Sunday, November 9, 2014

City or Village Life: Which Would You Choose?

While there are definitely stereotypes associated with Peace Corps - some people imagine a hippie life on an island, or a hut deep in the jungle - the truth is that PCVs can end up in all kinds of different living situations around the world. You'll find us living in huts, houses, apartments, you name it. You can end up way out in the bush, five minutes from the beach, tucked away in a small town, or lost in a bustling metropolis. 

I can't say I wish I had been one of those Peace Corps Volunteers placed in a village. I’m happy being a small city volunteer in Kolda, Senegal, because it satisfies my inner drive to always be on the go. I can never be bored here, at least in a work sense! 

There are hundreds of people and dozens of organizations I could work with, which means endless project possibilities. I can work with talibés one day, then nutrition and moringa, than switch it up to a youth internship program - and I love that variety. Also, French is more useful in a city, where it is used in professional contexts. (Every-day conversations are usually conducted in local languages like Pulaar). I’ve loved being able to work in two languages.

My house! And my little host brother, Omar "Doctor" Baldé.
The well inside my family compound
Me with Double Horizon, a local youth group I work with sometimes.
Some health relays I work with in Kolda (we were doing door-to-door vaccinations for children)

Despite the perks, city life isn't all that golden. Unfortunately, Peace Corps Senegal doesn’t equip health volunteers as well for serving in cities. We come in expecting to live in remote villages, and that’s how we are trained and prepared. We learn about baby weighings, how to make nutritional porridges, how to implement well or latrine-building projects – all things relevant in villages, but less so in cities. Then, suddenly, a very few volunteers “luck out” (depends on your point of view) and get placed in small cities or road towns.

Sure, we get electricity and easier access to Internet. The downside is we have to pave our own way and navigate an overwhelming sea of people, trying to find our niche and be relevant and useful, with less guidance from Peace Corps. Big towns already have qualified Senegalese personnel running health and development projects. Duplicating their efforts is not a sustainable contribution. Reinforcing capacity is nice once in a while (like helping local health workers with their child vaccination campaigns), but it still doesn’t make a lasting impact.

Instead, it’s best to find your little niches – meeting the needs that are not already being met, or offer a unique approach to something. A few months into my service I finally started finding those niches, but it took a lot of research and questions to get there. If you're not careful, you can get lost in the city, swallowed up by existing projects and feeling like a needle in a haystack.

When I call Kolda a “city,” I should clarify: Kolda is nothing like Dakar, the capital, which teems over 1 million people living in both luxury and poverty. In Dakar, you can find smoothly paved streets, nightclubs, high-end restaurants (even sushi!), beautiful beaches, a modern shopping mall (where they are currently building a movie theatre), a giant stadium for Senegal’s soccer fan multitudes, art galleries, fashion shows, cafés, and air-conditioned stores with all kinds of imported products. We call these “toubab stores,” because really, only toubabs (foreigners) go there. Most Senegalese won’t be dropping 5,000 CFA ($10) for real ranch dressing or a box of Pop Tarts.

But in Dakar you will also find intense poverty, dusty dirt roads, trash on the streets, sheep and other animals roaming everywhere, open-air markets, donkeys pulling carts next to the sleekest cars, millions of small boutiques, and ragged talibé boys roaming the streets with their begging bowls.


Compared to big cities like Dakar and Thiès, Kolda is definitely more of a very small town. We have a few gas stations that offer products geared towards toubabs – shampoo, Nutella, Pringles, cereal – but not much. We are one of the southernmost regions in this country. You know you’re nearly the furthest you can get when there’s no ice cream to be found! In fact, many people don’t even know what it is, sadly. Though we have refrigerators and convenience stores, there’s no way to transport ice cream all the way down here without it melting.

The majority of Kolda’s population lives on the outskirts, not downtown, and many do not have electricity. Most people live in huts, or combinations of buildings and huts, arranged in a square or circle. This forms a family compound. In the middle of the compound is dirt ground, but they treat it like a floor, sweeping it smooth of debris and animal droppings. Most families also keep animals in the middle of their compound – usually goats, sheep, chickens, and cows. In the city, you may witness the weird dichotomy of a giant satellite dish next to a reclining cow or a bunch of sheep. (Welcome to my house!)

