Deep down, we all feel a desire to forget completely about ourselves and focus on helping those in need. When we’re bombarded by our nine-to-five routine, it’s only natural to feel restricted; to feel like our days have become completely ruled by the flow of traffic, or the ticking away of time on the clock, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again. If someone were to present you with an opportunity to lay your personal goals aside, to travel the world and immerse yourself in a culture totally foreign to your own, would you take it? For Josh Wordel and Laura Moro, saying yes was a no-brainer.
The two wanderlust Peace Corps volunteers have taken the time to sit down with us at Enrou to share their stories of how they made the leap from the rat-race to the African coast. They share their experiences of what inspired them to join, the training process, their day-to-day routines, and even what dating is like in a third-world country. Our hope is that by learning from their endeavors, we can all find ways in our everyday life to be positive advocates for change, no matter how we get started.
1. Can you tell us where you both are from?
Laura: I am from a small-ish town in central Massachusetts.
Josh: I was born in the Chicagoland area, but grew up throughout Michigan, Iowa, and Illinois.
2. How old are you two?
Laura: Just about to turn 26. Late mid-twenties.
Josh: I’m 27
3. What influenced you to join the peace corps?
Laura: It was always something in the back of my mind. I didn’t know anyone who did it growing up, but I always thought it sounded like an adventure. Then when I was in college, I did a couple of shorter-term volunteer experiences in Africa. I realized how much I enjoyed learning about different cultures as well as working with communities to improve their own health and well-being. I decided to get a Master’s degree in Global Health, and took advantage of the awesome programs the Peace Corps had where you could use your service to complete some of the credits towards your degree.
Josh: My influence came from a mix of not feeling fulfilled in my everyday routine and the feeling that I was not truly contributing all that I could contribute to society and the world around me.
4. What were your jobs before joining?
Laura: I was in graduate school immediately before joining, so I dabbled in a lot of strange jobs to make ends meet that included landscaping, nannying, being an office temp, and working at a hardware store.
Josh: I was working as a web based tester for Allstate insurance company. It was a good job and a great company to work for. I was commuting about an hour by train and bus to work everyday out in the suburbs. I really loved living in the city, but I was just sort of floating by, not really feeling inspired.
5. What intrigued you about living in Senegal?
Laura: I was part of the older application cycle that actually didn’t allow you to apply to specific countries, so I was completely in the dark about where I would be sent. When I got my invitation, I was intrigued about everything. I guess I was the most curious when I learned we would be living with host families. I had no idea what that would be like.
Josh: The thought of living on the African continent or at least visiting was something I had always thought about, so when the opportunity to move to Senegal happened, I couldn’t have been more excited. I didn’t know a lot about the country at first, but after doing a bit of research I came to learn of how peaceful of a place it is.
6. What was the training like; your feelings about the process, and your expectations going into it?
Laura: Peace Corps training was not really what I expected at all. I knew we would be learning a local language, and that would comprise the majority of our time in training, but I didn't expect the level of technical training that they actually provided. It felt like somewhat of a review of what I had learned in graduate school, or at least the cliff notes version. It was boring at times, but I think it's great for those who come without certain skills because it gives an opportunity to be far more effective in the field.
Josh: My expectations of training were high to say the least. I knew that we had just short of 3 months to learn a new language and a new culture, so I figured I would be coming into a place where we would be doing nothing but studying. Once we arrived, the expectation stayed true for the most part. Our days were very long starting with classes that went from 8am until 6pm everyday, and mixed within were weeks of living with host families, trying to learn their local language.
7. How were your expectations altered once you arrive in Africa?
Laura: While every country in Africa is obviously very different, there are some aspects of culture that tend to be the same throughout. Things like not offering anyone anything with your left hand, not eating in public without sharing your food, the ubiquitousness of rice and oil, and the importance of properly greeting everyone you interact with; these things I had some experience with so I was not as shocked as others. I will say I had a subconscious expectation about the landscape, and I was shocked to find it far more dry, sandy, and treeless.
Josh: I won’t lie, I felt right at home from the second we landed in Dakar. I guess I didn’t expect to feel that way.
8. How did you adjust to the environment there? The culture? The food? The people? Anything?
Laura: It's difficult to adjust to any new culture, but especially one that you will be living with for two years and have to integrate into. I tried to be as open minded as possible. The food is tasty, it's just not really what you'd want to be eating if you were entering a bikini contest, so I kind of had to let go of some expectations about becoming a swimsuit model. Actually though, the hardest thing was adjusting to both a super religious culture as well as a monoculture. The vast majority of the population is muslim, and don't really even understand the concept of atheism. I often have “arguments” defending or discussing Christianity when I haven't considered myself a Christian since childhood. I also come from a culture where diversity is both respected and embraced. Here, you are pointed out on the street for being a foreigner and looking different, and different ways of thinking and doing are often laughed at.
