Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 22, 2002

Journal gives glimpse of life in Peace Corps

 •  Peace Corps volunteer from Kailua makes a difference
 •  Bigger Peace Corps not the way to end poverty, deter terrorism

Excerpts from the journal of Betsy Polhemus, Peace Corps volunteer:

Just finished one week in my village, Saare Foode. I feel so lucky to have been placed in this region, in my particular village, with my new family. It just seems like the place for me.

Peace Corps volunteer Betsy Polhemus and villager Daoda Diamanka, with hats supporting Senegal’s highly successful World Cup soccer team, have become like brother and sister.

David Polhemus • The Honolulu Advertiser

I was "installed" in Saare Foode by my agriculture boss, Famara Massaly, and my volunteer leader, Natalie Cash, plus Gretchen, who is in a village about 3 or 4 kilometers from mine (she's been there a year).

It's the first time the Peace Corps has done installations. Basically, it's a village meeting, describing my work, introducing me to everyone, explaining that I have very little money and no medicine. (In years past, volunteers got themselves and all of their things to site, on their own.)

When we got there, my entire village was waiting! There were three men with drums, and mad dancing.

My goal right now is to become a member of the family and not so much a guest. I pull my own water at the well and carry my own bucket back on my head, I do my own laundry, I help cook (it takes all day, to pound millet over and over and over again), and I'll try to buy food for meals, too.

It's strange that the women my age all have children, so the 11- and 12-year-olds are the ones I like to hang out with. They are children still, but very mature and strong; they sustain entire families by cooking and cleaning, pulling water and washing clothes, all day, every day. They're tough. People grow up very quickly in the village.

I have a lot of Pulaar (a language) still to learn, names to match with faces, cultural norms to understand, and right now people have the time to help me. Once the rains come, I'll have less access to "easy help," but I'll have work to do as well, so it should be perfect.

• • •

Today was by far one of the best days I have ever had in the village, and quite honestly, I have no idea why ... But my Pulaar was ON, people just seemed cheerful ...

Spent the morning doing my laundry by hand at the well by the faaro (rice field). I think this is something I'd like to try to do once a week, because the solace, surroundings, alone time are wonderful.

I pack all my clothes and soap, plus another bucket, into one big pan, and make the hike with all of it on my head. This well is sort of reserved for women, although at this time of the year, men do water cattle there in the evening. The rainy season is a great time there: naked women doing laundry, dishes, bathing, scrubbing each other's backs, cackling and gossiping.

Now, in the dry season, it's great, too: No one is there! It's still gorgeous, secluded, off in the middle of nowhere, really. I can strip down to barely nothing, sing out loud, and pour water on my head, rest, bathe. I can chill there for hours, keep an eye on the village, yet never be seen. I love it ...

• • •

Rode (by bicycle) back to the village with Gretch this evening. It was sort of depressing as she has less than a week to go, and we may not ride out again together. Her eyes have the look of someone who has cried often in the last weeks, someone who is tired mentally, and someone who is deeply sad, although excited too, to be going somewhere new.

The village of Saare Foode welcomes volunteer Betsy Polhemus' father with four drummers and nonstop dancing.

David Polhemus • The Honolulu Advertiser

I myself will miss that girl more than I think I can imagine now. She's been such a perfect friend to me here; she was the one to introduce me to my village, she represents all that started me here, she has often been a mother to me, she has dared to look at boils on my butt. As the Pulaar say, she will leave me lonely here.

As we rode, the sky turned a dark gray, the clouds began to quicken, thunder rolled over and over, getting closer and closer. We sped up ourselves, and after we parted at the roads, I began to pedal like mad, as a huge storm was obviously near.

It came from the south, which seemed odd, as the rains always sweep from the east. The winds were strong and long, the rain so hard, and the thunder and lightning monstrous!

My villagers whooped and screamed and yelled and laughed and got mud in between their toes. I grinned and yelled too, I could feel my heart swell with the coming of the rainy season. You could hear the heat sizzle as it was drenched with water. You could almost feel the relief of the land as the pressure of the heat and the sun finally eased off its back. What a memorable night!

• • •

Wopa and I painted what seemed hundreds of fingernails today, all girls the ages of maybe 8 to 10. They won't paint the right hand (you eat with that one, so you have to keep it clean). They paint the straps of their slippers, too, dots all the way across.

Wopa got out a mirror, so they could really get to primp. The mirror was cracked, so I told them that where I'm from, it brings seven years of bad luck.

They all freaked out, until I told them it was the person who dropped the mirror who receives the bad luck.

Then they all freaked out for Wopa, but she swore that it had fallen of its own accord, so I told her she was definitely in the clear. She was enormously relieved. Mental note: don't ever mention the possibility of seven years' bad luck again.

• • •

After a successful meeting in another village, we jumped in a car to go home. Funny, I had the most enormous feeling of love for Africa on that ride — 50 kilometers (31 miles) of it. I was squished between the metal side of the car and a huge man sweating like crazy, no window, plus something was fermenting somewhere under a seat, not to mention the usual chickens and goat on the roof.

Through it all, I couldn't help but appreciate every aspect of the sunset, the landscape (so barren!), the Pulaar conversations going on all around, the thanks I had received after the meeting, the ease with which I'm able to get around now, the music blaring an ancient tape, the road full of potholes, the heat rising up — all of it fuzzed, and I simply fell in love. Deeply. I gazed out the window, with misty eyes, and a full heart. I love it here.