In an effort to provide some background into my decision to join the Peace Corps, I thought I would post the essays I sent in with my application. The application is quite long and detailed, and the topics that are to be included in the essays are extensive. The first is a motivation essay, which outlines my motivations for serving. The second is an essay outlining my experience with cross cultural understanding.
Slides of a Malian village flashed across the screen: children in front of their huts, women cleaning rice, men in front of the water pump—in every picture, the dusty Sahel gleamed white in the African sun. From my desk in my high school French class, I was impressed and awakened. Grace had spent her winter break in a country I had never even heard of. She had seen things at age 15 that I hadn’t yet considered seeing or not seeing. Africa had always seemed distant, and suddenly it became accessible. If Grace had gone to Africa, someday, so could I.
Five years later, I found myself indirectly fulfilling a promise I hadn’t realized I’d made to myself: I was in Senegal. My semester studying, teaching English, and volunteering at an orphanage was defining, but limited. My internship at L’Ecole de la Rue introduced me to a group of students, poor and marginalized out of the formal education system, but determined to succeed with the few opportunities they were given. My students’ striking dedication to some figment of an education, despite all the barriers, despite all the odds, revealed the possibilities which can lie in an opportunity. The more I watched these kids try, the more I wanted to provide these students the opportunities with which I was blessed.
Unfortunately, my short three month stay in Senegal could not drastically improve anyone’s prospects for success other than my own. I returned to the United States, however, confident in my abilities to live abroad, familiar with the challenges of integrating into a culture vastly different from my own, and resolute in my determination to continue with a life of service to others in every way possible. The Peace Corps will allow me to return to the developing world with the skills and platform to create sustainable change. I will be of service to the people of my village, to assist them in implementing needed projects, and also in service to my own country as I foster understanding and partnerships between myself and those in my community.
The Peace Corps Core Expectations seem both necessary and reasonable for completing the terms of service as a volunteer. From my time in Senegal, I understand the challenges that lie in adjusting to a new culture, a new language, and often new ways of looking at solutions to development obstacles. I know what it is like to feel lonely in a foreign environment, and I know the effort required to respect those who seemingly prohibit development due to opposing cultural view points. However, I also have experience with triumphing over these challenges. I am confident that while I will struggle at times to integrate into a foreign culture and implement the right projects for my community, I have the perseverance, the frame of mind, and the skills necessary to face these challenges and truly serve the community in which I am placed.
While the Peace Corps will undoubtedly teach me more than I can imagine, and shift the direction of my life in ways I cannot foresee, my plan is to use my service to influence a career in public policy. I hope to ultimately return to Washington and work towards a more sustainable system of agriculture policy both in the US and internationally. The Peace Corps will sharpen my world view, broaden my perspective, and ultimately improve my legislative abilities in my quest to implement change for a world deeply in need.
Ndank, ndank mooy japp golo ci njay,
Little by little, we catch the monkey in the forest.
My stomach was numb as I held back tears. Don’t cry, I told myself, you can’t cry, the Senegalese don’t cry. Bassé walked with me towards the courtyard gate, as I reassured her I would someday return. She was more somber than usual, as we slowly walked towards what we both knew would be the end.
Three months earlier, I had met Bassé, my host-mom, on my first night with my Senegalese host family. I sat awkwardly on a chair in the central room of the house, trying to make conversation with my fragmented French. Bassé emerged from her room, tall, dark, and stoic, not too much older than myself, and uncomfortably pregnant. Barely acknowledging me, she whispered “Bonjour” under her breath, before sitting on a tiny bench in the corner, the summer heat antagonizing her as she slumped to support herself and her unborn child. I wished I could give her my chair, but uncertain of the polite way to offer it, I sat quietly, my mind spinning with classroom anecdotes of students making bad first impressions with their host families. After a few moments, Bassé retreated to her room for the night.
Over the next couple weeks, my interactions with Bassé were curt and awkward. In the evenings, I would sit in the courtyard with the women, yearning to understand their Wolof, and watching the stars pass until it was late enough to go to sleep. Most of the time, I sat in silence, having long used up my few French conversational topics early in the night. Unlike the other women, Bassé rarely engaged me beyond one-word directives without an audience. With eyes wide, she would look at me, Wolof words unfurling before I could make them out. “Degguma Wolof,” I would say, I don’t understand Wolof, uncertain if I was supposed to be responding or not. All the women would laugh, wide toothy smiles permeating the night air, not willing to translate for the poor toubab, or foreigner. Bassé seemed so uninterested in me, unless I could be made fun of.
