Tag Archives: change

The Journey Home

So I left my family with tears and sadness, knowing that I will be homesick forever; a part of my always there in Mbolo Aly Sidy.

Then onto Dakar where we met as a group of stage-mates to finish our 27 months of Peace Corps Service together.  (Well, the Sustainable Agriculture and Urban Agriculture volunteers together.. the Agroforestry and Community Economic Development volunteers had finished that previous week)



It was a happy time and so fun to see one another!  Some of them I had only seen at the quarterly Sustainable Agriculture Summits, and the Urban Ag volunteers… there were a few who I really didn’t cross paths with at all during the two years.

During the COS (Close of Service) process, I was a bit conflicted.  On one hand, I was happy to have completed my ‘service’ of 27 months for the Peace Corps because it is an accomplishment that will help me when applying for jobs, and it signifies something ‘accomplished’; and end goal reached.  However, on the other hand, I was not at all mentally ‘home’ in America yet, like many of the other volunteers were.  There were some who had been counting down the days, minutes, meals until they would be back onto US soil.  Many had Thanksgiving plans back home to rush back to or Grad School deadlines to attend to.  I, however, planned to stay in Dakar until after Thanksgiving where I would then travel to South Africa.  I had originally planned to stay longer in order to make a trip to The Gambia, where I had not yet seen – and really felt that I should because it was almost technically part of the country.  I also have a distant relative there, whom I would have loved to have met for the first time.  Unfortunately (or fortunately maybe) I got so busy with people to see and things that I wanted and needed to do in Dakar that I was never actually able to make it to The Gambia.  I ended up staying with my best friend Ghuede and our friend Mista from Sierra Leone in Ghuede’s apartment instead of the American homestay that I was previously staying with.  Ghuede has been my best friend since the very beginning, and even though we are not always nearby each other and I didn’t always have time to spend with her, she was the most loyal and supportive friend I have ever met.  I was happy to spend my last few days with her.


We had fun at Goree Island; me, Ghuede, and Mista!  They had never been, so we all went together.  It was such an amazing experience.  We felt like we ‘escaped’ Senegal for a day and I took them on a European (they would say American) vacation!

Such a memorable day for us all.

Then, Ghedde and Mista had to go back to the Fouta and I spent some time doing American things for a minute, like Thanksgiving at the U.S. Ambassador’s house.


Then, all packed up and just BARELY under the weight limit, I flew away to South Africa!!!


I arrived in South Africa and met my roommate from UCSD: Annie!!  Here’s how that worked: I had planned to travel to South Africa because

1. I wanted to go there,

2. I have distant relatives there,

3. I needed an intermediate stop between Senegal and home, and

4. I got a REALLY cheap flight there.

I had Facebook’d Annie and kind of off-handedly said, “I’m going to South Africa, you should travel with me!” Not thinking she would actually accept.  She said, “Ok,” and I said, “cool!” still not actually believing her.  Then, a few weeks later she wrote to me that she had booked her flight!  Wow! It was real then.  I felt really badly then when she wanted me to help her plan all these fun details of excursions and travel from Johannesburg to Cape Town and I was so mentally focused on Senegal and leaving my family and planning the going-away party that I was absolutely no help at all in assisting her.  I finally told her, “I like everything, I’ll do anything… Just book things and I’ll pay you back, I can’t focus on anything outside of Senegal yet.” And she took care of everything, Alhamdullilah.


It was because of her that we walked with elephants! We saw ostriches! We pet cheetahs! Played with lemurs, explored the town of Oudtshoorn, and ventured into caves (well, that last one might have been my influence).  We traveled on the Baz Bus, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling in South Africa.  It is a bus that basically goes all over the country and stops off at any and every hostel in the country – and there are some amazing ones, all very cheap!


After Annie left, I spent the rest of the few weeks there with my distant relatives.  Ok, so when I say distant relatives, here’s how it works:

Henry and Laura had Amy, Henry, Fred, and Burt.  Amy had Ray who had Derry (my grandmother) who had Karrie (my mom) who had me.  Henry had John who had Murray, David and Alison.  My great grandfather Ray Bridgman Cowles came to America when he was teaching zoology at UCLA back around 1930.  Therefore, MurrayDavidAlison and my grandmother are second cousins.  MurrayDavidAlison and my mom are second cousins once removed, and MurrayDavidAlison and I are second cousins twice removed.  (Correct me if that’s wrong).  So, basically family.  If we were in Senegal, Murray would be just my uncle and would treat me as his child, which is exactly how it was.  The three weeks that I stayed in South Africa, I lived with Murray and his wife Martha as if I were their daughter.  They included me as a part of their family, even taking me along on their family vacation out to a piece of beautiful property studded with waterfalls and wildlife.


They helped me in ways they can’t even imagine.  They made the transition from Senegal to home manageable. They let me talk through a lot of things that I had seen and about how I had lived in order to actually come to meaningful conclusions to help me understand a lot of things by putting them into perspective.  I had been so ‘in’ Senegal that I had stopped looking at things in the American context or comparing things critically.  Their questions were educated and thought-provoking, it was so good for me to really meditate on these concepts.

