By presidential proclamations, the annual 52-week calendar in the United States is broken down into days, weeks and even months to recognize an array of significant events, individuals, groups and causes.
This month, as it draws to a close, is billed as American Heart Month and Black History Month.
And, all this week has been set aside to recognize and draw attention to past and present young, middle-aged and elderly American citizens who have or are currently taking up the challenge that was laid down back in 1960 by then Senator John F. Kennedy: to serve their country in the cause of peace and friendship by living and working in developing countries.
You see, this week is Peace Corps Week all across the globe wherever volunteers are serving.
Shortly after taking office as the 35th President of the United States, JFK, in one of his very first presidential acts, stood up the U.S. Peace Corps. Since its creation, more than 210,000 American citizens have volunteered several years of their lives in 139 countries assisting small towns, villages and hamlets with six varied programs: education, youth and community development, health, business and information and communications technology, agriculture, and environment.
To a person, those that have or are now serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer (PCV), happily admit that it’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
It’s been almost 15 years since my daughter, Stephanie, went “wheels up,” on her 21st birthday no doubt, and flew off to Guinea in West Africa with her eyes and mind wide open.
As a PCV Public Health Specialist, she was assigned to lend her expertise to the impoverished village of Kalan-Kalan in the Haute region of the country. She was the very first PCV to ever set foot there.
She adapted well as Djeneba Konaté — the name given her by the village elders — for two-and-a-half years, living in a mud hut, sans electricity, and with the very limited conveniences of a pit latrine (bomb site) and a plastic bucket from which to bathe.
She spoke their tribal language, Malinke, adapted her French speaking skills to the cadence of Afrique de l’Ouest, and taught her village all about HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and the importance of good hygiene.
Through it all, she weathered multiple bouts of malaria (a Christmas present one year); lived without all those modern conveniences that most of us just take for granted; consumed her daily food ration in hand-to-mouth fashion from large, shared communal bowls; and, aside from her villagers, was pretty much cut off from the outside world.
When my late wife and I paid Stephanie a visit midway through her tour — I as Mamadou and Maria as Mariama — we were touched by the countless villagers who came forward to thank us profusely for sending them Djeneba. Truth be told, as her parents, we were just innocent bystanders in the process. It was her decision, and her’s alone, to become a PCV.
Our stay in her village was an eye-opening, humbling experience. Even now, rarely does a day go by that I don’t think about our visit, the people we met and the scenes that played out before us. I wonder, too, how did my daughter manage to do what she did in that village for the better part of two years. I’m still amazed.
To anyone who knows a PCV, past or present, take the time this week — Peace Corps Week — to let them know how much you appreciate their singular efforts to do their small part to assist and affect humanity “over there.”
And, the U.S. Peace Corps is always on the lookout for a few more good men and women ready to join their ranks and take up JFK’s challenge. For more information, just click here.
In the words of 19th century American writer-poet-philosopher Henry David Thoreau, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”
Thanks Djeneba Konaté. You really made Mariama and Mamadou very proud of you.
©The Palladian Traveler