"You must have run out of everything at the same time," said the CVS Pharmacy cashier, glancing down at my overloaded basket of lotions, pastes, cremes, and gels. Embarrassed by my zeal for health and beauty aids, I started to explain.
"I just came back from Morocco," I said "I was a Peace Corps Volunteer."
The cashier stopped. Putting down my bottle of Aussie Miracle Shampoo, she looked me in the eye and said "God bless you!" with such earnest admiration it frightened me. She called out to another lady, who was inspecting a box of Altoids. "Did you know this young woman just got back from the Peace Corps?!"
"My goodness," the Altoids lady joined in. The two looked me down from head to toe seemingly in search of some lingering Saharan sand. Suddenly conscious of my fingernails, I fumbled around for my pockets.
"All that you must have been through! What was it like?" Before I could answer "it was great," the Altoids lady shook her head and clicked, "Tsk, tsk. You poor thing! What a great sacrifice you made!" After ringing up my $42 purchase, the cashier picked up a Hershey's chocolate bar from the candy counter and pressed it into my hand, saying "That's for you."
For over a week--a record for me --I left the Hershey bar untouched. Then, in a fit of"re-entry" depression, I ate it (for medicinal purposes only). As I suspected, it stuck in my throat, like the words I didn't say.
The CVS ladies weren't the only ones who considered my Volunteer service a "great sacrifice." I didn't see it this way, and I struggled to ex\-plain. Once I practically shouted, "Moroccans gave me much, much more than I ever gave them!" to my Aunt Ann. Judging from her beatific grin, I knew that, in her eyes, a golden halo was shining over my head, more brilliantly than ever before. This frustrated me immensely, since I sensed that underlying such good-hearted intentions was a misperception not only of me, but of the developing world as well.
Growing up in middle class suburbia, my introduction to the "Third World" was the Evening News. According to Walter Cronkite's reports, wars, famines, and natural disasters were daily occurrences in the world beyond the Jersey shore. Later, at college, I stumbled into an anthropology class and gained a larger world view. For many of my relatives and childhood friends, however, the most vivid images of the Third World continued to be photos and newsreels of devastation.
In Another Africa, Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe--concerned about the effect of such images on the world psyche--quotes a joint statement made by Amnesty International and the International Committee for Photography. "The apocalyptic vision of the newsmakers does not accurately document the world community. Nor are they particularly helpful in forming a picture of our common humanity." Achebe then goes on to support their appeal to "document authentic humanity."
"Documenting authentic humanity" is what Peace Corps Day is all about. For me, Peace Corps Day offered an opportunity to (finally) clear my throat; to answer all those questions that no one was asking; and to depict a personal portrait of the developing world that was alive with common joys and common sufferings.
At 9 AM on March 3, 1998, I traipsed up to the doors of the John Eaton Middle School in Washington, DC. Wearing a pink djellaba and toting my biggest, brightest meeka bag --bursting with baubles and teapots, veils and slippers--I felt like a Moroccan version of Mary Poppins. Once inside the sixth grade classroom, I was unnerved to find the students sitting so quietly at their desks. With arms folded, they stared at me with wide-eyed passivity, suggesting that they had already tuned in to their own inner Nickelodeon channels. Luckily, my cassette of Berber music knocked Nick's reception into static, causing the class to twitter and squirm.
"Is this the kind of music they listen to?" one boy asked, obviously unimpressed. I gave him my Marrakeshi hand drum. Then, digging into my bottomless meeka bag, I passed out four sets of gourds and two tambourines. I divided the rest of the class into Stompers and Clappers. Soon, happily and noisily, we caught the Berber rhythm. And, we were awake.
Although our virtual tour of Morocco ran the gamut from Arab history to the word zweena, I discovered that students were most curious about my own (minor) triumphs and (major) guffaws. I also found that, not only did I have a large collection of stories, I had recurring themes. There were animal stories ("The Camel with Indigestion" was a big hit); transportation stories (generally involving death-defying bus rides and chickens with indigestion); and food stories (here, I waxed poetic on the wonders of couscous and Fez fish tagine). But the stories about my Moroccan neighbors, students, and friends sparked the greatest enthusiasm. Like the story about how my neighbor, Araina, and I chased runaway sheep during Ramadan; or the story about how a little Berber girl, living at the edge of the Sahara, insisted on giving me her doll, made from scraps of cloth and wood.
"A Berber girl made this?" asked one girl, holding the doll close. The doll's raw beauty resonated with a spirit, joyful and content. "She's so nice!," said the gift, transfixed. I wondered if she was admiring the doll or the little Berber girl.
"Did you always know that you wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?'' asked a girl wearing florescent-green overalls. I had to stop for a moment to think. My usual response to this question was either too standardized ("anthropology has had a significant influence...") or too vague ("I think, maybe, I saw a commercial somewhere...?').
Then, it hit me. When I was 11, "Huckleberry Finn" and "Harriet the Spy" were my heroes. I liked Huck Finn, because I understood what he meant when he said he didn't want to be 'sivilized." He wanted to find out about the world for himself and not be force-fed answers by "society." I liked Harriet because she was smart and curious about people. One day, I heard about the Peace Corps and was relieved to know that I could be true to the values of Huck and Harriet and not be imprisoned.
"... So, yes, I always wanted to be a Volunteer. It just took me a while to find the name for it.'
Staring straight ahead, one boy half-whispered, "Very, very cool!" Yes. Very cool...
Distill it down to its most essential element: Peace Corps Volunteers are wordsmiths. We arrive in a country offering words about health, words about education, words about technology. We translate, trade, share, and weave words enwrap-ping ourselves in dialogues and stories, histories and fables.
If peace is a conversation, where words flow fresh and plentiful, then war is a painful silence, where words stop, and stagnate. In the face of ignorance and devastation, what is there to say?
Peace Corps Day is an opportunity for Volunteers-- past, present, and future--to celebrate our medals of service: the words and stories given to us by neighbors, friends, and students.
Speak to clear your throat of the stories welling up inside. Speak for the sake of peace. Keep the conversation alive.
Note: Each year on Peace Corps Day, thousands of returned Volunteers mo\-bilize to share with our nation~ students the knowledge and insight they gained from their overseas experience. But Peace Corps Day is only the beginning ...many educators and returned Peace Corps Volunteers establish educational partnerships that continue throughout the year Peace Corps Day, 1999 is March 2. For more information contact: Peace Corps, 1111 20th Street, N.W. , 2nd floor, Washington, DC 20526, (800) 424-8580, press 2 then ext. 1961
www.peacecorps.gov / wws / events /peacecorpsday99 /index. html
Published in Global Teach Net March-April 1999 p.4-5