The Secret to a Successful Peace Corps Service: Care Packages, Gifts and Acts of Kindness

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It’s a lesser known fact that care packages are actually the most important contributor to one’s PC service :). Sure optimism, past experience and learning local language are important, but when the chips are down and the days are hot, it’s the care packages, letters and laughs that keep your head above water. Many times us volunteers head home from a project, quickly greet the family and proceed to shut the door and have a private party complete with reading, writing and heavy snacking (maybe even crying while snacking and looking at a calendar realizing how long 26 months can seem lol). There’s many times I’ve ridden my bike back home, thinking the whole way about some M&M trail mix in my food trunk. Or, in hot season, been so relieved to have Gatorade powder mix so I can drink something different than plain water.

I’ve gotten so much support in my life, looking back I really see how life would’ve been much more difficult without the help and encouragement of family and friends. Even strangers have reached out and helped me a lot. Being out here I really see how much help I received in the states; being driven to soccer practice, taken to music lessons, given a bmx bike or my first guitar, lead to my first job through my grandfather, helped through college, sibling advice, help turning wrenches on my turbo sentra, taken out to weed whip and make a few bucks, advice for going on my first date, being invited to a potluck at a spiritual community or a positive sentiment that firms up a growing conviction, something like “you’re meant for this. Go for it!” I don’t know why I’m so fortunate but I wanted to write a post to say thank you. I also wanted to put a lot of effort in selecting and posting pictures as a way to say thanks. This blog post is huge because of all the pictures. You all have helped me so much and I’m thankful and think of you often, even if you don’t hear about it, i’m always thinking of you guys at random times throughout my day. You’re my ground support team for Gambia, and have been for a long time throughout my life.

Here are some pictures and explanations of what I’ve received.

I was provided 10 free packs of seed from ECHO seed company for being an “active development worker.” These seeds are new crops not well known out here and have been a blast to attempt growing. Tef from Ethiopia, kale, sweet sorghum, orange lima bean, hawaiian super sweet corn, sunhemp, white clover, collards, alfalfa, chia, etc. I ended up getting 23 different seeds and am trying new things. Check out ECHO if you ever need seed, their great. I also got some watermelon and canteloupe seed put in my mailbox by another volunteer, we’ll try those too.

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My friend gave me this sticker before I left Big Island. It was perfect! I felt inspired at the time and have tried to live this message. I want to take a look around this world and this sticker is a small reminder I take stock in. I was also given the book to write songs in and have taken it all around, filling it up with observations and folks tunes.

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I was given these stickers by a skateshop when I left Gambia and went back to Michigan 2 months ago for a holiday. I was also given this nalgene, which are really important out here in Gambia. Water management is tough and these nalgenes are great products, as my PCV friend Dillon said “widemouth is the only way to go!” The drink and small cake is from a shop in Brussels. There, you always get a side snack with your drink.

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I was given this red hat while back in Michigan. It’s a bass pro hat autographed by a beauty queen and expert fisherman. I also got a fish cleaning lesson by my older brother Chris. Thanks brother 🙂

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My friends on island came to visit me on the farm before I left and gave me a nice parting gift: some local grown coffee and a really nice lei.

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Before I left, a friend saw me off at the airport and gave me a candy lei and some hand sanitizer! This candy helped me leave Hawaii a little less sad.

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Back in Michigan my sister made me this apple pie, complete with animal cutouts. Its my grandmothers recipe I believe. Definitely need one of these again soon. Thanks Stephanie, I really enjoyed this and your company that day.

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My brother Mike took me out windsurfing. He taught me a couple years back and this was my first day with good wind and big waves. I made it through some big waves and I think he surfed by me throwing shaka too, which was hilarious. He even rescued me when I got blown a half mile down shore.

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I got to go on a nice fishing trip with my family. Here’s a freighter in the Detroit river. I didn’t catch much, but it was a lot of fun with the uncles, cousins, brothers and dad.

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My friend from big island visits in Michigan, bringing me a a solid ti leaf lei, 3 separate leis woven together to form one. I also got a chance to cruise around in this cool rental car, a fiat 500 if I remember correctly.

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My host father in training village, Musa Gassama, is a carpenter and he made me this key chain. He was my first host dad and I still keep the first and last name he gave me: Mohammad Gassama.

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I got this orange shirt sent to me in a care package. It’s light and breathable which is perfect for the heat here. This man also gave me a fortune reading by throwing bones and shells on the prayer mat and interpreting their arrangement. The fortune came out really good, with a bright future, to be had only after I do my charity: buying dates from the market and giving out 101 to children in my village. So, do you think I did my charity? This could seem like a hoax but I was with this person and he did have something special about him, like he was a bit more ‘tuned in’ than the average person. I believed him. I did my charity.

