Tag Archives: Peace Corps

No Soup Today

Instead of a soup recipe today (don’t worry; we’ll be back tomorrow with more!), I’d like to say thank you to Sargent Shriver, husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the first head of the Peace Corps.

As you can tell from my biography, I was proud to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1997 to 1999 in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

That experience changed my life and it brought two of the most wonderful people I will ever know into my life for good.

In this blog we talk about understanding, appreciating, and respecting other cultures. I would probably have never written a word about these things if I hadn’t served in the Peace Corps. It was my first real opportunity to put service into action – and I hope I never stop.

As parents, we want to provide our children with the tools they’ll need to navigate the world. That’s a big part of why I write about other cultures: to help children understand the people and cultures with whom they will one day undoubtedly interact.

The Peace Corps gave me the ability to do that: to understand and appreciate people who – on the surface – may seem different from me and my family.

But another tool that parents need to provide their children is the value of service. The Peace Corps gave me that, too.

When we talk about service, it usually sounds so wishy-washy and goodie-goodie. But anyone who has ever served in the Peace Corps knows that you have to be a real fighter in order to serve.

  • You can’t let one bad day (or monsoon season) drive you away; you have to stay and fulfill your assignment.
  • You can’t let one mishap or negative social interaction define an entire people for you. Think about how Americans would fare if others did that to us!
  • You can’t let food poisoning or naughty students or an inability to speak the language or a total lack of knowledge of the country’s postal/banking/medical/telephone system derail you. You keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The Peace Corps taught me resilience; the capacity to fight for what I believe over and over; how to say bad words in Dioula and Bwamou; and how to say thank you in multiple languages.

So now I can say thank you (merci, aneechay, etc.) to you, Sargent Shriver, for your service as head of the Peace Corps. Aside from motherhood, it truly is the toughest job I’ll ever love.

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Burkina Feast: Salade Concombre

Eleven years ago, I finished my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso. There are a lot of things I miss about living there: the friends I made, the little red brick house in the middle of a cornfield that was my home for two years, the music, language, and culture. But one of the things I miss the most is the food.

The food in Burkina Faso is pretty similar to other countries throughout West Africa. Hot peppers (habaneros), rice, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, fish, beef, goat, chicken – these are just some of the ingredients they use to make some amazing dishes.

Since I miss those foods so much, I thought it would be fun to prepare and share some of the foods I miss so much. I thought I’d start with salade concombre – cucumber salad. My friend Salimata made this for me not long after I moved to Bagassi, our village in Burkina Faso. She was a super cook and she introduced me to many of the dishes I later came to love. Here’s my take on salade concombre.

Salade Concombre

1 medium-sized cucumber, thinly sliced

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 tomato, thinly sliced

1/4 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. white vinegar

1 Tbsp. canola/vegetable oil

Mix together in one bowl. Serve immediately.

Sali also liked to serve salade concombre in a baguette, or loaf of French bread. Slice the baguette in half longways and fill with salade concombre. It’s like eating a salad sandwich!

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Me in the News

Recently, the Peace Corps put me in touch with a reporter from my local newspaper who was interviewing area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for a story on how the Peace Corps had affected their professional lives.

As always, I was thrilled to talk about my Peace Corps experiences. It was one of the best, most powerful experiences in my life and it has definitely helped pave the way for me to pursue so many of my interests such as writing, foreign language, culture, religion, cooking, and travel.

But it also has improved my professional life. After teaching classes of 80-100 students, I don’t get stage fright anymore. I’ve learned the powerful art of faking it as a public speaker.

I’m much more confident as a result of serving in the Peace Corps. Whenever any challenge presents itself to me at work, I just roll up my sleeves and tackle it, aware that nothing, NOTHING will be as challenging as the work I did in the Peace Corps.

But the best skills I’ve learned have to do with people, which is to say that we all want the same things. I was very fortunate to earn the friendship of many Muslims while I served in the Peace Corps and I was grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about them and their religion before September 11.

For those reasons and for the fact that it brought me the wonderful family I am so grateful to have, I will always value my service in West Africa.

Here’s a link to the article, in case you’re interested.

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Grow a Global Garden

Growing up in the Garden State, I was always around family gardens. My paternal grandparents usually had a large plot cultivated and I most distinctly remember the corn they would harvest.

My maternal grandmother gardened on a smaller scale and chose more delicate vegetables, such as asparagus.

My father has been an avid gardener for as long as I can remember and I am envious of his ability to grow green peppers, a skill I sorely lack.

My own garden – like my cooking – is a bit more eclectic. I’ll try to grow anything.

In previous years, I have grown eggplant, eager to replicate the clear Sauce Aubergine my friends prepared when I lived in Burkina Faso.

I also have tried to grow habanero peppers, or piment, a staple in our West African diet.

I looked eagerly at the peanut plants in the Burpee and other seed catalogs, hopeful that I could grow a crop of fresh peanuts and once again enjoy one of the staples of my diet in the Peace Corps: boiled peanuts, nice and salty.

I have even toyed with the prospect of growing the West African eggplant, a vegetable I really didn’t enjoy when I first moved to my village but grew to love.

But thanks to the climate, I had to abandon a few of my more ambitious ideas.

Instead, I’m focusing on herbs, such as lemongrass, which is found in a lot of Asian cuisine, and finding new ways to cook with familiar vegetables, like pumpkins.

Pumpkins are a common food in southern African foods. If you have read The Number One Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, you have no doubt come across a description of pumpkin stew that made your mouth water.

So far, pumpkin appears to be my most promising crop. Look at these gorgeous plants!

