TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

November 28, 2008

African Adventure

Corbin woman reflects on 2-year stay in Africa


By Brad Hicks / Staff Writer

The prospect of a newspaper interview was a nerve-racking experience for Corbin-native Sara White.

This, coming from a girl who recently returned home to Kentucky from a two-year trip in an African village.

White’s African journey began while she was attending school at the University of Kentucky. There, she was working with the International Book Project in Lexington, which gives out books to schools and libraries in developing countries. It was during her stint with this program that White was approached by one of the program’s directors about the Peace Corps and some of the projects being undertaken by the organization. White’s interest was piqued.

“I kind of just wanted to see the other end of it,” she said.

So, White signed up with the Peace Corps and was sent to Philadelphia in July 2006 and then on to the Gambian village of Fulakunda for a three-month training program with “people a little more used to Americans,” White said.

Once their training was completed, the 23 volunteers were dispersed to different villages within Gambia, a small country located in the western part of Africa. Gambia is bordered on the north, east and south by the country of Senegal and bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. So, essentially, Gambia is a country within a country. White said the entire country is five times smaller than the state of Kentucky.

White was sent to the village of Konkuntu, with very little time to adjust to her new surroundings.

“They just drop you off and leave you in the village,” she said. “I guess that’s how you get used to things, to just do it.”

White said Gambia is a far-cry from the bustling streets in the United States. According to her, the country has only two main dirt roads, running horizontally and vertically. Konkuntu is located about 20 minutes off one of the roads. Although she said there were only about 11 families in the village, White guesstimated its population to be between 200 and 300.

The homes were mud huts. There were no chain grocery stores, but instead small city shops known as bitiks which, aside from some handmade arts and crafts, sold only the necessities. The closest fellow Peace Corps volunteer was about three hours away via public transport.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I mean, everything changed. The way I dressed, the food I ate, the language, using the bathroom and getting dressed outside...”

In the native tongue, Konkuntu means “to behead.” White said in the old days, the village’s chief openly welcomed visitors and passersby, and would just kill for them to spend the night in the village — literally. The chief would behead anyone who attempted to leave the village without spending the night.

As uninviting as the village’s moniker may be, White said the Gambian people were just the opposite. She was instantly greeted by swarms of curious onlookers, particularly children. White said the children were curious about her freckles and would touch her arms in an attempt to see if they “could rub the white” off her. The village children followed White around nearly everywhere she went

“I never had to go anywhere by myself,” she said.

And while it took a while to pick up on the tribal language, White said she learned one word very quickly — toubob — which means “white person.”

“They would shout ‘toubob’ at the top their lungs,” White said of the children.

White was assigned to stay with a six-member family that volunteered to take in Peace Corps volunteers.

“I felt so welcome from the people there,” she said. “The people are absolutely some of the nicest I have ever met.”

When she first arrived, White was still unsure of what she would be doing in Gambia. She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2006, just prior to leaving, with a degree in decision science and information systems. Before joining the Peace Corps, she worked as a production control associate for Affiliated Computer Services.

“I knew I was an information and communication technologies volunteer,” she said. “So something with computers is all I knew. It’s up to you to figure out what project you’re going to do and what you’re going to work on. “

Soon, White became associated with a school located about a 20-minute walk outside of Konkuntu. The school was made up of students in grades seven through nine and is essentially the equivalent of an American middle school. The school’s principal wanted to implement a library, something the school was lacking and something unfamiliar to most of the school’s approximately 450 students and 30 staff members.

“They had books in a room locked up, but didn’t actually have a library,” White said.

Once the library was constructed and filled with the books stored at the school, and some sent from programs such as the International Book Project, another problem presented itself.

“The biggest thing was teaching them what to do with the books,” White said.

White met with teachers at the school and trained them on how to run the library and how the books were to be used.

“A few of the teachers had seen a library before, but it was a totally new concept,” she said.

She also helped with the implementation of a library class, in which the recently trained teachers would spread their acquired knowledge to others. This also encouraged reading and thought among the students, a deviation from the memorization-based learning they were used to.

White’s task as an educator may have ended with the library training if not for the curiosity of the villagers. Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country, so she was bombarded with questions about Christianity. Also, villagers believed the world was made up of five continents.

“They believe America is a country in Europe,” White said.

But White said she learned a thing or two, as well. The women of the village taught her how to cook, some of the culture and the language. In turn, White taught them a little on business and supply and demand.

White also said she had some heart-wrenching experiences while in Gambia. In Konkuntu, she said one person died per week due to malnourishment and there was “not nearly enough food to go around,” she said.

“It was heartbreaking to see it through my eyes from what I’m used to,” White said.

Despite these scenes, White said she will remember the positives she will remember most. Aside from the library, she said her most memorable experience came when she was invited by a U.S. Ambassador to the opening of a refugee school in a war zone area in Senegal.

“It was amazing to see what a difference a one-room schoolhouse can make in a village,” she said.

Upon returning home in June, White said she took about two months to recover from the two-year trip. This recovery time included eating lots of food, (not the daily oil and rice she had grown accustomed to in Gambia) and spending time with her family.

And although White thoroughly enjoyed her time in Gambia, she is thankful this Thanksgiving to be back home, staying in her apartment in London, Kentucky.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I’m glad I did it, but I don’t think I could do it again. But I don’t regret it...It was an amazing opportunity to find out about myself and see what I was made of.”