Senegal: A Peace Corps Odyssey
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Senegal: A Peace Corps Odyssey
Senegal: A Peace Corps Odyssey
Senegal: A Peace Corps Odyssey
A Peace Corps Odyssey
In 1967, having graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in political science, I set out on what would be a life-altering adventure. I became a member of the Peace Corps and left for Senegal, Africa where I spent the next two years of my life. The years from 1967-1969 were tumultuous in the United States--Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the civil rights movement was in full swing, feminism was waiting in the wings, and American astronauts walked on the moon for the first time.
I experienced all of these events through an African filter. To this day, I have a "cultural gap" in my American history memory bank. While in Senegal, I had no TV, no telephone, only a very finicky radio and the daily reports from the BBC or Radio Sénégal. English newspapers were nonexistent then and news from the US often reached us weeks after the fact. Senegal was a "new" country in those days, having become independent only in 1960. The information superhighway was a dirt road that ran from north to south, traveled only by overcrowded taxis and pedestrians.
Today, the Internet has put the world at our fingertips. But Senegal remains distant and unknown. There are only a very few sites on the Web for Senegal. In the spirit of giving back to the Web, I offer this account of my two years in Africa. Join me on the voyage of a lifetime.
Training: Miami, Florida
In the 1960s, the Peace Corps actively recruited what were then called "BA generalists," people with Bachelor of Arts degrees with no particular specialized training. The theory was that well-educated people could be trained to do any job. Times have changed and although the Peace Corps still recruits BA generalists, the emphasis now is more on specific skills. At any rate, a group of about forty such BA generalists gathered in Miami in July of 1967 to begin a three-month program of extensive language training and cultural immersion. We were assigned to a social work program in Senegal which involved the establishment of community social centers for the promotion of literacy, good health and hygiene habits, and anything else we could think of.
We were divided into four teams of about ten people per team. Above is a photo of my team. I am posting this picture in the hope that someone may recognize themselves and contact me. I wish I could remember all the names, but time has left me blank on many of them. In the foreground are the two married couples in our group: on the left is Louise (?) and her husband (?), and on the right are Julie and Chris (?). Standing behind Louis and her husband is Lisbeth Eubanks, a remarkable 70-year-old woman who had spent most of her life on a Navaho Indian reservation. Sprawled along the tree (from left to right) are: Linda (?), Birch Tracey, (?), Angie Hoffman,and yours truly (looking considerably younger than she does now!!).
. Training for the Peace Corps was done in the United States (now it is done in-country after a brief orientation period). The first phase of our training was based at the University of Miami. The theory behind having us train in Miami was to enable us to get used to a hot climate. However, any resemblance between Miami and Senegal stopped there! We spent eight hours a day in class--first, French, then Wolof. Interspersed with the language immersion classes were sessions on Senegalese history, government, politics, and culture, along with a heavy dose of Peace Corps "etiquette."
Lest you think training was all hard work, let me assure you that there was plenty of tom-foolery going on. At a hat party, four of my cohorts decided to "get in the habit." Don't let the angelic looks on their faces deceive you--they were up to no good!
At the same party, Chris (?) decided to regale us all with his palm leaf "skirt". In between all the French lessons, the Wolof, and the cultural immersion, we still managed to find time to party!
We managed to celebrate a birthday or two during training. This party was held for Angie Hoffman, who turned 21. We enjoyed showing off our newly acquired lingustic ability in Wolof to wish her a happy 21st birthday!
Our farewell party before leaving for Dakar was a chicken roast on the beach. As I recall, a great deal of work went into digging the roasting pits, watching the birds carefully for a very long time, and then eating virtually raw chicken. Oh well, it was a good experiment! The cuisine may not have been superb, but the company certainly was. It was our last chance to be together before being split up and sent to our respective villages in Senegal.
Dakar (1): Official Dakar
Our group arrived in Dakar in September. I remember getting off the plane and being smacked in the face by the intense heat and the overwhelming smell of mangoes. To this day, I can smell a mango a mile away and much like Proust's famous madeleines, just the fragrance of a mango brings back a rush of memories. When we landed in Senegal, we began our stay with a brief stage in Dakar, the capital city. The Place de la République is the heart of the city with many apartment and office buildings overlooking the only green grass I ever saw in Senegal.
