Wednesday, September 17, 2008

one year in

on september 13, i celebrated my one year anniversary in senegal. a year ago i entered this country practically crawling on my hands and knees after puking out my brains on the airplane for nearly 4 hours. i still recall the feeling of all that illness and terror and arriving into the country around 4AM, dragging myself onto the bus that awaited us, and passing out for a few dark hours. i woke up feeling much better and peered out the window and saw senegal for the first time.

the red sand was damp with a recent rain and i saw my first baobab trees. i saw donkeys and skinny horses and people walking along the streets in beautiful fabrics and colors. i strained my eyes in hopes of seeing a monkey (not for another few months). we passed through little villages bisected by the main road and i saw the streetside huts, with their sagging straw roofs and collapsing saket fences. i held my breath as i gazed out into the world that i would soon be a part of.

so one year later and i was up north -- practically in mauritania -- hanging out with a few other volunteers for a ramadan break. (note: it is so freakin' unnecessarily hot in the north!!!! and i thought it was hot here...) i was with 3 other fellow stage members and we toasted our one year over somewhat cold gazelle beers.

i guess i am supposed to be somewhat reflective now that i am a year into my time being here. i'm not yet a year into my service -- that anniversary happens in november -- but it is still a big deal that i've been here for quite some time now and the new group of trainees arrived a week or so ago. we are definitely not the baby volunteers anymore. we are now officially considered "anciennes" and the new kids look to us for answers. i found myself dispensing advise to a few of them (from the recent march '08 group) even though i felt totally unqualified to be doing so.

anyway, how do i feel a year later? i feel old and tired and seasoned and ready for my next work season. i feel ready for a vacation in america in a few months. i feel like i miss home a lot and i feel like i understand myself better. i feel like maybe i can finally speak some wolof and tell you a little bit about trees.

i had a hell of a year -- it was way harder than i ever expected and i got my ass kicked a few times. i got sick more times than i can count, frustrated than more times i could imagine, cried enough tears to fill up the atlantic. early on, i got really hurt by another volunteer with false hopes of a relationship with him (something i never really mentioned and something i didn't really look for when entering my service) which wound up really affecting my first few months here. when i finally separated myself from that and refocused on my job as a volunteer in the village, i struggled with language and gender roles and my job as an agroforestry volunteer. i knew little -- if anything -- about trees. i felt like i was unadjusted, slow, stupid, lagging behind other volunteers, and failing in my job. as the first volunteer at my site, i often had no idea what i was doing and of course, my village had little idea what to do with me. things between me and my counterpart sucked -- he made my life miserable. i very nearly gave up and went home.

but, my family and friends back at home rooted for me and prayed for me and wrote me letters and sent me packages and believed in me. my family was amazing and called me (and continue to) every sunday with words of love and encouragement and advice. my friends within the peace corps community stood by my side and gave me good advice and told me when i was being too hard on myself (and when i wasn't). my trainers and supervisors at peace corps were attentive and helpful. most importantly, people were praying for me and you know, i think God listened. i plodded on -- perhaps a mixture of pride, stubbornness, and true desire to accomplish something with the peace corps -- and things gradually changed. these days i continue to struggle a bit with the language but it's not all so terrible. my relationship with my counterpart has improved greatly -- we might even be friends? -- but not by any means through anything i did. because this past year was one full of failures and mess up and flukes and mistakes, i have a terribly clear idea of how i want to conduct my next work season. i finally feel adjusted, when i get back into the village i often sigh a sigh of relief and feel that warm feeling of being back at home. there's not so much "village guilt" these days. i have made some of the greatest friends i will ever have and was surprised by the pleasant emergence of a new relationship in my life with a volunteer who has been my friend from the start. i am beginning to understand my role as a female volunteer in a male dominated society. i have ideas for dry season secondary projects. i am excited for this next year.

this is not to say that i've stopped struggling and that there aren't days that i hate it all and just want to go home to america and a time when things were easy but they are definitely picking up and i'm pretty sure that i can finish my service and make an impact in my village and senegal. i'm happy to be here. i'm glad to be here. i want to be here. this is a great change and after a year of struggling, i'm glad that i got the experience because as trite as it is, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and there's a whole lot of shit that nearly killed me but didn't and i'm still here.

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