I leave for my 2.5-year Peace Corps placement in 3 days.
Most people who know me casually or even well, think I’ve already done Peace Corps — so this probably doesn’t feel like a big deal to them (I’ve done something called AmeriCorps twice — and my experience tells me that few people know the difference).
The tenure is the thing that feels like a big deal. Two-and-a-half-years is a big deal regardless of who you are and what you’re doing.
I will be going to Senegal in West Africa (exact location TBD) to help women entrepreneurs and young people become financially independent through business skills training and facilitating business incubation best-practices.
When I tell people I am dedicating my life to this endeavor, I am met with several responses:
- 50%: Cool.
- 25%: Yeah but why would they send a white dude to do that?
- 15%: Are you scared/nervous?
- 5%: Why? I wouldn’t want to do that.
- 5%: My grandma trying to convince me I’m a dumb idiot who is sabotaging my life.
There are several reason I’m not going to let grandma deter me. Peace Corps has been a dream goal of mine since high school graduation when I realized you could travel the world (for free?!) while doing some good work and giving back to the world. At that point in my life — I’d barely left the state of Wisconsin (luckily I’ve made up for lost ground since then). People in my family don’t really travel, or move, or ever leave Wisconsin. Apparently we were so exhausted from moving from Switzerland/Germany 150 years ago that we just kinda hunkered down with our Wisconsin beer & cheese.
Excerpt from a 2008 Facebook Notes post:
“What’s Craig gonna do now?”
I just realized that I should probably write more notes, because people generally really care about what I have to say. So this is for you, people. What is Craig Wiroll going to do now? Well after hanging out with clowns for the rest of break he will go back to school and finish 18 more credits in his monotonous college career. I don’t think he will get married, but just 5 minutes ago the thought of studying abroad crossed his mind. Will he follow through with it? I give him a 5% chance, he wanted to join the Peace Corps a week ago. Will he get married? Not unless they change the law about marrying your left hand in Wisconsin. I that that’s it for now, only because my laptop is burning my crotch and i need to set it down.
Deep Stuff. Please take it easy on me — I was just some 19-year-old idiot. But I think the most important thing to acknowledge here is how I mentioned marriage twice. Where was this invisible pressure to get married coming from that day? Anyway…
A year ago today — I was sitting in a classroom in Los Angeles, California at Upright Citizens Brigade — most likely pretending to be stuck in a well and asking my classmates to save me in front of a group of wannabe-stars awaiting their turns to make asses of themselves.
Improv comedy is also something (I thought) I always wanted to do. I feel like it’s something I would’ve been amazing at in 2004 at age 17 — but in 2019 it was a bit more of a challenge. It forced my brain to think in new ways (or old ways) and be quick, decisive, creative, and sometimes nonsensical. But improv is different from standup (something I also pursued in LA) in that it is a team sport and the actions and decisions of your partners are way more important than your quick-wittiness or individual genius. And, to be completely honest, I am a shit team player. I have opted for individual sports/games like tennis, golf, chess, poker, etc. my entire life — I think mostly because of my dread and fear of being the cause of someone else’s anguish. (This, Freudianly, goes back to 2nd grade when I joined my first team sport — basketball. My mom dropped me off at my first game and ran to grab groceries, as single-mothers are sometimes forced to do, while my game started. Two minutes into the game, I entered. I took the inbound down the court and was immediately double-teamed. I had never been double-teamed before, because I’d never played basketball with more than 3 people simultaneously. My animal-brain told me, since two people were guarding me and the ball, that the obvious move was a sexy behind-the-back pass. The only problem being: I’d never attempted such a pass in my life. The ball ended up in the crowd — about third row in the stands. The kids on my team just stared at me in disbelief along with my coach. Most of these kids had taken private basketball lessons for years. Me? My grandma taught me how to play HORSE on an 8-foot rim. “Shooting buckets” we would call it. But unfortunately — grandma never prepared me for a moment like this.
“That was terrible and none of us like you,” was what the social leader of my team blurted out after he picked his jaw up from the floor. I looked over at the head coach to make sure this was indeed true. He looked upset and unwilling to make eye contact with me — like the owner of a puppy who continued to make a mess regardless of encouragement. I decided the best course of action would be to step outside, into the 5 degree snowy weather, to cry and sit on a curb while waiting for my mom to finish grocery shopping and come pick me up.
“The game is already over?!” she exclaimed. “Yeah, guess so. Let’s get out of here. I don’t think I want to play basketball anymore.”
And I never did. I’m a quitter. (I’ve always been a fabulous quitter TBH — but a terrible liar. I don’t know how I pulled this one off.)
My point is…well…what was I talking about?
Oh yeah — bad team player. But it’s due to trauma, I think. Not an unwillingness to help the collective good or to be useful/helpful.
