March 4, 2002
Peace Corps experience opens eyes of Woodinville woman
by Deborah Stone
March 1 marked the Fifth Annual Peace Corps Day, an event held worldwide to honor a tradition of service that is 41 years old.
Since 1961, more than 163,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 135 countries. Thousands of current and former volunteers, families and friends celebrated the occasion by sharing their knowledge and insights gained from their overseas experiences with their communities.
The event was an opportunity to raise visibility of the Peace Corps and to help recruit future volunteers.
Woodinville High School graduate (1997) Courtney Hill finished her studies at the University of Puget Sound last April and decided shortly afterwards to apply to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
In September, a week before the WTC collapse, she was sent to West Africa, where she underwent three months of training before being assigned to her permanent location in Senegal. As a way to share her experiences and pique others' curiosity about distant lands and their peoples, Hill agreed to communicate her feelings and tell about her activities to the Woodinville community.
Interest in the Peace Corps was always in the back of her mind as a college student. She writes, "I hadn't planned on joining, but I continued to have interest in the organization through college. At the end of my junior year, I decided to look at the program more closely and I felt like God was calling me to join."
Her feelings became stronger, which eventually translated to her decision to apply. After a lengthy application process, she was selected to go to French West Africa because of her French and business background.
Hill lives in Louga, one of the larger cities in Senegal and home to about 80,000 people. She resides with a West African family of 15, including two infants and four other young children. Privacy is not always a problem, though, because she does have her own room with an attached latrine and shower area. Electricity and water are also available.
Regarding her family, Hill writes, "The level of education in my family is very low. I don't think anyone can read or write much, but that's normal here. Although the difference in education level and difference in cultures make it difficult sometimes, they are really the most amazing people. I've never met such giving and hospitable people."
Right now, one of Hill's responsibilities is to become more integrated into the culture and according to her that's a "big enough job itself because it's so very different from the U.S."
She's busy learning the local native language, Wolof (her top priority), as well as the role of Islam in her community. As a Peace Corps volunteer, she has been assigned to work with small enterprise development, which involves helping to facilitate business development activities in order to promote sustainable development.
"I'm trying to go out and meet people and learn about the community and its needs," writes Hill. "I try to find people who want to learn more business skills, start up a business or have other ideas they want to explore.
"For example, I'm helping a woman organize the start-up of her fast food restaurant and I'm also working with a cyber cafe to try to set up a better accounting system for them so they can better understand the profit margins they're receiving on the services they're providing. This type of work is very slow moving, but also exciting at the same time."
A challenge for Hill is finding individuals who are truly motivated to improve their own lives.
In addition, she is finding it difficult to bridge the cultural gap between Senegal and the U.S., particularly understanding the Senegalese and their way of thinking, as well as helping them understand the characteristics of the American culture. She says, "This is an ongoing process." Highlights of her experience thus far have focused on the interactions with her Senegalese family and their neighbors. She eats lunch and dinner with her family, meals primarily consisting of fish and rice, and spends much time involved in the family's activities, from washing clothes by hand to participating in Muslim holiday festivities. Recently, Tabaski, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year occurred and Hill's host family prepared for the occasion by chopping off the heads of three sheep in the family compound. "I'm amazed at the strength of my stomach, watching that!" she comments. "Now we get to eat sheep for every meal for a couple of days!" She notes that the culture is very community oriented and that people work together in order to feed everyone and to survive because life is tough in Senegal. "This condition is the basis of the people's life," says Hill. "I feel blessed though to have the chance to learn more about a way of life so different from anything I've ever known. I do know though that I feel fortunate to be an American because of the chances and opportunities that are provided me, simply by being born here." To learn more about the Peace Corps and its programs, call 1-800-424-8580 or check the organization's web site at www.peacecorps.gov.