But as a Jersey gardener, I know better than to anticipate a glut of any other vegetable except zucchini. Even if you don’t plant zucchini, your neighbors will throw their unwanted extra crop over your garden fence (that you built to keep out zucchini, not rabbits or deer).

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Plant a Garden Wherever You Go

Twelve years ago, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bagassi, Burkina Faso and so homesick for my mother’s flower garden I spent a day breaking ground with a daba (a short-handled hoe), arranging rocks around the perimeter, and transplanting native plants into a garden of my own.

I couldn’t have been prouder than if my garden had been full of award-winning roses. My neighbor’s children were delighted. Their reaction made my hard work so worthwhile.

It was a little thing. It required no more than a day’s worth of work (which I could fortunately spare). But it made a big difference to me just as I was finishing my first year of service.

I like to think of the white and purple flowers returning year after year. I wonder if that little garden is still there.

But what would mean more to me is if those three little girls, now young women, remember me and all the strange, laughable things I did while trying to acclimate myself to their customs.

Who knows? Maybe they’ve even created little gardens of their own by now.


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Meet Mom, the Guest Speaker

I got a really great opportunity to talk about my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa today. My son’s first-grade teacher and I have been planning it for a while, but it turned out even better than expected. All four of the first-grade classes (and their teachers) joined me and the school librarian in the library for a 40-minute presentation on Africa.

I showed them photos of the house in which I lived, the teachers and administrators at the school where I worked, and even what our village market day looked like.

The kids’ questions were hilarious. Several tried to convince me they have a camel at their house or that they have owned a pet monkey!

This was my third time presenting in one of my son’s classes – I’ve been doing this since he was in pre-school – and this was definitely the best. Not only am I getting more comfortable about what information will most interest them, but I’m also better attuned to how certain answers to questions can be interpreted.

For instance, when I talk about the kinds of foods people eat in Burkina Faso, the gross-out factor for 6 year-olds raised on Kraft mac n cheese and pizza is high and that makes me feel like I’m disrespecting the Burkinabe people who were so kind and welcoming to me when I lived there. Now, I downplay those kinds of things.

The best question I got was from a little girl who asked me if everyone in my village was brown. It was a great opportunity for me to talk about how the children of the village reacted to me, a German/Irish-American with very light blue eyes and straight blonde hair.

To be frank, the little ones were TERRIFIED of me. I looked like no one they had ever seen – probably ghost-like – and they screamed if I got too close. Over time I wore them down with my charm, but in the beginning they wouldn’t even let me touch them for fear that my white skin would rub off on them!

It was a great teachable moment because, although my son’s school is very diverse, he has had run-ins with kids who “don’t like brown people.” As a Burkinabe-American, my son is dealing with things at 5 and 6 that I didn’t have to address until I was 22 years old. He is my little hero and I’m glad I got the chance to help open some eyes about the kindness, culture, and warmth of the Burkinabe people I knew.  And to reinforce the fact that our skin color is one of the least interesting things about us as people.

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Let Us Now Praise (Semi-) Famous Mangoes

MangoesThe first time I tasted a mango, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa.  The mangoes were so prevalent, I could have picked them off my neighbor’s tree (but that would have been bad manners).  Instead, I bought mangoes on market day, from children selling them on the side of the road, from my perch in a bashe [bash-ay], or mini-bus.  In short, I went mango-crazy.  I ate them so often I got sick of them.  Then I got over it and went back for more.  

I’ve never found a mango sold in a grocery store in the U.S. that matches up to my precious Burkina mangoes, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.  I like slightly unripe mangoes – they’re easier to cut and are a little tart.  If you’ve never tried a mango, you don’t have to go it alone.  Believe it or not, there is a National Mango Board and June is National Mango Month (I wonder when National Papaya Month is?).  On their website, you can get recipes to cook with mangoes (even though they are perfect just the way they are) and even watch a video on how to cut a mango, which I have helpfully linked to here:

The National Mango Board also has interactive games and information for kids on their website, but it’s focus is solely on South America, which leaves out my Burkina mangoes.  I should probably write them a letter of protest!

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Tripping on Travel Envy

So here’s the downside to social networking sites like Facebook:  I have come to the unpleasant realization that many of my friends are living more interesting, adventurous lives than I am. 

images-2Take the friend who updates regularly from Dakar, Senegal.  She and her husband both served as Peace Corps Volunteers with me in Burkina Faso in the late 1990s.  Today, he’s working for the Foreign Service and she is raising their two young children in a bourgainvillea-covered home.  

Then there’s my  college roommate who is leaving in a month for a job in Bogota, Columbia.

Another Peace Corps friend now works for the World Health Organization and is frequently updating her profile to announce her latest trips to Mali and Switzerland.

There’s even an old boyfriend announcing his plans to move to China for a year.

I’m Shrek-green with envy.  

Even though my job and my family keep me pretty firmly tethered to exotic New Jersey, a girl can still dream.  I’m already plotting trips to Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, and China.  After all, I may not be able to live overseas for the time being, but a girl can still dream – and research – for the future.

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Allez Cuisine!

KC and her son

KC and her son

I’m a mom, a writer, and a home cook who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa.  

Since coming back to the U.S. in 1999, I’ve gotten to speak to many schoolchildren and they ALWAYS ask, “What did you eat?”  

Now I’m trying to raise my own child with an appreciation for global culture – especially the food, always the food. 

In this blog I’m going to share ideas and information that parents can use to get their children excited about other countries.  

Feel free to post your ideas, recipes, and experiences living in another culture and how you’re sharing that with your children.

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