But — that also meant that my ability to do well in improvisational, team-based, comedy was not great. My instincts were good, but the coordination with a teammate’s brain was poor. The worry of missing one of their alley-oops or not providing them with a safe landing space gave me dread. Sometimes dread is good and makes you grow — but when you’re spending $5,000 to learn a craft and perhaps a career — dread is probably not near the top of the list of emotions you hope to endure.
So, after a couple of months of improv performances, standup, acting, and working at an award-winning filmmaking organization (Sundance) — I decided the LA life wasn’t for me. The highlights were my storytelling experiences: I performed alongside some famous folks in a storytelling competition (I was the only “amateur”) and was told I had a real talent for on-stage storytelling. I guess that’s a good skill to posses — alongside my job at the time (facilitating stories from filmmakers across the world to create lasting change in policy and applied systems via Sundance) I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong — and that telling stories to the elite and a bunch of wannabe-famous people (86% of LA) was not the legacy I wanted to leave.
So, immediately after appearing on The Price is Right, I hopped in my car and drove cross-country to surprise my family — attempting to make a life for myself back in my childhood-home, the Midwest (specifically, Wisconsin).
Turns out, my family is completely batshit. I knew this, but geographic proximity has a great way of bringing out repressed feelings. I know my family is reading this — so I mean batshit in the most endearing way possible. You’re all very colorful and wonderful and I attribute any of my uniqueness to your unconventionality. That being said — I can’t be so immersed in it. Much like how fudge is a pretty decadent and delicious treat — you probably don’t want to win a free lifetime supply of fudge. For the first few months — you will enjoy the fudge and splurge a bit. Cutting it up into bits for your oatmeal. Sprinkling it on your pizza. But it won’t take too long to be overcome with fudge-overload to the point where you appreciate absolutely nothing whatsoever about fudge. My family is fudge.
A Peace Corps commitment is two and half years long. That’s longer than every single thing in my life except: undergrad, one romantic relationship, and my addiction to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Everything else — every relationship, job, hobby, and more has stayed under that “finally I’m starting to get comfortable” threshold. Call it self sabotage — but once something becomes second nature, or you begin to approach mastery, my basic instinct is: flee as quickly as possible and try something else that makes you scared and that you’re terrible at.
But…I couldn’t be more thrilled for this adventure. Yes — it’s finally going to force me to do something for an extended period — but this will be one adventure that definitely WON’T grow old. From attempting to learn a (or several) new languages, integrating into a new community on the opposite side of the globe, evading malaria/dengue/ebola/parasites, facilitating economic development work between politically difficult constituents, biking to work in 110 degree desert weather, waiting for 15 hours of solar charging to recharge your e-reader so you can read your Garfield comics, speaking English for the first time in 26 days — and forgetting how to do it…these are all adventures I look forward to…and more!
But for now — I am focusing on the process. Step by step. Day by day. Step one will be integrating with the other 60ish folks from around the world joining me on my departure. Americans of all backgrounds and ages from around the United States with a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
The two things I’m concerned about:
1. the average age of PC volunteers is 26. I am not 26.
2. being engaging and non-boring in group settings. I do not fare well in groups. I am, at most, a 2-on-1 person. But at the end of the day — I will always prefer 1-on-1. I just love nothing more than the deep engaging wormhole you can go down with just one other person. Nothing matches it — in my opinion. And the more people you add to the convo — the more watered down the experience becomes. Some people prefer to live solely in that watered-down world — living solely in clubs amongst hundreds, or thousands, of folks just having fun, not over-thinking, and living freely in the moment.
I hate all of that with every ounce of my being. But…during the Pre-Service Training and onboarding for Peace Corps — I will pretend. Pretend I am a fun person in groups. Pretend I can be engaging and share my feelings on a limited capacity with dozens of people.
And, after pretending, it will be time to move in with my host family and begin my service — slowly but surely changing the world (hopefully in a positive way). A new mom (maybe several), a dad (for the first time in my life), and my siblings (crossing my fingers for dozens). It’s going to be a hoot for sure.
Okay well…me and my two 50-pound bags, solar lights and chargers, Islamic-appropriate garb, and a handful of grandma’s cookies are off. Day by day. I will report back soon when I’m back in country!
Craig Charles Wiroll, Peace Corps Trainee
UPDATE: Arrived in Dakar, Senegal
I have officially arrived as of 2/24/2020. So far, after a drive to Milwaukee, a flight to Philadelphia (for three days of staging), a bus ride through New York to JFK, a flight to Brussels, and finally a flight to Dakar and bus ride to Thies…with four bags totaling 160 pounds strapped to my back.
I have made no friends — but there are about 4–5 prospects and only about 1 or 2 people despise me — so…better than expected.
Yesterday after driving through the arid desert-like highway — we arrived to an introductory circle that felt extremely welcoming. We then dined together on a meal of chili consisting of meat (beef?), beans, and a simple sauce. And a giant roll of French bread (pretty standard at every meal so far). It was divine.
