Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Senegal

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with their host countries, Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years.

Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Senegal, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Senegal.

Outside of Dakar, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Senegal are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Senegal, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Senegal

The Peace Corps staff in Senegal recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

The roles and responsibilities of Senegalese women are generally quite different from those of American women, and a

Volunteer may need to prove to the women of her village that she can pound grain or transport water from the well like a Senegalese woman. Some Senegalese men, influenced by stereotypes of American women in film and the media, may act in a way that offends female Volunteers. Sometimes, the way female Volunteers dress or carry themselves is interpreted as a sign of availability. Behaving and dressing appropriately are good ways to encourage the respect you desire.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

People often expect African-American Volunteers to absorb languages and culturally adapt more quickly than other Volunteers. They sometimes are mistaken for Africans and therefore may experience impatience on the part of the Senegalese if they make mistakes while learning appropriate behavior. It can also be difficult for Senegalese to recognize Asian Americans, Arab Americans, or Hispanic Americans as being American, and when they do, they may associate them with stereotypes based on the Volunteers’ ancestral origin rather than their nationality. It helps to remember that these reactions stem from a simple lack of understanding and that they afford the opportunity to teach the Senegalese more about the diversity of the U.S. population.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

As is true elsewhere in Africa, older individuals are highly respected. But certain expectations come with this respect, in that seniors are presumed to have more knowledge and experience. Language acquisition is often more difficult for older Volunteers than it is for younger ones, and they can become frustrated by difficulties in communicating ideas important to them and their mission. Because the vast majority of Volunteers in Senegal are young, older Volunteers sometimes feel a sense of isolation within the Volunteer community. While Peace Corps/Senegal is sensitive to this issue and tries to take this into consideration when placing seniors, it is not always possible to do so. Younger Volunteers often seek advice from senior Volunteers; some seniors enjoy the role of mentor, while others prefer not to fulfill that role. Older Volunteers sometimes find pre-service training physically challenging.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers need to know that homosexuality is illegal in Senegal. Although they usually find sufficient support within the Peace Corps community, many feel the need to “go back into the closet” when they are at their sites. Senegalese culture does not tolerate public displays of gay or lesbian behavior (open display of heterosexual affection is also frowned upon). As Volunteers get to know their Senegalese family and make friends, they may be tempted to disclose their sexual orientation, but a decision to do this requires a great deal of thought because of the possible danger (one Volunteer was reportedly physically attacked when it became known he was gay).

See also: Articles about Senegal on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

As stated previously, the Senegalese population is more than 90 percent Muslim, with the rest being mainly Christian. There is a remarkable degree of religious tolerance in the country. For example, even after the events of September 11, 2001, a Volunteer was able to tell her Muslim friends and host family that she is Jewish without ill effects on their friendship. On rare occasions, a friend might to encourage you to explore or convert to Islam. Generally, Senegalese do not know much about religions other than Islam, Christianity, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

There is no city in Senegal, including Dakar, with the infrastructure to accommodate the needs of individuals with disabilities. Although Senegalese are very accepting of people with disabilities, the accommodations that make life more manageable and that one may be accustomed to in the United States are absent here. Day-to-day life can be extremely difficult.