When I arrived at my "volunteer site" of Niandouba, the village I'd be spending my two year service in, I was a little nervous. It wasn't as scary as the first ten minutes of the training site, but a bunch of emotions and worries welled up. I sat in my new hut and thought, "Well, I'm here for two years, I guess I'll take a nap?" Two years, two years, two years, what to do today? A strange thought. I had been expecting this, we all were, because during our three months of training my cohort was told again and again about all the worries that volunteers have. I usually disregarded them. I often told myself I'm not going to listen to these people and expect whatever happens to them will happen to me.
Well, there was one thing that we were constantly warned about. Older volunteers kept telling us: you will be worrying about how much work you do, and you will be telling yourself "I spoke to my neighbor today, that's my work for today! Lets go read a book!" They spoke as if this was inevitable, and cynic/relativist/whatever that I am I couldn't believe that. Everyone always sees things differently and nothing is certainly going to happen to me if it happened to ten before me. Well, I'll be different, and they are wrong I said to myself. To prove them wrong I jammed my first five weeks in village with tasks.
My first five weeks in Niandouba I walked around the village getting to know the people and their environment. I asked lots of questions, figured out what the people think they need and figured out ways to meet those needs sustainably. Week one I planted my garden and showed my family what techniques I used to enrich the soil. Week two I spoke to our elementary school director, a very intelligent and witty man. After many minutes of struggling to communicate with him in Pulaar we shook hands, then he looked me in the eyes and said in English "Teaching... is very difficult work." Week three I showed people how to create polypots, or plastic tree sacks.
Week four I decided I would teach people how to make Neem lotion. Neem leaves and seeds have many chemicals in them, and one of them is a very potent pesticide. Steeping leaves in boiling water for five minutes releases enough to mix with oil and shaved soap to make anti-bug lotion. I began the demonstration and what happened next was one of the things we were constantly warned would happen. I told everyone that was watching the demonstration that they could take some and put it on their bodies. They interpreted this as you can take some home with you. Kids and people started bringing containers and asking for the lotion. Then they started shoving each other, then the women started yelling at each other. Then one of my mothers took the remainder of the lotion and marched home yelling at everyone else while they yelled at her. It was a disaster.
I got upset and started walking home. Should have told them that the lotion was only for my family. Should have told them that if they wanted lotion, all they had to do was buy soap and oil and come find me....
I walked through a neighbor's house and a girl was there. I had met her before, briefly. She was on the back of the area doctor's motorcycle, and the doctor introduced her to me as a nurse. She looked about my age and she said she spoke a little English but was very quiet. Currently, I was fuming and confused. I wanted to go yell at my mother who embarrassed me by taking the bucket of lotion and running home. I looked at her as I walked past and she said to me in the most perfect English I had heard out of a Senegalese person:
Girl: Where is my mosquito lotion?
Me: You too? If you wanted lotion you should have come to the demonstration.
Girl: Well I didn't want to.
Me: Okay, well then you don't get any lotion. I did the demonstration to teach people how to make the lotion, not give it away.
Girl: Well you should have saved some for me.
At this point I was even more mad. It intrigued me that she spoke so well but it was infuriating that she would ask me for lotion, totally disregarding the fact that she didn't even get off her ass to come see how it was made.
Me (very mad and not making much sense): I don't understand! You want me to save you some lotion after showing people how to make it? What would you do with it? Use it once then never make it, and instead ask me if you can have some whenever you think you needed some? Do you see what is wrong with that? Why are all these people going crazy over this lotion, they just want a little, you just want a little, but you don't want to make it. You'll never ask me to help you make it because you won't buy the 200CFA (40 cents) worth of soap and oil.
Girl: Well, I didn't go to your demonstration because I'm not part of this village. And I didn't want to be around so many people. People would talk about me and I didn't want any problems. And people are going crazy over your lotion because people around them are dying of malaria. They think that this thing you are making will save their families lives.
At this point all of my cares and worries were blown out of my body. I wasn't angry at all anymore. This girl was not from my village, and for that matter she was not Senegalese either. Her name is Aminata and came from The Gambia, visiting her uncle. She was worried about what people thought, just like me! She was worried, just like me! And she rationally explained to me why people were freaking out so much and getting violent. I sat down with her and we spoke for hours, long into the night.
She ended up spending an extra week in Niandouba and we hung out a lot. She would tell me her perceptions of Senegalese and West Africans and I would laugh and wonder if she was right or wrong in her observations. But there was one thing we totally agreed on: Helping people is hard. It's difficult for behavior change to be implemented, especially by a foreigner but even on one's self.
And it is hard. Volunteer life is as easy as your mind makes it. You can wake up at 11am, read books and play in your garden until 4, eat lunch, take a nap, read more, eat dinner and then fall asleep. And you could be happy doing this, but you may feel incredibly guilty. And rightly so, you have a job to do, right? The trick is to make sure you are doing your job meeting that first goal of the Peace Corps: Helping the people of your host country to meet their need for trained men and women.
But it is hard, and I was happy that Aminata showed me that people here know it and that we share the same problems: they worry a lot, they can be socially anxious, and they understand that helping people and trying to ignite behavior change is difficult. And like Aminata told me when she left Niandouba for The Gambia, "Just stay calm, don't get angry at these people, and don't worry, your job is as hard as it is kind."