Sept. 11 changes focus of Peace Corps service
Life in Africa
I used to think that the name Peace Corps was too noble for the organization. Something more along the lines of "college graduates who are not ready for grad school or corporate America" seemed more appropriate. Of course the government would develop some witty acronym to sum it all up.
I saw living in Africa for two years as a luxury that very few people ever have. Basically I could not understand why what I wanted to do for two years was given the lofty title of Peace Corps when there were so many personal benefits. I knew nothing about peace. I even dropped out of my Introduction to Peace Studies class. I cringed when people praised me for my "sacrifice."
I still cringe when I hear such things as "big heart" and "selflessness." But after Sept. 11 I understand why it is called the Peace Corps. Absolute chaos defines my life since mid-September. The night it happened I packed what I thought I would need to leave the country. I heard about Afghanistan from the university students in my village. The mosque in my village announces deaths over its loud speaker.
One morning I was convinced they said, "Bin Laden is dead." The village stopped and faced the speaker and I tried to blend in. Seconds later I learned that I understand absolutely no Arabic and bin Laden was doing fine. I listen as rumors fly through Peace Corps volunteers about our status in Mauritania. I am still nervous every morning I listen to my radio or when I see large groups of people sitting around a television news program.
I began to feel that the work I envisioned myself doing was impossible with the continual interruptions. I got mad at myself for not progressing in Pulaar fast enough, for not meeting more people and for seeking out Americans. A very large part of me considered leaving because my current situation makes what I wanted to do in Peace Corps extremely difficult. Then I went to a Peace Corps training where I was around Americans for 10 days. The first day I suddenly realized my level of stress. I let myself be sad about what happened. I admitted the distance I feel from my home. I said I wanted to go home. After this emotional meltdown I re-evaluated.
Those 10 days changed the focus of my service, at least for the next couple of months. I came to appreciate why it is called Peace Corps. It is in times of war and unrest that having Americans around the world in peaceful roles is vital. Simply my being an American in an Islamic Republic is doing something. Even if I sit on a mat all day reading a book, my presence is known. I have now cut myself a little slack. My project ideas may take a little longer to come to fruition, and I may talk with Americans a lot, but my day to day existence is a full time job right now. Conversations happen with both Americans and Mauritanians of all ages in which I educate.
The other day my host family was asking about religion in the United States, and I said there are many. They had no idea that there were Muslims living in America and, on a more global scale, that a person could be white and also Muslim.
Another day, I was at the house where I receive phone calls and the Arab television station was on as I talked to my mother. Ironically, she asked if I was getting news. I told her about the visuals I saw which of course are entirely different from Western media. After I got off the phone a 24-year-old man in an attempt to impress me said, "Bush is my hero." He immediately realized that did not impress me at all and I explained to him that all Americans did not think that military action was the best means to ensure lasting peace.
These situations keep me here. I bring peace by forging an understanding between my family here and my family at home. There is good coming from my being here and a patriotism that I never knew existed in me bubbles up periodically. I peacefully represent my country in an Islamic Republic during a time of turmoil.
Do not get me wrong; I also choose to stay for selfish reasons, and if I ever feel threatened physically I will have no problem leaving.
Most days I love waking up and going to sleep in Africa. It is one hell of an adventure and there is undoubtedly more to come. After some emotional gymnastics I found a balance between the selfishness of "college grad not interested in corporate life" and the nobility of Peace Corps.
Maite Uranga graduated from Notre Dame in 2000 as an anthropology and government major. She is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, December 11, 2001