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For the week of August 22 - 28, 2001

  Features

Out of Africa, and back

Ketchum Peace Corps volunteer re-enlists


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Since her return to the United States from Togo, a country on the west coast of Africa where she spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, Jessica Tompkins has had some time to reflect.

When she first arrived in Africa about three years ago, she was swarmed by mosquitoes and nearly died from malaria.

Then she he learned to eat a dish of dog or cat meatówith the head served on top.

Jessica Tomkins helps butcher a calf in Sanda Kagbanda. Relinquishing her vegetarianism was one change she made during her stint in the Peace Corps.

Photos courtesy of Jessica Tompkins

And, because Catholicism rather than Islam is the dominant religion in the village of Sanda Kagbanda, where she worked on family planning, there was fortunately "not much" female circumcision.

Considering all that and more at her West Ketchum home last week, Tompkins, 26, said enthusiastically, "I canít wait to go back."

The reasons for her enthusiasm go beyond simple altruism. They have to do with appreciating, sometimes reveling in, another culture, and bringing home an understanding of itóeven when itís hard for Americans to accept.

"It was peaceful," she said of the mud-and-thatch huts and rural landscape of Sanda Kagbanda. "Itís so nice and liberating--to eat the food that you grow, to not have refrigeration, to appreciate a little bit of meat, if you get it--the little pleasures, like having cold water on a hot day, when you donít appreciate it here."

Tompkins decided to join the Peace Corps while studying as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"I wanted to travel, and I had done the tourism thing," she said.

The Peace Corps was born during a 2 a.m. campaign rally in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1960. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy proposed to a group of University of Michigan students that they serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world. Four decades later, 163,000 Americans have volunteered.

Tompkins spent months in the Peace Corpsí cross-cultural and technical training, but nothing, she said, could prepare her for the abrupt drop-off that happened when the organization finally left her at her assigned village.

Her car halted, a swarm of villagers collected her baggage, and within five minutes she was alone with her new foster family: a father, his two wives and their 10 kids.

"I remember not knowing what to do," she said.

The villagers spoke Kabye and French, which she had studied in college, so conversing was not out of the question. But being the new American woman amid 4,000 African villagers who had seen few other American women was initially daunting. She said she couldnít decide whether to go straight to her room and unpack or mingle outside.

One of the first things that struck her was the "harsh treatment of children and animals, which was hard to adjust to." Adults hit their neighborsí children as well as their own, and women were oppressed. "They donít have a voice, and they work so hard," she said.

Preparing dinner is a team effort in a Togo village in Africa. "Itís so nice and liberatingÖto eat the food that you grow," Jessica Tompkins, of Ketchum, said. 

Photos courtesy of Jessica Tompkins

For the first several months, she did no work; rather, she just lived and gained the trust of her new community. Then, after a conversation with the village nurse, she focused on family planning.

She taught a sex education class in a village school, "which was fascinating," she said, because students from age 15 to 21 asked her some surprisingly naive questions.

Tompkins taught women about Norplant, a birth-control device that is placed beneath the skin and lasts for five years. And she taught many how to properly use birth control pills.

Myth and misinformation abounded. For example, she said many women thought traditional birth control pills would stop pregnancy if only a few were taken after intercourse, and they wondered why it didnít work.

Some young people thought the AIDS virus was transmitted to Africa from America in condom packages. So they wouldnít wear them. Instead, they believed magic jewelry would protect them.

"As far as work is concerned, I accomplished as much as I could, and I donít know if that work is continuing," she said. "I donít know if the kids are having safe sex, but they do know the ramifications."

She hopes also that they know a little more about Americans than they did. Many "had never had a close experience with a foreigner," she said, even from a neighboring country.

Travel to the closest city, Kara, took half a day by bike or 45 minutes by taxis, "which were always full, but never full," she said, because they would never refuse more passengers. Usually, Kara was as far as Sanda Kagbandans traveled.

Consequently, the villagers formed their views of American women from the occasional American fashion magazine that arrived. No electricity meant no television and no Internet. And, of course, there were no newspapers. Some, she said, owned battery-powered short-wave radios.

And, she has reassessed some of her own previous deeply held convictions, like the merits of vegetarianism.

One of her best friends, Tchaa, honored her in a traditional Sanda Kagbandan way by cooking his cat and serving it to her with the head on top.

"It really smelled terrible," she said, but how could she refuse? "I just figured, you know, Iím here, Iím going to eat it." Well, except for the head. "You could tell it was good meat, if it was in a better sauce."

Tompkins said she has been accepted to attend nursing school at Johns Hopkins University, but before she goes, she plans on putting in another stint in Africa, this time with the Crisis Corps, a program for veteran Peace Corps volunteers.

She leaves on Aug. 29 for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where sheíll work with a group that publishes Femina, a hip magazine with a safe-sex advocacy twist aimed at young people.

The work should last six months to a year. After that, she said, "Iíll see how I like nursing."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.