The job search of a young, still-not-sure-exactly-what-I-want-to-do twenty something can lead to many interesting places. Over the course of my RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) career search, I’ve come across a number of interesting news wires, about 26 different careers I could pursue, and quite a few remarkable people. One of those remarkable people was Melissa Lamson, the founder and president of Lamson Consulting, LLC. Melissa is an award-winning global cross cultural consultant, specializing in cultural transformation. She has worked with everyone from Cisco to MTV to the embassy of South Africa (to name a few).

When I came across Melissa’s site, my first thought was “This is a career?! Awesome.” The second, after about an hour of research and devouring Melissa’s website, was “How do I become her?” I researched more and became a bit disheartened at my finding another career path to obsess over that seemed to be one of the smaller niche enterprises (read: difficult to break into). Discouraged, I emailed Melissa asking for more information on her background, her career path, and any organizations she admired. Amazingly, she wrote me back and a week later we chatted on the phone for about 45 minutes.

Our conversation left me smiling – this was really a career I could see myself in, and with Melissa’s guidance, I now had a solid place to start. To make things better, at the end of the phone call, she asked me to write a post for her blog “The Globalist Blog” on my experience working with Stomp Out Malaria this past year. After a week of many drafts, below is the final result. Enjoy!

 

Lessons on International Project Management in Developing Countries

Or, How to be an Effective Program Coordinator for 17 Countries, 3 International Organizations, 60 Field Representatives, and 3,000 Volunteers Across Africa

When I accepted a position as the Communications Manager & Field Representative Coordinator for Peace Corps’ Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, I had no idea what I was doing. It was one of those jobs where my boss gave me a two-line position summary, a 50-page initiative project plan, and a week to write up a job description complete with a timeline and indicators of success.

Looking back, that vague of a start seems a bit sparse given the magnitude of our initiative, but it also illustrates how projects tend to operate in the developing world. If your organization wants to do well, flexibility and patience are the name of the game when generating your program and coordinating your employees.

My inaugural year operated on a steep learning curve strewn with missteps, but by the end of that time I developed a foundation of principles to follow when coordinating such an initiative. Here are three things that will set your international program off on the right foot, especially when working in developing nations:

 

1) Prepare for failure. The training that our field representatives (or employees for the purpose of this article) received was arguably the most thorough of any program in Peace Corps. We flew them into Dakar for an intensive 10-day training led by top professionals in international malaria prevention; we covered everything from malaria science to behavior change to program management; we gave them endless online resources and access to experts in the field and in the states. What we didn’t do (for our first training groups at least) was talk about what could go wrong and how to deal with it. Instead, our employees left ready to dive into their work the moment they touched down at post. For some, this approach generated good results, but for those who were met with continuous roadblocks, the frustration was enormously de-motivating after such a fervent build-up at training.

Though discussing aspects of projects that could go wrong can be intimidating, it is essential to the durability of any program. Indeed, if someone had not told me to “plan for projects to not go as planned” in the beginning of my time as a field volunteer in Senegal, I would have assumed that I had done something abnormally wrong to have failed. But failure can be imperative: it often reveals insights to our programs that we would have otherwise missed.

There was a noticeable change in our employees’ resiliency once we talked about failure. Their attitudes during troubleshooting conversations went from disheartened to resolute, knowing now that their projects not going smoothly was to be expected. This attitude was crucial when it came to our organization meeting its goals – undoubtedly teams that are irrepressible in their drive to overcome can propel a project towards its desired outcomes at an extraordinary rate.

 

2) Cultivate a team, even if you have to don virtual pom poms. International programs do not lend themselves to a tight-knit “office culture.” Employees often work alone, at posts that are separated not only by international borders but also logistical obstacles such as power outages, dial-up internet, and transportation strikes. If open and continuous communication is the backbone of an effective team, developing countries seem to be built to incessantly thwart employee bonding and therefore the success of a program.

Having our employees consistently talk to each other about what they were doing and how things were going seemed like an easy part of their job to me, but my employees soon taught me otherwise. I realized that if I was going to get my team to exchange information, it was going to take daily coaching before it became a habit.

My strategy for cultivating this routine was through daily Google chat check-ins and monthly phone calls. During these conversations, I encouraged our employees to share their ups and downs: if people told me about things that were going well, I asked them to proclaim it on our private Facebook group; if I was approached with a problem, I’d connect that employee with one in a different post that was dealing or had dealt with the same issue; if someone had developed a great project, I asked him or her to upload and share the plans though our Google docs folder.

