A New Approach

Charlotte Benishek - Senegal


November 16, 2011

Four weeks ago I was dropped off in Lèona, energetic, optimistic and above all impatient to begin my apprenticeship. The only problem was the vagueness of my assignment of “working with the Millennium Villages Project.” There is no central office here in Lèona, but the effects of the project are clearly visible – a new health post, a middle school, community health workers, a community radio. The scale of the project made finding where to begin working absolutely daunting. I contacted my supervisor, hoping to clarify my role. He said that I would have to wait for a week or so to meet him because he was very busy with a school enrollment campaign.

When I finally met him, still impatient to get started, he was quite short on instructions for how I should begin working with the behemoth that is the Millennium Villages Project. “Just go to the primary school or health post,” he instructed. I am learning that this laid back, hands off approach is classically Senegalese, but my Type A personality craved more specifics – a plan, a schedule, a set of steps. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to work in education, so I anxiously headed over to the health post without any sort of plan.

I dutifully went to the health post for about a week, but my work (or lack thereof) frustrated me. I was interested in the work, but the nurses were understandably wary of me. My lack of French and Wolof skills didn’t help the situation either. I couldn’t ask any of the multitude of questions I had for them. There were several occasions where I sat on the steps of the post and had to summon all my energy to prevent myself from crying. This approach was clearly not productive.

Finally I decided to ask one of the fellows who lived in Léona last year for advice. She advised me to be patient with myself and focus on building relationships and connections, rather than searching for concrete work immediately. “You cannot know where you will be helpful without the language skills or personal connections to explore the project,” she wrote. Of course. That made so much sense. Why couldn’t I realize that?

I have tried to shift my approach to my apprenticeship (and timeline) to be much more relaxed, which is to say, much more Senegalese. This in itself is a very difficult task for me. (Did I mention I’m super Type A?) I now see this early phase of my apprenticeship as one of making connections, learning names, and sometimes just chilling in a hair salon to make friends. You might say that my apprenticeship is learning Wolof and building relationships and trust with the residents of Lèona and the leaders of the Millennium Villages Project. Whatever work I end up doing, I predict that my journey to finding my place within the Millennium Villages Project will be equally important as whatever role I ultimately play.

Charlotte Benishek