Being a Toubab in Senegal

Chris Darche describes his time before, during and after as a Peace Corps Health Extension Agent in Senegal, West Africa.

Me with my host family and neighbors preparing for the end of Ramadan.

I decided to join the Peace Corps because I had always wanted to see the world and learn about different cultures. I had been raised a Christian and I believed it is important to help others in need. On June 16th, 2016, I submitted my Peace Corps application. It was an easy process. I had to fill out some forms and upload a resume. After a few days I was selected for an interview. I was extremely nervous about the interview but I practiced and the interview went smoothly. I waited to see if I would be selected and on August 3rd 2016, I received an email saying that I was accepted to the Peace Corps as a health volunteer in Senegal, West Africa.

I had just arrived at my internship at World Disney World in Florida and I noticed an email from Jubal Faircloth, the placement and assessment specialist for Peace Corps Senegal. I was shocked that I had received that email that I almost dropped my cell phone. Adrenaline rushed through my body and I thought, am I going to give up first world comforts and live in a third world country? I called my parents and then went to work. Eventually, I passed the health and legal screening and I started to prepare.

When I told people I was joining the Peace Corps, people thought it was strange. They said that was something from my father’s generation. I was also told that the Peace Corps would look good on my resume. Someone asked me if I would be carrying a weapon because they thought it was the military. I did not know much about Senegal or Africa. My mother thought it was crazy that I was joining the Peace Corps and going Africa.

I thought that all the people were malnourished and poor but this was completely different from what I actually witnessed.

Me at the training center in Thies, Senegal.

Finally, the day arrived. I woke up on February 23, 2017 and I was nervous. On the way to the airport I felt sick and I began dry heaving. I took a Benadryl and I felt better.

I met another volunteer at the airport and we said our goodbyes to our families. Then we flew to Washington, D.C., where the new group of volunteers met for a three day conference. After the three day seminar, the group boarded the plane.

I arrived in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa, on February 27th, 2017. I boarded the Peace Corps bus and it left the airport. I began looking around at my new surroundings. At first Dakar seemed pretty normal compared to America. There were apartment buildings and restaurants but soon we were out in the bush. As the car neared the training center, I was awestruck at the number of people next to the road. These people were selling various things such as fruits and vegetables.

The next few days were the hardest. I had to adjust to the climate, the food and the people. It was difficult to communicate because host country nationals were speaking a foreign language and there was constant noise. The climate was hot and there were a lot of bugs including mosquitos. I took medicine to avoid malaria. The food was rice and fish. At first this was challenging because I grew up eating chicken and beef. Eventually, I acclimated to Senegal.

I volunteered in Senegal’s northern region of Saint-Louis.

After a few weeks at the training center, the group was broken up into smaller groups and sent to live with host families. This was the first time I had ever lived with a host family. It was extremely different.

In America, I was used to privacy and freedom. At the host family’s house, everyone knew everyone’s business. I also wanted to leave the house and explore but there were rules because I was not Senegalese. The host family did not have a shower with running water so I was forced to take a bucket shower.

I made a lot of cultural mistakes and had trouble learning the local African language. Most of the time, I was using French. I would stay after class and ask my teacher for help. I tried and tried repeatedly. When we had our first oral language exam, I did not receive the grade I wanted. One day I got mad, threw my baseball cap and started to cry. I thought I can’t do this anymore. I wanted to go home. Another time I was at a different host family’s house and one Senegalese girl said “Je t’aime” which means I love you and so I kissed her hand. My teacher found out and told the Peace Corps director I was behaving inappropriately.

Me with other volunteers at our host family during training.

My conduct did not improve. One afternoon, I decided that I wanted to exchange dollars for West African Francs. I went to a few corner stores and I finally found an Arabic man who said he would exchange the 20 dollars.

There was a catch, he would only give me 5,000 West African Francs which if it were exchanged exactly would have been 10,000. This irritated me because I knew he was trying to take advantage of me. I asked for my money back and I swore he gave me a different bill. I was so mad I walked out of his store. On the way out, I spit on his floor. I went right to my teacher and explained the situation to him. He went back and tried to talk to the man. He also explained that he would need to inform the director of what happened. I continued to try and integrate and study the language. I thought I was going to fail the final language exam.

Finally, the time came, and I managed to pass the test. After a few weeks, we went to our respective villages. I thought my struggles would be over once I arrived, but my village had other plans. Luckily, I was able to integrate into my community and did not have any trouble interacting with others. I continued studying the language and learned new words every day. After two months of assimilating into the Senegalese culture, I started planning future projects. I worked with a Senegalese national, Binta, but we had a rocky relationship since she was the head of her household and had a lot of responsibilities. I completed most of my projects with other health workers or on my own.

In April 2019, our group successfully completed two years. After finishing, I decided I wanted to stay in Senegal. I found an apartment and started working at a recording studio. Occasionally, I taught the owner of the studio English. Near the end of May, someone stole my passport while I was getting into a car. After that, I decided that I wanted to return to America. I stayed one more month because I had paid rent until June. Near the end of June, I met a woman who lived next to the apartment. We started to date and now we are married. The Peace Corps experience was exceptional. It really helped me see how different cultures live.

Reporting by Chris Darche shared with the Reynolds Sandbox

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