StoryCorps’ Door-to-Door Department visited Madison, WI, to record at the 50 Years of PeaceCorps in Africa Conference. Friends María Moreno and Ephrat Livni are two returning Peace Corps volunteers who recorded an interview with us during a break in activities.
María, a Bronx, NY, native and professor in Madison, served in Mauritania, a North African Muslim community in the desert. After spending some time at her site, María rehearsed a comment about the moon in the local language; the moon was to be full that night, which she hoped to bring to everyone’s attention. When evening broke she and her hosts sat watching in awe of the moon’s light. “The United States sent a man there,” she said in her broken dialect and pointing to the moon. Her host father asked, “Now why would they do that?”
Recounting the story, she and Ephrat burst into laughter at her misguided expectations. Her host was a man from an isolated nomadic community with set dietary customs, which MarÃa was assigned to change. Yet his comment was a brilliant one.
Ephrat brought a similar naïvete to her own host site in Senegal. Nobody quite understood why she would take aimless walks and bike rides for exercise. They quizzically looked at her, this strange lady, when she passed them on the street.
One afternoon she had a frustrating conversation with the local leader and stomped off on one of her walks to sort her thoughts. The walk was much longer than normal, and she was soon lost in the bush at sunset. She walked through the night, lost. At sunrise the next morning, she came upon another settlement many miles away. Ephrat was covered in mud, exhausted, and pleaded for help from a woman behind her home. The woman screamed and ran away, thinking Ephrat was an apparition. To Ephrat’s embarrassment, she was escorted back to her panicked hosts in the neighboring settlement.
By the interview’s end, Maria and Ephrat had other laughs about their experiences abroad, but recalled one major lesson they learned while working within other cultures: When it comes to culture, there is no such thing as “better”- only slightly different.
Happy 50th Anniversary, Peace Corps!