2017 marks 50 years of Peace Corps volunteers in The Gambia. This is momentous for several reasons as Peace Corps as an organization only just celebrated 55 years and The Gambia celebrated its independence 52 years ago. The American Embassy celebrated Peace Corps’ 50 years on the 4th of July, but we’re also celebrating regionally throughout the year. A few weeks ago we brought together Peace Corps volunteers, friends, counterparts, and family members to look back at the work of Peace Corps in our area – the North Bank.
I came with my host sister, Binta, who has hosted 2 Peace Corps volunteers before me, and has worked with Peace Corps volunteers prior. Over the years, Binta has met and worked with lots of Peace Corps staff members and other volunteers, and therefore knew most of the people there. She was inviting everyone to our village for our Thanksgiving celebration in a few weeks, which we’re already preparing for. It was a nice opportunity to not only recognize Peace Corps but to thank people like Binta for always being open to everything Peace Corps and supporting us all along the way.
Now, there are 2 ways I could look at 50 years of Peace Corps volunteers in The Gambia: an optimistic way and a rather pessimistic way. Let’s start with pessimism and make our way to optimism.
50 years. Thousands of American citizens coming here to work for 2 years in Health, Agriculture, and Education. 50 years, and I’m still trying to get people to wash their hands with soap to avoid the leading killer of Under 5 children: diarrhea. Now handwashing is a larger conversation for another day, because you still have to hang up signs in the States to remind people to do it when there’s water and soap readily available. 50 years and we’re still teaching exclusive breastfeeding, tree planting, and the importance of bed nets. Shouldn’t we be past that by now? I know we’ve made great strides in good directions, but will people still be teaching this stuff in 10 years? 15 years? Sometimes it feels like international development has failed the people here, like we’ve failed the people here. The Gambia gained independence from England in 1965 and less than 2 years later, here comes the United States Peace Corps volunteers with a modernized form of colonization. That’s the negative way of looking about this.
But after hearing teachers, nurses, mothers and fathers, students and farmers talk about how just one Peace Corps volunteer has affected their lives, you can’t help but look at things more positively. A teacher told me that when he was a child, a Peace Corps volunteer stayed in their compound. He couldn’t remember their work or sector, but he remembered their emphasis on education and trying your best. Now that teacher looks back and said he probably wouldn’t be a teacher now if it weren’t for that Peace Corps volunteer. Maybe it’s not about the data or statistics of mortality and morbidity or the amount of trees planted or workshops we run, maybe it’s just that we’re here for 2 years to tell the people here that we believe in them.
I’m not here to build hospitals or construct new water pumps or give away a bunch of money. I actually make it a point to have all activities virtually cost free. Money comes and goes (too often in the world of international development) but interpersonal relationships make lasting impacts. If you teach a man to fish, and all that.
I really like living here. I have great friends, and I’m constantly learning and growing. Maybe Peace Corps isn’t the solution to every problem in The Gambia, but maybe it might be.