Peace Corps to Senegal: needs, reads, tips, advice, cautions and so on
May 26, 2013 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Someone has joined the Peace Corps and is going to Senegal, working in agro-forestry. Here is what is requested: needs, reads, before and during, what not to miss seeing, what to know, all necessary tips on the Peace Corps, Senegal and the Peace Corps in Senegal, and so on. In a word: advice. In another: experience. Hive mind, please hope me.

Then there is communication and culture shock: so, first, how wired and wirelessed in is Senegal, where and at what level ?

And, then, secondly, about Senegalese culture old school: what to know, what to do, what to avoid doing, tips, shortcuts, cautions and all of the above.

And as this person is young and, frankly, tiny, it would nice to see what to know to keep her healthy and, most of all, safe.
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total)
I ignored this question the first time through since my advice would be for another Western African country (Gabon), but my guess is that there were no responses the first time through. Even if a person has worked in Senegal, it may not apply to this person's situation as the life in village can differ dramatically from a large down or capital city, etc.

Peace Corps does prepare you for medical needs (i.e. prophylactic vaccines, prophylactics to take in country for disease that may affect that area). One thing that I wish I had known going in is that if for whatever reason you do acquire something overseas that may be harder to treat in the states (not necessarily harder, but most physicians in the states do not have a background in infectious disease) is that NIH actually has a copy of any test results and will evaluate and treat you for free.

Peace Corps will send info specifically for the country and supplies that you should bring. PC will also give you local training, advise you things to do/not do, and tell you about culture shock. But even with that, you still experience it and I can't imagine that anyone can travel and living in another country for an extended period of time would not experience this.

I really don't think that I can help you because I was in a different country - I've also read metafilter enough to realize things that it usually can and can't answer, and I would through this one in that bucket.

I think that if you really want more answers to your question, I would get in contact with people who were volunteers in Senegal. Google returned peace corps volunteers Senegal and see if any recent volunteers would be willing to talk to her (most usually are). Also, if you live in a large enough city, google and see if there are Peace Corps groups or if there are regional RPCV groups in your area. There are groups like this in my city, but I have no idea where you live anony.

If you think that there are questions that I may be able to answer, it may be better to memail me. I worked in fisheries and I suspect it will be similar to agro-forestry (ie. live/work in rural villages, may live or work in or near the rain forest, etc.).
posted by Wolfster at 10:17 AM on May 26, 2013

My wife wishes she wore sunscreen on her face and wore a hat more during her time in Africa.

I've also heard good reviews of the first aid book "Where There Is No Doctor"

Solar charger for batteries and shortwave if in place with no power. Watch out since electronics sometimes disappear during in country training.

Leather man (if blades are allowed)

A book on the stars/starcharts since you will have more time than ever to get familiar with the sky (remember you may be near the equator and southern sky, may need different charts than sold in the us). My wife came back knowing all the constellations.

You can buy most of the things you need to live in country, so probably don't need to load up on day to day things.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:08 AM on May 26, 2013

An old friend of mine did a Peace Corps stint in Senegal about a decade ago, and blogged the whole tour. I believe she did agro-forestry, or something similar (it seems the specific assignment nomenclature changes from year to year in some places.) Her Peace Corp blog entries and other content are here. She has lots of practical stuff there (e.g., what she packed) as well as her blog archives that discuss what it was like in her village, with her "family," learning the language, etc. I think she welcomes being contacted by prospective PCVs, like many Peace Corps alumni.
posted by devinemissk at 11:40 AM on May 26, 2013

As an RPCV from the other side of the continent (Kenya) I will second Wolfster and say that you can trust Peace Corps to offer fairly comprehensive safety training, as well as information about what to bring, what to pack, what to wear, and so on. If you want a jump on this information, I know there is a Facebook group for Kenya RPCVs and I'm sure that there is one for Senegal as well, so you could check that out. Really, though, these things change fast, so the info she will be getting from the Peace Corps will be the most up to date.

Again, without any Senegal-specific knowledge, my guess is that the volunteer will most likely have some cell phone coverage, even if she doesn't have electricity in her home. In Kenya, I didn't have electricity on my compound but I charged my phone at the market, and this was almost a decade ago. Cell phone penetration is very high in Africa. It is also possible that she will have email access in her village, although it's equally possible that she won't and will have to travel for at least a few hours to send an email home.

Now, not to derail the conversation and answer a question that you didn't ask, but I remember that the last time you posted this question, you also referred to the volunteer being "tiny" and "young." This makes me think that you are probably really worried about her, which is natural! In retrospect, I think my joining the Peace Corps was harder on my parents than it was on me. They also tried to support me by providing me with all the equipment and information that they possibly could - my Dad loaded me up with more solar-powered gadgets than I could actually fit in my bag. While I was in Kenya, a wave of reports about volunteers being raped overseas came out, and that was hard for everyone - for my parents, and for me - not because I ever felt unsafe, but because I knew how scared they were and I had no way to prove to them that I was ok.

