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Friday, November 20, 2015

Being a perfect volunteer

As a rule, I do everything to the best of my ability.  It’s always been that way.  Test coming up in school?  I study.  Running a race?  I train.  Joining the Peace Corps?  All over it.  Bring it on. A+.  

Unfortunately, there is no playbook for being a PCV.  Everyone has to figure out their service on their own, depending on the unique conditions at their site.  It’s taken me the better half of the past two years to figure out what my job here in Teyel really is – that is, what administration wants me to do, what my village wants me to do, and what other volunteers want me to do.  Here it is: 

ADMIN wants me to have a Volunteer Reporting Form full of indicators and objectives, clearly sorted on standardized forms.  They want volunteers to hold formal trainings regularly and to fastidiously take attendance.  They want every interaction the volunteer has with their community to be spent educating and facilitating behavior change – and of course, all of it must be recorded, saved, compiled, organized, and submitted in a timely matter.  I love doing this kind of work – it makes me feel valuable and important.

VILLAGE literally wants me to sit, drink tea, and speak Pulaar with them all day. This is not to build relationships with which to do further work: this is the work.  I am supposed to learn deep Pulaar vocabulary and proverbs until I can listen and speak fluently.  When I return home to America, I’m supposed to teach all of my family and friends Pulaar, too.  Then we will all come to Senegal, sit, drink tea, and speak Pulaar all day.  I love doing this kind of work – it makes me feel appreciated, integrated, at home, and welcome.

VOLUNTEERS want other volunteers to never miss a party, trip, or informal get-together.  They should always be available to meet up for breakfast or lunch if work brings them near each other. They should visit other volunteers frequently and be visited at their own sites as well.  They should always answer the phone for each other to talk through whatever crises might be happening.  These volunteer:volunteer connections are valuable and should not be trivialized.  I love my host sisters, but they’re not going to be bridesmaids at my wedding.  I love my host dad, but an illiterate Pulaar millet farmer doesn’t make the best job reference once I return to the 'real world'.  My favorite boutique owner can’t meet up with me at a Minneapolis bar 10 years from now and reminisce over the good times in Peace Corps.  Like moringa trees in Sehel soil, PCV friendships need to be fertilized and nurtured or they won’t survive.  I love doing this kind of work – it makes me feel happy (lame vocabulary word, but true.)

Here’s a handy visual of those three different opinions of what Kadiatou Sabaly’s job is:

For a long time, I struggled to find the perfect position in this triangle, to be the perfect volunteer. My worker-bee brain knew that if I just kept trying, I would eventually find the place where everyone would be pleased with me.

Then I learned.

Eventually, we all learn.

We can’t win.

No matter how much we throw ourselves, heart and soul, into one vertex of the triangle, how perfectly we do one of our jobs, the other 2/3 of the triangle is dissatisfied.

If we try to keep a neutral position in the middle, everyone’s dissatisfied.

Soon after we realize this, something interesting happens.

We stop giving a shit.

This is freeing.

This is where I'm at right now. So, here's what Kadiatou Sabaly has been up to for the past month or so, and whether it satisfies her "job requirements" or not.

CHEMOPREVENTION:  I went to a bunch of surrounding villages with my community health worker or the health worker from the next village over, depending on who I felt like spending the day with.  We gave every kid from 3 months - 10 years old a small yellow pill that a) made them projectile vomit and b) cleared all the malaria parasites out of their blood.  My role was either to help fill out paperwork or to pretend not to understand when parents used me as a motivator to get their terrified children to swallow their pills (The toubaco will kidnap you if you don’t swallow!)   

HEALTH HUT MURALS:  I only have one mural left in my health hut mural project (the road to the final health hut was underwater for a while, then my partner-in-crime and I had trouble coordinating schedules).  Since we had planned to finish the project by late September and it's now November 20, we’re doing just fine on Senegal time.  The five completed murals took a lot of time to finish.  They had to be discussed, sketched, and painted, then the community health workers at the health huts had to lead a causerie for 25 people explaining the mural (with food partially subsidized by Peace Corps).  I don't have any pictures of the completed murals, since my camera's dead, but take my word for it that they're lovely.  

LATRINEAPALOOZA:  Fellow PCV LK and I decided to go ahead with Demba’s ambitious latrine project that five months ago I wasn’t sure whether I should do or not.  LK and I spent 4 days biking to each of the proposed 82 latrine sites in 11 different villages and asking the jomma galles awkward, intrusive questions about their toilets.  Some already had latrines, some didn’t – some were polite and friendly, some weren’t – and some villages were so far enough away that LK and I said “screw it” and ate yogurt in the woods instead.  We narrowed the recipients list down to 30 households, in six villages, and the grant to pay for both the latrines and for a series of sanitation trainings in the communities has been approved. 

SITE VISITS:  I hosted three overnight guests in the past month. 

What’s their deal:
University student from Michigan spending a semester in Dakar. His program sent him and all the other American students to rural visits for four days so they can understand this diverse country better.
PCV doing an ambitious photo project (http://theseneweverydays.blogspot.sn/)
PCV just passing through to see if my village is as great as I say it is.  (It is.)
What’d we do:
The best day, we followed my two favorite 12-year-old boys around. 
·   Looked for baboons
·   Tried to catch minnows bare-handed
·   Went to the herd to milk cows. Drank the milk so we didn’t have to share.
·   Grilled corn at their secret hang-out place in the woods
·   Played soccer
She took literally hundreds of photos and I tried to not look gross.  Look at her website when the photos are posted to see if my endeavors were successful.
Hung out and talked.  Did a pen pal project at my middle school.  Watched the first half of Thor with my family.  Dazzled everyone with her incredible Pulaar and general congeniality.

We had a party to welcome the new volunteers into Kolda, then another party to send the old volunteers away, then another party because it was Halloween and why not.

SO, what does all of this add up to?  A happy Kadiatou Sabaly, being the best Kadiatou she can be, making the most of this strange job she's in...and also, apparently, talking about herself in the 3rd person.

I only worry that because I've been focusing so hard on being Kadiatou, I've forgotten how to be Barbara, and when I return home in only five months (!), no longer able to hide inside the skin of my alter ego, I'm going to struggle to reclaim Barbara's place in the world.  Please be patient with me if this proves to be the case.

Until next time!


  1. Bring your spidy suit home. it will be an even better identity to hide in!!

  2. My guess is our Barbara of the past is gone. Kadbara will be here for a bit until the re~acclimation process is complete. It may take months or years. What a journey you are on. Definition of journey= life. We are always here for you. Patience could be tough but since you asked.... see you in Spring!