Bruce and I met while SCUBA diving. We love adventure. After we'd been married a year, we yearned to do something different. What about the Peace Corps? We checked into Peace Corps opportunities.
I can't remember a time when I hadn't dreamed of going to Africa. We learned that as Peace Corps volunteers we could fulfill this dream and at the same time help meet desperate needs in a tiny West African country, The Gambia.
In order to make our dream of going to Africa come true, we had to sacrifice. We both gave up good jobs. We had no debts except our mortgage. We rented out our home for the two-year term of service and the rental income paid our mortgage with a little to spare. (Peace Corps volunteers receive no salary but receive a modest living-expense allowance.)
Living in an African Mandinka village 250 miles from the capital city and 120 miles from the nearest paved road was fascinating, but it wasn't easy. Our home was a mud-brick hut with a grass-thatched roof. Temperatures soared to 115 degrees. We had no running water but drew our water from a United Nations well, thankful it was pure. Our latrine, which we shared with another African family, was a hole in the ground, surrounded by a flimsy woven fence in a corner of the compound.
We had no car and walked wherever we went locally. For more distant travel, we took a bush taxi, a small pickup with wooden benches in the back and a canvas roof, reminiscent of a covered wagon.
Bruce worked with a United Nations well-digging unit, providing reliable wells for villages where traditional wells were drying up during a long drought.
As a "health volunteer," I reported to work at a bush hospital, a 32-bed facility that also held well-baby and ante-natal clinics. I'm not a medical professional, but my record keeping skills were welcomed in organizing a system to account for patients seen and medications used. I was the only non-African working at the hospital.
At first I cringed at this medical center which appeared to be so unsanitary. Due to shortages in fuel to operate the generator, we were often without electricity or running water. Flies were everywhere. Food for patients was prepared in large kettles cooked over open fires on the ground. Laundry was done by hand. But eventually I could see that we were accomplishing something--lives were being saved and, through inoculations, diseases at least partially controlled.
I had only heard of many of the Illnesses commonly seen in The Gambia, such as polio, tuberculosis and leprosy. I witnessed several deaths caused by tetanus, snake bite, and countless cases of horrible skin diseases and infections. Still, the majority of deaths were the result of water-born illnesses, especially among the very young and the old.
For two tough years we served in The Gambia, and gained a profound awareness of life at a basic level. To trim away all the extras and live a plain, simple life was to learn new truths about ourselves. We were tougher than we thought--than we ever imagined we could be. Living simply brought great satisfaction.
We both believe we made a contribution in our host African country, but it didn't compare with what we brought home--lasting memories, feelings of accomplishment and dreams fulfilled.