From Hawaii to Benin
Growing up in Hawaii, I was always surrounded by varying cultures and languages, especially Asians such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Pacific Islanders such as Samoan, Tongan, and native Hawaiian. Even white people I knew claimed a European heritage like Portuguese. As an African American woman, I was different from everyone around me and considered this normal. I grew up experiencing and appreciating ethnic diversity, cultural exchange, and religious differences. This multi-cultural, multi-lingual setting was the foundation for my pursuing the Peace Corps.
After living in a tropical climate and eating ethnic cuisine every day, it was a shock to me to move to the "mainland" when I went to college. I attended Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska and found the most difficult adjustment was not the cold climate. I was surprised to see only black and white people with few Asians or Hispanics. I missed the greater diversity of Hawaii, where whole parts of town weren't filled with people of the same race or religion.
I later moved to Los Angeles to earn a master's degree from Claremont and was introduced to Hispanic culture. When I met a returned Peace Corps volunteer and heard her stories, my curiosity was piqued. Shortly thereafter, I participated in an archaeological dig in Israel and loved the richness of this exchange. The cumulation of these experiences made me want to be a part of Peace Corps.
Peace Corps was the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Learning new cultures was really my main goal. I didn't go in with arrogant ideas of saving native villagers from themselves by teaching them the American way of doing things. I wanted to learn and experience what they could teach me. When I was posted in a small bush village in Benin, I was thrilled thinking that I got exactly what I wanted-a remote place with optimal opportunity for cultural immersion. The closest volunteer to me was 20 km away on a little trail accessible only by bike or foot. I had no running water, no electricity, and a mud hut with a tin roof. I would be inundated by the village experience. Little did I know, how much the Beninese would learn about Americans through me.
As an environmental volunteer, I helped women's groups find money and supplies to start tree nurseries as both reforestation and money earning ventures. I taught school children the importance of planting trees and wood conservation. In Benin, the Sahara desert slowly encroaches from the north because of severe deforestation in that part of the country. Trees hold the topsoil from washing away, so wood conservation becomes a vital. During my last eight months I began an environmental education program which educated students and teachers important environmental issues and techniques. I was amazed to realize the little I knew could be so useful to and appreciated by the communities I served. My community worked hard to implement my suggestions. Some groups even took the initiatives to do more under the guise of "experimentation".
The subtle things made the most difference. Like the way that women and girls would sit for hours and watch me write letters home or read a novel. My reading and writing fascinated them. During my second year, the number of girls who started elementary school, especially from my neighborhood, was a significantly higher. I brought two female students from our elementary school to participate in "Take Our Daughters To Work" events. These impressions and influences were the things of quality I left behind.
From my time in Peace Corps, I learned many cultural things from the Beninese, such as unending generosity. Once I was riding my bike when a huge storm hit right outside of an unfamiliar little village. At the first house, I asked if my bike and I could wait out the storm in a covered area. These random strangers gave me more than shade. They brought me into their home, gave me a place to sit, a cloth to dry myself, and something to drink. It's rare that we find such openness for a complete stranger. Numerous times villagers offered me foul, fish, and eggs, all of which they needed far more than me. No matter who you are, what you look like, or where you are from, in Benin, you will always have food to eat, shelter out of a rainstorm, and a place to rest your head for the night.
The Beninese and I learned such wonderful things from each other. What I recall most about my Peace Corps experience is learning to appreciate small details about myself and others. Because in the end, it's the little things we remember and which make a lasting difference.
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