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April 29, 2007

Rockport woman enjoys eye-opening experience in Africa

ROCKPORT — Like many people her age, 23-year-old Sara Smith is finding herself and trying to make sense of the world. But she’s doing that in a West African village, about 4,000 miles from the comfort of her Rockport family.

“We’re very proud of her,” Sara’s mother, Julie Smith, said. “She talked about doing this for quite a while.”

Sara Smith joined the Peace Corps and set out for Senegal in March to be a preventative health educator, training community health workers on how to run preventative health lessons on issues such as nutrition, malaria, HIV prevention and family planning.

“The goal is to create an effective health education program within the village that can continue to operate after I leave,” she said in an e-mail.

Smith has been training for several weeks, improving her French and Wolof — a West African language widely spoken in Senegal. After training, she will live in Koumpentoum, a village of 8,000 people, until her service ends in May 2009.

Her stay in Senegal has taken some adjusting.

“The most shocking aspect of living here for me is the food,” Smith said. “I’m not used to seeing my chicken run around in front of my bedroom hours before I eat it for dinner. But I think it’s good. Americans are very detached from their food and don’t really think about where it comes from, and I think that’s sort of sad.”

Smith said Senegal has been more laid back than life in the United States.

“One is more intimately connected with life here,” Smith said. “Drivers slow down to talk with bike riders next to them, families eat from the same bowl, neighbors stop by all day and stay for hours.”

Being away from her family and friends is a big challenge for Smith. And her boyfriend is even farther away — he is a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. But she is taking it all in stride, focusing on the greater good rather than the short-term homesickness.

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