Friday, May 27, 2011

What am I doing here?

A lot of people told me that training was the hardest part, but they were wrong.  Initially, I was in awe of being in Nafadji and had a feeling of euphoria experiencing everything new, and then reality hit hard.  Yesterday was probably my hardest day mentally in Senegal so far.   I realized that I’m truly in this tiny village for 2 years, and it’s terrifying.  How do I do this?  What am I doing here?

Being the only English speaker in a 20k radius feels very isolating.  I have been feeling lonely, which is funny since I’m rarely alone here.  During the day, I’m usually surrounded by people talking at me in Malinke.  Unfortunately, I don’t feel any of these people can relate to me right now.  Pictures from home fill the walls of my hut, and I miss home so much it hurts.  Being in this village has also given me a lot more time to reflect and digest what I’m really doing.  During training, I rarely had downtime, and there were always activities to occupy my thoughts.  In Nafadji, my days have no structure to them, and I’m constantly surrounded by a language I haven’t mastered yet. 

The no structure part of this job was appealing in theory, but since I can’t speak the language very well yet, it makes me feel useless a lot of the time.  The goal for the first couple months at site is to integrate and get a better grasp on the language and culture of the village.  I’ll also be doing a community based survey in a few weeks.  So my job is to integrate…what does that mean?  I sit under a tree near the forage a lot which enables me to greet most of the village as they walk by.  I’ve helped my host sisters prepare meals, and I frequently help groups of women crack peanuts under a tree.  Going from having my days very structured to this feels bizarre and unnatural.  Yesterday I felt so frustrated with the language and with the feeling that I’m not accomplishing anything during the day.  What I need to remember is that I can’t implement projects if I don’t understand how the community works and if I don’t have relationships with members of the community.  Instead of thinking of the big picture of change, I need to shrink it and focus on daily goals.  It’s a hard adjustment to make, but I’m trying to make sense of it.

Yesterday I let myself really feel the weight of this journey and of everything that has changed in my life.  I left all my friends and family behind for 2 years to be here, and it feels really hard right now.  The feeling of isolation and discomfort is incredibly challenging.  I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I just hope living here gets easier with time.  Sometimes I think I’m crazy for being here, and I guess you probably do have to be a little crazy to do the Peace Corps.  It’s just hard to remember why I’m here when I’m sitting under a tree doing nothing, and I need to take things in smaller chunks with smaller goals to achieve for now. 

It’s good to know that homesickness is universal though.  My namesake, Aissata Dumbha, is my older host sister, and she lives in Spain with her family.  The other day, my other host sisters were preparing millet for Aissata’s husband to bring back to Spain with him because Aissata missed having Mono (millet porridge) for breakfast.  I laughed because Mono is the last thing I want to eat in the morning, and I would kill for my pumpkin granola and soy milk.  It’s nice to know I’m not the only one missing home. 

So it’s incredibly hard right now, and I’m looking forward to when I feel more comfortable and less homesick here.  Sometimes I feel like I’m in some sort of social experiment.  Drop an American in a hut in the middle of nowhere and see what happens.  As frustrated as I feel right now, something in me still knows that this is where I’m supposed to be.  This is supposed to be difficult.  Right now, I’m breaking it down and taking it day by day.  Dondin, dondin (little by little).  It’ll be worth it in the end. 


  1. Your blog is so amazingly fresh and open. We all read these comments with awe to imagine ourselves in your shoes. I certainly have never attempted something so difficult and challenging. We all know these snippets will someday make for good stories but they must be very real for you now. But don't ever forget that you have a huge following at home that misses you every day and wishes you were home, but also recognize that we know you are becoming a new and deeper person right before our eyes, because this experience will help you better understand how our world really works. Thanks for doing this and letting us live vicariously through your blog. We love you and miss you and admire your courage. Glah!

  2. Marielle---Just read your last two blogs. pine for granola! Certainly there must be something tastier that you really miss. Quinoa, perhaps? And don't worry, you haven't left your loved ones behind (if I may be so bold). We're right here (wherever our huts are), tuned in and, as your dad rightly says, living a little vicariously thru you....and maybe learning something. You keep blogging and we'll keep reading! xox/Kevin

  3. Marielle, I hope you keep pressing on each and every day. Life there is super-simple yet hard, isn't it? Your thoughts just reminded me of my time in Kenya and the homesickness I felt while I was there. I hope you don't mind me sharing several things I learned on that trip: (1) Just remember that it's not the tasks you do or do not do that make you but who you are. Keep reflecting and keep on learning about yourself. (2) Is there an elementary school in the village you can go to? You can always learn the language by going to the same school the children of the village go to (plus develop relationships with them). Or if they do not go to a school then start by doing tasks that the little female kids do. Nothing like learning things from the babe up! :) (3) Not being able to communicate is tough, but remember a picture is the universal language and worth more than a thousand words. :D I drew so many pictures while I was in my village because my brain couldn't think of the word for the item/action I needed done. I think I improved my art skills that way. My stick figures turn out straighter! *LOL* Keep going on! What you are doing will be valuable for that village you are in!!!

  4. Dad, looking forward to talking with you and mom on the phone gets me through the week. Thanks for all your support!

    Kevin, hahaha, yum, Quinoa is a hell of a lot better than millet! Thanks for reading! I look forward to your always funny and sarcastic comments :)

    Anita, thanks for sharing your experience in Kenya! The advice about learning from children is great, and I often find myself hanging out with the children in the village trying to learn new vocabulary. And they can all pound rice way better than I can, so I often watch and learn. Unfortunately I'm not much of an artist so pictures may just confuse them. My drawings tend to look like those of a kindergartener. I hope life is good at HCMP! Tell everyone I miss them!

  5. Miss you Marielle! I think we're all going through the same thing right now... can't wait to see you in about a month! Also, going to school might not be a bad idea. Ivy told me she recently enrolled in... 4th grade I think? And the day I visited the local middle school was my best day by far.

  6. Marielle,
    Hang in there! I can imagine that pit feeling in your stomach when you just want to shout out to the world and say "What the heck?! What am I doing!?" I think you should do that. It might be am amazing release for you. Plus, it might be a good show for the locals to see you are a crazy American. lol. Point being, sometimes you have to crumble with homesickness and love and being apart from everything and realize that you CAN rise up out of it like a phoenix from a fire. I believe you can. You will find your way there, Marielle. Your thought process is right on. Day by day, little by little, and learning the ins and outs of how the community operates will get you to a project goal and achievement. Maybe part of the project is really learning to observe, listen, and be quiet to hear the universe speaking to you. I miss you so much.