The pom  poms came out when I would emphasize employees’ efforts in order to build momentum towards a group conversation. For example: “Hey look at this great project Team Ethiopia is doing – I bet a few of you could adapt this for your own initiatives,” and so on. At times I felt silly with my relentless “sunshine” cheerleading, but eventually the group began uploading their project reports and discussing frustrations on their own. Result: a cohesive team that sustained their international conversations even after I had left the initiative.

 

3) You are a guest, so build some clout before you implement something new. After arriving at their posts, some of my employees were constantly frustrated when their fellow Peace Corps Volunteers wouldn’t take heed of their calls to action. This was especially true for those implementing our program in countries that had never focused on our goal (malaria eradication) before. It didn’t matter that my employees were also Peace Corps Volunteers – it mattered that they were coming in trying to start something new, and the local crew was not having it. 

Why should the established local groups do as my newly installed employees said? My team may have been experts in their field, but the local working crews were experts in their environment. Sure, we could have relied on their boss ordering them to do as we said, but in terms of sustaining the change we were brought in to initiate, that plan did not have much longevity.

This is especially true in developing nations. When you are starting a project in a new country – even if it’s through the same company you worked for elsewhere on the globe – you are still entering the work culture of a different group, and that makes you an outsider. Western styles of business will not bode well in, for example, many African countries. If you were to walk into a boardroom and jump directly into your meeting (as one might do in America so as not to waste anyone’s time), the local population would consider you rude for not greeting them and engaging in small talk before you began the meeting.

Obviously, the principle here goes beyond small talk: if you, as a guest in a country, want people to care about what you’re trying to do and say, you need to first make the effort to show them that you care about how they operate and exist. This means spending your first few days (or week) of business getting to know people, learning how their officer operates, even gaining a few business proverbs in the local language. After that, you will enter your project not as an outsider who acts as he or she knows better than the local workforce, but as a new business partner who will build something with the established crew. This approach gives local work teams the opportunity to take ownership in your initiative, which means employees who care and thus will work harder towards your desired outcome.

 

Successfully managing projects that operate internationally requires a profound approach. Companies that work in developing nations are often in some way trying to better a population’s wellness while they meet their own goals. In these situations, it is important to keep the adage in mind that it is not enough to be well intended in your efforts to do good – organizations must be critical of their own work and constantly adapt in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome for all parties involved.

These are principles that worked for me, but as each country and culture is different, so will be the avenue organizations need to take in order to get their job done. If these ideas do not work for your project, then let me then suggest empathy. As our initiative was trying to figure out the best way to function, what led me to the above foundation was constantly putting myself in the shoes of my employees, my managing team, and those we worked for. Coordinating international projects means coordinating a wide spectrum of people, and when you can align their needs with the goals of your company’s, you will not only realize your goals, but also enable their results to last.

My roommate Renée and I recently went to Cape Verde for a 10-day jaunt of vacation-filled fun. To plan for our trip, we didn’t; we purchased our plane tickets ahead of time (by 10 days) and so relied on the email travel guides a few friends had sent us. To aid the way of future travelers, Renée and I took notes on the bits and bobs that made our trip what it was. Moral of the story is: go to Cape Verde, and take me with you when you go.

 

A Senegal PCV’s Vacation Guide to Cabo Verde

Information from Kellen Eilerts, Amanda Wybolt & Renée Philbeck,

Before you bounce/upon arrival:

Praia airport

TACV flight in Praia

Flights: Our Dakar to CV ticket (purchased 10 days ahead of time at the Air Senegal and TACV travel agencies in Dakar) was 167,700 CFA round trip (Air Senegal). If you want to go to Santo Antão via São Vincent in the beginning of your trip, it is recommended to buy your Praia to Mindelo (city you fly into on São V) ahead of time. We did that, and the ticket was 146,000CFA (TACV – this surprised us b/c we’d heard rumors of ppl getting this ticket for 80,000cfa round trip but who knows).

You’ll need a visa, it’s 2500 escudos or $40.00. You can get it at the airport but the guy who helped us was super grumpy. You can exchange CFA at the airport; they have a ATM machine.