Josh: At first it was quite a change in temperature going from the -30 degree wind chills of Chicago to average 90+ degree days there. It definitely took my body some time to adjust, but being someone who doesn’t really enjoy winter, it didn’t take me too long. The culture is something that I am actually still learning about to this day. I feel like I learn something new every week about the way things operate here. The Peace Corps really prepared us well during our training on what to expect, but they can only do so much. The food was a slight adjustment for me. I was very much used to eating a lot of rice in the states, but I was not one to indulge much on fish. The staple dish here is named “Cheeb-u-Jen,” meaning rice and fish, so I learned to love it and now actually sometimes crave it!
9. How are your personal lives related to other Peace Corps volunteers? Did you join for similar reasons?
Laura: I think most Peace Corps volunteers join for at least some kind of similar reasons. I believe they stem from equal parts of altruism, the desire for experiencing something new, personal growth, professional growth, and perhaps even getting away from something back in the states. It's funny, we all come from very different walks of life, but we somehow never run out of things to talk about while sharing a beer at the local bar.
Josh: I think everyone joins the Peace Corps for their own reasons. Some of my peers here had similar reasons to mine, and others did not, but all of us had the same intentions of wanting to improve the lives of the Senegalese.
10. Were you able to make friends and connections with the people or other volunteers?
Laura: I've made a lot of new friends. It's a different kind of friendship here because you are sharing this unique, trying, and sometimes downright difficult experience – and you are talking each other through it the whole time. It's also impossible not to become connected to your host family. They see you on your good days and bad days, they laugh at your mistakes, and they help you when you're struggling with language or how to appropriately hand wash your clothes. They basically make or break your experience, and my family definitely made mine something I will carry with me forever.
11. What were some of your biggest hurdles to get over once you started living in your home stations?
Laura: Bugs. I hate them and they should all die. Have I gotten over this hurdle? Perhaps. A year ago I would run to my host sister and make her kill all the spiders. Now, armed with a broom and a bottle of aerosol insecticide, I can take them out myself with only a few stifled screams, and Josh on speaker phone so someone would at least know my cause of death.
Josh: Once I moved onsite, I think my difficulties mainly dealt with language and miscommunications. I ended up in a town about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of my city one day because I agreed to climb into a car not fully understanding the reason we were going there.
12. Walk us through a typical day in your village
Laura: This completely depends on the day. Some days I don't “work” at all. I do laundry, I sew clothes that have torn, I watch a movie or read a book, or I help the women in my family prepare lunch (practically an all day affair). The days I have work to do, I do what the work dictates, which could mean going to the health post, meeting with local colleagues, going to the fields, or biking to the nearest city to use the Internet or do other office-like tasks. I'll try to lay it out for you, though.
7am Wake up, do some sort of work-out (run, insanity, P90x, or something else I've made up)
9am Breakfast in my room. This includes coffee I have obtained in some way from America, fruit if I have it (during mango season, this means at least 2 kilos of mangos) or oatmeal if I haven't any fruit on hand.
10am I plan my day. This means I make lists. A lot of them. I make lists about making lists.
10:30am I generally have finally emerged from my room for the first time (this is so weird to them) and I go somewhere.
1pm I return from somewhere. I check things off of my lists and wait for lunch.
1:30pm I keep waiting for lunch. I'm hangry.
2pm At some point, lunch will arrive. It's a large bowl of rice, fish, vegetables, and oil that we all share. Most days this means about 6 adults and up to 10 children. One bowl (did I mention it's very big)
2:30 – 5pm This is the part of the day where it's too hot to go anywhere and everyone is in a rice coma so most people nap. I don't nap, so I often sit in my room and find something to occupy my time. It may be a work task, or it may be a game on my iPhone.
5pm This is the generally accepted time where one goes “back to work”. If I have someone to meet with, this is generally when I rip myself away from FarmVille and go do it. In the cooler seasons, I also take advantage of the sinking sun and go for a run before it gets dark. This is not possible in the hot season. Today, my afternoon task was visiting a friend and buying from her Rodenticide. I've got a couple mice in my room that just don't take a hint.
7pm I return to my room, bucket bathe, and make a cup of tea. If I'm hungry I might make a snack for dinner like an apple and peanut butter, or popcorn. I'm often still full from lunch, though.
8-9pm I usually sit outside and read a book with the family. They lay mats down and I read, drink my tea, look at the stars, or other such activities. They pray their last of 5 prayer times for the day, have their dinner (more rice, more oily than before, I opt out usually) and sometimes I help the kids with their homework or teach them English words.
