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This story is part of our news archives, prior to July 2010.

erika jerme

I first heard of the Peace Corps from my high school World History teacher. He was the grumpiest, bitterest old man, overdue for retirement, but he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer; he was my original inspiration. By the time I transferred to Macalester, I had my doubts about becoming a volunteer. But then I met Geography Professor Bill Moseley, who truly shaped my Macalester study. (I really think I would have studied chemistry if it weren't for him!)

"In the end I am the one who is young and impressionable, who has my whole life in front of me with no rigid gender roles and no lack of education or resources to inhibit my growth; I am the one who can (and will) be changed forever."

Ultimately, I joined the Peace Corps to see the world for myself, instead of through the filter of professors and books. When I was younger, I really thought I could save the world; now I'm a little more humble and cynical. In a way, being a volunteer is an extremely selfish thing--we have been given this incredible privilege to live a life that so few Americans could ever even dream of, and it's all paid for by Uncle Sam (not that every day you are happy to be here!). Professor Moseley talks about how the volunteer is the one who comes out developed, and I really feel that way.

Where I Live

I live in Sokone, Senegal, a rural town of about 15,000 on the Sine-Saloum Delta. It's a beautiful region, mangroves grow out of the brackish water; mango, cashew and baobab trees are everywhere; farmers cultivate millet, corn, sorghum, rice and cowpeas in the rainy season. The region is very ethnically diverse, with Serers, Mandinkas, Pulaars, Dioulas, Wolofs and more. Because of this diversity, there are a lot of Catholics as well as Muslims living side by side.

What I Do

My assignment is as an Urban Agriculture Volunteer. We run a demonstration garden, where we do trainings in micro-gardening and improved gardening techniques (upkeep of this garden occupies me every morning); the goal here is to increase food security and income for households by sharing techniques for growing vegetables in urban spaces. We also intervene in small poultry and rabbit raising to increase protein intake, fruit tree planting for more vitamins and household income, development of floral and ornamental production to generate income, soil amelioration (composting, agroforestry, etc.) and reforestation projects. My townmate (an eco-tourism volunteer) and I started a girls' club as a secondary project; we meet bi-weekly with a group of 12 girls in middle school.

My Daily Life

I love my days. I go to a little breakfast stand and enjoy conversation and a spicy bean sandwich on my way to my garden, spend a few hours surrounded by my gardeners and our plants, go home for a delicious lunch, relax a little during the hot part of the day before going back out in the late afternoon. By dinner time, I'm usually contentedly tired and ready for bed.

But my daily life contrasts significantly with any other woman's life. Normally, by my age a woman in Sokone would be married with children. She would have at best a middle school-equivalent education and would spend her days cooking for a large family. (There are between 18 and 25 mouths to feed on any given day.) Women work in the home, while the men are supposed to go out and make money for the family, but because there are so few jobs, the men generally sit under a mango tree and talk and drink tea for hours on end.

My daily life is quite different from a Senegalese person's, even though I am living at the same level. I think a key difference is that I am essentially genderless: I have almost-male status, but at the same time am such a sexual object because I am white and, therefore, represent power, money, American citizenship and everything that is so desired but that is so out of reach for the typical Senegalese.

Before I came here, I was really concerned about trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. Now, I take things a day at a time"

Why This Matters

In terms of me intervening to improve the community, that's tricky.  I feel like, especially in more urban areas, traditional culture is breaking/has broken down.  For example, my town is full of illegitimate children; teachers complain about today's youths' unwillingness to cooperate; no one wants to stay in Senegal (this breaks my heart--I came here to help Senegal, but the people have given up).  What can my role be, as an outsider?  To me, many aspects of my culture are "better"--in terms of economics, in terms of gender, in terms of education-- than their culture, but who am I to judge?  How can Senegal, and other developing countries, emerge from this limbo between tradition and modernity without experiencing social collapse?  When I think about "community" on this broad scale, I feel overwhelmed and incapable of action.

But I guess that's the beauty of Peace Corps: any change we achieve is at the scale of the individual, and that individual will have the agency to use that personal change to affect the community in a culturally appropriate manner.