President John F Kennedy in 1961 created the Peace Corps. His vision was to have an organisation composed of Americans who would promote peace, friendship, and development, by helping the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women as well as promote a better mutual understanding between Americans and the people they serve. With this, the Peace Corps started operations in the Gambia in 1967 and its relationship with Gambians have remained uninterrupted since then. It is worth knowing that currently 85 Peace Corps Volunteers are serving in the country in all the six geographic regions of the country. They work in the education, health, environment and agriculture sectors. The Peace Corps office staff in The Gambia comprises 40 Gambians and two Americans. They are responsible of the daily management of programmes and supporting volunteers.
Society-your weekly magazine that focuses on people and their daily lives including important event, and institutions amongst other, visited their office along Kairaba Avenue for an exclusive interview with Leon Kayego, the Gambia's US Peace Corps Country Director. In this interview, he discussed various issues like Peace Corp Volunteers selection, their contributions, the legacy they left behind after their service and his personal experience about the Gambia compared to other countries he had previously served.
Enjoy the interview.
Society: In brief can you tell us about yourself and your job history?
Kayego: I am an American citizen born in Congo, Africa. About my job I am the Peace Corps (The Gambia,) Country Director. I have been working for Peace Corps since 1977 but in between I stopped and went to school for graduate education and then back forth. I also took time out of Peace Corps to work for private a organisation where I was a director of Human Resources in Massachusetts, USA.
Society: Who is legible to become a PC volunteer?
Kayego: To become a PCV you have to be an American citizen. Volunteer must at least have a Bachelor's degree. But any one with credible experience might be admitted without having a Bachelor's degree. However, all young people (volunteers) I will say 98 percent have Bachelor's degree. No age limit and PC actually encourages application from senior citizens because they joined Peace Corps with numbers of experiences. We had a status quo programme here in the Gambia particularly with the college of public health at the university where volunteers who have been professors at universities in the US come and stay for six months or one year to teach specific courses. They are as well helping the university to develop curriculum that meet academic standards of West Africa. In addition, the official duration of service for a particular Peace Corps volunteer is 2 years.
Society: What are the responsibilities, tasks and work ethics of PCV in the Gambia and other countries?
Kayego: Responsibilities are defined by Peace Corps' mission. The mission of the Peace Corps is to promote peace and friendship in the nation the PC is serving. That mission is accomplished through three goals which is to transfer skills and develop capacities in different priority areas that the host country determines important . The second goal is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the country where they serve. The third goal is to promote a better understanding of people served in America. When they go back or even before they go back they send email messages, pictures of their family here and the country appearance. When on vacation they speak to schools and colleges about their experiences. They share pictures of their family here with everyone as brothers, sisters and friends will come to visit them. All of them when they go back home is like 'I am from the Gambia; I know Gambia and Gambian people are nice, very welcoming.' They share the information to promote where they serve when they are in America so that people will know more about the country. All these promote a better understanding within nations.
Society: What are the procedures of selecting or admitting candidates for Peace Corps Volunteer service?
Kayego: The procedure is a bit longer. For each program we have a manager. Those managers are Gambians and hence we agree on recruitment we will send a request to Peace Corps headquarters in Washington for our need. The office in Washington will do the recruitments from different colleges, universities and other places in order to satisfy our demand. Those who meet the criteria [what] we requested for are shortlisted and they will sign-up for the job and depart (come to join us). On their arrival, PC will provide them village based training. This is because they are going to serve in the village and it will help them get used to the food, life style , culture and learn their languages to communicate.
Society: PC volunteers contribute directly to the economic sustainability, and the future of their host country, apart from their areas of focus - education, health ,environment and agricultural sectors, what are their other areas of intervention in those countries?
Kayego: Well, we chose the three areas to meet the requirement or request from the host country. But Peace Corps philosophy is to focus on a small number of projects because it will enable us to really train people and measure the impact of their works. For Gambia we have three programmes most countries are about three but some big countries might have five. The reason for that is if you spread yourself too much in four, five, six or more programmes, it becomes more difficult to prepare people to serve in the programme. And even to give them resources, supervise and measure the impact.