Grace Bridgman (photo on right), daughter of Murray and my third cousin once removed, became my new sister.  She and I were very similar and had ridiculous amounts of fun together.

Did I mention South Africa is awesome?  Unbelievably beautiful country!IMG_3563



Leaving South Africa was hard!  I could have stayed there… applied for jobs… hung out on Long Street forever!  The weather was beautiful the whole time and I was just starting to get to know my way around… just in time to leave.  It was just what I had needed.  Just the right amount of time to really process my two years in Senegal and it was just different enough from both places that it made a very good in-between.  It decreased the ‘culture shock’ aspect of leaving Senegal because it was a new culture in and of itself, but was still similar to Western culture.

Some of my thoughts and mental wanderings throughout this process…

  • Senegal’s culture of peace and solidarity, very little alcohol/drugs, living together as large families possibly decreases angst and depression.
  • Devout Muslim culture made me look deep into my own religious beliefs and question what it was that I was looking for in a religion.
  • Having less makes you much happier and more appreciative of what you have… but also more generous.  Senegalese motto: “The more you give, the more you receive in return” be it wealth, kindness, or friendship.
  • Hospitality is a shared core value across multiple African cultures
  • It’s entirely unfair that I can fly back to America and to almost any country that I please with my American passport while people in Senegal can hardly leave the borders of their own country.
  • Also, while watching the homeless in my neighboring towns in California, I think about how employment is such a contentious issue.  There are many unemployed here in the US, and I don’t want to make assumptions about why that is or about their opportunities for employment.  All I will say is that there are some extremely qualified people in Senegal and other countries across the world who would make very qualified working professionals if they had the chance to even attempt at employment.  Most of them are unemployed, due to conditions in their own countries, but if they were able to apply to work in the US, they would absolutely crush it.
  • My whole mindset has changed towards issues of international development, and the possible and the dysfunctional ways of approaching them
  • Ownership – what does it mean?
  • Money management and fluidity – thinking about today vs. planning for tomorrow
  • Corruption – possibly just an extension of the solidarity and family/friends mindset, well-intentioned, but not applicable to government structure
  • Child-rearing – We are really overprotective and coddling to our children.  Kids are resilient and can handle a lot more responsibility than we trust with them.  They also learn from their mistakes and (sometimes) dangerous decisions very quickly, and are wiser for it.


I want to continue this blog as a continuation of my thoughts and observations throughout the process of reentering the United States and with my reactions from others about my experience.  The learning process never stops, and it is after the fact that most of the understandings have been made clear to me.  Now, being submerged in the Western culture (and during the holidays, especially) it has been interesting now to approach things with a different mindset.  It is as if, while in Senegal and South Africa, I got new eyes.  My body and everything else may be the same, but these new eyes have lenses that capture things in a different light.. a different hue of understanding.  These new eyes can adjust back to the way they were before, or, if taken care of properly by mentally focusing on the changes in values and concepts formed, they can continue to forever filter vision of the world in the new hue, the newer, brighter (or darker, for some people) vision of the world and those around us.



Interpreting Interpretation

I often get asked about what my work was like in America. Seeing as how my work here is agriculture, they typically want to know about my experience and qualifications. This is completely valid. This is also probably why Peace Corps urged me to get more agricultural experience under my belt before going into Peace Corps as an Agricultural Extension Agent. It would have probably been a really great idea to do that. But, alas, Park Service pays much better than working for free on someone else’s farm. Not to mention how much I LOVE Park Service work. The 9-month wait for my Peace Corps Senegal service to begin timed perfectly to allow for a summer season (May-Sept).

There are National Parks here in Senegal, but they are typically known as places where they keep the wild animals away from the people and vice versa. Or, usually just referred to as, ‘the trees.’ The idea of working in them is not usually considered, especially where I live. The National Park is in the south, near Kedougou and Kolda region – very far away. So I was describing myself as an eaux et foret agent (the government forestry agents in charge of the distribution and protection of trees) because it was the closest comparison I could think of that they would be able to relate to.

Then the other day I started to realize I could better explain the role of Interpretation, now that my language abilities have greatly improved. I was talking to people now about Interpretation in the Park Service and how being able to interpret the resources to visitors is important so that they will hold the resource in their hearts and be able to feel their importance. If they love something, like a tree, they would see it for more than just cooking wood.

Park Service Interpretation as defined by NPS: “When most people hear the word interpreter, they think of someone who translates the meaning of one language into another. In a museum, zoo, or park setting, interpreters “translate” the meanings of artifacts, collections, events, and physical resources into a language that helps visitors understand these resources.”

I decided to give my friend a more in depth example the other day. This friend happens to speak English so I was able to extrapolate more than I would be able to in Pulaar. Here’s what I came up with as an example of an Interpretation program I would present about the Fouta.

