine, it is her 18 year old daughter’s. She shares it with all of her siblings and it is a gift from their father who works in France, whom they haven’t seen in two years. Young people here are increasingly technologically savvy (although the kids referenced don’t have Internet on their tablet, they only know how to play games and take pictures with it) and that was something I didn’t expect to see coming to Senegal. Senegal is changing and modernizing in awkward leaps and bounds and the ceremony we were participating in is a way of respecting and celebrating the past. It is for this reason this picture is so special to me. It was the coming together of three thousand people to remember their heritage, and after committing two years of my life to living with these people in their village I was grateful to be there, counted as family.

This picture opened up an unending discussion on the stereotypes surrounding development and what it means to be white in a foreign country. But it’s astonishingly complex; even the ‘developing world’ into which we arrive is not always what people said it would be. My time in Senegal has taught me just that. This picture represents to me the past and present of Yacine Lakke converging and my small place in it for two simultaneously challenging and rewarding years. It represents to me all of the things I’ve had to learn and overcome to be successful here (complets and Pulaar I’m looking at you). It also represents the friendships I’ve made and the unreserved welcome I get each and every day. For me it is proof that life can be beautifully unpredictable. For me it is home.

One Year and Nothing Too Much

Two weeks ago, I passed the year mark in Senegal. Sometimes the time feels like it has dragged its feet, stretching 12 months into an impassable mountain whose summit seems to elude me. Those are the days people don’t show up for meetings or I can’t get one sentence out in Pulaar. Other times I watch yet another blood red sun set uncommonly fast and wonder how a year can slip so quickly beyond our grasp.

So much has changed this year. I don’t just mean from when I stepped off the plane into a foreign country where I struggled to speak the language or stepped in sheep poop 20 times before I learned to avoid it. Although that’s certainly the bulk of it. I also mean learning that I can handle what I was sometimes deep down afraid I couldn’t: change and hardship. This means pushing yourself farther than you’ve ever had to before. It also means loss; loss of people and things you had before and the reality that the point at which you have to start pushing yourself comes when you are alone. The starkest moments of difficulty came in the beginning, in the initial few months. Now they are less frequent but I have my mornings where I open my eyes and forget where I am, and when it all comes crashing down I think, ‘Oh boy here we go again’. And yet the most beautiful moments I’ve known here have been in overcoming those challenges. They come after a meeting held completely in Pulaar where everyone understood me and I understood them. They come after a morning out in the fields when one of my farmers calls me over excitedly to show me a new technique they tried all on their own. And they come when my little host brother Ousmane calls me ‘Aunt Foune’ for the first time. These are the realities of my life here that help ground me, that help me appreciate what a crazy, once in a lifetime experience I am having here in Senegal.

This last year has also taught me a lot about hard skills. I’ve found, for instance, that I’m hopeless at Senegalese needlepoint. It takes more attention to detail and time than I’m willing to give. I consistently mangle the language of Pulaar and have only succeeded through the patience of my host family and village. And no matter how many blisters I callous over or field work I put in I always rip open new ones once a week. I’ve identified strengths too though. Through months of practice, I’ve come to know I’m more than capable of washing mounds of laundry by hand. I’m actually quite good at it. I take extreme heat pretty well too; up until 115 degrees Fahrenheit I’m fairly functional. I can prune a thorny tree into a live fence and only stick myself once. I have a gift for eating onion sandwiches (I once ate three in one day!) and I can shame even the most rude and forward Senegalese man into apologizing.

One last thing I have not so much learned this year in Senegal as much as perfected is walking. I’ve always loved to walk. The time it gives for reflection, perspective and quiet is invaluable. Ralph Waldo Emerson said some very intelligent, thoughtful things about walking, including the following, “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.” I think I could say the same things are required of Peace Corps service, and absolutely of my time here in Senegal: lots of endurance, no material possessions you aren’t willing to destroy by hand washing, the ability to see beauty in even the most desolate places, humor in spades, an endless supply of questions, speaking when you have something to say and overall listening hard. You will find it is more than enough.

I’m writing this post from my iPhone at site (we can dedicate a whole separate post to the strangeness of that statement another time). It’s evening here and the sun sets at 6:38 these days. It’s 6:37. Evenings are my own here, time to relax and get perspective after what always turns out to be a longer than expected day. Senegal has taken a lot out of me but it has also given so much back. One short year here has taught me more about myself than I could have ever hoped to know. One more year will give me the chance to make things better, to push myself just a little bit farther. The sun is about to set now, I count down slowly as it drops and finally disappears behind a ridge, leaving the compound in a hazy pinkish glow. I’m sure tomorrow will come and go just as quickly as today did so I hope I make the best of it. And with one hot, dusty, sweaty, frustrating, hilarious, change-filled year behind me, I look forward to it.