Society: While in the country of their service, PC volunteers are innovative, open to new ideas and absorb new cultures without forgetting who they are, their culture and belief, do you think the ideas and culture among other things they learn here and in other places are useful not only to them but to their country of origin?
Kayego: Cultural integration is a condition for success. If you are in a foreign country to work with people before they do what you say they have to trust you and trust is something you earn. When you are in a community where you are not known and you do not show respect to the people, respect their culture, cannot speak their language it will be difficult to make it through. In development work it is very important for any development agent to respect the people they work with and be trusted by the people in order to earn their respect and trust. So cultural integration is the foundation for success that is why PCVs have to learn the local languages, live in the community where they serve and eat their food, which is usually difficult at the beginning but after a while they get used to it and love it. When there is a ceremony like christening, marriage, baptism and also sad events in their host family, they take part as well. They go through good and bad times together.
Society: As a Regional Director of PC in the Gambia, how do you think that volunteers' skills and commitment to service in this country will leave a legacy of development and understanding which other volunteers from other countries could learn from?
Kayego: The legacy left behind are everlasting , so it cannot be measured within a short time. in other words the legacy PCVs usually leave behind are immeasurable. There are lots of attestation from different people of different position across the country that 'without the PCVs they might have not be whom they are today because PCs open their minds, encouraged them, and their teaching techniques are very empowering.' Also when you go to the provences, the villagers give PCVs local names and say good things about them. Those are proofs that friendship happened, people learn something from volunteers and they were very useful in their lives. This kind of statements show that Peace Corps leave positive legacies behind after their service.
Society: When they gave them a local name, how do they feel and carry it on?
Kayego: They all have local names they often used and carry-on. They are used to this names that sometimes I have problems with their real names when I visit their communities. Should I ask what the American name is from the villagers, the answer is 'we don't know.' So giving local names is a very positive thing. The naming ceremony is a kind of emotional. It is really a very good thing meaning 'welcome to our family' because they are given name of the respected person in the family in the community where they are serving. They love the names!
Society: How can you describe the moment of this naming ceremony, that is a 'toubab' been christened by adding a new name to their already gotten ones?
Kayego: It is emotional, very exciting moment and all new volunteers and trainees always remember that moment in their lives, they laugh about it. This is because we explained to them that when a family gives you a name of that family in that village or community automatically you are classified and accepted as part of the family. The family will protect you and make sure that you are well in that community. The level of acceptance is actually one of the highlight of cultural integration. So it is a very good thing, they take pictures and send it home to say I have my second family here.
Society: Work of a volunteer is always challenging and it is not everyone that can leave his/her home country to another man's country for a volunteer work, what do you think are the obstacles or difficulties that can make a volunteer withdraw from this assignment?
Kayego: Naturally there are challenges because adaptation is not easy. When volunteers come they do not even know the local language, and they want to talk to people, it is frustrating. Language is a challenge but not a reason for resigning or giving up. Adopting processes in the village like eating local food and health issues particularly gastronomy intestinal problem. But we have a good medical system to support them; good doctors and nurses to take good care of them. There are other things that could happen like someone get seriously sick that cannot be treated here, that person have to go back home or if a person become home sick lonely and probably go home. But those who resign are a very minimal or smaller percentage estimated in general to be less than 5%.
Society: How does the American government motivate their Peace Corps volunteers wherever they are?
Kayego: Motivation and support to PC volunteers is very important. The main motivation is the training mission. The main motivation for them and been reinforced during their training is that they are here for a purpose. They are better being challenged because it is our (PC) way to live, do, and accept challenges. If somebody does not accept the challenges we do not keep them after the training they have to go home because they really know what they have signed up for. They are motivated by giving them the best support we can, like health and financial support though they do not have salary but living allowance to support their family at their communities. But the main source of motivation and support is from within as they have to be committed for two years to do something good for another human being or community.
