Interview with a Regional Volunteer

Jonah Meyers is Tostan’s regional volunteer in the Fouta region, Senegal. 

Will Schomburg: Could you tell our readers a bit about what you were doing before you came to Africa?

Jonah Meyers: I’m originally from Columbia, Maryland and now an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park. I study anthropology, international development, and French. I lived in France for a year after high school, and wanted to continue my French language skills in a development context in West Africa. Other than school stuff, I spend a lot of time in the outdoors; I like to mountain bike, rock climb, etc.

WS: What drew you to Tostan specifically?

JM: What drew me to Tostan was a combination of being impressed with their work and the opportunity to volunteer with them over a long period. It’s difficult to find an international development internship with little experience without having to pay somebody, so Tostan was the perfect fit. Not only do they have an awesome volunteer program, their approach in the field is pretty unique in its grassroots approach and has really been a catalyst for change in Senegal for health, education, and so many other issues.

WS: What are your views on what Tostan does?

JM: I think Tostan does really important work here in Senegal and in the other countries the NGO has worked in. Whenever I go to a village the community thanks Tostan for all the changes that have happened, from women being more comfortable speaking in public to a water tower being funded by the village and the government. It’s important to say though, as well, that Tostan’s work wouldn’t be possible without the dynamic and motivated leaders it works with in the communities.

WS: What do you think makes Tostan different?

JM: What makes Tostan different is its effort to create a truly holistic program. With a director who has lived in Senegal for over 30 years and a staff over 99% African, the program is tailored to the local cultures and centers on important collaboration. The staff knows that development needs to address every possible issue in the community. For example, without health a community cannot prosper economically or continue to educate itself, and without respecting human rights a population cannot be truly healthy. Tostan has really figured it out over the past 20 years and I reckon gotten it right.

WS: Can you describe your role?

JM: I’m the Regional Volunteer in the Fouta coordination. That means I assist the Regional Coordinator and the staff with a lot of different things. Generally, I have a lot of administrative responsibilities like writing reports and going on village tours in order to supply donors with good village portraits. I also help organize staff events, visits by donors and partners, attend some of our events in the region, work on the website, teach IT skills, and many other things. An initiative of my own I’m working on at the moment is starting a partnership with Peace Corps volunteers from the regions that we work in.

WS: What have you enjoyed the most so far?

JM: Hands down, sitting around with the people. Even if I don’t understand much Pulaar, I like to sit around and learn, drink sweet tea and eat grilled corn on the cob. The people here are amazingly nice; Senegal is the country of hospitality, or terranga as it is locally called.

WS: Can you mention one interesting thing you’ve experienced since arriving?

JM: I usually find myself laughing at situations I’m in because I would have never imagined something happening. But one funny thing that happened was when I had to chase goats out of our office while I was on Skype with my brother.

WS: What has been your biggest challenge?

JM: My biggest challenge has been balancing my own desires with those of the people surrounding me. In Senegalese culture it’s often rude to refuse an invitation, especially when it comes to eating. I’ve gotten frustrated when people expected me to eat with them and then gotten mad when I didn’t show up for dinner, for example. After making a couple mistakes I tried to please everybody, which meant I also wasn’t always doing what I wanted to do. It’s important to find a balance between being friendly and fitting in here and also making yourself comfortable and happy, which I think I’m finally getting the hang of after a few months.

WS: What would you say to people thinking about applying to Tostan or more generally considering development work in Africa?

JM: Africa may not be rich in dollars, shiny cars and nice apartments, but it is rich in warmth and friendship. Take advantage of your situation to get to know the people around you. It will not only give you a better understanding of your work, but will also help the local community to understand (and hopefully appreciate) your efforts if not your results, as well.

WS: What will you miss most about Senegal? What do you miss most about the US?

JM: Due to the weather and the social status here, the lifestyle is completely different. I like sleeping on my roof, and walking to get good bread in the mornings, both of which are more difficult to do in the States. What I miss most about home, besides friends and family, is food. Things like cheese, granola, pizza, and generally just a wide variety of food options that doesn’t exist here.

WS: What do you think has been the most important thing you have learnt in Senegal?

JM: Senegal has made me a lot calmer. In the U.S. I get antsy sitting around for more than a half an hour. Here I can literally sit in the same place and not get up for six hours. I’ve done it, provided there’s a big bowl of food to share and some tea to follow. Besides that, living in Africa is just such a humbling experience. Meeting the kindest people who don’t have electricity gets you thinking about why people in my hometown get upset about the smallest things and how unreasonable we can be when we have so much more.

WS: What do you hope to do next?

JM: In life? Well I need to finish school and then I’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll be back in Senegal at some point to an international development job. Or I might just go climb rocks for a bit, we’ll see.

WS: What do you hope to have achieved at the end of your service here?

JM: I don’t want to think about my stay here as results-oriented. I do want to leave happy with my service, feeling like I’ve developed personally and professionally and contributed to Tostan’s work here.

He recently chatted with communications assistant, Will Schomburg, about his experiences at the half way point of his service.