Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Senegal
From Peace Corps Wiki
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. If you expect U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for some frustration. Most mail takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Letters may arrive with clipped edges because someone has tried to see if any money was inside (again, this is rare, but it does happen). Advise your family and friends to number their letters for tracking purposes and to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.
Despite the delays, we encourage you to write to your family
regularly and to number your letters. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so it is a good idea to advise them that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Your address during training will be:
PCT “Your Name”
Corps de la Paix
Once you have been sworn in as a Volunteer and are at your permanent site, you will need to send your new address to your family and friends.
Calls can be made from either businesses known as “telecenters” or cabines téléphoniques (phone booths). Volunteers’
houses are not equipped with telephones, but a fortunate few
live close to a telecenter or to a neighbor with a phone.
Telecenters are usually easy to locate in towns but do not
exist in small villages.
Cell phones are now common in many parts of Senegal, and many volunteers now have them.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Many Internet cafes have sprung up recently throughout Senegal, particularly in regional capitals. The cost varies from the equivalent of around $1.50 an hour to $3.50 an hour. Since most Volunteers live a good distance from a regional capital, however, few Volunteers have regular access to the Internet.
Housing and Site Location
Most Volunteers live in rural areas, especially those who work in the agriculture, natural resources, and environmental education sectors. For safety and cultural reasons, Volunteers are usually housed in family compounds, where accommodations range from a cement-block room with a tin roof to a traditional hut with a thatched roof. The Peace Corps requires that all housing have screens to protect against mosquitoes and other insects, a lock, and a concrete floor. Additionally, bathing and toilet facilities must meet Peace Corps standards. Prospective Volunteers are encouraged to bring pictures and other decorations to “make their hut a home.”
Living Allowance and Money Management
The living allowance is deposited into Volunteers’ bank accounts (usually Crédit Agricole) on a quarterly basis and is intended to cover the cost of food, household supplies, and work-related travel. The amount varies from region to region and depends on whether the site is in an urban or rural area. As the funds are issued on a quarterly basis, it is important for Volunteers to keep track of their expenditures so their allowance will last until the next payment is issued.
Food and Diet
Senegalese cooking is unvaried by Western standards but delicious nonetheless. Rice and millet are the two staples, with millet being the traditional food crop in the peanut basin and rice being more prevalent in the river basins. Depending on your assignment and the relative wealth of the villagers with whom you live, you may end up eating millet or rice three times a day. Generally, rice is served at lunch and millet at dinner, both with seasonal vegetables, and fish when available.
The national dish is thiéboudien (che-boo-jenn), a tasty concoction of fish and rice simmered in tomato sauce and spices, accompanied by various vegetables. Other popular dishes are mafé (rice and peanut sauce), yassa (rice, onions, and chicken, beef, or fish) and cere neex (millet and bean sauce). White bread, which, like rice, was introduced by the French during the colonial period, is also extremely popular. Bread is expensive for the average Senegalese, since all of its ingredients must be imported, but it has become a favorite breakfast in urban areas. On Muslim holidays, the standard fare is lamb. A wide variety of exotic fruits are also available at different seasons, including mangoes, papayas, watermelons, mandarin oranges, and passion fruit. Fruits are more widely available in the south, where heavier rainfall supports a large variety of fruit trees.
All Volunteers are issued bicycles for daily use. Another form of transportation available to village-based Volunteers consists of charrettes, or horse- or donkey-drawn carts. For intracity transportation, there are the omnipresent Peugeot 504 station wagons called sept-places or taxis-brousse. They are frequently unreliable, unsafe, crowded, and uncomfortable.
There are also minibuses of various shapes and sizes, but they are even more unreliable, unsafe, crowded, and uncomfortable. The Peace Corps regularly reminds Volunteers to examine the condition of a vehicle and its driver before purchasing a ticket to board any intercity mode of transport. If you find yourself in a vehicle you believe to be unsafe, you should demand that the driver let you out immediately. The grim reality is that vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death of Americans in Africa.
Geography and Climate
Senegal, a semiarid country with a population of more than 10 million, is one of America’s most important partners in sub-Saharan Africa. Occupying an area approximately the size of South Dakota, it shares borders with Mauritania, Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Atlantic Ocean, and it is the westernmost country on the African continent. Because of its geographic location and deep-water port, Dakar, the capital, serves as the western gateway to the African continent.
The landscape consists of monotonous flat plains in the middle of the arid, sandy Sahel. The only significant elevations are in the far southeast along the Guinea border, the northern tip of the Fouta Djalon plateau, and farther east along the Malian border.
The Senegal River originates in the Fouta Djalon and forms the border with Mauritania. St. Louis, an old colonial city, is at the river’s mouth. The wide flood plains, cultivated with peanuts and millet, are among the country’s most productive areas. Senegal is very important to migrating birds, particularly waterfowl, which return in large numbers each winter from Europe. Djoudj Park, one of the most important bird reserves in the world, is to the north of St. Louis. Senegal is the most biologically diverse country in the Sahel, with over 550 animal species. Certain species of wildlife, however, such as giraffes, have disappeared altogether. A greater problem is the increasing desertification of the northern part of the country.
Social activities vary from region to region, but baptisms and weddings are big events in all areas. Some of the best-known West African popular musicians are from Senegal. Soccer, called football in Senegal, is a major preoccupation of boys throughout the country, and traditional wrestling tournaments and the ceremonies surrounding them continue to be important sources of entertainment.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Senegalese, with rare exception, appear in public neatly dressed. While an unkempt or sloppy appearance may be an expression of individuality in the United States, in Senegal it is viewed as demeaning and disrespectful. Thus Volunteers are expected to dress neatly and be well groomed at all times. Male Volunteers who wear shorts risk being treated as schoolboys, since generally only schoolboys wear shorts in Senegal.
Female Volunteers should not wear anything above the knee, including shorts, in public. These recommendations for dress are consistent with Peace Corps policies established to ensure the safety and well-being of Volunteers and with the wishes of the Senegalese government. As guests of the government, Volunteers must not abuse the hospitality of their host by disregard for local norms. Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to set good examples for the young people of Senegal in addition to providing technical assistance. The respect they earn by virtue of their education, relative affluence, and status as representatives of the United States is easily lost by improper behavior or dress. Note that the use of drugs, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, and participation of any kind in Senegalese political affairs by Volunteers are strictly forbidden and will result in immediate termination from the Peace Corps.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Senegal Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Senegal. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The cultural adaptation Volunteers must undertake while serving in Senegal is substantial. Customs and practices such as polygamous marriages, reliance on extended families, and subsistence farming require Volunteers to reevaluate their own attitudes. The slower pace may be a pleasant contrast to the American rush at breakneck speed but can also be a source of frustration when things do not get done as quickly as one is accustomed to.
In addition, Volunteers are considered rich by Senegalese, an image that is hard for Volunteers to accept, particularly when beggars or representatives of charitable causes constantly approach them. It is important to remember that even though Volunteers work without a salary, in actuality their living allowance is far more than the income of the average village family. You will have to learn how to say no with discretion.
West Africa is known for its friendly and generous people, and the Senegalese are no exception. Volunteers are likely to attract attention wherever they go and be stared at simply because they are the strangest, if not the most interesting, people many Senegalese have ever seen. Most Senegalese want to be friends with Volunteers and visit them continually. The American desire for privacy seems strange to Senegalese, and Volunteers may find it difficult to have times of solitude. Seeking privacy is viewed as antisocial behavior in Senegalese culture.