February 12, 2004 - Intake Weekly: Darnell Morris-Compton served in Kenya and Turkmenistan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: Peace Corps Kenya : The Peace Corps in Kenya: February 12, 2004 - Intake Weekly: Darnell Morris-Compton served in Kenya and Turkmenistan

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Darnell Morris-Compton served in Kenya and Turkmenistan

Darnell Morris-Compton served in Kenya and Turkmenistan

'I am still me'

By Darnell Morris-Compton


Caption: Treasures: Darnell shares some of his many souvenirs from 27 months in Kenya and Turkmenistan. The drum and mortar and pestle came from a market in Nairobi, Kenya. Darnell is draped in the flag of Turkmenistan and surrounded by a Thai photo album, handmade carpet, salad utensils and boy's hat (on drum). -- Michelle Pemberton / INtake

Somehow -- unintentionally, but inevitably -- my conversations with classmates, old friends and strangers gravitate to my recent Peace Corps experiences in Turkmenistan and Kenya. More often than not, people hurl me in the spotlight.

"What was it like? What were the countries like? The people? The culture? Which one was better? How did it change you?" are some of the more frequently asked questions.

Usually, I pause to size up the situation and ask myself how much time I have. How much time do they have? What do they want to hear? Funny stories or serious stuff? Are they trying not to be rude, or do they really want to hear this?

After assessing the conversation, I try to give them what they want.

With brevity, I explain how we -- my wife, Sarah, and I -- were public health volunteers in both countries, focusing on general health topics in Turkmenistan and HIV/AIDS education, prevention and assistance in Kenya.

For those who want depth, I expound upon Turkmenistan's flat desert landscape with a few mountainous borders. I delve into the country's magnificently crafted carpets, and how women there, in spite of intense misogyny, continued a rich culture through their dress, jewelry and song.

I usually mention how proselytizing is not tolerated in the Muslim-dominated country, nor is criticism of its president, Turkmenbashy, who has cities, roads, buildings, watches, vodka, calendar months, statues, murals and a meteorite named after him. In the rural villages, Turkmens were not accustomed to non-Russian outsiders; however, once you were accepted in their culture, you were treated like family.

Kenyans, on the other hand, are accustomed to Mzungus, or whites (I am considered one, because I am a foreigner). No one is a stranger in their world, especially Bible-toting missionaries spreading the already abundant presence of Jesus Christ. Polygamy is commonplace in certain parts of Kenya, as well as female circumcision. Their country, as with many nations, fight AIDS, poverty and hunger.

Many Kenyan souls were filled with hope, especially in the most poverty-stricken places.

But people don't want the facts only, so I sprinkle bits of life in these answers. Some are funny stories like when I burned my feet chasing a cow, barefoot on a desert road in Turkmenistan (cows are faster than you think), or how I killed a black mamba (an extremely poisonous African tree snake similar to a cobra) in our Kenyan home.

I tell people how I felt like a chameleon passing for a native Turkmen and a coastal Kenyan because I matched their skin complexions.

I relate inspirational stories of Turkmen women gathered singing "We Shall Overcome," in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day during an English immersion camp; and tear-jerking stories, like when a 9-year-old Kenyan girl we were helping died of complications due to AIDS.

There is still one question, though, that constantly eludes me. It's the question about how all this has changed me. That's when I stutter, stammer and fumble my words.

I haven't changed -- and yet I have.

After living abroad in the grass-roots, non-westernized world, I define myself by the world itself, not just by the city I was born in. But I still don't know how all these experiences have affected my life.

Instead of going into this discussion I usually, and clumsily, respond to the "how Peace Corps changed me" question using another volunteer-turned-Peace Corps administrator, who answered: "I am still me -- only more so."

The funny thing is, I understand that line a little better every time I use it.

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Story Source: Intake Weekly

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; COS - Turkmenistan



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