Living with poverty every day here in southern Senegal makes me wonder about chances. The chance of being assigned to Senegal of all the countries in the world for Peace Corps service. The chance of me, one person, having an impact. The chances so many kids here don’t have to pursue their dream in life. The chance of being born in the US, one of the few countries in the world with so many resources.
It’s strange to think about – like thinking about how tiny we are, one tiny planet with life (that we know of) amidst all the fathoms of stars in space. (Yes, I did some stargazing and pondering in Mbour, my training site, while lying on top of the family well. At first my host sisters thought it was hilarious – what odd thing is our toubab doing now? – but eventually they joined me.)
As I pass my days here, where simple tasks like bathing take twice as long because we have to draw water from the well, my mind is constantly flitting between continents. I try to wrap my mind around the differences, like the fact that Americans have so many systems and services already in place that we don't even think about some of the fundamentals of living on this earth.
Childhood vaccinations and regular boosters make it unnecessary for us to worry about most life-threatening diseases. Doctors and health insurance take care of pregnant mothers and babies, but would we know how to keep them healthy without access to those services? Every kind of food or meal we could want is readily available from stores or restaurants, limiting our knowledge of how to actually cultivate the earth and scrape together natural resources into nutritious meals. Machines do everything for us: wash our clothes, wash our dishes, make our food, make our coffee. English is everywhere, spreading across the globe. But what if, as is the case for many Senegalese ethnic groups here, your native language was only a spoken one, and you had to learn another language to read and write? You might be smart in school, but a barrier now impedes your ability to succeed.
A toss of the dice and I could have been born in a village without electricity, where the nearest health post is miles away, speaking a language no one beyond West Africa knows, where the highlight of the day is drinking tea. But now I'm here regardless of where I was born, and I’d like to insert a small piece of wisdom from one of my best friends, Dave Spencer:
“Maybe you don't have all your modern conveniences, but it's all relative. Sometimes I think about that. If the highlight of their day is drinking tea, how ‘high’ is that highlight relative to our highlights? When we drink tea, it's nothing. So that means that they’re getting more enjoyment out of the simple things. Does the fact that we have more things make our society better? I'd say probably not. Does it make us happier? Definitely not.”
He’s right about the tea. After a few months in Senegal, I’ve started to appreciate the small things in life much more. The tinge of mint added to the tea. Wind, lifting the heavy heat. A cold drink. Silence – so rare here. Human touch (Senegalese aren’t big on hugs). The very few, blissful times I get to be fully immersed in water. The value placed on human relationships, on visits and greetings and knowing names.
Here in the Kolda region, it takes extra work to not only live but thrive – convincing mothers to take their babies in for vaccinations, making suggestions on nutrition, encouraging people to sleep under mosquito nets to reduce malaria. Without all the Western conveniences, life is harder, but it feels good when you know you can get by.
I may have been born in the U.S., one in 300 million, but somehow my path led me here to Senegal. Now I’m one of about 40-60,000 in the city of Kolda. Who knows what impact my tiny self can have? But there’s one thing I know for sure: I’m going to make myself more than a number.