Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This week, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from The Gambia.
Rachel Popik – Age 25
Where are you from?
I’m from Pennsylvania.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in The Gambia in West Africa. There are three sectors here; education, health and environment. As a part of the education sector, my primary project is teacher training. Basically this means that we help train teachers in schools on new techniques to improve teaching. We have a big focus on literacy, numeracy and classroom management. I do some work in my primary project but most of what I do falls under the category of secondary projects. I worked with two amazing counterparts and my village’s women’s group to obtain land and create a women’s garden. We got half a hectar of land, built a well and fence and created 217 beds for the women. The women have planted cabbage, tomatoes, onions, bitter tomatoes, lettuce, green peppers and carrot. They love having more control over what food they feed their families and having a small income.
Most of the other work I do is gender related. I work a lot with my women’s group and youth group on income generating activities. I’ve collaborated with a lot of other volunteers on bigger leadership and empowerment programs for students around the country, including International Women’s Day celebrations at my school. I took over the position of Gender and Development Country Coordinator and I am spending the last few months of my service in the city doing work related to that position. I’m currently planning our annual GAD IST event; a two day training for volunteers and their counterparts about gender issues in The Gambia.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
I live in a rural village called Panchang on the north bank of the River Gambia. The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal and my village is maybe a 10 minute walk to the border. I live in a small hut (maybe 6m x 6m) made mud and cement bricks and a thatched grass roof. I have a small backyard with a fence made of metal, it has enough room for my pit latrine and my bed. I sleep outside about 10 months out of the year, it’s just too hot inside! During hot season it gets up to 120 degrees, in cold season it gets down to the low 60s, which I now find freezing.
I live in a compound with a host family that includes a dad, two moms, an aunt and 13 children, an average size family here. I have no electricity or running water and use a pit latrine; my squatting ability has gotten quite good. Rural Gambians eat rice or millet 3 times a day. I eat breakfast on my own, usually eggs or a bean sandwich. I eat both lunch and dinner with my family. We eat out of two food bowls, one for the men and one for the women. A typical meal includes rice with some sort of sauce, either peanut based or with onions and tomato paste and dried fish. If we have a little extra money, maybe it will include some fresh fish and vegetables.
The biggest challenge of my lifestyle is eating nutritious food. A lot of times my diet is missing protein and vitamins. I try to buy vegetables for my family at our weekly market so at least a few days in the week I have some nutrients. I keep a food trunk stocked with snacks from the city and care packages and supplement my diet with protein bars, dried fruit and nuts. My food trunk is crucial during Ramadan, I tried to fast last year and was successful for 6 days. This year I will be hiding out in my house, eating.
What are Gambians like?
There are many different tribes here which all speak different languages. The main ones are Wolof, Mandinka and Fula I live in a Wolof community. They all have slightly different cultural practices; foods, clothes, music and traditions. The majority of the population is Muslim, so I now tell my time by the five call to prayers throughout the day. Gambians are known for their hospitality. I always feel welcomed into people’s compounds for lunch or a cold drink of water from a jibitta (a clay water storage container that keeps liquids cold). There is a huge difference between rural Gambians and those that live in the city. Up country, the biggest source of income in through farming. The main crops grown here are peanuts, millet, corn and beans.
Both the men and women work on the farms, and are extremely busy with farming from about May through November. Traditionally, the women are the one’s who work in vegetable gardens. Pretty much every compound has one during rainy season. The women are the caretakers and the ones that do all of the house hold work. When they wake up around call to prayer (5:30am) they have to sweep the compound and heat up breakfast. After bathing the children, they have to go to the garden and water their beds. After they fetch water for the compound for the day. Morning chores may also include doing laundry or pounding millet. Around noon they will start preparing lunch. After taking lunch, they have a little bit of time to relax before going to the garden again in the evening. Then it’s time to cook again for dinner, and bathe the children. Girls will start to help their mothers with chores starting around the age of 8. This sometimes is a big barrier for girls staying in school, something that my community, especially struggles with.
What’s a day in your life like?
A typical day for me in village looks like this: I wake up around 7am and go to the garden to water my beds and see how the women are doing. After that I will go home and eat breakfast and drink my coffee (my French press is my favorite possession). Then I will relax for a bit; read a book or write in my journal. Generally, I try and go for a run or work out around this time before it gets too hot. After that I will go to school to greet everyone and see if there is work that needs to be done. Then I’ll go home and spend time with my family before eating lunch with them. After lunch, I go hang out with my counterpart Fatou and chat about how work with the youth group is going. In the evening, I fetch my own water for bathing and drinking and go back to the garden to water again. After I’m thoroughly dirt covered, I go home and take a bath, go outside and hang out with my family until dinner, around 9pm. Then it’s into my comfy outside bed to read my kindle before bed.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
I think my biggest reward has been watching my counterpart, Fatou, grow as a person. Since I’ve known her, I’ve seen her English improve tremendously, and her confidence go through the roof. It’s been a privilege getting to work with her. She is the reason most of my projects in village were successful, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the work I did without her. And by that I mean, I encouraged her to do the work and just sat back and acted has her cheerleader. The definition of a perfect Peace Corps counterpart.
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
My biggest challenge, especially in the beginning of my service, was finding enough meaningful work. A lot of times here, PCVs are classified as “cultural volunteers” and most of what we do is just do cultural exchange. Getting used to the speed at which things happen here took a while to get used to and found it really frustrating for the first bit of my time here.
Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I really had no idea what to expect of my service coming in and I think that has really been beneficial to me since I didn’t really have expectations that were not met. I’ve been in country for 22 months and am wrapping up my service in August. Looking back on my service this has simultaneously been the most rewarding and frustrating two years of my life. Personally, I have grown so much since being here. I’ve overcome obstacles I would have never thought I could.
Serving as a woman here has its challenges. Especially up country, there are still very ridged gender roles. It took a while to get used to having men greet the men around you but ignore you or not shake your hand. Around the city there is a lot of sex tourism so especially if you go to the beach, there are “bumsters” looking to harass you, asking you to take them to America. In the beginning of my service these things got to me a lot, but I learned to just brush them off.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I had been interested in joining Peace Corps since my freshman year of college, when I met a recruiter at a job fair. It interested to me because I wanted international experience and the idea of immersing myself in a different culture for two years sounded really appealing. My beginning of my senior year of college I still felt strongly about applying so I went for it and was accepted about a year and a half later. I think part of the reason I wanted to apply was because I was feeling a little unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. Through my work in The Gambia, I found a new passion for gender related development work; something that I want to make a career out of.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I do. I think that it is a great opportunity for people around the world to see what Americans are really like and debunk some of the misconceptions about America. Not everyone lives like they do in movies, which is where a lot of people here get their ideas about Americans from.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
A few things: I know with the new application process, you get to pick what country you would like to serve it. If I had this opportunity, I definitely wouldn’t have picked The Gambia, to be honest, I didn’t know it existed. I’m really glad I didn’t have that choice though. I loved my service here and wouldn’t trade it for anything. My advice- don’t select a specific country. It shows flexibility and resilience, two traits that are key for a positive Peace Corps experience
Also, go in with an open mind and not a lot of expectations. Peace Corps really is what you make of it. You can chose to let the little stuff not bother you and be happy, or let it get to you.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
My service is winding down and I’ve started COS trip planning and casually looking for jobs back in the states. A fellow PCV and I are planning a short trip to Brussels, Ghent and Stockholm after we leave the country in August. After that I will go back to my hometown, while looking for work. I would love to find work doing gender related development in an east coast city.