 

Santiago:

Arriving in Praia: (K) Airport taxis lined up directly out front will try to get you to pay 1000 escudos to Plateau. Instead, just walk up the steps to the parking lot and head to the left towards the road. A cab will be by to pick you up within minutes and the rate will be 500. Cool cultural center/bar across from the main plateau plaza across from the outdoor restaurant, had live music/party every day we were in town.

Or

Street food

Street food for lunch in Praia

(A&R) Tell the cabbie in front of the airport you want to go to Quebra Cabana (pronounced Kabara Kabana) for 700 scoots. Fun bar on the water. Get a Carparinha or ten. If you’re there on a Sunday, you can walk down the road (away from the round point/stairs) to the first restaurant you hit on your right for the all-you-can-eat buffet and amazing-meats-served-on-swords fiesta for 1,400 scoots. It. Is. SO. Worth it. (We recommend staying for lunch, sitting on the patio for drinks, then eating dinner there as well.)

On the plateau a good place to eat is Café Sofia – good breakfast, coffee, beer, pizza. They also have a little cyber. Cabs know this place. If you want street food for lunch: when facing Café Sofia walk down the road to the right of the café until it dead ends (3-4 blocks), turn right on the road it dead-ends on and go a little ways till you get to stairs on your left. Go all the way down (don’t trip, they’re steep). At the bottom of the stairs, turn right and take your first left. Along that st are a bunch of stalls for food (we loved the chicken and bean plate, I think it was 150 scoots). Also, behind all the food is their fukajai-type market, worth a gander.

Assomada

Assomada

(A&R) Tarrafal is definitely worth a visit. First, it’s about opposite from where Praia is so the drive is “long” and really pretty. Second, the beaches are amazing, there’s a bomb pizza place, and there’s conch shell caves. We didn’t get to do it, but a PCV said that there’s a 4-hour hike you can do up over the mountains to a black sand beach that is famous for it’s big conch shells that aren’t broken into smithereens.

(A&R) Assomada (Aluguers [pronounced al-loo-gare] call it “somada”): Again, beautiful drive to the site, right in a valley. Lots of bars and cafes, nice place to spend time with good company. Drive from Praia is 300 scoots in an Aluguer.

 

São Vicente:

(K) Mindelo is nice for a bit of walking around and good food, most stuff is in very central harbor area, or one or two streets off of it that run parallel. Walking north from the harbor area around a mini-cape you’ll pass the shipping port before coming to an OK beach with cheap drinks. Ferry leaves from here twice a day – usually 8a for morning ride.

Renée and Drew walking in Mindelo

Renée and Drew walking in Mindelo

(A&R) Ferry ride is 600 scoots, you buy your ticket right at the port. There is a baller Chinese food place right near PCV Drew and Rory’s house (or you can get there by walking, about 20 minutes: from port, exit, turn left, walk along the water past the beach up the little hill, in open area on top of the incline/curve is a Chinese place on the left. Eat there. Do it.) Also, there are ninjas – a special police force trained in Brazil – in Mindelo. They walk around w/ masks over their nose and mouth, in all black, and apparently regulate the prominent gang scene. We didn’t believe that they were there either… until we saw them! Kinda scary, kinda wicked cool.

 

Santo Antão:

(K) You’ll arrive in Porto Novo. Not worth staying. Immediately walk up the street to the right and grab an Aluguer for Pàul (Note from A&R – walk up the street, don’t get in one of the cars w/ the guys who are all over your shit when you pass through the gate. More likely than not their cars won’t fill up then you are stuck which is lame. Also, ferry leaving the island left at 9am and you buy your ticket in town [near a gas station?] and then walk down to get on the ferry.)

Paùl

Paùl – view outside of Mer y Sol

Paùl: Definitely worth spending at least a night there as its gorgeous. (A&R) Good pensão (places w/ rooms for rent) is called Mer y Sol (when you’re in Paùl facing the ocean, it’s to your left down about 4 blocks, bright blue building) we got a room w/ two twin beds facing the ocean for 1,500 scoots each.

Definitely worth doing in Paùl – eating at Tí Lello. Italian pizzeria right around the corner (walking away from U. Rib road) from Mer y Sol. They only have pizza at dinner but the lunch (we got spicy spaghetti) is delicious as well. Let’s call a spade a spade – we definitely stayed in Paùl one night just to eat the pizza here. Bruchetta app is delicious as well. Just eat there. They make their own gelato as well.