Society: During the swearing-in ceremony of 15 new PCVs that just completed their Pre-Service Training (PST), you said The Gambia has the best and most dedicated staff" and you said that "having served in several other PC countries, I agree 100%" that Gambia has the best staff on the continent, so how did you evaluate them and how does PC Gambia intend to keep this momentum?
Kayego: We want to keep the momentum and even increase it. Credit to my Gambian staff, they are the majority in different level of responsibilities from management to drivers and so on. They are really the backbone of PC as we are only two Americans among them. They are the one that stays because we come on short contract of 5 years and go while the rest staffs maintain the programme and keep it going. With regard to PC staff in the Gambia specifically, have been to several PC countries, honestly speaking the staff here in the Gambia are among the best in terms of motivation, hard work, commitment and they do their job with love. You can tell who is really working for pay cheque from who is working for commitment or motivation - I have seen that many times and that is very refreshing and encouraging.
Society: What made the PST the most difficult part of a volunteer's experience?
Kayego: The Pre-Service Training turned to be the most difficult because they have to absorb so many things. They have to learn new local languages, adapt to a new home, stay with a family that you did not know, studying hard everyday to learn different things within a short period of time. In addition, you also deal with some health adjustment issues because some of them have left their home for the first time. Their parents are not here, the kind of facilities they are used to, no personal car to drive around, and the weather is different in some cases plus the kind of food to eat is totally different.
Society: From experience, you had served in different PC countries before The Gambia, how can you compare life of volunteers in other countries to the one of the Gambia in terms of stress, easiness, difficulties, peaceful life and among other things that can make service a happy or sad one?
Kayego: What is specific to each country are the people. People of the country make a big difference. I have been to many countries and I must say I love and enjoyed my service in every single country. But specifically talking about the Gambia, I found out that the Gambian people are kind hearted people, they are welcoming and peaceful people. I know people refer to the Gambia as a Smiling Coast of Africa so before I came here I was one kind wondering of what does that means, is it of geographic or what! But today I do not have to ask because I know that the Gambians are really smiling people. As regard to safety, Gambia is a safer place to be than most other countries. Naturally no country, no people are perfect but in general Gambia is a safe country to live.
Society: What do you think can be the sad and happy moment of PC volunteers?
Kayego: Like every human being, when a member of their family in the community they live dies, it is always a sad moment to them. When there is food scarcity in their communities before harvest. Their happy time is when they see members of the community working on the project, learn the skills and see better results. It is always a very good moment for them to see that somebody learn something good from them. When they teach in the classroom and see the use of different methodology and the kids are very participatory, want to learn more that is a very positive moment. They have more happy and positive moment than sad moments.
Society: What is your personal experience of the Gambia?
Kayego: To work with my staff majority of whom are Gambian . I enjoy coming to the office every single day and see every single person I work with, I appreciate what they do. The warm welcome I receive when I travel to visit the volunteers in the village are also always pleasing. When I see projects that volunteers do it makes me feel really good. All these are personal experience to share.
Society: Apart from The Gambia, what other countries particularly in West Africa does PCs operate in?
Kayego: PC is present in Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia among other countries. They were in Ivory Coast and Mali as well, but moved out because of the conflict. If things stabilize in future it is possible PCs would go back there.
Society: What do you think the society can do to support PCVs?
Kayego: To make them feel welcome in their community and also to see that the community is interested in their projects. If they are interested they will work together and achieve things. When there is no motivation it becomes difficult. In general when they have motivation they become more encourage and if no motivation they are discouraged.
Society: Your advice for the PC and the community they serve.
Kayego: Let them make use of the resources they have. PCVs are unique in terms of development and the work they do within two years. It is like 24 hours job, seven days a week they are there in their communities. Society: Thanks for sparing us your valuable time on this interview, we really appreciate it.
L Kayego: Thank you, too, for the interview.