10pm During the colder months, I’m generally in my room, safely tucked under my mosquito net by this time. Josh and I will likely talk on the phone for a while before we both fall asleep. During the hot season, not much changes except inside is hotter than Satan’s lair, so I actually hang a mosquito net up on our roof and sleep outside with the family.
Josh: 6:30 - 7am ish… wake up slowly.
7:30am Do a sort of workout.
8:30am Shower/sweep my room.
9-10am For breakfast, I usually eat a perfect amount of fruit: (4-5 mangos, 1 watermelon, a kilo or two of bananas). Sometimes a bowl of oatmeal with some amazing local peanut butter or sometimes I’ll head down to the local breakfast sandwich lady and get a bean or pea sandwich.
10am I will usually leave the house sometimes with something to do, sometimes with nothing to do. I may go visit some friends and chat with them. I may go hang out with the local leather worker Demba and see how things are going with him. I may go visit my host grandfather’s house and see how that side of the family is doing. I may have to go to the post office or have some other task to attend to.
1-4pm The lunch hours. All of the city dies down. Many people go back to their homes. The children come home from school. We lunch and nap. It is wonderful.
4-7pm Similar to my 10 AM activities. I usually try to find something to fill my day. If I have a work task to attend to, I will do that, but sometimes I will just go sit with some friend and have tea and socialize.
7-10pm Relax in my room. Play games with the children in my house. Watch a movie or show. Eat dinner and get ready for bed.
Now these days vary. Some days I’m busier than others. Some days I am traveling to other cities or villages. No two days are ever the same, and that is something I do not take for granted here.
13. What are your biggest projects happening? whether they're recurring or in progress?
Laura: I have a couple things in the works and upcoming. Currently, I'm collecting malaria data for the Villages in my area in order to map out the confirmed cases from 2012 to present. I figure if my counterparts and I can get a better picture of where it is most common and who it effects more often, then we can come up with some solutions on how to better prevent it. Josh and I are also working on having farmers in my village plant moringa. It's this plant whose leaves have amazing amounts of vitamins and is a local and inexpensive way to prevent malnutrition. The project is cross/collaborative in that it involves growing the moringa, transforming it to powder, packaging and selling it, and teaching women how to incorporate it into the foods they prepare for their families. I'm also in the very beginning stages of planning a training of community health workers in the villages that are far enough from my health post to make access difficult and infrequent. Training health workers in the basics of sanitation, nutrition, and maternal and child care can make a big difference in preventing common childhood illnesses and malnutrition before they can require a trip to the health structure in the first place. In terms of recurring projects, I continue working with a group of men I trained last year as part of a men-as partners program, and assist my community’s health workers in leading weekly health discussions at our post. Oh, I've also been asked to have an English class once a week at the new Arabic middle school , so that should be interesting.
Josh: Last December, I did an entrepreneurship training with about 7 men in my city. I am constantly working with the local leather worker on designing new and innovative products. We held a large business camp in late September/early October over the course of about 10 days that I assisted with.
And yes, Laura and I currently are trying to get a large moringa project off the ground. It is pretty slow moving, but we hope to see it progress and blossom into something great.
14. How did you two meet?
Laura: We met right at the beginning, still in Washington DC during training. It wasn't love at first site or anything. We barely spoke during the three month training period. Once we were placed close to each other in our respective sites (about 20km) we became the best of friends. It only progressed from there because about 6 months later I got a little tipsy one night and hit on him. He rejected me. The rest is history.
Josh: Haha, that sounds about right.
15. What is dating in Senegal like?
Laura: It's not really dating. We’ve never been on a date, in the conventional sense. We just kind of hangout as often as we can. We usually take trips in-country and spend all of our time together, but that can be followed by days or weeks of not seeing each other. Also, the super conservative culture doesn't even allow for boyfriend-girlfriend interactions (especially in my more conservative village), so we can never close the door or have sleepovers at our houses or show any public signs of affection. Basically we're like a 7th grade couple whose parents are always supervising. We find our time together though, like when we take a night or two over the weekend and go visit our friend—a cool Belgian guy—who owns a small restaurant/bar/bungalow at the beach which is close by. Or we spend more money than we should and get an air conditioned hotel room in the city and order pizza and never leave. Just kidding we can't ever afford more than 2 nights. Oh and we also use an absurd amount of phone minutes. Hours a day. Luckily Peace Corps has a deal with the cell company and volunteer-volunteer phone calls are free.
Josh: Dating here is different. She is my best friend and we pretty much just hang out. Simple as that.