Where Dad Picks Your Husband

My namesake, Foune, has never met her husband.

The marriage was arranged by her older brother who works in France, where he met Foune’s now husband, Alassan. Foune is around 30 years old, she’s not sure of the exact date, and has two children from her first marriage, a 13 year old and a four year old. Her first husband, also from our village and whom she married at 17, died while working in France months before his second daughter was born. She was shortly remarried, with a newborn baby, to a man she had only ever seen a picture of.

It took months for me to piece together Foune’s story; it’s not something she likes to talk about. And normally, Foune likes to talk. She has a firecracker personality and a quick temper. She made a grown man cower after he asked me to marry him one too many times on a bus once. She walked three miles into the bush with me one day early in my service, strapping Hawa to her back, just because I needed to clear my head and she didn’t want me to go alone. When I thought I might pass out from the pain of kidney stones she stayed up with me all night, covering me with a wet rag and sitting next to me while I puked for hours on end. She has been a mother to me in Senegal and my best friend. If ever I am successful in my work in Yacine Lakke it will be because of Foune’s unfailing stability in my life here.

You will understand, then, why the background of her story is that much more important, and painful, to me. And I have found through the course of my service it is not unique. Although on the whole Senegal is much more progressive than other parts of Africa arranged marriages are still incredibly prevalent among the rural, conservative Muslim communities. These also happen to be overwhelmingly from the Tukulor ethnicity (the Pulaar speaking people of my village, and almost all of the north of Senegal, are Tukulor). Typically, arranged marriages come about for one of two main reasons in Senegal: the first, it is adventitious (monetarily or security wise) for both parties, and the second, it reconnects families to each other. Foune’s two marriages satisfy both of these reasons. Her first was to a distant cousin and her second was because she was a widow in need of monetary support and he was a man with a job abroad, in search of a second wife from a good Pulaar family. Sometimes, these marriages work and people end up very happy. Foune certainly was with her first husband (his pictures still hang on the walls of the small room she shares with her girls). Other times, just as easily, they don’t work. Alassan, her current husband, has never sent money home and doesn’t have the right paperwork to leave France (read: he got there illegally and could get deported), so he may never come home.

I recently asked Foune why she ever agreed to marry Alassan in the first place. It was a hot day during Ramadan and we were sprawled out on a mat in her room, too hot to even bother trying to fan ourselves. She sighed and said, ‘Mi yahaani ecole. Mi waawa janngude, mi waawa haybatta. Mi alaa kaalis. Debbo Senegal sohli gorko.‘ ‘I never went to school. I can’t read, I can’t do anything. I have no money. A Senegalese woman needs a husband.’

Whenever the subject of arranged marriage comes up, this narrative is repeated over and over in rural villages all over Senegal. Any extra mouth to feed is a burden on a family, and parents, even the best ones, start to hear the clock ticking when a girl is as young as 14. Two of the middle school girls I work with for our scholarship program were in danger of being pulled out of school next year to be married because their parents felt school was becoming too expensive. These young girls are bright and intelligent, excited for the future. They have an enthusiasm for life I know well. Their empowerment is crucial to a Yacine Lakke of the future, with more opportunities than it holds today.

For many Americans, the term arranged marriage is hard to grasp. It’s an outdated tradition of strange places. Certainly, as the daughter of a strong, independent woman and niece of equally strong, independent aunts, I have grown up with the luxury of being able to choose my future and relatively unaware of the uncertainty faced by so many young women in villages like Yacine Lakke. To me, Foune’s explanation of her decision to marry proves education for women is the crux on which the argument for arranged marriage exists, at least in Senegal. Marriage for a woman here is more like the transfer of her cooking, cleaning, and child raising services from one family to another. As much as this makes me want to make a scene, point my finger and give some of the men in the village a piece of my mind, I find it hard to exclusively call arranged marriages here unfair and bad. While women remain uneducated and without the means to support themselves, an arranged marriage by their families offers the security necessary for survival in a rural setting like Yacine.

A few days ago, Foune excitedly called me into my host father’s house. He had just gotten off the phone and there were at least 15 members of the family crowded around him. ‘Fatimata jogi gorko!’ ‘Fatimata will have a husband!’ Foune said. Fatimata is my 16 year old host sister who is the first person in her family to receive a formal education and recently completed her second year in middle school. The potential husband in question is her first cousin who works in France. I ask her how she feels about the prospect. ‘Omo jogi kaalis hewii‘ ‘He has a lot of money,’ she giggles nervously. As virtuous as this is, I can’t help but note she has never met him and can’t remember his first name. I also wonder, if she were given the opportunity to finish high school would she still laugh so girlishly about her father picking her a husband or would she cross her arms, narrow her beautiful brown eyes, and tell him no one decides where her life goes except her? I choose to believe the latter, and every young woman has a right to no less.