ATM in Paùl is to the right (when facing ocean) from where Aluguers drop you off.

Trial of the cova climb

Trial of the cova climb

Upper Riberia: (K) From Paùl you can catch another aluguer up to the top of the Ribeira (about 15 minute ride, 100 scoots) to do the Cova crater climb (about 1-2 hours from the last village on the road). You may also have the option to have someone drop you off at the top of the crater and do the walk down, but climbing up to it definitely has more of a wow factor (though you can’t get a car at a top and will have to retrace the steps to the top of the Ribeira to catch a car back to Paul).  Note from A&R: the climb starts about 100m up the road from Chez Sandros, at the staircase as the road evens out and curves around the mtn to the left. It is pretty strenuous, will take you about 2 hours to get up, 1 hour to get down. Bring water. Really beautiful – do it! We got two other hike recommendations that we didn’t do, but they are: Cha de Igreja to Ponta de Sol and Paul to Pico da Cruz and back.

Our room at Chez Sandro

Our room at Chez Sandro

(A&R) You must go to the grogue and cheese (called “O Curral”) place halfway up the valley too, very cheap, famous among CV PCVs. You can’t miss it – has a little square knife and fork sign, painted brightly on outside. Get the soft cheese, try a million flavors of ponche and cheese. Plan on spending a few hours here w/ good company. Do not try to hike after grogue and cheese.

Right by the beginning of the Cova climb is Chez Sandros (to your right, red building) that has private or shared rooms that are comfy and cheap (1,300 es-scoots/person). Number: 223.1941 or 981.2478. Dinner and breakfast if you want. We really enjoyed staying here: Sandro’s wicked nice, food is good, coffee is grown right outside his place, amazing views. If you can, get the room on the second floor in the corner (back left when standing on st facing building) – it has magnificent views (see photo).

Hike: Cruzinha to Ponta do Sol

Hike from Cruzinha to Ponta do Sol

Riberia Grande (K) After Paùl, 20 minutes further down the road is Ribeira Grande (80 scoot ride). A few cool small hikes around the town, but the absolute best is catching a morning car (only one morning car, opposite side of town from where you get dropped off by gas station) to Cruzinha and then doing the 4-5 hour seaside cliff walk to Ponta do Sol. Definitely do it in that direction instead of starting in Ponta do Sol, as Cruzinha has pretty much nothing (and no cheap transport leaving in the evenings) and Ponta do Sol has tons of restaurants and bars and is a 10 minute aluguer ride back to Ribeira Grande until late.

Hike: Cruzinha to Ponta do Sol

Beginning of the trail near Cruzinha

Note from A&R: Do this hike, from Cruzinha to Ponta do Sol, it was the best one of our trip. Bring lots of water and snacks, there is a great place to eat about 3 hours in at the first big vil you hit on top of one of the mtns right on the water – you’ll see it a bit past the handball court you pass as you enter the vil, the restaurant/bar sign is painted on a wall. It’s pretty much eat whatever the lady has, but damn what she’s got is good. Best feijoada we had in our trip. She also sells water, coke, and coffee. Also, we missed the collective aluguer from Riberia Grande to Cruzinha so we rented an aluguer to Cruz (3,000 scoots) and he took us through the island instead of along the water to Cruz and it was maybe the most spectacular ride of our entire trip. Just saying.

(A&R) we stayed at Aliança Grande in Riberia Grande – cheap (1000 escoots and up), nice. When at the shell station (where aluguers tend to drop you off) go down main road away from mtns, across from BCA banks is Aliança.

 

Fogo:

(K) Take the ferry to get there, definitely just go for the 2500 seats as they are exactly the same as the 3000 ones. (A&R) You can reserve your ticket online at http://www.cvfastferry.com/, but you have to pick it up and pay 24 hours ahead of time. Lots of ppl like to vom on this boat. If you get sea-sick, you’ll most likely vom; if you don’t, you may vom from the sound of everyone else vomming. Our recommendation: charge your iPod, make sure you’re hydrated, not hung-over, and have eaten, and just plug in your head phones and snooze for the ride. We didn’t vom, on the contrary we we’re rocked to sleep by the boat. Irony: while the boat was rocking and ppl were vomming, they played a movie about a war in Rome. Think just shy of 300-style gore. Rumor is they’ve also played Jaws during the ride. Conclusion: the staff has a sense of humor?