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This is a picture of Musa, my host father in training village. He showed me this picture and explained to me that he used to be a Rasta. He said he stopped being a rasta when he had his first child. In the picture he’s standing in front of my training house in Kiang Kaiaf, where I first stayed for 2 months. He also gave me the rasta style bracelet to wear when I went to my naming ceremony. This guy is great, I had the best family in training village. It was their first time hosting a Peace Corps Volunteer and they did a great job. I’ll connect again with Musa in a month and take him to learn Beekeeping, a little way I can give back to him for his kindness to me.

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I got these items over the last 10 years of my life and put them on a chain to wear around my neck. There’s a smashed penny from my childhood house near the train tracks, a spring, a spiritual pendant from Thailand but the most significant is the medallion at the bottom of the picture. My parents were part of peace corps and went to Brazil for their service. While there they had a backpack made by an expert leather worker, who put this pendant on the bag. Apparently the pendant was on his childhood schoolbag and he gave it to my parents, who gave it next to me. While I didn’t take the whole school bag to Gambia, I did take the pendant as a symbol of exploration and service, something my parents initiated at a young age and for which i’m proud of them. I hope to carry on the spirit that built their idea to join Peace Corps and go help.

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I was giving a nice pin at my swear-in ceremony. This was the day I officially became a PCV and stopped being a PCT (peace corps trainee). The pin is on my backpack now.

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My country director Leon gives me a certificate and a congratulations. Now 2 years of service start.

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My friend sent me this handkerchief that we designed together. It’s dyed in natural indigo dye and is hanging on my wall now.

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Grigor sent me out a copy of his book, with a card and a 20 dollar bill inside! The book was a great read and the money was a helpful boost to my income for veggies and snacks. I’m excited to get his new book, should be around this December. I knew Grigor was an author, but holding his book and seeing his name on it made me realize it more fully. I felt proud of him.

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This hoody was bought for me at the visitors center on Mauna Kea. It was my last time going up to the summit and this was a great way to remember that place. I was wearing this when I first arrived and stepped off the plane and I still wear it often despite the heat.

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My only set of wheels out in the Gambia. We soon made a ramp and jumps out of our training folders. I like Peace Corps because even the training provide lots of time to have fun and laugh.

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In my moms words, “It feels good to have a cool shirt!” I agree :). I really like this shirt, which was bought for me on the west side of big island, its tied to a good memory of the time my mom and Todd came out to visit me. I brought it to Gambia for the sentiment. I wore this gift to my friend MoLamin’s program for his new child. MoLamin is one of my good friends in Farafenni and a great guy who’s worked with Peace Corps for years. He owns a restaurant in town. Here he’s holding his son Demba, while were celebrating his new sons birth and naming ceremony.

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I was given the new baby to hold! This is MoLamin’s son Muhammad Ali. In Gambia people are quick to hand over babies for you to hold. The tricky part is to decide how long you’ll hold the baby or what you’ll do. Most times I just look at it and say “O, its nice!” then hand it back, that’s worked for me so far.

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This was a sight for sore eyes! This protein powder really saves me after a hard day of work and it tastes good, almost like a cold chocolate shake. You don’t get a lot of protein here so its good to add this to my diet. And the coffee and macnuts from Hawaii, perfect! Made me feel nostalgic and miss that place, not to mention they taste really good. I shared the mac nuts with my farmer friends and they definitely asked if I could get them some seed to grow these out here.

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I learned to make this hand sign while on Big Island, now I do it all the time. Sure, throwing shaka is kind of a stereotypical surfer or Hawaiian thing to do, but I find its just fun and best not to over think. If you feel excited and are into it, throw shaka and spread the love and excitement to others. Even my host family seems to do it now. I’m grateful the island changed the way my hand works.

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My PCV friend borrowed me this book. I took a 2 hour bus ride to a market that was shut down so I took a day off to read. I like the perspective of Alan Watts, its unusual and entertaining.

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Peace Corps gives us all a bike. This is mine, its a Trek 3500. These bikes are great and allow us to get around the country or village easily. Since the bikes are so nice people constantly ask you to give them your bike. Or they may just steal it! So we get locks too.

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My PCV friend Malcolm saw someone wearing this shirt around his village and managed to get it for me. I got it a week later and felt really grateful, as well as suprised how many different shirts make it out here to Gambia. This is a Mars Volta shirt.

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I got a prayer book sent to me. I like getting different spiritual material to look through. There’s also some more lei from the PC house in Banjul. Lots of ti leaf grows there.

