September 1, 2003 - Swathmore University: Kenneth Leonard was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Gabon: Peace Corps Gabon : The Peace Corps in Gabon: September 1, 2003 - Swathmore University: Kenneth Leonard was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

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Kenneth Leonard was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

Kenneth Leonard was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

Kenneth Leonard ’89
Gabon, 1989–1991
Assistant professor of economics
Columbia University

Work focus and Swarthmore influence:
“In Central Africa, I built primary schools and teachers’ houses, using my experience as a carpenter and mason, which I had gained outside of Swarthmore. However, in all of these tasks, it was important to manage and understand the relations between project, volunteer, and community. I can’t point to a class that taught me how to think about these issues, but I was very active in the way I approached the issues that arose, and I think my general Swarthmore experience paid off.

“My relationship to my village and project was very different from that of most other volunteers, and I had the privilege of training a young man from my first village to replace me. I am one of the few volunteers who can honestly say that when I left the country, a citizen of that country took over my job and performed with distinction.”

Challenges and rewards: “I lived in a very remote and isolated village, and not losing my mind was probably the most important thing. Although you are surrounded with people, you are very much alone. The cultural barriers are enormous. For example, in my village, people were very concerned that I not be alone—since this was not considered a desirable thing—and for the first few months, old men would come over to my house and sit in my living room for hours on end to keep me company. I communicated with most of the people in French, but these older men often did not speak French; so for three to four hours of my afternoon, I would have someone with whom I had no way of communicating sitting idly in my living room. All I wanted was some time to myself, but the village honestly thought this was necessary to take care of me. We eventually reached an understanding on the fact that I did not mind being alone, but I never fully bridged the cultural divide….

“Why I was there, why this village needed a school, and what the school would really accomplish were the questions that I could not—and still cannot—answer. When you come to a point where hard work doesn’t solve the problem, or getting through the day is not enough, you learn a lot about what you are made of.

“On the other hand, there are three schools in the African jungle that I helped build, and one that I built from the first shovel stuck in the ground to the last coat of paint. There is a village in Africa that I can walk into and spend two weeks properly greeting everyone I know. And you can only imagine the stories I will be able to entertain my children and grandchildren with. I’ve pulled a 25-ton dump truck out of a river with three come-alongs. I’ve built a bridge with ropes and axes.”

Impact of PC experience: “I have traveled back three times since my PC experience. I don’t really know how it has changed my life, but I also can’t imagine what it would be like if I hadn't done it.”

PC choice for others: “If you want to make the world a better place, make a 50-year commitment—your whole life. PC is a good opening act in such a career, but it is not a complete contribution. If you only want to help the world for two years before you move on, forget the PC: You won’t get anything done. There are no jobs that allow you to make a contribution in only two years….

“When I discovered how hard it would be to change the world—or even make a small contribution—it was a painful and disheartening experience. I managed to pick myself up from that and keep moving, and I am still going today. I don’t know if it was Swarthmore that allowed me to get up and keep moving, but most volunteers who come with idealism in their hearts don’t get up again when they first fall down.

“If you want to experience another culture and learn about the world, PC is a good way to do that. But realize before you start that it will be very different than you expect.”

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Story Source: Swathmore University

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



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