2006.03.05: March 5, 2006: Headlines: COS - Senegal: The Rockingham News: Rebecca Perkins teaches marketing in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Senegal: Peace Corps Senegal : The Peace Corps in Senegal: 2006.03.05: March 5, 2006: Headlines: COS - Senegal: The Rockingham News: Rebecca Perkins teaches marketing in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer

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Rebecca Perkins teaches marketing in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Rebecca Perkins teaches marketing in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer

"In Dakar, there are supermarkets and BMW dealers and flat-screen TV stores. But 15 minutes from my house in the north are villages that have not changed since time immemorial, women bringing water from the river and searching for wood for their cooking fires. Senegal is just below the Sahara on the west coast of Africa; there is the desert in the northwest and the rain forest to the south."

Rebecca Perkins teaches marketing in Senegal as a Peace Corps Volunteer

African mission: Big rewards, small steps

By Rebecca Perkins

Complete Business Index

Caption: Stratham resident Rebecca Perkins teaches a class in marketing, calculating profits and financial planning as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal.
Courtesy photo

Wait, what am I teaching again?

This was a phrase I found running through my head on that hot morning as I stood beneath a thatch roof in a dusty compound. Glancing briefly at the sheep chewing in the background, I held up a red bill from our training game and asked, "Bi, naata la?" This bill, how much is this one?

I was met with blank faces, some guesses. "Dix mille!" Ten dollars.

Sigh. "Deetdeet. Naata la? Keenen?" Nope. Nobody knows? Anyone?

I turn and write on the chalkboard - peeling black paint - and scratch out a "20." I turn back around:

"Benefice ci chapeau, naata la?" How much is the profit, then? I hold up the same bill. A bunch of faces stare at me hopefully, but nobody says anything. I point very obviously and make goofy faces at a young girl in the front row, encouraging her.

"Vingt mille!" She says, giggling at the white person trying to speak her African language.

"Voilà!" I say, smiling and turning back around to the chalkboard.

I let my face fall for a minute, my mind racing.

This is going to be a long day.

Lasting impressions

The first thing I remember about Senegal was seeing the coastline of Dakar outlined suddenly against the Atlantic, orange street lamps and charcoal fires piercing the early morning dark.

Our first ride through this capital city brought back all of the things I had read about: a dense capital in a country of 10 million; urbanization and squalid living conditions; lack of clean drinking water; and sewage in the streets. My eyes burned from exhaustion and pollution, and all I could think was: Iím so glad I came.

But then we passed through the city and out, into the surprising green of the late rainy season. It was then that Senegal began to strike me for its disparities, and they run deep.

In Dakar, there are supermarkets and BMW dealers and flat-screen TV stores. But 15 minutes from my house in the north are villages that have not changed since time immemorial, women bringing water from the river and searching for wood for their cooking fires. Senegal is just below the Sahara on the west coast of Africa; there is the desert in the northwest and the rain forest to the south.

A sense of optimism springs from the 2000 election, in which the opposition won for the first time since independence. With this, Senegal, mostly Muslim, became a "real democracy" in the shaky landscape of African democracy.

The economy has as much of a disparity as the geography: exporting factories to a huge informal sector. In Senegal, only a tiny slice of the population Ė 10-15 percent - will ever know formal employment (salaries, working hours); the rest spend their lives in income-generating activities: selling fruit, looking for cars to repair, making clothes. It is these tiny enterprises that we work with: businesses in which the owner has no experience, no plan, and there are rarely even any written records.

Easy, right?


Enterprising volunteer

The Peace Corps actually calls me a small enterprise development volunteer, and I am assigned to transfer my skills and knowledge of business to the Senegalese.

Our official program goals fall under four objectives: training entrepreneurs to continue to grow their businesses; creating linkages of information or markets; helping youth or women enter the work force; and promoting ecotourism as part of Senegalís development. For the most part, our work is consulting one-on-one and teaching more formal seminars.

My first class was interesting. It was with a womenís group that makes juice, tye-dyed clothing, incense and other things. Part of the class was a game - an imaginary "month" in which the participants buy and sell material to cement the concepts of investment and profit calculation.

Throughout most of the workshop, I felt like I was the one learning. Learning that there was an even bigger need for me than I had imagined; learning that this successful group was for the most part illiterate.

Here I was, trying to increase these womenís capacity for business, for buying and selling, for complicated operations - and they couldnít even add. They couldnít even read numbers. That was how the scene above unfolded.

But at the end of the game, I found myself smiling at the observations.

"She couldnít pay her loan back because she didnít put her money in her business."

"The winning team sold the most material. They spent their money on their business. They made a profit. Then they could pay their loan back."

As more women spoke up, I am sure my smile kept growing. All the smarts were there; there were just some important skills missing we had to work to get in place if they were going to really be successful.

Business development

So my experience here has been a constant trial and error - trying to find the most effective way to transfer a (albeit short) lifetime of piggy banks, waitressing jobs and car payments to this place where many a person has never even held a $10 bill. My focus has become managing your money - setting goals, saving, opening bank accounts and creating capital generation so this economy can get off the ground.

Recently, I taught a class to high school students, an audience that ranges from about 17 to 24. (Here, you have to pass an exam every school year to advance, and you only get two tries. High school is an elite class.) The lucky will continue to university, and the rest will just finish school and try to start their lives. We played the same game, and the second time they got it and finished with plenty of money. As we wound down that day, we had a few minutes left, so I sat down on the table at the front of the class while arranging the last bills.

