March 22, 2002 - Providence Journal: Peace Corps lessons

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By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, March 22, 2002 - 11:18 am: Edit Post

Peace Corps lessons

Read and comment on this commentary from the Providence Journal by an RPCV on lessons from the Peace Corps at:

Peace Corps lessons *

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Peace Corps lessons

AS PART of his call for increased volunteerism, President Bush during his State of the Union Address declared that the Peace Corps seeks to double its number of volunteers over the next five years, and that new U.S. efforts will be made to promote development and education in the Islamic world.

This declaration prompted one of the more spontaneous standing ovations of the evening. If anything is clear, it is that there is an acute lack of understanding between our two worlds. One result is the unjust fact that young Arab-looking males have come to elicit much fear and suspicion in our society.

I doubt that I would have a high regard for Islam today had I not spent two years in the predominately Muslim country of Mali, West Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer. It may be easy to understand that Islamic militants represent a small fanatical minority. However, it is more difficult to erase the suspicion, from this vantage point in America, that Islam by its very nature condones violence and misogyny.

Living in Mali as a Peace Corps Volunteer gave me the opportunity to live and break bread with Muslims on a daily basis for more than two years. Now when I catch a glimpse on CNN of a mosque somewhere in the Mideast and hear the call to prayer sung out in Arabic, I feel a nostalgia that can bring me to tears.

In Mali, I lived in the home of a muezzin, one of the village elders who called the community to prayer over a poor-quality P.A. system from the local mosque. He treated me like something between his son and a porcelain doll.

I was the one in his family not cut out for the rigors of Third World living. I learned about the dignity of his religion, especially during Ramadan, when I would try to fast with the rest of the community and usually have to quit after two weeks. The irony of some of the poorest people on earth fasting to empathize with the few who are even poorer was not lost on me.

After Sept. 11, I received a letter from my Malian friend Issa, whose name means Jesus (I don't know a single Christian who has named a son Mohammed.) He wrote to express his condolences to the families of those killed in the attack, his concern for the safety of my family, and his shock and embarrassment at having learned that the perpetrators considered themselves Muslims. I simply want to pass his sentiments on to a larger audience.

Note that the postage for sending a letter from Mali to the U.S. is around 70 cents, more than he usually makes in a day of selling vegetables at market.

Would I have spent my daily wage to send a letter to him had I learned of a disaster in Mali? I hope so. The contribution that Peace Corps volunteers make to those living in the poorest countries is modest, and it's become cliché to say that when we go abroad we receive more than we give.

I urge anyone interested in a powerful learning experience to join, not only for the benefit of those whose countries we go to, but for our own.

If America hopes to enjoy respect for the role it plays in the world, it needs leaders and a general citizenry increasingly sensitive to different cultures. Becoming a Peace Corps volunteer is one step in that direction.

Kenneth Rampino lives in Seekonk, where he is a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

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