GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 29, 2007

Rockport woman enjoys eye-opening experience in Africa

Bryan McGonigle

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.

“When I get overwhelmed about being away for two years, I remind myself to stay in the moment and take it day by day,” she said. “Two years is not long in the grand scheme of things.”

Back in Rockport, her family misses her and calls her every week.

“When the time actually came for her to leave, we were quite concerned, not being the worldly travelers,” Julie Smith said. “Having your child go off to school is one thing, when you can get her home quickly and see each other. But this is basically going to be a full 27 months.”

The Peace Corps does not recommend volunteers leave and visit their families, because the culture shock of going back and forth might be too much to handle.

This isn’t the first time Julie Smith has seen a daughter off to the corners of the globe. Her older daughter Crystal joined the Peace Corps in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific and married a man from the Yukon region of Canada. They now have three young children.

Sara is the youngest of four children.

“To be honest, I think its harder on most parents when it’s the last child,” Julie Smith said.

Sara Smith said her host family has been great to her. They speak slowly for her when using “Frolof” — what Sara calls the French-Wolof blend. Her 21-year-old host-sister made her a custom dress that fits perfectly without ever taking her measurements.

“She loves them,” Julie Smith said. “It’s a very big family, and she’s fitting in wonderfully with them. For a while, she couldn’t get a count on how many there were in the family.”

The Peace Corps has opened Sara Smith’s mind about the world around her and given her a greater appreciation for a culture so different from the one she grew up with.

“I’m learning to objectively observe the world around me without judgement,” Smith said. “Also, Senegalese culture often emphasizes the importance of relationships and spending time with loved ones, as opposed to slaving away at a job simply to obtain material possessions. I think there’s much value in a more simple, slower-paced life.”

Sara Smith joins the 224 Massachusetts residents currently serving in the Peace Corps. More than 7,270 Massachusetts residents have served in the Peace Corps since 1961.

The Peace Corps began work in Senegal in 1963, and since then, more than 2,700 volunteers have worked in that country.

Senegal currently has one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in Africa, with only about 2 percent of the population infected, according to the World Health Organization. This has been credited to the government’s promotion of sex education and cooperation from religious leaders as well as organizations like the Peace Corps.

Smith misses Rockport and said she will likely miss her small town on Cape Ann even more as the months go by.

“I miss sipping a soy latte at the Greenery with my best friend Lauren, while waiting for huevos rancheros and watching boats float in the harbor,” she said. “I know I’ll miss seeing the town lit up like a postcard in December, drinking free hot chocolate and singing along to “Christmas in Rockport.’”