The hardest part of my job: Just be

This post is a bit of the ongoing conversation in my own head and describes some of the struggles we face as Peace Corps volunteers. I am in no way wanting to complain about things here and try as much as possible to keep the ‘rant’ out of my writing. So I am sorry in advance if this post sounds or feels that way. It is not my intent.

Unknown artist, found in dumpster in U.S.

Do you ever ask yourself “what the heck am I doing”? As a Peace Corps volunteer, I find myself asking daily, sometimes hourly. Which is scary. One of the six basic human needs is certainty. Tony Robbins has an excellent TED talk: Why we do what we do? that I highly recommend, and if nothing else read the transcript. And when we don’t have certainty we feel a little off-kilter, anxious, or simply question our motives.

American’s are taught from an early age to plan ahead. “Do your homework”, “What are you doing on the weekend”?, and “What do you want to do when you grow up/after you graduate high school/college”? In some ways we aren’t used to not knowing what is ahead and the ability to sit with that unknowing is very difficult for us. In Senegal anything said or written in future tense is followed by “InshAllah” an Arabic word meaning “if God wills/allows it”. This simple little word spoken after most conversations reminds us moment to moment is just that. “I will see you tomorrow-InshAllah”, “It will rain today-InshAllah”, “Next week I will to go Dakar for a meeting-InshAllah”. Working in this place has for one made me more aware of how short our time in this place is, as a volunteer, as a human, in this moment.

All this fatalism is a bit heavy. Sorry. But there is nothing like reading a book like Blink:The Power of Thinking Without Thinking  by Malcom Gladwell or The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo (highly recommend both) that hit you over the head with teaching simply being in the moment, nothing more and then having that being shown and reminded to you in every conversation you have throughout your day. It is quite lovely.

“The secret is here in the present, If you pay attention to the present you can improve upon it. And if you improve on the present what comes later will also be better. Forget about the future and live each day according to the teachings….Each day in itself, brings with it an eternity.” p. 10 The Alchemist

On the flip side of this, this place can be infuriating. And that is not a strong enough word. Other volunteers and cleaning up after them, lack personal space/privacy, dealing with medical issues, talking with administration for the 100th time for something that just needs a signature or approval, Senegalese way of thinking and lack there of for countless things.

This excerpt from a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s blog frames this idea well:

You are raised in a small town. Everyone looks the same. They have the
same color eyes. They have the same color hair. They have the same color
skin. Everyone is the same religion. This is not a choice, but a fact.
As every person you have ever known has told you.

You are male. It is written that men are more capable than women, and
that women must always be subservient to men. Both your mother and
father reinforce this fact through their actions and words. You observe
your father ordering your mother and his other wives around like slaves.
Women are MEANT for cooking and cleaning and serving. This is a fact.
Every other family you know functions like this. You did not chose to be
born into this life. You literally know nothing else.

A stranger visits your town. She has different skin and different eyes
and different hair. You call her mean names and point and laugh at her.
Along with everyone else in your town. No one tells you this is wrong.

You do not have a television and you have never seen the internet. You
have never even been exposed to the idea that this is not the way it has
to be.

As a child your mother and father beat you when you acted out. Now as a
father, you do the same to your children. You treat your wives as a
second class and teach your daughters that their place is in the

How can you be blamed?

We can’t walk in there shoes, even though we live here. We have an idea, but how much do we really understand.  They think every one in America has maids and personal chefs. How can we help them understand or teach them? The idea is too big and too hard to grasp. How do you balance thinking for now and not worrying about the future?

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1 Comment

  1. very interesting post… a lot of thought for me on a Saturday night read; i'll have to come back to this post again…
    I highly recommend another TED talk – that is relatable to this very topic. You may have already seen it, but if not, I highly recommend you see it now! The Danger of a Single Story. My friend who was a Peace Corp volunteer long ago recommended it to me…
    I wish you well….


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