IMG_0039.JPGDad told me the other day that he was upset that I haven’t posted any updates in a while, so this blog post is in part a response to that. However, because it’s been several months since I’ve written in detail about my life here, and because there is much to tell, I’m not sure where to start. And so I enter this blog post without any specific direction or theme and hope that one or two will find their way in.

Today is day 202. I write the day number in my journal. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up each morning, and that’s how I know which day it is. Another volunteer asked me if I was counting down, but I told her that I’m counting up, otherwise it would be day 586 (or something like that). And this gives me a slight feeling of relief – knowing that I was counting up, and not down. Relief that I’ve subconsciously chosen an optimistic way of looking at my service, because some days the thing I look forward to most is returning home.

I know that’s not the cheeriest way to start out – by telling everyone that I can’t wait to leave. But like I said, it’s only some days. And when one of us volunteers feels a certain way, you can be sure that others feel it too, or some variation of it. In fact, we’ve had several volunteers from our group leave already (also known as “early termination” or ET), and more have expressed interest in doing so. Volunteers ET for all sorts of reasons: maybe they’re from Small Town, USA, and have never been outside the country before; maybe they’re discouraged by administrative policies or non-policies; maybe it’s just too damn hot. One guy who ET’ed said that he literally could not stand the heat.

It’s so hot. It’s one million degrees, though I’m not sure what that is in Fahrenheit. And if the heat doesn’t get you maybe the bugs will. They’re everywhere. In the rainy months it’s like Jurassic Park. Yesterday, while I was washing my bed sheets, I noticed how unusually brown the water was, and then I noticed a cockroach leg floating in it. I deduced that there must be other cockroach parts, or even a full cockroach still in the sheets. And sure enough I found both – a sparkling clean cockroach body, with leg and wing pieces to match. I then wondered if the water in the bucket was brown because of cockroach fluids or because of the many layers of dust that accumulate in my hut each day. I figured it was some combination of the two.

I can just hear my mom saying now, 4,000 miles away, “Matthew, why do you want to sleep with cockroaches?” and then me actually wondering: do I want to sleep with cockroaches? And finally I answer: “Mom, I didn’t come here to sleep with cockroaches. Yes, life here is difficult – I can’t understand anyone in my village; my supervisors have unrealistic expectations of me; often my lunch has fish bones, but no fish; and every day as I walk down the street people yell “whitey” at me.” (Surely, if you’re looking for a reason to ET, you don’t have to look far.) But none of these things have anything to do with why I came here in the first place. And then I start wondering: why did I come here in the first place?

It’s at this point when I think some volunteers make the decision to go home early. Being confronted with all of these new challenges, and all at once, it’s easy to loose sight of what we had in mind when we signed up for this gig. What did we want? Who did we think we were? The challenges are so great that we get distracted from our work and even forget to re-ask ourselves these questions. But then dusk roles around. The sun is going down over my village, and the sunlight changes to a hazy orange. I’m finishing up my bucket shower and the first cool breeze of the evening washes over me, and that’s when I remember these questions.

To paraphrase “Fight Club”: how much can we really know about ourselves unless faced with adversity? Who am I? Am I the kind of person who complains about sweating when I wasn’t doing anything but just sitting there? (Yes) Am I the type of person who will give up trying to grow anything in my garden because nothing has survived longer than 2 weeks in that barren wasteland? (No) If millions of people can live in this country, with all the challenges I’ve faced – and many more difficult ones – and still greet each other every day with a smile, then why can’t I do it too?

Peace Corps has three primary goals, and personal development isn’t one of them. However, this selfish goal is one of the reasons people join. I didn’t just come here to learn about a new culture and grant writing, but about myself as well. And I believe that I’m getting that in a big way. But what’s special about this experience is that I did also come to learn about grant writing, and Pulaars, and food security, to work with people to grow food, and to pass on some of what I’ve learned to others. I came to exchange cultures in person, in a world where we export it through media. One criticism that I’ve heard about Peace Corps is that we go around the world imposing our American culture on people who may not want or need it. To this I say: we already export our culture through fast food and television and cheap plastic goods. But it’s the Peace Corps volunteer who delivers culture with a face and a voice and a physical handshake, and then perhaps gets the chance to import a new culture upon their return home.

So what is this culture? Who are these Pulaars? What’s the difference between life in Velingara and Upstate New York? On the surface, my town doesn’t look like much. Filthy pigs roam around unpaved streets that are covered in garbage; we eat out of a large bowl on the ground; and people greet each other at excessive lengths, repeating the same trivial jokes over and over. But after six months in this country you attend a master farmers’ workshop and you notice something. The master farmer is greeting two little old ladies in the traditional way, by calling them both thieves. And then you realize that what you saw as a boring formality, to them is something more. Through that simple banal joke that must have been repeated for centuries you notice a spark of recognition, followed by a deep mutual respect and admiration, and in that moment three people who had just met are at once old friends. But to be able to witness culture at this level takes some time, and even more time to truly become a part of it. You can’t expect to understand people by viewing them through a tour bus window. You have to live in their home and learn their language and eat with your right hand, because you wiped your butt with your left.

And since we’re talking about Pulaars, here’s a bit of Pulaar in nutshell: They insist on being greeted, or greeting you, even though you’re clearly in the middle of a phone call. They will always invite you to eat, and just like Americans sometimes they mean it (though probably more often than Americans). They speak 3 languages, love sugar and loud music, and don’t hold grudges. But most of all, they’re just like us and everyone else. They value their families, traditions, and good health, and have the same fears and desires that we do. They are our people and we are theirs, and it’s sad that we live in a world in which that isn’t obvious.

I could go on about the things that make my service difficult, like the inevitable sickness – among volunteers, having uncontrollable diarrhea while vomiting is such a frequent occurrence that we have a name for it – “gargoyling.” Or for that matter, I could continue to talk about the things that I appreciate about Senegal and the reasons that keep me here, like having all the bananas and mangos you can eat, fresh off the tree (there’s no other way). But suffice it to say, that for me, the reasons for serving and continuing to serve outweigh the reasons to go home early. To be honest, since training I have not seriously considered Et-ing. Though most days all I want is some Ben and Jerry’s, or a craft beer, or just a cold glass of water.