An LGBT PCV Retreat in West Africa

- a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Editor’s Note: This is an interview conducted by email with a current volunteer in West Africa. The subject is a Peace Corps sanctioned retreat attended by LGBT volunteers from Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania. Because of increased homophobia in many parts of the world, we usually don’t identify our current PCV contributors by name. Our newsletter articles are all on our web site, and everything including authors’ names are accessible.

Q. How had LGBTQ volunteers in the three different countries come to know of one another? Had they met before? How were plans laid for this weekend retreat?

I was the main connection with all of the volunteer involved. I met one of the Senegal volunteers very early in my service (we actually had a mutual friend in common that helped us meet up). Then she and another Senegal volunteer came to a GLBTQ meeting that we held in The Gambia a year ago. These volunteers went back to Senegal and set up a similar meeting of their own there last August or so. Then in February, at the annual West African Invitation Softball Tournament (WAIST) in Dakar, I organized a dinner, initially for the Gambia and Senegal volunteers involved in the groups, but we were able to get volunteers not just from Gambia and Senegal but also Mauritania, Mali, Benin and Guinea.

So that was a great networking tool and I proposed the idea of having a Pride get together then and people liked the idea so I went ahead and planned it. I kept in touch with people and had them inform and invite new volunteers and those I didn’t know. We decided to do it in Senegal because it was the most central location and didn’t require any special visas or anything. One of my friends who I met at the softball tournament site is very close to the location we selected, so she helped organized the housing for us. There were a couple Mali volunteers who wanted to come but weren’t able to make it because of Close of Service dates and trainings.

Q. Where was the retreat held, and how many people attended?

It was in Senegal (just south of Dakar).There was a total of 14 Volunteers who attended (3 from Gambia, 8 from Senegal, and 3 from Mauritania). Also attending was a Gambian friend of a volunteer who is a student in Dakar. The CDs (Country Directors) of all three countries were supportive of volunteers going. Senegal volunteers were not required to take vacation days or out of site days as it was viewed as a PC sanctioned event. My CD in Gambia wanted to let us go without using vacation days but because it crossed borders he was required by PC to make us use days since we are not a group officially recognized by PC Washington. Mauritanian volunteers were also required to take vacation days. Volunteers covered all their own expenses including transport, housing, food, etc. One of the PCMO’s (Peace Corps Medical Officer) from Senegal attended some sessions on Sunday morning and had very good input and suggestions.

Q. What were the main topics of discussion, concern? You did a survey at the end of the retreat. What can you say about the results?

Main topics were concerns with PC staff in different areas, specifically PCMOs/Med Units. Gambia and Senegal’s groups have quite good reputations, but Mauritania less so. Safety and Security is the biggest concern across the board with volunteers. This is mainly because of the lack of information that we receive from PC concerning LGBTQ issues in country. And it’s become a hot button issue with the recent arrests and rioting in Senegal and homophobic statements made by the president of Gambia and arrests in Gambia also. Then there are the differences in working with PC American staff members and PC HCN staff members. There was lots of discussion on how to go about getting education and sensitization training for different staff, who to start with, how to go about it, and getting GLBTQ issues added into the framework for Safety and Security briefings for volunteers.

And of course we had some fun activities… a Pride trivia game, Gayderdash (an adapted version of Balderdash) and general more informal discussion between volunteers about living as a GLBTQ volunteer in West Africa, coping strategies, where to find support, difficulties, outlets, etc.

Q. What came up as possible solutions to questions, concerns, problems?

Solutions – the PCMO who attended suggested a contact to work on getting GLBTQ issues included in trainings for staff for West Africa. I’m in the process of contacting her. Volunteers are dealing individually with their own countries as far as the Safety and Security concerns and lack of information dissemination. I’m also working with my PCMO and CD on possible ways to get our group officially recognized by PC Washington so in the future there won’t be conflict over vacation days and possible access to funding. Mauritania volunteers are holding a GLBTQ forum in their country for volunteers with the support of their CD in August I believe. And Senegal volunteers are already planning a weekend in their country later in the year once they have new volunteers sworn in. Also in conjunction with my CD, we are tying to get support from the Office of Medical Services at PC Washington to provide counseling techniques and suggestions for PCMOs when dealing with and counseling LGBT PCVs.

Q. Any plans for follow-up – sharing agenda, survey results with PC CDs, others?

I sent out the results to all that were in attendance and I’m leaving it up to the volunteers of the individual countries to pass it along to their CDs and have a sit down with them. I sat down with my CD recently and he was very receptive to all the issues and as mentioned early is helping take steps to help with some of the concerns. We discussed the political situation in Gambia at some length and the difficulty of handling local political and cultural issues that could affect volunteer safety and security.

Q. Any differences in concerns between gay men and lesbian volunteers?

Safety was a concern for both, but in my opinion I would defiantly say that it is viewed as a much more serious concern for men just based on cultural norms in West Africa. The other main concern with the med unit in Mauritania was from both male and female volunteers.

Q. Any thing else that you think would be of interest to LGBTQ volunteers in other parts of the world?

Ummm… well I guess that just the most groups we get going out there the easier it is going to be to get the ear of Washington and have them take notice of our issues especially when it comes to trainings that they conduct for PCMOs, CDs, Safety and Security officers etc. I was actually contacted recently by a staff member in Bolivia about a group that wants to start there.

And if anyone wants more info about what we’re doing here feel free to give them my contact information.

You can contact this current Peace Corps Volunteer by emailing lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org .

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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