You know, there are three main goals of the Peace Corps: technical help (in my case teaching), sharing American culture with Guineans, and upon returning to the U.S. sharing Guinean culture with Americans to help foster understanding between the countries. I guess it is the first goal that all volunteers focus on most because it’s something that is, in a way, quantitative. I can say, “Hey look, I’ve helped teach 400 kids English!” or, “Wow! I’ve organized my health center!”. Stuff like that. But the other two goals are just as important to the mission of Peace Corps, we just tend to forget about them because they are harder to quantify, and it is more difficult to measure our impact.
Now, it’s not like my students don’t ask me questions about America, they do, especially my 12SE/SM students but they’re always questions about traveling to America or living in America or about how great and amazing and powerful America is. They’ve got too many ideas in their heads already that sometimes it’s difficult to explain things or make them see the connections and similarities between my country and theirs, between Americans and Guineans. I don’t think my students will ever believe me that homelessness, poverty, hunger, and unemployment are all very real and serious issues in America. So facing these challenges with my students, I guess I never thought that it would be the children who would make the most effortless connections.
I recently received a care package from my family (the first of the last three sent that actually made it to me!) and in it was a People magazine with the best and worst of the year 2012. It also had a story about, and kind of tribute to, the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting that occurred in December. Now, the kids that come over to my house love looking at my magazines, I mean everything is glamourous and new and exciting to them. There are literally ads for things that these kids (and even most adults) here can’t fathom and I certainly can’t explain.
“This is for a bike, right?”
“Um…well…there’s a lady on a bike but this is an advertisement for life insurance. Where you pay to…where your family gets money if you die.”
“Why is she riding a bike?”
See? Stuff like that is difficult to explain to 12 year olds anywhere, let alone Africa. But something really amazing happened when Bofanta, also known as Bimko, turned to the story of the Sandy Hook shooting. I thought she would just skim through the pictures as usual pointing out things she found interesting, but instead when she saw the photos of some of the mourners holding candles and crying she said to me without lifting her eyes from the page, “Someone died, right?”
At first I was surprised that she could figure that out from the photo but then I guess it was pretty obvious even if you didn’t know what happened.
“Yes, you’re right,” I said, flipping to the cover of the magazine where there were photos of all the victims, “All of these children were killed at school.”
Now, you probably think that was a really distasteful and blunt way to put that, but I honestly didn’t know how else to explain what happened.
“All of them?” she asked.
“Yes, someone shot them.”
“But that’s me.” she said, matter of factly pointing to a photo of a smiling little blond girl. “They’re all me.”
And it was incredible to see this 12 year-old understand the magnitude of what happened halfway across the world in some country she’d never been to and to be able to relate to the children, to understand that they were kids just like her. She didn’t ask if they were rich or think about differences that existed between their lives and hers. She was simply able to see that they were all children who had a lot of life ahead of them. And for the first time I realized what Peace Corps is all about. It’s not only about building new health centers and libraries and doing sensibilizations—though that is certainly a very important part of what we do—it’s also about making those connections between two groups of people who at first glance couldn’t appear more different. Sometimes when I’m especially frustrated with teaching or with people in my community always asking for things, it seems like they’ll never understand me and I’ll never understand them. But it took my 12 year-old neighbor for me to realize that I should be thinking in terms of “us” and “we” and not “them” versus “me”.