The Crazy World of Cultural Exchange

It was 8:30pm. I sat on an old cushioned couch munching a falafel sandwich, surveying my surroundings with equal parts wonder and joy. I was one of two people in a room of nine Americans not somehow associated with the Peace Corps in Dakar, Senegal. I wondered how, in less than 24 hours, I had found my way from an aisle seat on South African Airways flight 280 to a room full of people I had never met before, and simultaneously pleased with the mysterious web life often weaves.

Twenty-four hours earlier, I was on my way to Dakar from Washington DC to scope projects for a team of 15 IBM employees who will come to Dakar this fall as part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps. My first meeting was with a representative of the Center for Disease Control working on behalf of the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) in Dakar. The PMI was seeking the IBM team’s involvement with a project supporting the National Malaria Control Project (NMCP). As she and I thought through the project together, we considered the difficulty of finding a suitable project coordinator for the team—someone who would be sufficiently fluent in French and English to perform the necessary translation and coordination. “I wonder if Sarah, one of our Peace Corps volunteers, could help with that,” she said.

This exchange, at 3:30pm, was quickly followed by an email to both me and the Peace Corps volunteer she had in mind. As one does in the developing world, I quickly turned to my mobile phone. Sarah answered, laughing that she had just finished leaving me a message. She advised that she would be leaving Dakar the next day and wouldn’t return until late evening, three days later. She was, however, happy for me to come over to her apartment to discuss the project and join her and a few others for dinner. It was this unexpected exchange that led me to the falafel sandwich on the faded cushioned couch.

In circumstances like these, the Peace Corps should be proud to pat itself on the back for a job well done, when sufficient cultural immersion yields actual cultural conversion on the part of the volunteer. Sarah was so unconcerned by my joining, a wisecrack about crashing her dinner party unexpectedly was met with stunned silence on the other end of the phone. How foolish of me to poke fun at her earnest hospitality.

And earnest it was, on many counts. In Senegal, hospitality is prized more highly than most other values; the biggest consideration is typically, “Is there enough food?” a question another Peace Corps volunteer actually popped in to ask while Sarah and I sat visiting together on the couch before dinner. “Yes, I think so,” was her response. This culture of hospitality is compounded and reinforced by the fact that for many, a sound meal isn’t that easy to come by. Welcoming people into one’s home is an important contribution to making sure everyone has enough to eat.

(In the middle of our chat, another past Peace Corps volunteer interrupted to ask Sarah for instructions on lighting their commercial-sized gas oven. In order to protect all parties from any liability involved, suffice it to say the oven lighting was quite an affair, involving at least four matches and two sheets of notebook paper, to varying effect.)

As Sarah and I spoke amidst the gas oven lighting, she commented on my ability to “roll with the Peace Corps lifestyle.” While I’ve certainly never spent 36 months in one place—the thought makes me cold—I’ve cooked enough meals over propane and spent enough nights alone in countries where no one speaks my language or even knows my name to appreciate a simple meal among vrai compatriots.

As others began to prepare to leave for a 9 o’clock showing of the Great Gatsby—at a theater boasting popcorn no less—I scarfed down the last of my sweet potato fries, and hurried after the others into the night. It had rained a great deal that afternoon, and the streets were almost entirely flooded with close to six inches of water. Another volunteer took out her phone to light the way and we followed single-file along the least-damp stretch of road, eventually hopping across pieces of cinderblock put in place to make a path above the flood.

As I followed Sarah’s lead, just barely able to make out the next cinderblock ahead, I thought wistfully of the chain of unanticipated moments that had brought me to be hopping across floodwaters in Africa less than 36 hours after I was soundly asleep in the comfort of my own bed. It’s my great pleasure to have the chance to edit a magazine dedicated to telling such wonderful stories of cultural exchange, collaboration, and leadership, while also having the opportunity to develop programs, like ours with the NMCP, on the ground in far-flung (francophone) places, like Senegal.

We are all passengers on this great journey we call life, just trying to get from one place to the next. All the better if we can share meals, advice, and partnerships along the way.

Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

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