Third Report


Tuesday, October 12, 1999

We've missed several calls from Shannon recently.  It's so frustrating to hear her voice on voicemail and know that we missed her again, but she did have a good talk with Sara a few days ago, and we learned a few things. 

Shannon told Sara that she still loves everything that's going on there.  She likes her fellow volunteers very much and has become friends with a woman named Amelia.   Her host family in the compound where she lives is particularly nice.  They do her laundry, and once when she tried to do her own ironing they wouldn't let her do it.   Ironing?  Shannon?  Her host brother told her that her clothes must be ironed or people wouldn't respect her.  Now why didn't I ever think of telling her that?  

She has seen the place where she will be working, but she's not yet been to the village where she'll live.  There are several levels of health care facilities corresponding roughly to state/county/city, or in their case, center/post/hut, and she will be working at the middle level, a health care post.  The village where she will live is around 10 km (6 miles) from the post, and she will travel back and forth on a bike.  If that sounds like a hardship, remember that Shannon has done two 150-mile bike trips, so she's not afraid to bike.  There will be other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) at the post, but she will be the only American where she lives.  

Training is divided into three sections:  language, culture, and technical.   Most of the instruction so far has been language (French and Wolof), and culture (proper greeting), and the technical part is just starting.  Her assignment is Rural Health Care.  They are in their third of twelve weeks of training, so with her BA in biology and nine more weeks of training she will be dispensing health care. 

After several missed calls we finally talked to Shannon in person.  She called home first, and happily I was able to figure out how to connect with John at work so all three of us could talk. 

She is getting to know the city better so she hardly ever gets lost, and if you remember Shannon's navigation skills, that is real progress!  The volunteers are no longer transported to and from training in a bus, they walk, so she can visit with friends on the way home.  It is about a 20 minute walk from the training center to the compound where she lives. 

LANGUAGE. The 20 or so people in the extended family in her compound speak Wolof to each other but French to her.  Only two young men in the compound speak English, and then only for clarification.

GREETING.  A very important part of the Senegalese culture is greeting, and it is important in all settings.  If you stop into a store to ask directions and don't give a proper greeting you might get the wrong directions to your destination!   In a proper greeting you must ask of the person's health and family and school and job and how they are handling the heat.  A proper greeting goes on and on. 

WEATHER.  It is getting to be the end of the rainy season in Senegal, so it is only "sick-hot," as Shannon called it, a mere 3-4 hours a day.  One night it rained hard enough in one hour to nearly fill a 5-gallon bucket, so she guessed that it probably rained 12-14" that hour.  Her house in the compound has a tin roof; when it rains it sounds like a train going through.  There's a small leak in the roof right over her bed, and periodically she is awakened by a drop of water falling on her face.  
     Shannon's aunts and I are planning to visit her in Senegal next October.  This weather report encourages me to consider later in the fall rather than earlier.  

HOST FAMILY.  In each phone call Shannon repeats how wonderful her family is.   It is a great honor to be chosen to host a Peace Corps Volunteer, and she is their 9th volunteer.  One evening she came home after a difficult day and it was apparent that she had been crying.  Her French is coming along well enough that she understood some of the family members in the background arguing over whether she was upset or had a cold.  When someone finally came up and asked her directly if she was upset, and she said yes, they asked her if she missed her family at home.  She then fell apart again and ran to her room.  Soon her host mother came in to console her saying that all of the volunteers cry, and not to worry, everything would get better and she would get used to it.  The fact of the matter, however, was that it wasn't homesickness that was upsetting her.  She had just that day visited her first Senegalese rural health site.  

RURAL HEALTH.  Shannon's assignment, and that of most of the 35 volunteers in her training group, is rural health.  The group's visit to a small village brought out every member of the whole village to greet them and beg them to assign a volunteer there, but that particular village was not one that will be getting a PCV. 
     The group then visited a health care site, and it was horrible.  She asked us to imagine the worst facility we could, and I guessed dirty and crowded.  She replied that that is just the beginning.  It's much worse.  Add to that image numerous cats running through all over, a sick dog in the waiting room with flies all over it, needles (disposable, but reused) and broken glass on the floor, the bio-hazard waste in a pile in a corner, and more.  This is Shannon's work environment.

ADJUSTMENT.  That visit precipitated her second breakdown.  She has been told that if you aren't having regular breakdowns you aren't learning fast enough, and if you aren't learning fast enough you won't be able to keep up.  However, six out of seven days she is happy and upbeat, so she said to reassure us.  And whenever she has called home she certainly sounds excited and happy to be there. 
     No wonder it's said that the Peace Corps experience changes your life forever!  Just how will our Shannon be different when she comes home in two years? 

MAIL.  Shannon has been gone nearly four weeks and has only received one letter from us, one that I sent a day or so before she left.  I've sent four.   And she has sent three to us, but none have arrived yet.  It appears that when she gets out to her assignment and away from the telecenters in Theis our contact is going to be seriously severed.  That is going to be hard.  For her and for us.    

Fourth Report