A typical Peace Corps service is 27 months long: 3 months of initial Pre-Service Training (PST) and then 24 months of service. In Peace Corps The Gambia, it is structured a little differently. We have 2 months of PST, focusing mainly on language and cultural integration with a little bit of technical health, agriculture and education training. And then after our 3 month Community Entry Period, we come together again for a month long In-Service Training (IST). The reasoning behind this setup is that most technical skills taught during PST would be forgotten under the avalanche of language learning and cultural integration happening when we first enter the country. So we get our bearings (as much as possible) for the first few months before really focusing on “work.”
This is one of the coolest aspects of Peace Corps. In the USA, “work” is very much a fast paced speed race to the finish lines. When you start a job in the US, you dive right in and usually have immediate deadlines and projects. Because of Peace Corps’ approach to development, it all happens a lot slower here. In order to be a considered a credible health professional in a Gambian community, you must first speak the language and understand the culture. Peace Corps sees the importance of this, and 2 of the 3 overarching Peace Corps goals are about sharing culture and values. Therefore, the first 5 months of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer have been focused almost exclusively on those two things.
Additionally, Peace Corps rejects the idea that we, as Americans and outsiders, know what is best for our communities. Too often, charities and foreign agencies come in and construct some brand new water system or build a market or a school structure or something else without really consulting the community. There are a countless number of abandoned projects like this all over The Gambia, and they’re abandoned because of lack of community involvement. Whenever it breaks or falls down, the community often sees no need to take care of it because they didn’t fund it in the beginning. For these reasons, our Community Entry Period (the 3 months in between PST and IST) is spent doing a Community Needs Assessment.
The first week of IST, we all presented our Community’s Needs to each other (the other Health volunteers) and our Program Manager and Assistant. We all used different techniques, but most used observations and in-depth interviews with community members as well as hospital and clinic data to assess the greatest needs in the community and where we, as Peace Corps volunteers, should focus our time. After some Project Design and Management workshops, we have been learning some technical skills to complete our community’s desired projects.
We’ve learned about building improved cookstoves, painting murals, hosting cooking demonstrations of weaning and complementary foods, putting on dramas about malaria prevention and hand washing, promoting exclusive breastfeeding, increasing food security through gardening, horticulture, and beekeeping, and much more. We’ve had sessions led by Ministry of Health workers concerning Non-Communicable Diseases, STIs and Family Planning, Water Systems, and Nutrition. We had counterparts from our communities come for a 2 day counterpart workshop on Project Design and Management in a Gambian setting. And we’ve had a few days about waste management in the developing world, including a day of “upcycling” things like plastic bags and tires into income generating activities for community members.
As we head back to our villages next week, we will celebrate 7 months in The Gambia!