To them - and to you - all I can say is that the numbers of people who get seriously hurt in the Peace Corps is very small. It is, frankly, an organization designed for young people who do not have any overseas experience; the fact that she is young and small and female means that she is an exactly average volunteer. She will keep herself safe the way all the other volunteers do: by integrating into her community, by making friends who will look out for her, by paying attention to her surroundings, and by trusting her instincts. If you want to give her advice about safety, just reassure her that she should trust herself, and that if something feels wrong, she should get out, regardless of what anyone -including the Peace Corps administration - says. The really troublesome cases of attacks on PCVs came after they had repeatedly reported feeling unsafe in their surroundings, and their concerns were ignored by their supervisors. Tell her you trust her to make the right choices about her safety, even if that means pushing against Peace Corps policy, and even if it means coming home. That's an important thing to hear - but she only needs to hear it once, or it might sound like you're questioning her ability to cope.

To shift, then, from what she needs to know to what you need to know: the best thing that people did for me while I was abroad was to consistently keep in touch. The emails, letters, and care packages I got from home went really, really far towards keeping me sane. I wasn't always the best correspondent, but I always appreciated getting mail and I'm still so grateful to the aunts, friends, parents, teachers and cousins who always thought it was worth their while to drop me a note and let me know they were thinking of me. My mom sent me a New Yorker every Saturday and I read it cover to cover. Write your volunteer every week with news from home, even if it seems like there isn't any. You can be her lifeline and it will matter to her more than you will probably ever know.

Finally: if at all possible, go visit her. In a year, this person you're worried about and obviously care for will have become an expert on get by in this utterly foreign place. She will be the one teaching you what to do, what to wear, and how to act. The Peace Corps is a transformative experience precisely because you start out knowing nothing about this place and you learn by living the life and immersing yourself in the culture. Have faith that she will learn what she needs to and take advantage of the wonderful opportunity you have to learn from her.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:33 PM on May 26, 2013

I studied abroad in Senegal and I'm about to head back to West Africa with the Peace Corps. If interested, I can pass along a link to my personal blog on study abroad. I would also advise checking out Peace Corps Wiki Senegal and

Senegal is known as the home of hospitality which means getting to know people is really easy, especially if you make efforts to learn Wolof. I would ask people to correct my French/Wolof an they would literally just say "oh, don't worry about that, lets just talk."

Dakar has grown tremendously, even in the 4 years since I studied there. There is now a large expat mall, plenty of nice restaurants, and hotels to swim at. This means that there is an easy "escape" if Peace Corps life is too stressful (assuming you can get to Dakar.)

Googling "peace corps Senegal blogs" will likely bring up the most up to date information, and a Peace Corps fbook group will likely be made for the group which will allow the departing volunteers to chat a bit. With our group, the current volunteers found it and then joined which allowe us to ask questions as well.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:35 PM on May 26, 2013

Hi! I did Peace Corps in Burkina Faso 2008-10 (and still live here!), so I can't be one hundred percent sure of which parts of my experience will hold and which won't, but at least I'm not *completely* uninformed! I even visited Dakar once!