"So, who won?"

Hoops and hollers, a couple begrudging acknowledgments through smiles.

"Well, what did you do? What was your strategy?"

"We bought as much stuff to sell as we could afford."

"OK, good. Does anyone know the name for this?"

Hesitation. A raised finger: "Investment."

"Good!" I write on the board, Investissement. "Can you explain what that is, more specifically?"

"When ... you spend a bunch of money on the business."

"Good, but thereís one piece missing. Anyone have ideas?" Thirteen thinking faces. "Where does this money youíre spending come from? Why do you have money to buy stuff for the business?"

Bing, one kid gets it.

"Itís your profit. You made a profit, and you spend it on your business."

"Great!" I say. I write this on the board, and give them a minute to write it down.

"What usually happens when someone has some extra money in Senegal? You go out and buy something to resell?"

They know I know the answer to this.

"We buy soda."

"Or clothes."

"Or someone asks us for some."

Iíve tricked them into forgetting this is class. The kids are snapping their fingers into the air, telling me how hard it is here, how the families are so big, how if you donít give money to someone theyíll say youíre evil - a significant element in such a community-based place. I ask them how the game - or a real business - would have played out if someone came asking for money throughout. Or if they had bought more soda. They knew these answers as well. But in a slightly frustrated defense, we came to, "But itís not the same as it is in your white countries."

"I know itís not. We all hoard our money till the end of time, thinking weíll need it in our grave, right?"

Laughs to get us back on solid ground, but Iíve taken away their ace.

"Why should it be the same here? You have your own culture. But should we just throw our hands in the air?"

Acknowledging smiles at the desks, waiting faces.

"Youíve seen successful businesses here. What do you think they do?"

"Well, we donít know." A coy smile. "Thatís why weíre here."

I smile as well. "OK, then. Shall we figure it out?"

Lots of nods.

"Iíll see you next week."

Editorís note: Stratham resident Rebecca Perkins, a 2000 graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and a 2004 graduate of Dartmouth College, is working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. Perkins works and learns as a small enterprise development volunteer. The following is a story she sent Herald Sunday about her experience. We think it provides a fascinating glimpse into some of the more hidden corners of the global marketplace. She has been admitted to Cornell Law School, Class of 2010, and plans to study business law when she returns to the United States

When this story was posted in March 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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March 1, 1961: Keeping Kennedy's Promise Date: February 27 2006 No: 800 March 1, 1961: Keeping Kennedy's Promise
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issues Executive Order #10924, establishing the Peace Corps as a new agency: "Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed--doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language. But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps--who works in a foreign land--will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace. "

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The Peace Corps Library Date: February 24 2006 No: 798 The Peace Corps Library
The Peace Corps Library is now available online with over 40,000 index entries in 500 categories. Looking for a Returned Volunteer? Check our RPCV Directory. New: Sign up to receive PCOL Magazine, our free Monthly Magazine by email. Like to keep up with Peace Corps news as it happens? Sign up to recieve a daily summary of Peace Corps stories from around the world.

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Paid Vacations in the Third World? Date: February 20 2006 No: 787 Paid Vacations in the Third World?
Retired diplomat Peter Rice has written a letter to the Wall Street Journal stating that Peace Corps "is really just a U.S. government program for paid vacations in the Third World." Director Vasquez has responded that "the small stipend volunteers receive during their two years of service is more than returned in the understanding fostered in communities throughout the world and here at home." What do RPCVs think?

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The U.S. military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is allowing recruits to meet part of their reserve military obligations after active duty by serving in the Peace Corps. Read why there is opposition to the program among RPCVs. Director Vasquez says the agency has a long history of accepting qualified applicants who are in inactive military status. John Coyne says "Not only no, but hell no!" and RPCV Chris Matthews leads the debate on "Hardball." Avi Spiegel says Peace Corps is not the place for soldiers while Coleman McCarthy says to Welcome Soldiers to the Peace Corps. Read our poll results. Latest: Congress passed a bill on December 22 including language to remove Peace Corps from the National Call to Service (NCS) military recruitment program

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When the National Call to Service legislation was amended to include Peace Corps in December of 2002, this country had not yet invaded Iraq and was not in prolonged military engagement in the Middle East, as it is now. Read the story of how one volunteer spent three years in captivity from 1976 to 1980 as the hostage of a insurrection group in Colombia in Joanne Marie Roll's op-ed on why this legislation may put soldier/PCVs in the same kind of danger. Latest: Read the ongoing dialog on the subject.

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Gaddi H. Vasquez has established the Kennedy Service Awards to honor the hard work and service of two current Peace Corps Volunteers, two returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and two Peace Corps staff members. The award to currently serving volunteers will be based on a demonstration of impact, sustainability, creativity, and catalytic effect. Submit your nominations by December 9.

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170,000 is a very special number for the RPCV community - it's the number of Volunteers who have served in the Peace Corps since 1961. It's also a number that is very special to us because March is the first month since our founding in January, 2001 that our readership has exceeded 170,000. And while we know that not everyone who comes to this site is an RPCV, they are all "Friends of the Peace Corps." Thanks everybody for making PCOL your source of news for the Returned Volunteer community.

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Story Source: The Rockingham News

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