March 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Senegal: Walfadjri: The 44th anniversary of the Peace Corps

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The 44th anniversary of the Peace Corps

The 44th anniversary of the Peace Corps

The 44th anniversary of the Peace Corps

[Translated from French by Malcolm Versel]

Forty-two years of presence sharing the concerns of Senegalese, Peace Corps celebrates, its 44th anniversary, beginning yesterday, and celebrates 42 years of presence in Senegal, where 15 volunteers landed in April 1963. Today, they are assigned in 120 sites where Peace Corps volunteers have become a tool for the development and independence of targeted communities.

"The toughest job you'll ever love." That's the slogan that got volunteers to join the Peace Corps. A "batallion" initiated on 1 March 1961 by one of the most famous and charismatic American heads of state, Senator John. F. Kennedy, Assassinated in 1968 [translator's note: actual year was 1963]. What the American President desired through the Peace Corps was what he himself emphasized, "a better understanding of the American people by the people that volunteers assist and a better understanding by Americans of the people the volunteers visit."

This Corps celebrates, beginning yesterday, it's 44th anniversary, through March 5. It also celebrates 42 years of presence in Senegal, where fifteen volunteers first landed in April 1963. Today, according to Malcolm Versel, Peace Corps Country Director in Senegal, they are in some 120 sites. Mr. Versel formerly served in Senegal as a volunteer from 1972 to 1975. He lived in Ngayène Sabakh, a village near Medina Sabakh. According to the volunteer tradition, he proudly went by the name of Magaye Gaye. It was in Ngayène, he recalls, that he learned to play the khalam thanks to the famous traditional guitarist Sakou Dieng. Likewise, the current Ambassador of the United States to Senegal served as a volunteer in Burkina Faso.
The mission of a volunteer, informs Malcolm Versel, lasts two years with a possibility to extend for one year, emphasizes the Senegalese Associate Director, El Hadj Mamadou Diaw, to complete the implementation of a program.

If, in former years, volunteers concentrated on socio-cultural activities, such as English teaching, as Mr. Diaw points out, "for the past twenty years, another direction has been engaged. Even as the basis for volunteers remains "cultural integration," Peace Corps has become "a tool for the development and independence of targeted communities."

Consequently, volunteers invest themselves in the health sector, through primary care and basic health education. Protecting and increasing the value of natural resources, they are active in agroforestry, environmental education and, recently, ecotourism. The concern was to "help people benefit from the proximity of tourism, by appreciating the value of their environment." Peace Corps also is very active in microenterprise development, where the target groups include women and youth associations. In agriculture, working with the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research, they are involved in extension and, among other activities, favor urban agriculture through micro-gardening.

Today, responding to changes in the world, informs Mr. Versel alias Magaye Gaye, volunteers are working to extend Information and Communication Technologies. One of several programmatic challenges their Thies (training) Center deals with. He says, "our efforts are based on the needs presented by the people we work with in harmony with national and local development priorities. Generally, volunteers' development efforts are with the people and for the people," according to Magaye Gaye.

In Senegal, Peace Corps is present in all regions of the country, "even though the Region of Ziguinchor remains to be covered. Although this will come soon," assures the Associate Director. To do its mission effectively, states the Director, volunteers need to remain in good health, have a stable operating environment, be in secure surroundings and be confident. Although they do not receive salaries because of their voluntary status, they nevertheless are provided with minimum support to "live and get along," says Mr. Diaw. In their assigned sites, "they naturally experience all the difficulties that exist in the community in which they live." As for the impact of Peace Corps, according the Director for Senegal, "it is immeasurable." The organization has inspired Europeans as well as the countries where it is active. Thus, in the reconstruction of the Casamance, Senegalese officials created a volunteer corps, as well as the National Civic Service. Mr. Diaw also related the case of former volunteers who contacted communities where they previously served to see how they might help during the recent locus infestation. "That shows how much they have become 'ambassadors' for the people they lived with and the effort to show unity with their fellow community members, and that is in addition to the projects that they helped implement with these communities during their service." When a volunteer leaves the community to return home, "at first it seems as if one has lost someone very close. It takes time to learn to adjust. When this phase passes, the person can enable others to benefit from the experience and from the cultural diversity," emphasizes the Director of Peace Corps/Senegal.

If the popular image of "a spy" remains, for the two leaders of Peace Corps in Senegal, "that is an impression left over from the Cold War between the USA and the USSR." "To serve a country, it is necessary to understand it." Explaining the importance of their organization, they recall that, since John Kennedy's appeal to students at the University of Michigan in 1961, more than 175,000 volunteers have served in more than 137 countries. Also, regarding President George Bush's proclamation on HIV/SIDA, one thousand new volunteers have been mobilized. Women's participation in the Corps is about 58 percent and that for retirees is about 11 percent. Though the average age is 28 years, the oldest volunteer is 82. Since 1963, Mr. Diaw makes know, more than three thousand volunteers have landed in Senegal to give their best. In 2005, there are nearly 8,000 around the world. In Africa, Peace Corps is present in 27 countries. As for the dropout rate, meaning, according to the Director of Peace Corps/Senegal, "volunteers who leave for family reasons or inability to adapt," it is about 10 percent. A small number, indeed, but which clearly shows, as Mr. Diaw says, "not everyone can be a volunteer."
As a prelude to this anniversary, Peace Corps/Senegal last week organized activities between Kaolack and Karang, two towns 91 kilometers apart. This week, each volunteer will work in and "with" their communities. A meeting also is scheduled with the press later this week.

Alioune Badara DIALLO

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Story Source: Walfadjri

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