Morning consisted of me oversleeping, slamming down some concentrated coffee mix with some Nesquick, and eating a (surprise) piece of French bread slathered in Chocopain (Senegalese Nutella — the B-fast of champions). We then were told all of the life-threatening things that may kill us, but that we should ignore for the most part. After a tour — I was vaccinated against rabies (mostly for the feral cats, I think) and Hep A. I love shots so that was a pleasant surprise.
Day by day. Talk to you soon!
Okay…so…I never pushed the “publish” button on this story or made final edits. For some reason, a little part of me was skeptical. With the way international affairs and the rise of the heath crises of COVID-19, I never became entirely comfortable that the world would allow me to serve 2.5 years in the Peace Corps without interruption…and I thought a partial story of joining Peace Corps wouldn’t be a story worth telling. Well…now I think it is.
On March 15th, 2020, in the middle of the night, we received the official word:
“It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you that PC Senegal, along with all other PC posts worldwide, will be evacuating due to the COVID-19 emergency.”
I actually didn’t find out by receiving a phone call, text, or email from administration…I woke up to messages from my mom and others who knew I was being evacuated far before I did. It was pretty surreal. In that moment, a lot hit me in my gut. Having to say goodbye to my host family on a moments notice. Saying goodbye to the friends I was making in my cohort. Realizing the 15 years I’d put into anticipating this were for nothing. Realizing that, step-by-step, I was about to begin disassembling my life as I knew it and starting over from scratch.
I didn’t know where to begin. Obviously, packing was the first step. Then, after packing, would be travel plans and other logistics. Then goodbyes. Then emotional withdrawal. Then regret. Then the realization that I was going back to an empty life with no home, no transportation, no animals, no job, and no plans.
I couldn’t help but be angry. This evacuation wasn’t about safety — it was about liability. I would be leaving a large country (Senegal) with ~40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 for a country that has 50,000+ cases (and far worse testing capabilities).
As I sit here in stateside quarantine, 48-hours after completion of evacuation consisting of extended time in four different airports, with headache/chills/weakness — I don’t believe this was the best course of action — for anyone.
But…life is life. It’s unpredictable. It throws a lot of punches. I have been dodging punches my entire life — this is nothing new (though it is something unique). Sometimes you get exhausted and stop dodging and take a bunch of shots to the face. Sometimes you fight back. Despite all of this bullshit — I still have passion and optimism. I am in the mood to fight back. I know there are folks out there DYING due to COVID-19. That’s a lot more serious than my able-bodied-self being out of a job, house, community, and lifelong dream. At least I still have the option of persevering and coming back stronger than ever. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.
How? I have no fucking clue…stay tuned!
Day by day.
Things I will miss most:
- Bonding with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers — I thought I had 2.5 years to open up. I’m slow to develop deep, strong connections and I was holding back and protecting my damaged heart. I regret that.
- Learning a new culture and language — I haven’t studied another language in depth to the extent that I was about to, in a fully immersive way. Although it was an extremely niche language, I feel like it would have sparked new pathways and thought processes in my ol’ noggin.
- Using my years of business incubation and unique ideation skills to lend some new tools to Senegalese entrepreneurs. I don’t think I’m the most business-savvy or cutthroat entrepreneur of all-time — but I know I offer a unique perspective on how business can be done. In a country that is historically risk-averse, and with the tools provided by Peace Corps, there was some wonderful potential. That now remains untapped.
- My host family, who I only had a few hours to say goodbye to.
- The ridiculously good Senegalese commercials (and dancing to the commercials with my host family:
Things I probably won’t miss:
- Struggling mightily to learn the local language, Pulaar (I was told it was already difficult to learn, but add in a mix of 110 degree heat, my old solidified brain, and hearing difficulties due to standing next to an exploding car at the market — and it was admittedly a struggle.
- The heat.
- The patriarchal structure of our world — not that Senegal is at the bottom of the pack when it comes to gender equity worldwide, but I was raised in a house of five strong women who ran the show. It’s difficult for me to watch men receive special treatment due solely to their gender and it was hard to accept that treatment.
- Mango flies (google image search that shit).
- The heat.
Haa ñaande wonde, (Pulaar for “till next time”)
Aliou Badara Sall (my given Senegalese name)
BONUS: Here is New Yorker footage from my evacuation — I can be seen @ 6 min waiting for my luggage in D.C. but I was next to the camera the entire time. Had no idea this would appear in the New Yorker:
Craig Wiroll is a frozen custard aficionado from the Midwest. He is a failed game show contestant and Peace Corps volunteer among many many more countless failures. He is a has-been reality television “star”, Asian elephant rehabilitator, waterfall repairman, two-time garlic eating champion, and also worked at Pizza Hut and The White House.
He lives alone with nobody — oftentimes out of the back of his Subaru.