Just like anywhere in Senegal, whether village or city, you’ll find families in Kolda relaxing and socializing in front of their houses, drinking tea. Unfortunately, Jakarta taxi motorcycles buzz like flies – roar like lions would be more accurate – everywhere you go. True silence is rare. After a while, I realized I needed a break from it all.

My family compound, sheep, satellite and all.
Mix of buildings and huts in the city of Kolda
You still find random things like this in a Senegalese city... donkey carting soft drinks to a bar.
Kolda city school kids - - there's a LOT of them.
Inside another city house (Kolda).

Village Visit

Recently, a PCV friend of mine had been encouraging me to visit his village before he finished his service, and I finally found the time to do it. I’m so glad I did. It was just what I needed!

A small village just outside of the big city of Tambacounda (a 5 hour drive from Kolda), Botou breathes calmness in the way that cities never can, unless you’re on the coast and can chill ocean-side. It had been too long since I’d visited a village – I’d started to forget how peaceful and relaxing it can be out there.

In village, without realizing it, you fall into a slower rhythm. People take their time. What do they have to hurry to? I found myself sitting for hours, just talking, without getting antsy like I normally would. It was a miracle!

The beauty around me probably helped: clean air free of car exhaust and the growl of motorcycles, green and trees everywhere, rich gardens of tomatoes and cassava and hibiscus, fields of peanuts and corn and millet. The bush stretched out behind us in an endless expanse of scruffy grass and spindly trees, pierced here and there by massive baobab trees.

At night in village, no light other than cooking fires or flashlights illuminates the deep dark. The inky blackness settles over everything with finality. As a result, you start waking up earlier and going to bed earlier. Without electricity, food is never saved. They buy ingredients daily, cook and consume. Ice and cold things become a distant memory.

My friend’s hut was everything mine isn’t: small, square, clean, organized and rustically lovely. (I inherited some unfortunate situations with my hut that I won’t go into.) His window looked out at some refreshing green, shaded by a large neem tree. He had built himself a front patio out of wooden branches, perfect for relaxing out of the sun. Behind his hut, he’d set up a garden and a gym training area. (Yes, you can stay in shape even out in the middle of nowhere, if you get creative! Think rice sack punching bags, stone-stick-rope contraptions for weight lifting, etc.)

One of the things that I love most about village life is its quietness. Instead of car sounds and all the other noises of the city, I heard the wind in the trees, crickets, and the occasional animals. At night, wrapped in that refreshing silence, I fell asleep so much more easily.

Village Botou
Some bitter tomatoes in Botou 
Village kids in Botou 
You will also find random things like this in villages! (No electricity, but a phone booth.)
My friend's hut

Villages have their downsides too: more extreme poverty in some cases, less diet variety, a lower level of education, less to do, nothing cold to refresh you from the heat, no electricity to charge electronics, lack of medical services (the nearest health hut or post may be kilometers away). PCV friends of mine sometimes groan about the slowness of village life. Implementing projects, and really doing anything at all, will take a lot longer. People may or may not be interested in working with you. If a village of 200 people has only 10 or so interested in working on a project, your options become pretty limited. Of course, every site is different.

Still, many volunteers love village life for its simplicity, friendliness, and natural beauty. It's true, I miss being surrounded by nature. Slow and calm is nice, sometimes, but I don’t think I’d want that every day. All in all I’m happy where I am.

But there is something special about village life that I think everyone should experience at some point in life, if you can.

Whether it’s a village somewhere in Africa or Asia or South America, if you ever get the chance, go. Spend a night or two. You’ll find that your world shrinks, concentrates, intensifies into the moment. The calm seeps into you. You see dozens of people getting along just fine without things you thought you needed. Taking the time to greet and connect with people becomes so much more important, because it’s the human relationships that maintain such a community. There's a lot to learn from this way of life.