Earlier this month, I spent a week in Thies, the second-largest city in Senegal, for my stage’s Completion of Service (COS) conference. We had sessions on job searching, resumes, and the administrative and medical tasks to complete before we go home. Med wants three poop samples. My health program coordinator wants a three-page Description of Service report. The finance department wants the information of the bank account my readjustment allowance is to be deposited into. The conference was hectic and intense, very scheduled, very American, and it got me thinking about my return to the USA.
I still have two months here, and I’m enjoying myself immensely. Talking to people isn’t hard anymore and I feel happy and well-adjusted. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, and I know the rest of my time here will fly by quickly.
However, inevitably, when April 21 comes and I go home, my alter ego Kadiatou Sabaly will cease to exist, and Barbara will come back changed.
The changes won’t be sweeping and dramatic. In the grand scheme of things, two years is a very short time. I have lived in Senegal for 26 months, or 7.5% of my life. I haven’t forgotten who I am or where I come from. I’m still 92.5% Barbara. Re-submersion into American culture will obliterate some aspects of Kadiatou, such as excessive greeting, afternoon tea, and permasweat. But others may persist.
So who is this returned Barbara going to be? Which Kadiatou traits have metastasized? What’s this new mosaic going to look like? I don't know yet. But here are some likely possibilities:
· I’ll be more loyal. I am glad I did Peace Corps and I definitely fell in love with Senegal over the last two years. Unfortunately, like any love, it drives me crazy. Sometimes my rage volcano explodes and I hate everyone and want to incinerate my whole village with infuriated Pulaar. If Senegal were a boyfriend I’d have dumped it long ago. But I made the commitment to stay here, and I did, and the pros have greatly outweighed the cons. No matter how mad I’ve gotten at my host family, the next day I’ve woken up and they were still my family. We’ve been through a lot together, and the resulting bond is valuable. The new Barbara will be quicker to forgive and less apt to throw away old or inconvenient friends.
· I’ll be pretty uncivilized. I was already the gross one in the group before I left, and now it’s probably even worse. When life is outside, farts don’t matter, so I’ve had two years to just let ‘em fly. Everyone picks their nose here. When food is dropped on the ground, everyone just brushes it off and eats it anyway. Most of my clothes are dust-stained and mouse-chewed. Since all water needs to be hand-pulled from a deep well, I've gotten used to sometimes not washing my hands when I should. Re-submersion will probably help clean me up a little, but at first, it’s not gonna be pretty.
· I’ll be more conscious of my word choice and how I am perceived. My baby Pulaar is at an “advanced high” level, according to Peace Corps, but I am not effortlessly fluent. Faced with two years of communicating with this handicap, I’ve gotten a lot of practice at taking abstract concepts and explaining them using simple concrete language. This has made me a more effective communicator. The other day, a neighbor asked if I was happy to be going home. I lacked the Pulaar vocabulary to describe my apprehension and uncertainty, so I said, “I am a tree. Peace Corps transplanted me two years ago. I am here a long time. My roots are deep now. In two months Peace Corps will transplant me. I must cut my roots with a machete. That will hurt.” This skill, saying a lot while saying a little, is useful and I hope it stays with me.
· I’ll tell extremely inappropriate jokes. Pulaars love joking, and so do I, but the jokes are very different. Over time, I’ve slowly adapted Pulaar jokes as my own, which potentially horrifying results. Nothing’s funnier than telling someone they’re a slave, or that they’re too ugly to be even a 5th wife, or that their head has no water, or that they’re a bandit who steals goats in the night. Since I got such an overwhelmingly positive response when I tentatively started to tell these jokes, I slowly did it more and more until now I don’t blink an eye while spewing horrible insults at my friends. I’m sure this will not persist too long in the politically correct America I’m returning to, but I might make a few awkward mistakes at first.
· I'll be anonymous. Some returned volunteers report that they struggle with not being the center of attention everywhere they go anymore. As the village toubaco, I always have a spotlight on me, whether I want it or not. Usually I hate this, but it does have some perks. My skin color makes it easier for me to hitchhike. It gives me an invitation to every wedding or naming ceremony in the arrondissement. Usually when I meet a stranger and they see I speak Pulaar, I am thanked exuberantly just for existing. I do not anticipate this happening in America, and maybe it will be difficult to not be a special white snowflake in the desert anymore. Maybe I’ll get frustrated or lonely being only a small part of a swirling homogenous drift.
· I'll be less able to tell when I’m not wanted. My toubaco status means I’m always a guest of honor at any event. Also, Teranga (hospitality) is a tenet of Senegalese culture, and they take it very seriously. Anyone can enter anyone’s house, anytime, and be offered a meal, some water, and a place to rest. Two years of this as the cultural standard has probably made me a better host, but a worse guest. I take it for granted that I will be enthusiastically welcomed at any occasion. The new Barbara will likely sit in your living room for hours, obliviously overstaying her welcome, until you bluntly ask her to leave.
· I’ll be more confident. Two years ago, I wasn’t sure whether I was qualified for Peace Corps and didn’t know whether I’d be able to do it. I am not the perfect volunteer…no one is…but I think I did a damn good job. We all did. All Peace Corps volunteers have to figure stuff out as they go along with little guidance. Our service is what we make of it, in the connections we forge and the work we choose to take on. It’s a difficult task, but we do it, and we grow more confident in our own abilities as a result.
· I’ll be more grateful. I don’t know any volunteer who hasn’t dreamed of a well-stocked American supermarket during their time here. All those vegetables! All that meat! Now I know how good I’ve always had it and am far more appreciative instead of taking it for granted. Also, although I knew before Peace Corps I wanted children, I used to feel overwhelmed and unsure of my ability to raise them. Now, bring it on. I won’t be the best parent, but my American kids are pretty much guaranteed to get an education and to enjoy wonderful medical care. No more worries.
So, there you have it. Peace Corps is almost over, but it's not the end. I did lots of cool stuff before coming to Senegal, and I’ll continue to do lots of cool stuff after I come home.