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How groundnuts, hot weather and The Gambia changed my life

March 1, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of Nate Oetting  </span>
    My Gambian family. From left, back row: me, Banna Camara (daughter), Damang Camara (son), Njaani Ceesay (first wife), Seiku Camara (husband), Kaadi Ceesay (second wife), Ndem Camara (Kaadi’s son), Paulette Oetting (my mom, visiting from the States). Front row: Sainy Camara (daughter), Samba Camara (son), Lasaana Camara (son), Alahaji Camara (son). Photo: courtesy of Nate Oetting
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of Nate Oetting  </span>
    Harvesting the ground-nuts — that’s me in the foreground…the rest of the family is in the background. Photo: courtesy of Nate Oetting
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of Nate Oetting  </span>
    Me and my pal Aiyinding Camara, in my hut. Aiyinding lived next door and liked to hang out with me. Photo: courtesy of Nate Oetting

There are two key moments in my Peace Corps experience that I will never forget.

"Doudu. Doudu-ooo! I ye wuulii — naa nga taa, dookuwoo siita!!" (This loosely translates to "Doudu, Doudu! Wake up – let’s go, its time to work!!" Doudu was my Gambia name.) I was jarred from a deep sleep with someone pounding on my door, insisting I get up :

It was at that moment I knew I was just another member of the family.

I had been living in Sami Pachonki, a small community far up-country in The Gambia, West Africa, for about a year and a half when the head woman of my compound, Njaani Ceesay, woke me up to let me know I had overslept and that there was work to be done in the fields. It was harvest season, and the ground-nuts were not going to harvest themselves.

Until that ‘rude’ awakening, I had not felt totally integrated into my community. Being the only white guy for miles around made that difficult. But, on that particular morning, I was treated no differently than any other able bodied person in the compound…in no uncertain terms, I was told to get my lazy butt up, and get to work. It was great; I was smiling the entire morning as I sweated in the ground-nut field side-by-side with the rest of the family.

The second key moment came a few months later as I was sitting on the side of the road, waiting for a bush taxi to take me to the nearest town. I was waiting with two other people of whom I had never met. One was an older blind gentleman; the other was either his younger brother or his son.

The three of us chatted for a while. We talked about the weather (how hot it was…everyone always talked about how hot it was…and it was hot), we talked about the harvest and how good it had been that year, and we talked about where we were going that day. We carried on for nearly 15 minutes before the conversation died down and we settled back into our own thoughts.

A few minutes later, I heard the young man quietly ask the older gentleman if he had realized that he had been chatting with a toubab (white person). The older man said, “of course not, a toubab wouldn’t be sitting here in the middle of the bush, talking to us in Mandinka about the weather and the harvest.”

The younger man insisted, that indeed I was a toubab, and I obliged him by saying that yes, indeed, I was a toubab. The older gentleman simply clicked his tongue in the familiar fashion to indicate his reluctant understanding and amazement.

My time in the Peace Corps was the most intense and rewarding time of my life. It is because of my Peace Corps experience that I decided to pursue a career in international development. My current job with Mercy Corps is to run our humanitarian response programs in Ethiopia.

While I may no longer live in a mud hut out in the bush, the work I’m doing now is equally rewarding and fulfilling. The Peace Corps opened my eyes to a very big and diverse world, and made it possible for me to be where I am today.