We Go Two Buttons Deep With Diana Belanger And The Reality Of Life In The Peace Corps

Growing up in suburbia, New York, the Peace Corps was always a distant conversation growing up. A tale of a friend’s older cousin, a vendor at my school-sponsored career fair, but never a direct interaction that made me contemplate the severity and dignity of a program like the Peace Corps. Much like addiction, having a baby, or Pokemon Go, the Peace Corps is something you never really need to contemplate the severity of until someone you know goes through it.

What is the Peace Corps? I knew it to be a program that sent you across the world for a few years, and that more or less lost my interest from the get-go. Yet the good-natured and good-nurtured people of this world continued to participate and I never quite wondered why until my pal Diana Belanger announced she was going.

“Damn,” I muttered to my iPhone.

I knew Diana from high school, and as recent college grads it really made me wonder who what when where and why about the whole situation. What is she going to be doing? What exactly is the Peace Corps? Why does it exist? Wait, why is Diana doing this?

Diana, now 23, grew up a “military brat” (her words, not mine), turned sorority star (my words, not hers) with a social media presence of a life so admirable you’d question what the hell you’re doing with your own. Fresh out of George Mason University in pursuit of nursing school while living in the great city of Arlington, Virginia, it seemed like a comfortable spot to be at 22.

Then she posted that she would be spending the next two years of her life in Senegal, a country on the west coast of Africa.

“Damn,” I muttered to my iPhone.

After realizing the commitment she had just made, I had an urge to look deeper into the Peace Corps and grasp what the incentive is to be a volunteer, and what it is volunteers actually do. So I did some research and here’s what you should know:

The Peace Corps program was initially an outgrowth of the Cold War. President Kennedy pointed out that the Soviet Union “had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses . . . prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” The United States had no such program, and Kennedy wanted to involve Americans more actively in the cause of global democracy, peace, development, and freedom.

And just like that, JFK drew up an Executive Order for the Peace Corps. In case you missed the 1961 broadcast, it went like this:

“We will send those abroad who are committed to the concept which motivated the Peace Corps. It will not be easy, none of the men and women will be paid a salary. They will live at the same level of the citizens of the country they are sent to. Doing the same work, eating the same food, speaking the same language. We’re going to put a particular emphasis on those men and women who have skills in teaching, agriculture, and in health. I hope this will be a source of satisfaction for Americans and a contribution to world peace.”

“Damn” I muttered to my iPhone.

The deeper I read into the mission behind the Peace Corps the more credit I gave to those serving the program. What these volunteers go through is intense, somewhere on the same spectrum of what it takes to be a soldier. The program consists of young Americans serving their country in a foreign land fighting for the rights of the native people but instead of combating violence, they’re promoting peace. “It’s like they are our soldiers, who are instead sent overseas to be peaceful.” I said to myself. Then I realized that’s exactly what the Peace Corps stands for literally and figuratively and boy am I glad I looked that one up before I spoke.

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Diana’s “official” announcement came in December 2015:

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That was almost a year ago, and after many months in a new world I decided to reach out to Diana and go Two Buttons Deep with her into the reality of serving in the Peace Corps. How’s the work? Is it fun? Has it ever been scary?

Diana has certainly seem some things and lived in places no civilized American would ever consider, but that’s what makes this program so unique. Her story goes like this:

Jack: Before enrolling in the program, what initially sparked your interest in serving in the Peace Corps? 

Diana: My Dad’s girlfriend was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal back in the day. We started to talk about it in more detail the summer I was going to be a sophomore in college, she had helped me find work at a rural hospital in north eastern Thailand and for the month and a half I was there on my own it started to occur to me that Peace Corps was a viable option.

So you had some killer volunteering experience coming into this, right? Is that a requirement, or?

I don’t know if I’d say killer, but yes I did do a stint in Thailand and my background in college was Global Community Health with a Nutrition focus, so I guess that makes me qualified for my job by definition, haha. The background of health volunteers ranges from people who have worked in the development or health industry for years to people who just have had lifeguard experience.

So when did you know you were going?

I got my acceptance email for Senegal in the beginning of October 2015, and at that point I didn’t know what to think. I was excited, but I was also pending an application to nursing school. In the back of my mind for the next two months I reminded myself often when I was going in between Peace Corps and nursing school that I would probably regret it if I didn’t take the leap and go for Senegal. That’s what it came down to.