(A&R) Not much in São Filipe. Our ferry got in wicked late and we hadn’t looked into any housing before getting there (this is the one time our lack of planning effed us over) so we had to stay at a pretty expensive hotel (Savanna – really nice if you want though, comes w/ a bomb breakfast and has a pool) b/c it’s dangerous to wander around. There’s definitely signs for pensãos though, so you could find a cheaper place to stay. We ate dinner at Calderon – pretty good, live music.

Driving into Chã des Calderas

Driving into Chã des Calderas

Chã des Calderas: (K) To get to the crater, you’ll catch an aluguer to Chã da Caldeiras (town in the crater). Only goes in the morning around 11am. Get up there around midday and check into a pensão or someone’s house (just walk around and you’ll see the residencials (check out Casa Amarela), significantly cheaper than Pedra Brava where A&R stayed, but A&R loved it and the food was excellent so it’s up to you).

Once you’re set up, you can do a short hike to the small peak volcano (erupted in 1995) which you’ll see as you’re coming in. Everyone will tell you that you need a guide, but the small one is very easy and you definitely don’t if you want to do it solo. Just walk back up the road you came in and turn off when you re-pass the small peak and see the tracks.

Carols guiding Renée down the volcano

Carols guiding Renée down the volcano

Definitely arrange for a guide for the big volcano (they’ll come to you once you arrive, or ask PCVs for theirs  (A&R used Carlos who we loved, also recommended was Raymundu from Guinea Bissau). Takes 3+ hours to climb, and then run down depending on what side you go down on. Note from A&R: we climbed up the left side (when facing the volcano from Chã) walked in and around the crater at the top, ran down on the opposite side of the little volcano. We also started at 1pm so when we were coming down the sun was setting – it was breathtaking. Also – this hike is wicked strenuous! It’s pretty much a climb, not a hike.  But it’s awesome and 100% worthwhile, but just be ready.

Restaurants and winery are back at the crater base when you’re done, though be aware that transport may be tricky if you’re trying to get back to São Filipe in the afternoon. Probably at least one aluguer going down though, just ask around. If you bounce in the am there’s cars starting at 6:30am.

 

Notes:

cachupa at Cafe Sofia

Cachupa at Cafe Sofia

Eats:

Breakfast cachupa (pronounced ka-chu-pa): DELICIOUS. Basically they take the cachupa (or cahupina) from the day before, fry it, fry an egg, heat up some sausage, and give it to you. This was our favorite breakfast and it’s really cheap (approx. 130 scoots).

Feijoada bean soup, for lunch, super good.

Ponche flavors: maca = pomme, pessego = pêche, pera = poiore, morango = fraise, laranja = orange, ova = raisin, manga = mangue = araçá = goyave. (A&R loved manga, araçá, pessego, and coconut)

Music:

Morna – local music w/ an acoustic guitar = AMAZING

Video I put together to promote Stomping Out Malaria in Africa. There may or may not be one teeny weeny error, but mostly I like how it turned out:

Getting snazzy with photoshop! My coworker Mike came up with this block font design for an info sheet we created for Stomp a few weeks ago, so I took the idea and ran with it for our World Malaria Day promotional materials. And to think I used to only know how to mess with photos.

BAMM; Blog About Malaria Month; Stomping Out Malaria in Africa; World Malaria Day

This past December, I had an interview posted on my friend Mike’s website, Bushkids.org. We discussed my role in malaria prevention and awareness work throughout my Peace Corps service, what I’ve been doing in my 3rd year for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa, life as a 3rd year, GAD work, etc. It’s a lengthy interview so this post is simply to give you the link to the page: here. Enjoy!

Volunteers should not disclose their sexual orientation to their host family members, particularly early in service. Such a confession may be a source of danger or discomfort. There is no tolerance for public displays of gay or lesbian affection in Senegal and homosexual acts remain illegal here. Homosexuality is not accepted in Senegal, neither in the culture nor in law, even between consenting adults. Volunteers who may be accused of homosexuality risk physical threats or harassment that may reach a point that the volunteer may have to leave the country because of safety concerns.

If you have accepted your invitation to serve in Peace Corps Senegal, typically you will have two to three months to prepare before flying to DC or Philly for your staging. In those two to three months, the paperwork you have to fill out, packets you should read, and conference calls with PC Senegal administration can keep you so busy that it’s easy to forget you’re actually going and in fact not just reading pdfs.