While in Dakar, we naturally went to see the Palais du Président. Located right on the ocean, the palace was but one of the many vestiges of colonialism in Dakar. Its grandeur was vaguely reminiscent of the White House, but strangely out of place even in the capital city. In 1967, its most important inhabitant was "le président de la République," Léopold Sédor Senghor, the first president of Senegal.
The palace guards stood watch over the official presidential residence day and night. When the guards were wearing red, Senghor was home. When they were wearing blue, he was out of town. I think it was a tad unfriendly of him not to invite us in for a visit with him that day, since obviously he was "in"!!
Not far from the palace was the Assemblée Nationale, the unicameral legislative body of France.
Since the administration of Senegal was much like the administration of France, of course there was a "Mairie" (City Hall) in Dakar.
Senegal is a Moslem country, so naturally the mosque figures prominently in the skyscape of Dakar. The main mosque in Dakar was located right across the street from the Peace Corps office. On Friday afternoons, we all avoided going anywhere near the office because prayers were broadcast at top volume all day long from the mosque. During a visit to Touba, I was able to visit the mosque there, one of the most beautiful in Senegal.
Shopping in Dakar was always an adventure. There was one department store in the capital, and, as I recall, it vaguely resembled K-Mart. Still, when you need toothpaste, you need toothpaste and K-Mart will certainly do.
Ibel, A Remote Village
During the spring break, one of my students invited me to visit his village in the southeast corner of Senegal. A two-day trek from St. Louis where I was living at the time, the trip to Ibel was not the kind that gets written up in travel brochures! Our transportation included everything from bush taxis to peanut trucks. Along the way, we saw baobob trees everywhere. An amazing tree whose life cycle runs exactly opposite from other plant life, the baobob supports both animal and human life in an unforgiving landscape.
The day we arrived in Ibel, the villagers were enjoying their very FIRST market day. Theirs was a barter economy; no money ever exchanged hands in the village. They had never had a market before, and the experience was a new one for them. Yoro Diallo, the student who had left this village many years before in order to get an education, was treated like the prodigal son, returning at last to his home. He was thrilled to see the market underway and his family and friends were equally excited to see him once again.
At Touba can be found what I think is the most beautiful mosque in Senegal. This mosque was the center of the most fanatical sect of Moslems in the country. During my stay in Senegal, the grand imam (the religious leader of the sect) died. Official sources tried to suppress the announcement of his death because, I was told, it was widely believed that in the forty-eight hours immediately following the death of the grand imam, the gates of heaven were open to receive him and anyone else who died during that time. Therefore, officials feared that if the population learned of the death of the imam, there would be a rash of suicides from people trying to get into heaven!
Since women were not allowed in the mosque (at least not in the main part of the mosque), I was forced to take the picture of the interior from the doorway. Women were obliged to remain in the rear of the mosque while the men worshipped in the front.
Thanks for your delightful triptych of Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer.
During the period of your PC service, I was a college student who was drafted 30 days after the Tet Offensive 1968. I was sworn into military service days after MLK's assassination.
In fact, I heard of RFK's assassination while on Basic Training bivouac in the deserts of White Sands, N.M.
Months later, I would become an information specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir, Va. -- 13 miles south of Washington, D.C. The big story, for me, was the Corps of Engineer's contribution to the first manned flight to the moon.
Your story resonants with personal anticipation as I plan to travel to urban and rural areas of Senegal on a Fulbright-Hays study grant. I will be taking photos of the sites we visit as part of a group from Western Michigan University and public K-12 schools in the area.
We will be examining what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century -- a project we began exploring well before 9-11.
More information at:
Michigan, as you may know, is home to the second largest Muslim population in North America.
We want to be sure our students understand and appreciate Islam and not confuse it with the fanaticism of some of its extreme adherents.
We plan to be in country on June 15 and will stay until July 16.
Hints on how best to explore the country would be greatly appreciated.
Craig Anthony Thomas
Educational Technology Specialist
Western Michigan University
2000 Goldsworth Valley Drive, Suite T-7
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-1076
269 387-5735 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Very interesting to read. I moved to Kedougou, South East corner of Senegal on the Gambia river, as an 11 year old in 1967. Some of the first people my family met in Kedougou were a couple of single Peace Corps workers. Living in Senegal from 1967 until 1972 was probably the most exciting part of growing up. The Gambia river was a young boys awesome adventure, lots of very fond memories.