Did anything else help with that decision?

Personally I was in kind of a messy place, I was a college grad, living under my dad’s roof, I had even recently put myself in a position where my confidence was at a low and I was doing a lot of reflecting on who I was and wanted to be a lot. I was nannying and dog walking biding my time between Peace Corps/nursing school which was fun but certainly not my desired career trajectory.

So December 2015 I said to myself, I’m doing this, and by the end of February 2016 I was on a plane moving to Senegal for the next two years.

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So now you’re there, where exactly are you posted up? 

I’m in a small town of about 6000 people called Pakour, just north of the border of Guinea Bissau and about 30K from the main road in the southern region of Kolda. The people are mostly farmers or into animal husbandry, so lots of sheep, cows, donkeys, chickens, and goats. Needless to say, I now hate all farm animals because they make it impossible to sleep with their constant chatter throughout the night, haha.

There’s a small market that sells fish and produce everyday and a few boutiques that sell things like soap and certain household items, a few tailors in town, too. Pakour has infrastructure as well: schools, police station, mayors office, government office, health post (where I work), and food transformation buildings.

What’s your living situation like?

In my compound, I live with a family of about 20 people, where I have my own hut, small backyard, and outdoor “squatty potty” aka hole in the ground, and bucket bath space. I share most meals with my family. If I’m feeling fancy I’ll cook myself dinner but typically I eat what my family eats. Screen Shot 2016-10-07 at 3.02.29 PM.png

Wait, are there actually 20 people in the family?

Lemme count.. in my compound alone I think it’s 18 people if I’m not forgetting anyone then there’s my extended family, which covers another three compounds, and those compounds also hold about 20 individuals.

Oh and there’s no running water here in town, but there are plenty of wells that we all pull our water from. Pakour gets electricity at night from about 7-12 pm so I’m a lucky minority of volunteers who gets a little electricity! Overall I have a sweet little set up.

Why do they only get electricity for that duration of time? Expenses?

Yeah, money and no one is really using electricity during the day. Everyone is out in the fields so there’s no sense for them to turn it on until nighttime when they need light or want to watch tv after work.

After a year in a whole new world, what have you learned?

I’m learning constantly, language, cultural, personal things, things about others. I’m learning about the inner workings of the Senegalese health systems, school systems, and economy. I’m learning more everyday about Islam, different social constructs like patriarchy, the global aid industry, and much more. Volunteers get the opportunity to explore these things at the grassroots level in developing nations all over the world, which has been a very cool perspective so far. I feel pretty lucky.

What is the most notable difference between the Senegalese health systems and America’s?

I think as I’ve just started working here the most frustrating thing is medicine stock outs. Over populated areas are all funneled to a limited number of health structures which means medicine often runs out. That’s hard to watch when people need help.

I’m also learning, or rediscovering rather, that I have a lot of creative interests and being out here has been great for feeding into those creative processes. Painting, drawing, reading, filmography, photography, music, writing, all things that I think were kind of squandered by living in our fast pace society. Slowing down has given me the chance to delve into these interests. It’s become more apparent that maintaining creativity in my future career will be important to me.

Do you have anything to share with the class?

Well I journal a lot and that’s just for me, more of a therapeutic practice, but other pieces are on my blog dianaebelanger.com I like to post photos there, too. Peace Corps actually has excellent film and photography equipment us volunteers can take it to create photo series or mini documentaries, I’d like to explore that in the future. 

What is your physical duty as a volunteer? 

As a health volunteer I’m a community educator, so my job is to help my health structure bridge their relationship with their community members through different health activities and campaigns. Peace Corps Senegal’s health framework goals covers malaria prevention and treatment initiatives, child and maternal health initiatives, and sanitation initiatives.

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Do you clock in and out? Do they have any-sort of employee management or are you there more at your own discretion? 

No clock in clock out, I’m on 24/7. Volunteers report their activities to our PTA, or our Peace Corps Senegal Staff, every few months so admin can see what kind of work we are doing and give us feedback.

What are you currently working on?

