September passed by in a flurry of activity— Camp Gëm Sa Bopp was another success, though I was unable to be a camp counselor this year due to project commitments in Richard Toll and a visit to the hospital garden from Eunice S. Reddick, Director of the Office of West African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. Just 3 days later, Mrs. Reddick’s visit was followed by the unexpected death of the Hospital Director, Elhadji Male, on September 17th.
I have yet to cry at a local funeral (though that has more to do with the good fortune of losing none of my closest friends and host family during my 2 years here), but a visit to Male’s wife that week to pay my respects reduced me to a tearful wreck. Progressive, patient, intelligent, motivated, hardworking and kind men of Elhadji Male’s caliber are hard to find anywhere in the world, and their absence is all the more felt when they are lost in places that dearly need their sage leadership. Perhaps Male’s passing also reminded me of my own father’s unexpected death 16 years ago, and the bewildering pain that follows for those that are left behind. I have no doubt that his children will do him justice though: one of his daughters is currently in medical school, and is well on her way to becoming a doctor. Female doctors are few and far between in Senegal—I have yet to meet one here.
The 27th of September saw me rousing myself at 4.30am in the morning to greet the new batch of Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) at the airport in Dakar as they rolled in at 6am. Strange to think that one of them will be replacing me in Richard Toll come December, and even more strange to think that of the original 63 people I came to Senegal with on August 11th, 2010, less than 15 remain, and even fewer will meet their site replacements come the time for village visits in November. For most, another 2 weeks of waiting to go home can feel like an eternity. For this new group of 57 prospective volunteers though, their service is just beginning: I got infected by their enthusiasm in the mere 24 hours I spent with them before returning to Richard Toll.
The things I have learned over the past 2 years are quite honestly too numerous to recount here, but I hope the main lessons that I take with me from my Peace Corps experience will be helpful to future PCVs: (1) that there is as much to be learned from failure as there is from success, and (2) to never give up.
Most volunteers come from a background of consistent success with little room for failure. When they find that their experiences in Senegal are quite the opposite, many tend to abandon less-than-stellar projects, or choose not to embark on projects at all in the belief that they will be destined to fail. While it is true that projects often stall as soon as volunteer support is removed or diminished, it also underscores the importance of remembering the nature of our work as volunteers.
We do voluntary work that in many circumstances goes undone because people expect to get paid for it. I think a lot of volunteers forget that aspect of our job description in search of a results-driven service that looks attractive on a résumé. We are volunteers, first and foremost, not consultants (though that is often a part of our job). Sometimes, that entails doing things a lot of other people don’t particularly enjoy doing. The reality of our work is that it is often mundane, repetitive, and unglamorous, unlike the romantic notions some might have about the nature of the Peace Corps experience.
That said, not giving up on the projects we do take on, and putting in consistent hard work within reason is important. Oftentimes the biggest contribution we can give as volunteers is showing that we care about a community through our daily commitment to being present in whatever tasks we take on. A diligent work ethic and the simple everyday investment in helping those in need is often the most important aspect of our service and work as American role-models within the global community.
So there it is, my lessons learned, posted on the internet for all of posterity. It was wonderful to meet people in the new group of PCTs who found my blog useful, or mentioned that their parents had found it at least mildly assuring. I stand by everything that has been said on this page for the past 20 months or so. This will be a positive life-changing experience should you choose to embark on it, but only if you allow it to be just that. Yes, a lot of unpleasant, discouraging and sometimes downright ugly things can happen while doing the Peace Corps, but they happen in your everyday life too. It is easy to forget the bad times back home when you are looking through a desert haze of heat, hunger, and dehydration in Senegal. But this has certainly been the hardest job I’ve loved to date, and something tells me that it is going to stay that way for a long time.