To kick off the first in a series of posts featuring cool women who are living in or traveled to interesting places, I’m interviewing my baby sister, Ali Nuckles. The little girl who used to steal my Halloween candy has grown into a bad ass, globe-trotting gal who’s helping women and young entrepreneurs grow their businesses and create jobs in Senegal. Read on for her perspective on moving halfway across the world to a West African country home to more than 14 million.
Tell everyone what you are doing there.
I’m a Community Economic Development (CED) Volunteer serving in the Peace Corps. I live and work in a community of 4,000 people to improve business growth and job creation as well as encourage the use of business best practices to increase productivity and income. I work mostly with women’s groups and business owners. I also work with local youth to promote leadership and women’s empowerment.
I found myself in Senegal by 100% fate. During university, I studied Business Management and International Relations. The Peace Corps CED program seemed like the perfect way to get hands-on experience working in international development, while giving me a chance to learn a new culture and live abroad. When applying for the Peace Corps, my adventurous side said I was willing to go anywhere. A few weeks later, they told me to pack my bags. I was heading to Senegal. After living here for nearly two years, I couldn’t be happier with the random placement.
What’s been the hardest part about living somewhere completely different? What’s been the most fun?
The most difficult part has been the language and cultural barrier. The official working language of Senegal is French. However, there are 36 different languages spoken here. I spent my first two months in country learning about Senegalese culture and Wolof, the most widely spoken language.
After two months of intensive learning, I moved in with a host family. I realized my language was on par with my new 4-year-old sibling. The children quickly became my Wolof teachers. “What is this,” they would ask and point to various objects around our compound. It was difficult to communicate what I needed, let alone get any work done. I often resorted to using hand signals and other visuals. Living with a family in a community that speaks no English, it was sink or swim. Being fully immersed in a Wolof speaking community, I quickly improved my skills. I’m now able to conduct entire trainings in Wolof with ease. Although, I still have some difficulties explaining complex ideas.
On the flip side, learning a new language has also been one of the most fun and rewarding parts of living here. Culture and language are intertwined, which means you can learn so much about people’s values through their language. There are many singular words in Wolof that take entire sentences to explain in English. For example, Senegal is a community-oriented culture. So much so, that the Wolof response for “you’re welcome” translates to “we share it.”
In Wolof, there are two words for to borrow. “Abb” literally translates to lend or borrow. However, “lebb” is a special type of borrowing with many conditions. It is generally borrowing food or money as to not go hungry in the moment. Payment is not necessarily expected right away, but the debt will be repaid when the lender is in need of food or money.
What could we learn from Senegalese culture?
Greetings are one of the most important aspects of Senegalese culture. In the morning, you go around to everyone in the family and ask how they slept and if they spent the night in peace. It is considered rude to walk past a person and not greet them, even if you passed them on the street five minutes before. “You’re sitting?” is an appropriate greeting for someone you just passed.
In America, time is money. We often pass by people without saying a word. In grocery stores, the cashier gives us a total, we hand them the money and leave. We hardly inquire how their day is and never ask if their family is well—even if we see the same cashier every week. The Senegalese are never in a hurry and always take the time to talk to people. It’s a good reminder that the value of life lies in our connections with other people. I think every culture could take a little more time to remember and celebrate that every day.
What has surprised you most about your experience?
How hard it was to return to the U.S. for a visit! I looked forward to it for so long, but I definitely suffered reverse culture shock. I came home for a three-week visit and everything that had seemed so normal for my entire life was now so strange. I couldn’t stand being in Target for more than 15 minutes because the options overwhelmed me. I didn’t understand why every cashier wasn’t asking me if I was in Peace. I was tired of friends asking me, “How’s Africa?” Boiling down my experience in Senegal into a few sentences was difficult. Once I move back to the States permanently, I imagine reintegrating into American culture will be the most difficult part of my journey.
You’ve learned a lot about another culture. What have you learned about yourself?
Recently, a few volunteers and I were talking about how we’ve all have changed since arriving in Senegal. At first, it didn’t seem like we’d changed that much—besides being aged by the hot African sun. But upon deeper examination, we realized the changes have been huge but happened slowly. I have learned how resilient I am. Many things that once frustrated me barely register as an annoyance now. I learned patience by waiting hours for public transit cars to fill and to always travel with a book. The most important thing I learned, however, is the human capacity to love unconditionally. Moving in with my host family, our cultures and backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. I have been amazed by their acceptance of me as one of their own—especially my host grandma who refers to me as her own granddaughter and treats me as so. And vice-versa—these wonderful people an entire world away have become my family.
What would you tell someone who wants to go to a new country?
Be open. If you are open to new experiences, good things will come to you. If you close yourself off, you will never see anything new. Always try new things. If you don’t try, you won’t know if you like it or not. Who knew sheep liver was so delicious?
At the end of her interview, my sister left me with this well-known Wolof proverb to ponder and share—translated it means: “He who doesn’t travel doesn’t know that his city is good.” But if Ali’s taught me anything, it’s that there’s a lot of good in a lot of places. We just have to go out and find it.
Would you like to share your own travel story to be featured in our SHE WENT THERE series? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.