Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Anniversary! Peace Corps ..... 50 years and still counting!

I had not meant to add another post to this blog today, however, lunch with special friends prompted me to do so.  While basically “hanging out” awaiting our next Peace Corps assignment, I have been re-connecting with old friends wherever we go. Today, as my musician friends and I settled into a booth at a favorite seafood restaurant, Ted said,” it’s significant that we met today because I read in the newspaper that on this day, March 1, fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps”.   I was pleasantly surprised. I certainly knew the Peace Corps was celebrating its 50th anniversary this year but did not know today was the date. What a perfect day to talk with friends about my Peace Corps experiences!  There was also an added comment about the recent death of the first Peace Corps Director, Sargeant Shriver, so it would be an informal tribute to 2 related events within the same year.
 Sargeant  Shriver ‘s death occurred in January while our Peace Corps stage was meeting in Morocco, after our evacuation from Niger. That time seems so long ago now, yet it was only 6 weeks ago. Where has the time gone?  How surreal it seems to be back in the US yet still feel connected to the experiences in Niger. Our evacuation was a significant event during our brief time in the Peace Corps but so vivid are the details of how it was handled.  I recall that as we left the Rabat, Morocco, hotel in the dark of night and headed to the airport in Casablanca , brilliant blue flashing lights of the Moroccan police escort  were visible from the bus’s window. Now, it is a bit more frightening to think of that night in the dark when none of us really knew all that was happening or exactly where we were headed in our Peace Corps future.  A book written by Mark Jenkins entitled TIMBUKTU about 4 adventurous young men kayaking down the Niger River in an attempt to reach Timbuktu, contains the following statement about darkness.  ‘’ The darkness can shake you. Darkness makes everything monstrous and foreboding. What you can not see you imagine and what you imagine is more terrible than what exists. There is reason to teach your children not to be afraid of the dark. To overcome the fear of the dark is to overcome the fear of the unknown which is to overcome fear itself.”  As our bus rolled on through the darkness that was night in Morocco, we eventually reached the lights at the airport and began the process so familiar at airports-- check-in, ID check, security screening, and all the rest.  The immediate unknown became apparent; we were not afraid anymore and did what had to be done as we boarded planes back to our US destinations.
As my friends and I ate lunch today, they plied me with questions about life in Niger. I told them of the good and the unpleasant, always adding that I’d never trade the experience and would return there if the opportunity presented itself.  They, as most people who’ve heard about Niger, cannot believe most of what they hear. We laughed at my description of bucket baths, donkey cart rides, and fractured efforts at speaking the local language with villagers. There were more serious responses when I described the health risks, nutritional deficits, and harsh climate we encountered and which the locals dealt with for a lifetime. There were mixed reactions when I tried to explain why the Peace Corps would even send volunteers to a country which, even with Peace Corps service since 1962, still has made so little progress on the United Nations Human Index Scale.   My friends today voiced many of the same questions and concerns of our family and other friends with whom we’ve spoken and visited.  They have legitimate issues and I do not feel fully prepared to respond to all of them in an effective way. However, Goal #2 of the Peace Corps involves sharing information about the culture of Niger with others in the US. All Peace Corps volunteers are expected to share their experiences in any way possible. I am willing to talk about Niger and its people with anyone willing to listen. Writing about the subject is also a prime option.  Today, the luncheon with my friends brings this goal #2 to life. What better day to recognize that fact than on March 1 , the anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps.   Judy and Dave

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