For instance, this week I’m planning a nutrition education session for a group of men attending my site mate’s Open Field Day. My site mate, another volunteer who lives in close proximity to me, is an agriculture volunteer and is holding a training for local farmers to discuss different sustainable agriculture techniques. At this training, he’s asked me to hold a little nutrition session, so this week I’m planning for that. Next week, I’m helping another volunteer carry out a mosquito bed net care and repair seminar.

How are the mosquitos there? Is Zika all the craze there like it is in the states or do the Senegalese realize there are bigger problems in the world

Right now the mosquitos are bad because it’s rainy season and here in the south, our micro climate is very different compared to northern Senegal. Lots of jungle, great breeding ground for mosquitos. Zika isn’t localized here, but malaria is which causes a high number of deaths in my region. So malaria work will probably be a primary focus of what I do for the remainder of my service. screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-9-17-57-pm

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-9-17-47-pmI’m also starting to plan for my own ongoing activity that I would like to start writing a grant for, a women’s group training that I can hold once a month discussing different health topics. As you can see, my schedule varies, but there’s never a dull moment.

Who are you looking to get a grant from? Is it common to request grants? 

Peace Corps provides grant funding as well as other outside partner such as Water Charity and Feed the Future. Yes, this will be my first time writing one! So that’s exciting. It is common to request grants, but Peace Corps grants require that we have a community contribution, to know that our community is invested in the project. All about sustainability.

So…has anything happened that made you feel truly terrified?

I won’t go into specifics to spare my family and friends the stress but surely I’ve been in a few tight spots, nothing truly terrifying and hopefully I never have to face that, but I’m bound to be in other sticky situations. It’s all in the job description, but best we can do as volunteers is stay smart and vigilant. No matter how comfortable volunteers get here in country, we all know to remember where we are and who we are.

That’s fair, has anything happened that made you feel truly enlightened?

Hopefully I can reach whatever “true enlightenment” is by the time I’m on my death bed, haha. Right now I don’t think I’m into the like.. “new-age-hippie-travel-the-world-enlightenment-spiritual-thing”. I see a lot of millennials doing the “live like Russel Brand’s tattoos from Forgetting Sarah Marshall citizen of the world” stunt, and power to people for being their own kind of woke, totally not knocking that, to each their own. But I do think that part of our culture is what’s made me want to do something bigger than me and not just travel but be a part of something.

Everyone’s Peace Corps service is such a personal experience. It’s valuable to share wisdom, but it’s definitely still hard for me to talk about my emotional journey, ya know? It’s funny because I honestly refused to read “Eat, Pray, Love” or basically anything in the “females finding themselves out there” genre while I was here for the first few months because I was like, “No, Diana, that’s corny as hell, this isn’t an “Eat, Pray, Love” thing, this isn’t a “Wild” thing, this is just your thing, you’re gonna grow in your own way”. Then I gave in and read both recently and not only was I like, “yas, girl power, these ladies are queens of themselves” but I stepped back and said to myself, “I, too, am doing something big here, so why do I feel like I have to resist talking about personal growth?”

I’m really only at the beginning of this experience in my first year, so I still have so much to learn from others. But I do think part of the reason I came out here is to just be better than I’ve been, which also may sound a little corny, but I don’t think I could admit that to myself until I got here. People answer the question “Why Peace Corps?”, with, for the future job prospects, to see the world, to help others, and those are all factors of why I came here, too. A big part of it though, is I think I knew doing this would guarantee that I’d grow into someone I could admire. I don’t think I’m alone in that being a reason to do this either. It feels good to acknowledge that. Maybe that’s my current enlightenment.

What would you say to a Peace Corps prospects?

You can do eeet!! Haha no seriously though anyone who talks about wanting to not just travel but truly make a commitment to something, I tell them to consider Peace Corps. I’ve heard “I would love to do it but I don’t know if I have the guts” responses. I didn’t know I if had it in me either, but you’ll never know if you have the guts until you just get out there and go for it.

And lastly, if you don’t mind me asking, how is your confidence level now?

I feel like I’m becoming somebody I’ve always known I was, but didn’t know how to get there. I’m on my way and I’m feeling good. There’s a saying here “slowly slowly you catch the monkey in the forest”.

Building confidence is an incremental process, but I’m happy with where I’m at.

To follow Diana’s adventures, read her blog dianaebelanger.com



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