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Learning my Limits

by Bruktaweit Addis | October 11th, 2011

I terminated my Peace Corps service before even swearing in. Early termination (ET) is a taboo
subject in the Peace Corps, but it is important to me to acknowledge why I did. I was deeply
disappointed to find that Peace Corps Senegal was completely inhospitable to Americans of
color. I feel guilty about my decision because of how it may impact my intended site, come
across to my language teachers, host family, and the Senegalese staff in the Peace Corps. Yes, it
was difficult accepting gender roles in Senegal, integrating into a polygamous family, and
learning Wolof, but those were not what pushed me to resign. I know I should not have had to
go through what I did in the Peace Corps and I gave myself permission to ET because the
organization let me down.
Since arriving in Senegal the rhetoric of the Peace Corps has been us white Americans and
them black Africans. As a black American and immigrant from Ethiopia it was difficult for me
to find my place in the organization. When I first landed in Dakar, I sat on the bus next to a PCVL
(Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders) who has extended for a third year and is conducting trainings
for my stage (training class). When all of us eagerly asked her how she liked being in her village
for the two years compared to being stationed in Dakar now, she responded, of course I like
being around white people better. I was so taken aback and jet lagged I had to later confirm
with one of my fellow PCTs (Peace Corps trainees) if she had really said that. As we began
training sessions, things only got worse, I noticed how the word American was often replaced
with the words white people and I talked to the one other black American in my stage, and
confirmed that I was not crazy, and that he too felt alienated by the language of the
organization.
Weve faced white PCTs and PCVs claiming they are more black or African than us if we got sick
and they did not, arguing we are being too sensitive about race, justifying the use of the N word
in a joking context because we are all liberal, referring to the training center as the white
world, and more in addition to the general stresses of culture shock and language immersion. I
will likely face this same ignorance in future working environments, but I know this would not
be as tolerated in other contexts.
After having meetings with the Peace Corps Senegal country director and training director
about these and other specific incidents the response has been that although it is not
technically excused, it is understandable and okay in this context, because my white peers are
racial minorities for the first time. There was no forum to address racial issues or hold anyone

accountable for offensive or insensitive comments made during training sessions, even when
raised to staff.
I was given the go-ahead to start a list serve for PCVs of color who feel the same way I do and
who would like a support system. When I contacted individuals many of them showed support
and interest telling me they avoid Peace Corps regional houses, the American club in Dakar, and
all-volunteer events because it is more of the same white solidarity and ostracization of
Americans of color. That is why I found it appalling that the Peace Corps Senegal country
director said he had no idea how pervasive these issues were. I pointed him to an oversight in
the Wolof dictionary Peace Corps provides us that institutionalizes the "black African" and
"white American" dichotomy, mentioned that a PCV of color from the previous stage had
emailed him about these same concerns, and that I know PCVs of color have ETed for this same
reason in the past.
But even after these discussions and tears, I sat through yet another training session,
supposedly on mental health, which dissolved into yet another session on how to deal with
being a white person in a black country, completely negating my experiences and the ways I
stick out as a foreigner in Senegalese culture even though I am black. Ive walked out of too
many training sessions and have heard of no changes in how American Peace Corps staffs are
being trained before conducting trainings for me to remain a member of the Peace Corps.
I do feel like I left Peace Corps for poor reason because this shouldnt have happened. I know
PCVs of color have and do serve successfully, despite these issues, but I could not. I may regret
my decision because this was something that had meant so much to me to do, but all I know is
that I had reached my limit. I hope to find a better way to achieve the goals I had hoped to in
the Peace Corps in another context.

Comments
Andie on October 12, 2011 - 7:33pm
Thank you for sharing your story. I am a black immigrant American and have been invited to serve in South Africa
leaving January 2012. I know that South Africa has a continuing legacy of strained race relations, and I had counted
on support from my fellow PCT and PCV. I am hoping that our country directors are sensitive to the issues, and that
there is diversity training that incorporates the issues that all of us may face.

http://www.globalconversation.org/2011/10/11/learning-my-limits