One evening, as I returned home from class, she called me into her room, instructing me to sit on her bed. Nervous, I did as I was told. We had never been alone together; there was no one around to laugh at her jokes. What could she want, I wondered? To my surprise, she asked me how school was going, and about how I liked Senegal so far. She showed me her wedding pictures, and we talked about Chicago, where I was from. The longer we talked, the more the uncomfortable barrier between us started to dissolve.
The night before the start of Ramadan, I found myself with Bassé, dodging cars on the sandy path back to our house from a visit with her brothers. As we turned the corner near our house, she hesitated, her voice more serious than usual. “Suba, dinga orr?” she asked. Was I going to fast the next day? I told her yes, that I would try fasting, just to see what it was like. In clear French, she nodded, her voice soft and reassuring, “You can try fasting if you want, but you don’t have to. No one will mind if you don’t.” I smiled, reassuring her I wanted to fast, just to see what it was like, even if it was just for one day. With more conviction in her voice, she continued, “But you’re not allowed to fast on school days, degg nga? You understand? You are here to learn, and that is more important than anything else.”
After many weeks, Bassé finally had her baby. Everyone in my house, happily playing along with my position within my host-family, reminded me that after being an only child all my life, I now had a “sister.” Unfortunately, there were some complications, and my little sister would not be released from the hospital for another two weeks.
On Saturday, Bassé took me to meet my sister. The taxi pulled up in front of L’Hopital Principal to a crowd of people already gathered along the thick iron fence waiting to get in. I followed my mom to the guard at the gate, as she showed him her paperwork. “Where’s her paperwork?” the guard asked quizzically, gesturing towards me. Bassé explained to him that I didn’t have any, but that I was with her, and we just wanted to see the baby. “Without paperwork, she cannot come in,” he said, his words unwavering in the already hot morning sun. Despite Bassé’s protests, the guard was resolved in his decision.
Bassé’s frustration was clear as she explained I could wait for her along the fence as she went in to nurse the baby. I tried to mask my own disappointment, as I reassured her it was alright, that I would get to meet my sister soon enough. I watched my mom disappear into the hospital compound, and took my place amongst the crowd.
By then, my perspective on time had become increasingly relaxed, and I settled in with my new-found Senegalese patience and waited for Bassé to return. I was surprised when a short woman, seemingly a nurse, walked straight to me, and in clear French commanded, “Come with me.” I sheepishly followed as she walked straight past the guards, looking them in the eye as she passed, head high, never saying a word. Reluctance shown in their eyes, but they let me pass without question.
The nurse led me to a room, half lit, full of mothers and their babies. I thanked her profusely, and rushed to meet my sister. Across the room, Bassé’s smile was as big as I had ever seen it. Contented: mother and child. “Kii, sama rakk la?” I asked as I approached. This is my sister? Bassé nodded, whispering an introduction to the baby as she handed her to me. My sister’s wide eyes peered up at me inquisitively. “Hi there,” I said in English, “I’m your big sister.”
By this time, some of the women nearby had noticed my arrival. “Who is this?” they asked Bassé, referring to me. Her answer was matter-of-fact, “Kii sama doom; moom seetsi na sa rakk.” This is my daughter; she’s come to visit her sister. The other women laughed and laughed, but Bassé just smiled. She did not pay attention their responses. Her few words were frank, simple, but they signified her approval, her acceptance, and how far we’d come. In a few short months, I had progressed from the butt of all her jokes, to a member of her family.
And now I was leaving. The night breeze off the Atlantic made me shiver, as I hugged Bassé goodbye. “Your sister will miss you,” she said softly. I swallowed hard, willing myself not to cry, still trying to follow Senegalese customs on my last night. We shook our left hands, an omen for safe travels, and as I looked up at Bassé’s face in the moonlight, two glistening lines of tears curved down her cheeks. In our last moments together, Bassé was still expanding my understanding of family, friendship, and the meaning of being Senegalese.← The Beginning Staging →