12 February 2013
I just received a letter written over a year ago. Postal service is not reliable here. I never received a much anticipated care package from friends down under. But this is just talk. The PC medical office was holding on to this letter. After a mental health session during Pre-Service Training, anecdotes in the letter date it to October 2012, we were told to write letters to ourselves. They provided a questionnaire and I recall sitting in the Disco Hut at the Thies Training Center, thinking in earnest about my purpose in joining the PC, my goals for my service. So far I believe I have made at least one positive change in my community—my host mom is on birth control after having seven children, I introduced improved variety seed and taught farmers techniques for crop maturation and storage, and have three work partners making compost. These are achievements. And I don’t think I’ve over-stepped my bounds as a volunteer or as a foreigner. I’ve had discussions about domestic violence, early marriage, female genital cutting, and family planning with female and male family and friends. All have been constructive, intelligent conversations with questions about cultural differences and known information posed by both parties. And I certainly know more about myself. I’ve learned I am strong, if I can keep my mind off weaknesses. I am strong, if I enjoy my work and don’t stop doing. I like to draw and create and plan. I like to get dirty working and playing outside with my dog and friends.
My coping mechanisms are the same. I run or do yoga. I escape into a book or music. And when I need to, I cry, eat and fall asleep. Something I didn’t mention in my letter a year ago was that I also talk to friend and family to work out my mental anguish of all sizes and sorts. That circle of people has grown, as it almost always does, over the year; but the magnitude and strength of its growth has been surprising and joyful this year. PCVs and Senegalese alike have supplied me with a support structure I imagined I’d be without when I set off to live in a village in the African bush. Support from home has been unwavering, although volunteers often complain about loved ones in the U.S. not “getting it,” you all have gotten it or at lease well enough to be of tremendous support. And every member of my immediate family has come to visit to understand better. I continue to be grateful for the supportive community that sent me over here with love and keeping adding names to the list of thanks.
The questionnaire asked me to remark on something happening in my life at that moment that I’d want to remember, or laugh about. I was surprised by my answer. A flirtation was budding then, and now after enjoying 8 months of companionship, enduring bad phone reception for long talks about agriculture and life and then a break up with the person who had become my closest confident in country, I’m glad to know I found amusement in its prospect.
Coincidentally, it was the trying conversations where he and I were moving to be friends that revealed a change in myself as I’d wished to find, according to this letter. He said he knew I would act according to what I knew was right for me. This new found confidence in my actions and words was something he took for granted in my personality but is something I know has grown within me. I have long been stubborn and opinionated, perhaps confident from an outsider’s perspectives, however this feeling of being sure is new. It is not studied, but a resultant of studying more deeply myself and my interests, which are flourishing into an array of things I had hardly considered previously—West African languages, subsistence agriculture, and landscape architecture.
I mention several times in my letter a desire to know what is next for me. My friend, Sharon noted the other day that on our first life chat in my hut circa December 2012, I had shoulder-length curly hair and was contemplating using my MCAT scores for good and applying to medical school, and now I’ve cut my hair so short it’d be impossible to guess it curls and I want to design gardens for a living. I have figured somethings out—this does not preclude growing my hair out. The only thing left to decide at the moment is to extend my work here for another year—give Senegal a little more time to work its tough love on me and to help new PCVs flourish by assisting in their training—or to go home, embrace the creature comforts of the developed world and get on with my dream to get Americans thinking about their need for subsistence agriculture and what it means in our country. It’s a toss up at the moment. Surely, if I read this a year from now my queries will have changed and I can find comfort in knowing there will always be a concern to resolve and a friend to make. For now I will do as I told myself to and “take a deep breath” knowing that with change there will be consistency and in observing the change I will discover more truths about myself and the world.