Much less than you think. An RPCV friend of mine told me when I was stressing about packing was that one thing I was going to learn during my service was that I could have taken a single lightly loaded backpack and gotten by just fine. She was totally right. Even if you end up in a smallish village, you'll be able to get the essentials, and there's pretty much nothing you can't get in Dakar. That said, for your first one to three months you are a trainee and make even less than a volunteer, so you want to have enough stuff to get you through that. I recommend:
-a good shortwave radio. I had an older version of this one and was very happy with it.
-Nice clothes. West Africans very much respect nice clothes. And things that don't show much skin. She'll worry it will be hot, but really minimizing exposure to the sun (especially if they put her on doxycycline as her antimalarial) is way more important, and also in much of West Africa walking around with your knees or shoulders showing is just Not Done.
-Nice shoes. Same reason.
-Flipflops/shower shoes. Handy for around the house. They're ubiquitous so not necessary to bring if she doesn't have room, but again, trainee pay is just not much.
-A nice light, wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off. Though she'll be wearing a bike helmet a lot, which makes hats inconvenient. I had a camping hat I could wear under my helmet, but I have to admit, it was not a very NICE looking hat, even if it was effective.
-Maybe a particularly nice outfit to save for her swearing in ceremony, but a lot of folks instead save their scant trainee pay (or hit up an ATM for money they already had, though Peace Corps discourages that in general) to buy something more local. There might be less of that in Dakar, though, than here in Burkina; I think 'western' business attire is considered the dressier there (but I could be wrong).
-Soap, shampoo, brushes/combs, deodorant, toothpaste and a toothbrush. These are all available, but like I said, she wants to try to minimize expenses during training. Oh, makeup too I guess? She'll be sweating so much she probably won't wear it often, but she may want to bring some small amount. Oh, and a nice sunscreen. PC will keep her loaded with the stuff, and it will be effective, but it may not be very pleasant - the one they gave us was really oily, just not as nice to put on as Banana Boat or Coppertone or what have you.
-Computer is totally optional. Likewise an unlocked smartphone. Doable (cell phone technology leapfrogged land lines, so most places will have cell coverage, and most cell companies offer data as well as calls, but of course for a computer will require the purchase of a USB dongle), but don't expect fast connections, and if she doesn't have electricity at site it will be hard to charge, unless she buys a bigger solar panel and rigs something up, because bringing your computer to the market to charge may be cheap but also advertises that you have something worth stealing in your house. Many volunteers bring them and are glad they did, many bring them and spend a lot of time worried about theft. I didn't bring either a computer or a smartphone, and just bought a cheap Nokia (the kind that are so solid you could build a house with) for about $25, and that was fine. My folks could call me (they used Pingo, but there are likely better options now…they were the right choice in 2008, though!), and I could text other volunteers and the bureau. It's not our parents' Peace Corps - she'll be pretty much as connected as she wants to be.
-a little nontraditional, but I brought one high quality non-stick frying pan, and I'm glad I did. Non-stick is available here in the capital, but it's terrible and scrapes off in weeks. Maybe they have better quality stuff in Dakar, but it won't come cheap.
-something to do as a hobby. Musical instruments are a good bet. The kids in my village LOVED when I played my trumpet. Though I came to prefer the harmonica, which I learned while I was here.
-a bughut or similar mosquito-net tent. That's for visiting friends, she'll have a mosquito net for her own bed. It's too hot for a real tent, but she'll want to keep the mosquitos off.
-a Therm-a-Rest or similar sleeping pad, also more for trips, though a lot of volunteers use them full time - the foam you get for mattresses here is low quality and also traps the day's heat all too well.
-A CamelBak type water carrier could end up being really useful. I used the heck out of the one my parents' sent, after I found that the best way to get to and from my side was a 50km bike ride.

-The first place I would have recommended for both information and in-country contacts is Peace Corps Journals, which is an aggregator of all the blogs kept by current PCVs they can find, but it looks like it's off line, but may be worth checking occasionally to see if they get the NPCA to take it on.
-The second place I recommend is a website that popped up in my Facebook feed a few days ago, because I follow Peace Corps Food Security. PC Senegal has a website, and on it is a spot specifically for info for invitees.
-Having said that, it occurs to me that she can probably find groups on Facebook to follow. Likely someone in her cohort has already set up a page for all those who received invites for the same training cycle there.
-I'd also just hit google, she'll probably find some current PCVs' blogs that way.
-Yeah, some PCVs have written books, but none of them that I've read are likely to give her a lot of info she won't get from blogs.
-As far as what to read during, I'd say ask a Senegal volunteer she finds from that Google search or the website. If they're like the Burkina program, they have a bajillion books in every imaginable genre to borrow (because precious few Volunteers who acquire books either by bringing them or in care packages are interested in using luggage space bringing them back to America), and she shouldn't waste room/weight in her luggage. Maybe bring her very favorite book.

What to see
The one touristy thing I did in Dakar (I was there for a conference) was go to Gorée, and it's really cool! Be warned, collection of the tourist tax is so unprofessional that it seems like a scam. It's not. Other than that, hopefully some other folks can give better ideas. If she ever vacations in Ghana (or Burkina, but who does that?), I could give more advice.