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My agriculture team from PC (Mike, Seth, Bah2, Saikou) would come do site visits to see how I’m doing and how the garden is. On one such visit they brought me this avocado tree. There’s not many avocado trees this far east into the country but we thought we’d try it and see if it would grow.

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I was invited to stay over a Peace Corps staffs house and they gave me a great dinner! This is much different from the usual rice bowl so I really couldn’t believe it. It was like going out to eat at a restaurant. An expensive meal with a lot of fish.

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I got two of these green patagonia shirts sent to me in a care package. The shirts are the capilene 2 and I recommend them – tough material, odor resistant, nice fit, quick dry, stay cool etc. I also got these cow horns from my counterpart. We would soon use them to make fertilizer in.

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Well my sister and brother in law got me really good with this one! There were much needed cliff bars in this package but they were covered by 2 pounds of glitter, so it was impossible to get to the good stuff without getting covered in glitter. I ended up dumping everything out on my floor and sweeping later. I also really laughed when I read what Stephanie wrote on the popcorn. I was also given a  yellow handkerchief to remind me of her dog Brownie, who recently passed. Brownie wore it and now I wear it out here. It’s got peace signs and flowers on it.

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Got this shirt from a friend. Its from a local company on Big Island called The Hawaiian Force. The owl is called “Kiki-0” in Mandinka, “Pue’o” in Hawaiian. I was given 3 shirts from the company and they are really my favorite shirts. Sometimes its the simplest things that are really comforting. That’s what i’ve found out through these care packages. Especially when you’re in a new context with roots searching for familiar ground.

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I was sent this pin in another care package. Punk rock meets Peace, I can believe in that.

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Motown :). This sticker made me laugh, put it on my bike immediately. It reminded me of my not so distant motorcity past and gearhead roots.

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Got this sticker, which I think is from a skate shop in North Carolina.

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I got this respirator sent to me when I started doing metal work. Other safety gear like gloves and safety glasses were also sent to me. Gotta stay safe out here so I like the parental reminder to “watch your eyes and fingers.” The respirator really helps you breathe fresher air and its fun to wear around the host family. I also got this hair cut from my PCV friend. I’m glad someone cuts my hair here because it’s tricky to explain what a mullet or mohawk is, nevermind a combination of the two. Most folks here just razor blade their hair every couple weeks. I did have a great time bouncing along the language barrier in the barbers chair with my friend Mamut. We’ve come a long way now in understanding though :).

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I was giving the invite to go fishing my Modou Kassama. We rode 5 miles to his home village and walked out through the rice fields to go throw net. These was some of the days catch. This night, because of his kind invite, I simultaneously ate crab legs, listened to dubstep and soaked my cut feet in hot salt water. It was a variable dinner time and I had to see my situation and laugh.

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I was given an apple, waffle and a jar of local honey while in Belgium. My plane flew back to Gambia the next day so I was happy to have the honey and the memories of my wonderful delay in Brussels and Ghent. I’ve still got the honey here and share it with others. Thank you Riet.

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I got these pants from my friend Saikou after simply saying “Those pants are great for farming.” Five minutes later they were in a bag and he was handing them to me saying “take them!” I also got this friend Malcolm from Atlanta. He came to visit me in Farafenni.

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This package was spot on. Beef jerky for protein, Dune for reading, Gold Bond to keep dry and vitamin drink mix to stay healthy and hydrated.

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I was given a chance to live on a farm 4 years ago, which later made this drink in a Banjul supermarket take on new meaning. This is the only lychee product I’ve found in Gambia. I’m happy my past made me do a double take here.

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I was given this rashguard top to help me surf comfortably.

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Lots of folks emailed and called me when they found out I was going to live abroad for the peace corps. Some of them emailed me great pictures and quotes like this one below. When you sign up for a big adventure and are setting up for a radical life change it’s good to get some “atta boys” from wise people. This was one of those sentiments. Not like I want to be on a cliff alone, but I like the idea and kind support.

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And another email picture sent to me by a humanitarian and world traveler. The translation reads “It’s easy to live with eyes closed. Misunderstanding all you see.” At the time I took it as important and while my interpretation of its meaning has changed it still resonates, even more now that i’ve looked around here.

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And finally, I’m really grateful I’ve got a great host mother and little sisters. Especially when they push me aside and show me how to really pound grains :).

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So, that’s the scoops for now. Just wanted to say I’m really grateful for all the love and support you guys have given to me. I really appreciate it and feel like I have a great group of friends and family, cheering for me and sending me their best wishes should I pass through their minds at sometime during the workday. Love and Thanks – Stephen

 

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