From Bloomingdale to Senegal

STEUBENVILLE – One of the first things Courtney Pedersen did when she came home after spending two and a half years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal was to visit Marta Lee’s Ice Cream stand in East Springfield.

“I really wanted some soft serve ice cream and they have the best,” laughed the 27-year-old Bloomingdale resident.

It wasn’t easy or practical for Pedersen to find or enjoy ice cream while she lived in a small village of 850 residents in Senegal or while she spent a final year in the capital city of the country she called home.

But the loss of ice cream was worth her decision to join the Peace Corps.

The 2005 Edison Local High School graduate had studied for a semester in Italy during her four years at the University of Pittsburgh and found a real desire to travel.

“I always wanted to travel the world and I am extremely curious. I always wanted to learn about other people and their values. I want to meet different people,” Pederson declared.

“When I was in high school someone did a presentation on the Peace Corps and I thought about joining the organization. I always wanted to see other countries and take on an adventure. So after working in research at UPMC for two years I decided it was time and I signed on for two years with the Peace Corps. I worked as a preventive health volunteer and was assigned to teach the villagers where I lived about the need for sanitary water. I also saw a need for birth spacing. The mortality rate for the mothers and their children increased with the more births. I tried to teach the men in the village their wives should consider family planning and I tried to provide social support for the women,” related Pedersen.

“Part of my duties was to train students to teach their peers about sanitary water and proper nutrition. I trained 20 middle school students and they in turn went out to teach other students,” she added.

“I spent two months training in Senegal before I was installed in my village. The nearest American was probably 34 kilometers away. Senegal is a Muslim country and as an American I had a limited perspective on what that meant. I was really nervous at first, but my host mother treated me like her own daughter. The village I lived in was the safest place in the world for me. And as an American I found I had a lot to learn,” said Pedersen.

“I observed their holidays as well as my own. I wore flip-flops and I never wrapped my head unless I was going to a wedding. I never wore pants in the village out of respect for their customs but I found wearing a skirt was actually cooler. I also fasted with my Senegalese family to show respect. I was included in every one of their holidays as a member of their family. Religion was never an issue for me there,” Pedersen commented.

“The first minute I arrived in the village a little girl walked up to me, grabbed my hand and welcomed me into the compound. I was treated like a sister and a daughter by my host family,” she said.

“I never thought I would live in a 4-foot-by-44foot mud hut with a thatch roof. The compound was made up of a number of the huts. I found in Senegal the people are very sincere. There is a true sense of community and family that we are losing here in America. American is becoming very separated and isolated. But that is different in Senegal,” Pedersen observed.

“Every morning I would wake up, sweep my room and help clean the family compound. We then take large plastic containers to get water, put the full container on our heads and walk back to the compound. I was considered to be a real woman because I could carry water. But the villagers considered me a little weird because I was 25 with no husband or kids. I was considered an old maid,” laughed Pedersen.

“The Sengalese are so honest it is beautiful. My name there was Coumba Diallo, which was my host mother’s mother’s name. Everyone is named after someone in the family who was very respected. I came home for a visit and had my hair cut short. When I went back they asked what happened to my hair and said I looked old. But that is their honesty,” shared Pedersen.

“There were 250 Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal. We had regional houses where I could visit to use a computer. My mom came to visit for three weeks on my second Thanksgiving in Senegal, so I went to the regional house to bake a pineapple upside down cake,” she continued.

“Once I got to the village her foster family was amazing,” said Joann Pedersen, Courtney’s mom. “I was totally at ease. The family there was beyond wonderful and generous. Everything was cooked on a fire and we went to a Senegalese wedding. I was extremely impressed and at the same time very proud of my daughter.”

According to Courtney Pedersen, “my Senegal family are farmers. Nothing is wasted there. Since I have come home it has been difficult to see the amount of food we waste here. Everything my Senegalese family ate was what they had raised or grown. And there are some families that run out of food at times. They face the reality of eating just two meals a day. If the rains come two weeks late your family doesn’t eat.”

“I would sit and listen to the elders talk about the dry times and the fact there were no more trees near the villages and no more monkeys,” she related.

“I miss my host family and friends very much. I call them on a regular basis. Living in Senegal was such an easier way of life. It is the type of environment I want to live in and develop my future career in public health. Everyone can do this type of volunteer work and I would encourage people of all ages to consider it. I have learned so much from my time in Senegal. You go in with pre-conceived notions and discover it is a different world and it has so much to offer,” she stated.

“My replacement came to the village before I left so I could help her get acclimated. I was the first American Peace Corps volunteer in that particular village so it was hard for me to leave. I encouraged my replacement to get attached to the children because they are beautiful,” said Pedersen.

“I am so lucky and blessed I had the opportunity to join the Peace Corps. It was the best decision I ever made and I hope to go back one day to visit my host family,” she said.