What to know
This is actually a large part of Peace Corps training, so don't stress too much. Some handy general advice:
-Don't give or take things with your left hand, and never ever ever eat with your left. It's extremely rude. Why? See next point….
-Toilet paper is not terribly common outside of the city. Most people use a plastic teapot to pour water on the bits to be wiped, and wipe with their left hand. I don't say this because she'll have to do it - little packs of kleenex cost twenty cents and are available everywhere, even in small villages - but knowing that will help her remember how important the left hand rule is.
-Greetings take a long time, and are very culturally important. Don't be impatient.
-If someone offers her water, even if she is worried that it won't be good for her stomach, she should at least pretend to take a sip. It's rude to turn things like that down. And if she absolutely must turn an offer of something down, just say "merci" and/or "ça va." She should never say no outright. It's just not done.
-The never-say-no thing goes beyond offers of water or food. She'll find that people invite her to events. She should say she'll go, whether or not she plans to. She'll find, in turn, that people she invited to events never planned on coming, even though they said yes. Communication is much more indirect than in American society, and possibly she'll eventually be able to figure out which yeses are sincere and which not. Of course, there's a lot more nuance that her training will help her navigate, but the short version is that lying in order to avoid insult (and implying disinterest in a person or the things they're doing is most definitely insulting) is culturally appropriate.
-Nothing happens on time. The sooner she accepts that, the happier she'll be.
-All prices are negotiable (unless she's in a large store and the products have price tags). And *should* be negotiated - it's another important cultural interaction. It can be exhausting, and it has certainly kept me from going to the market many times when I just didn't have the energy, but if she goes and takes people's first prices, besides getting ripped off, she'll be seen as someone who does not want to interact with her community.
-Training is hard. Seriously hard. Way harder than service in some ways. Keep that in mind at the low points.
-That said, it's ok to quit. This is something that not a lot of people say, and at some posts the staff will actively try to combat that message. But if at some point, be it her second day, her second month, or her second year, she truly thinks that it's not right for her, it's ok to quit. She can't help others if she's just making herself miserable. I say that having known several volunteers who quit for the right reasons, and several who stayed for the wrong ones (chief among them being the culture in Peace Corps of quitting being a sign of weakness).
-Seconding pretentious illiterate that PC has a really strong focus on security of its volunteers. Some would argue too much.

Actually, I second ALL of pretentious illiterate's advice, it is top shelf.

Oh, one last thing: she should try the sea urchin. It's not that great, but how many people do you know who can say they've had sea urchin on the half shell?
posted by solotoro at 1:06 PM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Certainly see as many movies by Sembene Ousmane as possible, and read at least his book God's Bits of Wood. (This is really advice for anyone.)
posted by OmieWise at 5:35 PM on May 26, 2013

I was a PCV in Senegal, although it's been a few years and I suspect some things (available communications technology, access to some goods) has changed. It's important to note that most of my experiences were among the Wolof (two years in a village in the Kebemer region), but I also lived in a mostly Pulaar community in Matam for another year.

Obviously no one can prepare your friend for a cross-cultural experience; the entire point is having the experience yourself. That said (addressing my comments to both you and the person heading to Senegal):

Language: Understanding the culture and speaking the language are inextricably linked in a way that's even more profound than you might at first realize. The phrase "Degg nge Wolof" is used to mean a literal "you speak Wolof" but also to convey a recognition that you have a deeper understanding of the Wolof people. Members of my community took great pride in teaching me words that had already passed out of the lexicon of urban Senegalese people - replaced by French words and phrases. You can't overemphasize the importance of language in building trust and joining a community. It takes a lot of time and it isn't easy, but it's worth the effort. Some people find themselves in comfort zones of French speakers, expats, NGO staff, or government workers (not to mention other PCVs), and it can be hard to venture out of that bubble. Don't let that be the limit of your experience.

Work: Depending on your assignment, the most effective thing you may be able to do is identify a few movers & shakers within their communities and try to enable them to do more. I had the good fortune to revisit some of my old projects and see how they survived over time. The ones associated with local, dedicated people were far more likely to endure. When you have very limited resources and little infrastructure, people are everything. A PCV may live in a location for a couple years, but in the grand scheme s/he is just a visitor. Make your work about supporting great people, not doing glory projects with little hope of sustainability.

Safety: I would consider Senegal to be a relatively safe posting. The more rural someone goes, the safer I would consider them to be from crime, but even most towns are fine. Dakar can be a little crazy - people tried to pickpocket me there multiple times, but when I was in Senegal, violent crime was relatively uncommon. Probably the biggest danger to volunteers is the unavoidable necessity of public transit. Road accidents are not infrequent and can be much worse than you typically see with vehicles in the US, which are generally of more recent production and include more safety features. That's the reality, and all that can be done is maintaining good situational awareness, doing an ongoing risk assessment at all times, and walking away from anything that sets off your personal alarms.

Cross-cultural acclimation: It can be very difficult for a young person from the US to depart from many of the privileges their world has offered them and start over in a wholly new culture. There were times that I hated the small daily struggles of haggling over prices, dealing with a harsh environment, struggling to comprehend what was said to me, and wondering if my work there would ever amount to anything. Be kind to yourself. Everything will take time: more time than you expect. In the end, I loved - LOVED - Senegal and the people I knew there. My time there was utterly life-changing.

Support: I treasured letters and care packages from home. Sometimes it felt the world had moved on without me as I sat in the desert making incremental baby steps toward even modest work goals. Sharing those experiences meant a lot, and knowing others were still thinking of me was great. If you can arrange for family or friends to visit the volunteer, DO IT, but give the volunteer time (at least a year) to acclimate and find their place. My family visited, and it allows us now to talk about my time there with a common frame of reference.

I could go on and on and on, but that's probably enough. As I said, the experience is hers to have. I envy her a little for it!
posted by itstheclamsname at 1:47 PM on May 28, 2013

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