Back to Peace Corps, I was, this past week. 12 years after leaving Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was back in the saddle-this time, facilitating the Close of Service conference for 23 PCV’s leaving Senegal after an amazing two years of service.
The volunteers were a scraggily-looking bunch who were all giddy about the prospect of having a hot (most of the time) shower with running water. And they needed one! It reminded me of when I was a PCV-birkenstocks and “frip” or hand-tailored African-style clothes as well as a head of hair that was in desperate need of a good cut and some heavy-duty conditioner. Herbal Essences, I needed you! And I needed to shave my legs. Big time. I could also go on and on about Sacha and how he looked as a PCV but “Pigpen” from Peanuts describes his look the best.
This time around, I had a better wardrobe. I hope! However, I was still just as thrilled as the PCV’s were when we had regular coffee breaks along with munchies and a full spread lunch for the three-day conference. Even Sacha reminded me that they don’t feed him at US AID when he begrudgingly made his sandwich every morning. Ham and cheese? Not for me, thanks!
I was also reminded of a few vital bits of information on the first day-Don’t mix slightly cranky, VERY sleepy, regularly nippish and partly-hungover PCV’s with a ton of paperwork and a regimented time schedule that started at 8 am and continued till past 5 pm most days. Whoever created the time schedule (not me!) did not account for this. And so, we lost a few volunteers along the way. Not physically, as they were still there in body, but most certainly NOT in spirit. However, having been a former PCY myself, I knew how to best motivate the gang-BRIBE them. I brought homemade brownies the first day, a gargantuan bag of M & M’s the second day, and my charm and wit (ha ha) the third day. By then, there was nothing they could do but give in to the facilitator. I had locked them in my web of stories and anecdotes and was able to get on with the conference material.
Despite all of this, the volunteers managed to put a smile of their faces and participate in the conference with a lot of meaningful and fascinating input. All kidding aside, they really and truly impressed me. They all overwhelmingly had a positive PCV experience here in Senegal. Every single one of them learned a local language (mostly Wolof or Pulaar) as well as French AND the learned them well. Many even did regular radio shows in the language. Imagine that?! They also engaged their communities in projects, both big and small, technical and basic, and were creative, innovative, and caring leaders. They persevered even though they were all in remote villages with little access to the outside world. The human connections that they established, though, were the ones that impressed me the most and re-energized my faith in the Peace Corps. Just as I had 12 years earlier as a young, eager, and somewhat naïve PCV in Cameroon, they created life-long bonds with their Senegalese “families” and friends. And throughout their time here, they managed to find humor in it all. The idea was reinforced to me that every culture and every person here on this earth can relate to a good belly laugh. And sometimes, we need it. In the end, I reflected and reminisced right there with them and learned a whole lot as well. Peace Corps is a family and like every family,we have quirks and oddities. However, the root of who we are is the same and we will always carry that connection with us. And pass me some of those M and M’s while you’re at it.