Amongst the mounds of literature you’ll receive, the first paragraph in this post is the only statement you will receive from Peace Corps or Peace Corps Senegal concerning your sexuality and how it may affect your life while serving for two years in Senegal. Read it again and think for a moment – that is all you get. Packing lists? Here’s twenty. Information on Senegal and language cheat sheets? Have this 2GB folder of pdfs. That one paragraph though, sums up everything PC has to say to you about being gay. Kind of scary, isn’t it? Terrifying, actually, especially if the only other thing you’ve ever heard concerning homosexuals in Africa is what often circulates in the western media: the president of Gambia saying gays should be beheaded (he later rescinded this comment); that you can receive the death penalty for homosexual acts in Uganda; that a marabou (religious leader) in Senegal proclaimed that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and thus should be thrown off of the top of a tall building. Would you reconsider getting on the plane to Senegal if you were gay? I would.

Three years ago, when I was a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) living in Thies and Mbour Senegal, not one session during our nine weeks of training discussed sexuality and how to approach the topic in Senegal. It didn’t seem weird at the time – our staff assumed that as young, mostly liberal, western-thinking adults, we were all open and comfortable with not only our own sexuality but also the diversity of those around us. Luckily for my training group, the staff assumed right and my stage (refresher: stagaire in French means intern or trainee, so training groups are “stages”) adjusted smoothly to life in village. Training groups after us did not bode as well.

Flash forward to November 2010: it’s the annual Gender and Development (GAD) conference that takes place the day before our annual All Volunteer Conference. Volunteers from across West Africa come to Senegal for the conferences, and Alhumdulilliah that they do because that year was the year PC Gambia introduced us to the Safezone training curriculum. As my half-awake blog post on Quest for a Safezone, Part 1 explained, this curriculum was originally created for PC host-country national staff. What I did not mention in that post was what the Safezone staff training helped us realize: we were dedicating an entire day to our PC staff to talk about about gender diversity in the Peace Corps, yet our PCTs were getting nothing. Moment of inspiration – we should create a shortened version for PSTs! (Such an obvious move looking back now, but before it actually began to happen, the absence of such a training wasn’t noticed, until it was noticeably necessary.) April and I discussed this idea after the staff training was completed and had soon put together an hour-long training for the current group of agriculture PCTs.

Flash forward again to the beginning of March 2012: this training for PCTs was one of the reasons I was in Thies the beginning of the month. Reviewing the outline of the session, it looked simple and thorough enough: we’d start by reviewing the statement from the PC Senegal handbook, then discuss possible adjustment issues for PCTs to life in Senegal – especially those who identify along the LGBT continuum, and then review laws and social conceptions of homosexuals in Gambia and Senegal. (Forgot to mention- this PST group has trainees heading to Senegal and The Gambia training in Thies, for more see here.) We assumed one of the last parts of our presentation would be the most hard-hitting for a lot of the trainees. This part was about keeping volunteers safe while serving in Senegal or the Gambia – and how to do so, they  must remain “in the closet” during their service. We assumed right.

It’s easy to understand why coming to grasp with the idea that you have to remain in the closet for two years would be difficult. Maybe you’re coming from a city like San Francisco where the LGBT community is not only accepted but also celebrated, and now you’re being told to go back to the time you were struggling with accepting who you are by hiding the fact that you’re gay. Or perhaps you’ve lived in rural Ohio where the only pubic options was to be straight but found the courage to tell your family and close friends that you’re gay before coming to Senegal. A huge weight was lifted off your chest; it’s like seven years of frustration, hate, and fear just melted away. Now you’re in Senegal, adjusting to the heat, the food, the language – and they tell you to not talk about the “gay thing” you just came to terms with. Put yourself in these people’s shoes: “While serving in Senegal or the Gambia, you must remain ‘in the closet’ for your own personal safety” – that statement is like a punch in the gut. But it’s unfortunately a true one, volunteers do have to stay in the closed because the current social climate in Senegal and the Gambia does not support homosexuals, and we don’t want anyone getting hurt. (That isn’t to say that volunteers are still free to do what they deem best: there have been a number of volunteers who’ve gotten close enough to their families that they’ve felt comfortable coming out to them.)

