The Positive Legacy of Peace Corps
As part of the Carter Center's Election Observation Mission for the Guinea 2010 Presidential Election, I lived in the city of Kankan (near the border with Mali) for 3 months. While this was 7 years after my Peace Corps service and although the Peace Corps activity in Guinea had been stopped due to political unrest, the people that I met in Kankan had a very favorable impression of Peace Corps Volunteers and liked me more when I explained that I had been one in another country (Uzbekistan).
People where I lived in Guinea clearly saw Peace Corps Volunteers as more adventurous and interested than other visitors. My friend, Moustapha told me, "After you told me that you had been in the Peace Corps, I knew that you would be the type of person who would have no reservations about going with me to a new village to explore."
Another election observer colleague of mine (RPCV Guinea 2000 or so) in a different town was stopped by a local man one afternoon as he ate his rice in a rice stall with locals. The man asked him where he was from, and so he told him, "America." The man got all excited and started making (nice) generalizations about Americans based on the Americans he had met or observed in the past - people who were likely to have been Peace Corps Volunteers: "You SEE! That's what I like about Americans! You sit down with the local people and eat their food with them!" He was clearly comparing Americans with the Europeans that came through the country.
The relationship that Peace Corps Volunteers had with their community in Guinea seemed also to be generally very good. My friend, Ahmed, assumed that I had spent 3 years in Uzbekistan. "Peace Corps service is only 2 years," I explained to him. "Well, yeah," he replied, "but everyone stays 3 years."
Given that I spent my service in a country where I was occasionally mistaken for a spy, it was truly refreshing and wonderful to be in a place where my RPCV status moved me into the "in" crowd.
And finally, one of my other good friends in Kankan was a woman named Mariama. A Liberian refugee back in the 1990's, Mariama had lost a husband and fathered 8 children. She took me on as a 9th (I guess if you have so many, one more hardly makes a difference!) and I really started to feel at home in Kankan. At some point she told me about her eldest daughter, who I couldn't meet in Guinea because she had gone to American for school 18 years ago and married and built a family there. It turns out that this daughter had gotten into college through the guidance of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, where the family had originally sought refuge. Yet another moment where I felt proud of my service and warmed by seeing or learning about the legacies left behind by other people like me.