Academic journal article Journal of Case Studies

Life after Senegal

Academic journal article Journal of Case Studies

Life after Senegal

Article excerpt

Mary reeked of garbage. She was tired, discouraged, and did not want to talk to anyone. As Mary reached her host family's compound, she was glad to see no one around. She had spent the day sorting and weighing samples of the town's garbage with two very reluctant helpers, who had been ordered to assist her. Town officials had told Mary, a new Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) in Senegal, that they wanted to start a composting and garbage collection program like the one started by a PCV in another town. At that moment, however, Mary was not sure they really cared.

The project seemed to start smoothly enough. Mary knew the first step was to sample the town's garbage to ensure that the garbage contained sufficient compostable material. The mayor and his staff said they wanted to proceed and promised to find volunteers to help with sampling. But when Mary arrived on the morning of the count, there were no volunteers. The mayor had not followed through, so he told two handy men to help Mary sort the garbage after she collected it. The men were revolted by the task and difficult to work with. It was a long and frustrating day.

The more she thought about it, Mary worried that there was no future to the project. She had data and it proved that most of the garbage indeed could be composted, but the mayor had not put any effort or resources into starting the program. And what role had she played in the failure? Had she spent enough time getting buy-in on the project? Had she established the right relationships with people? As she ruminated about the day with all its misunderstandings, she began to recall many other small failures she had experienced since arriving in Senegal. As they came back to her, she began to question her ability accomplish anything. Was this failure something she could overcome? Was it possible to find her place and role in this culture that seemed so radically different than anything she had known?

Mary roused herself from contemplation. She was home again with her family and friends. They seemed the same, yet she had changed. Two years in Senegal had left its mark, but she still had not fully unpacked its meaning. And, perhaps most crucially, were there lessons she could carry from this intercultural experience that might enable her to successfully navigate future critical incidents in her professional life?

Senegal and the Peace Corps

Mary White was a PCV in Senegal, a West African country the size of South Dakota. She and the 53 other volunteers in her training group had spent two days in Washington, D.C., for an introduction to life as a PCV before traveling to Senegal to start training in one of the Peace Corps' areas of focus--agriculture, health, environment, or business--and in language and Senegalese culture.

The program in Senegal was one of the Peace Corps' longest continuously-operating ventures. It had started in 1962, shortly after the country gained independence. One of the most important aspects of the Peace Corps--its differentiation from many other non-governmental organizations (NGOs)--was its focus on understanding the people and their culture, and on working from within the community, through collaborative leadership rather than leading from a position of authority. Because volunteers were given great freedom in choosing and executing projects, most PVC leadership training was focused on how to understand and work with the community.

Senegal was a French colony until 1960, when it was granted independence. The country has been a republic since independence, and has become one of the most politically stable and democratic countries in West Africa. Despite this, over half of its people lived below the poverty line, and many people still relied on subsistence farming. While access to clean drinking water was high in urban areas, less than half of the rural population had improved water sources (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], 2014). …

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