The Land of the Fouta

2015-03-14 08.30.27

The Fouta region of Senegal is the southern part of the Sahel Desert. It is primarily sand with scattered trees. This land is like the people who live on it. The sand itself came from other places, long, long ago. It came from Egypt, it came from Mauritania, it came from Mali, Morocco. So did the humans, migrating and traveling, herding their cattle and livestock from place to place, setting up shelter wherever they were. So does the sand. This Fouta sand arrived and stayed here a while. Trees grew and held the sand in place. So, too, did the people take root. Herders began farming, putting physical roots in the ground, like the trees. Then, the Fouta was a fertile place. A beautiful place. The rains brought seasons of plenty. The hot summers were shorter and not too hot to grow abundant vegetables along with staples such as sorghum, corn, and millet. The trees brought the people, enticed by the shade and fertile ground. The trees rooted the people to the earth.

The trees became useful to the inhabitants of the Fouta. The people used the wood from the trees for building, for cooking, for transport. Over the years, the trees have been chopped over and over. That which was once abundant has since ceased to be. With the cutting of trees, the sand storms began. Every year they increase, causing more erosion of topsoil (what little there was) and more dangers to humans caught in these storms. The more the trees are cut, the hotter the Fouta gets. Every year temps increase making living, farming, working, really everything less bearable.

The sand, no longer held by the roots of these trees, is leaving; taking with it people. Those smartest and hardest working are leaving to find better opportunities. Better living conditions. The culture of the Fouta is changing. The people are losing their culture. Losing their ties to the earth. More and more of their money comes from abroad. Less and less can be provided by agriculture, due to heat and lack of rain. The youth are adapting Western culture, Western dress. There are still cultural celebrations, but they become lessened and overshadowed by the desire to ‘be like the Americans/French’. As the trees continue to decrease, so does the esteem and appreciation of the culture, the roots.


Without trees, the Fouta has no life; no culture; no people. It is trees that provide the stability of life. It is deforestation that is causing this gradual loss.

2015-03-14 08.35.45

One Year in the Fuuta

I can’t believe a whole year has gone by since that crazy day that I moved into Mbolo Aly Sidy, my language abilities little to none, my Senegalese complet keeping me from walking correctly, my nerves at an all-time high, coming into my compound full of people all greeting me, me knowing I need to greet them all but instead nervously laughing, avoiding their gaze. The feeling of excitement mixed with the fear of the unknown. I remember that day, the cow tied up outside my window would not stop mooing all afternoon. That is a sound I will forever associate with that day. The sound, mixed with my nerves, irritated me more than any sound I can remember. Since that day, I have come so far, become a different person. How can you define whether or not you’ve become a ‘different person?’ I think we are all different people from day to day, it’s not actually a grand-scale things. Every day we learn something new or experience something that shakes up our understanding of that thing, we become a different person due to our shift in knowledge, in perception of even something small. We don’t often realize these things, when they happen. I’ve stopped being shocked by much since I’ve been here, which I feel is a bad thing. I don’t look at things with the same amount of amazement as I first did. Instead I see things the way they are and understand why things are they way they are. But I miss that sense of surprise when seeing the goat strapped to the motorcycle on it’s way to the market, or the baby strapped to the mother’s back being squished into the seat while the mother sits with the other child on her lap in the open-air truck (the baby never once wakes up from it’s peaceful slumber) or the car that takes a detour off the main highway to pick up a refrigerator from the village water tower. There is a sense of peace that comes with this sense of ambivalence, but I nonetheless miss being shocked, having my view of things shaken up, my perception altered.

How do I know I’ve become a different person than I was a year ago? (I think we all change from year to year, regardless) I look at the same things I looked at a yer ago, but see them differently. I do the same things I did when I first got here, but I do them with ease and competence. I am able to approach and talk to people like I always was (even in the states) but it brings me even more pleasure and happiness than ever before. Sometimes you just know when you have changed. Sometimes you need markers of change. Here are a few that I don’t think will for anywhere on a resume

Things I have learned/Can do now

How to cook:
•The National Dish- Rice and Fish
• Hakko – a dish of bean leaves, crushed wild watermelon seeds, beans, peanuts, and fish, served over Senegalese cous cous
• Beignets – street doughnuts
• Nutritional porridge
• Cake/banana bread in a pot
How to carry large plastic benoirs of water/heavy things on my head
How to do laundry in a series of 3-4 buckets and benoirs
Gardening techniques (and then what people actually do)
How to make soap
How to de-leaf bean stalks like a maniac
How to cut any vegetable without a cutting board or sharp knife
How to pull water from a well
How to iron with a cast iron apparatus filled with lot coals
How to make ataaya
How to make and tie plastic bag Popsicles
How to haggle
How to travel anywhere
How to be impervious to thorns through foam flip flops
How to eat copious amounts of rice with no after affects
Some Wolof
Even less Seerer
How to drink absurd amounts of water
Senegalese needlepoint
Senegalese henna
Navigating markets


Knowledge I have gained

How I want to raise my children… And how I don’t.
Awareness and understanding of the Muslim culture and teachings


Things I now realize I am not so good at

Moving into a room with the knowledge that I will leave that room (aka unpacking).
Ignoring children during my workouts.
Being organized.
Overcommitting – but with wholehearted intention to accomplish everything I say I will.
Remembering everything.
Doing laundry for an extended amount of time.. It’s physically exhausting.
Peace Corps group gatherings
Lying, saying I have a husband (that didn’t last long)