As you may expect, the session got pretty quiet during this conversation. To help people open up and discuss what they or their peers could be facing over the next two years, we passed out testimonials written by PCVs from across West Africa. The testimonials spoke on things like being gay in the PC, coming out at home, and being afraid to come out at site. To get the trainees more involved, we passed the testimonials out randomly amongst them, then had everyone reading one stood up and read it aloud to their stage-mates. When they finished, they sat down and rejoined the group until the last one was read. Here’s a few examples of testimonials:

 I’ve come out to my friends at home, but only to a few of my family members. My mom is totally supportive though I’m scared to tell my dad for fear that he will no longer talk to me and it will ruin our relationship. I know I have tell him eventually and can’t keep hiding the fact that I’m gay, but at the same time I love him and am afraid of losing him.

I haven’t come out to my family because I’ve heard them talk about gay people in the media, acquaintances, things like that. Knowing what they say about these people, I would never feel comfortable telling them about my sexuality. They just wouldn’t understand, and they could never accept it. Why come out to them when it would just invite cruelty I don’t think I could handle.

In Senegal it is much different to be sexually attracted to girls than in the States. First of all homosexuality is illegal. Secondly I feel that the women here would not be receptive due to the culture. I’m barely comfortable with any label in the states and will definitely go without one here. Culturally women walk around topless and it is not considered sexual. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get my attention. All I can do is turn my head though, it’s not like I can say, “Wow you have really nice tits and I’m attracted to you. Could you please put your shirt on?”

I got really lucky in the parent department because both of them were hugely supportive when I came out. In fact, they may have been too supportive; in middle school my dad confronted me about my sexuality, and then in high school my mom couldn’t understand why I waiting so long to tell my friends. That might have formed my perception of being gay in Senegal; the hardest part for me is hiding something about myself from people. How can I be close to someone if I’m hiding an integral part of myself from him or her? It’s incredibly depressing to think that someone I think is my friend may hate me if he or she found out the truth about me.

It’s hard to feel fully integrated when you can’t share a vital part of who you are.

 

As intended, hearing these personal stories stirred up a lot of emotions. I’ll be honest, there are a few testimonies that I avoid reading because I have a hard time reading them aloud without tearing up; it’s a sentiment that was shared among the PCTs as many eyes were red by the end of the reading. Still, no one wanted to talk, so April and I discussed why we work in Safezone perspective. Revealing a bit of ourselves to the group did the trick: one trainee got up to simply applaud all of his peers who had gone through the process of coming out: “I know I don’t have the guts to stick up for the gay community all the time, so I can’t even imagine the kind of courage you guys have.” “Obviously this isn’t the place or time to try and come out,” another trainee said, “but if you’re struggling with the self-hate and doubt and pain of not knowing who you are, don’t suffer any longer – talk to us, talk to me, we’re here for you. You can’t make it through these two years without us.”

This conversation went on for 15 minutes. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to witness. These people had met each other five days before and were sharing facets of themselves that were so intimate, some of their closest family and friends back home wouldn’t know what they were talking about. April and I were so proud of them. Not only were they opening up to each other, but they were beginning the process of becoming allies for each other – something they will undoubtedly need throughout their service. These PCTs are truly a phenomenal group of people.

For me, one of the most poignant comments during the session came towards the end. Looking slightly uncomfortable and visibly upset, a girl from the corner said, “I’m really glad we’re having this training so early because I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to have to go from being a bisexual atheist to a straight Christian in order to integrate here. That’s fine – but it’ll be a huge change, so I’m glad we’re talking about it now while we still have 8 weeks to go.”

Again, why the hell we never did this session for trainees before I’ll never know, but at least now we’ll never miss another group. Seeing how much the Safezone training and other diversity initiatives PC Senegal has taken up over the past year have affected the volunteer community has made me really proud to be a part of the team who’ve put these trainings together and hassled PC Admin to make sure they’re included in every training plan. After this year of hard work and success, I really think that our diversity initiates can only get better, but that’s not really up to me. It’s up to those 67 people we just trained who will be running the show sooner than they think.

Did you know that pregnant women are four times more prone to malaria infection than at any other stage in their lives?

What will YOU do this year to Stomp Out Malaria?

And now an anecdote from my friend William who is currently in Vietnam:

I’m in Vietnam right now, went out for lunch and saw this fruity watermelon cocktail at the table next to me. So i asked the waiter if i can get that too and she just laughed at me… Turns out, they only give that to women cus its women’s day.
As they should. Another good tale: read about Africa’s Girl Power.