Peace Corps Writers
What I Learned (page 3)

What I Learned

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     Astou Diop’s older sister had spent a year of service in Los Angeles and can relate to her concerns about any long-term effect she might have upon a community and fears about how to reintegrate into the American lifestyle. The oldest is a great support. The youngest sister, then, has two models of service. Of course the plumbing, the housing, and the roads were eye-openers for her when she visited Astou Diop, and of course she was relieved to return to her university dorm and all its electrical and plumbing features, but we had wanted her to see for herself the distance between her middle-class Midwestern lifestyle and that of a large part of the world. (I joked that this lesson would be worth the price of her airplane ticket.)

The Mitsch and Diop families

     And Astou Diop always reminds us that her Peace Corps friends like to make detours to her village because she has a comfortable home and a friendly host family — and because her host mother is an excellent cook. Although our family has traveled widely on several continents and have tried to adapt to different customs, we were a bit flustered to have to remember at each meal in a home to remove our shoes on the porch, dip our hands into the bowl of water set at the entrance to the house, and then enter. We had never sat on the ground for a meal other than a picnic, eating with our hands from a common pot. Imagine: so used to having or securing the best, we embarrassed Astou Diop at first by reaching across the pot for fish or chicken from someone else’s “territory” and by vainly looking for a beverage. We did not remember Astou Diop’s advice to say Jerejef, surna! and then stand up and leave when we had had enough. At home, I always chastised family members for wanting to leave before the entire group had finished the meal. In Sokone, we visitors liked the new way. But it took getting used to, and we were humbled that something as simple as eating a meal would make us have to stop and think so much about how to act.
Likewise, accompanying Astou Diop through the village and experiencing the greeting procedures humbled us. Here, I was at the mercy Astou Diop’s experience and language skills. But I was impressed (and grateful) that she felt at ease in the language and gestural habits. Do we parents always think we know more than our children — that we’ve had more experience and are thus wiser? Our visit to Astou Diop’s village reminded me that experience is not a matter of chronology. Here I had to turn to Astou Diop to ask, “How do I say . . . ?” or “What do I do next?” or “Why are they doing that”? or “Is that a good price?” These are the kinds of questions that as a parent I had been used to getting and answering. Now the tables have been turned and my child is my teacher.
Astou Diop has always been musical, with twelve years of piano lessons, perhaps eight with the saxophone, marching in high school and university bands. It has been a joy to have her pass along recommendations: “I love the new Youssou N’Dour album!” she writes, and I search for it at iTunes. I smile to myself when she says that she and the seven-year-old visiting niece of her host family laugh together singing the latest songs by Vivian. My musical horizons have expanded.
Yes, we pay more attention to the politics and popular news of West Africa these days; we have our daughter who can interpret these for us. From politics to PCV lingo, we have grown through our daughter’s Peace Corps experience. She was the difficult daughter, yes, but now instead of thinking of her as difficult, I think instead of how she has overcome difficulties. Visiting Astou Diop in Senegal made me realize how wonderful it is when parents can learn from their children.

Ruthmarie Mitsch lives in Columbus, Ohio, and is managing editor of a scholarly journal on oral and written literatures of Africa and teaches African literature at The Ohio State University. She and her husband are the parents of three daughters.

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