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US Peace Corps: Ivory Coast - 2001-09-21

Peace Corps volunteers and the people they work with in the West African nation of Ivory Coast reflect on the program 40 years after it was started. The village of Frambo on Ivory Coast's border with Ghana, offers a window on the accomplishments and frustrations experienced by both the volunteers and the people they are working to help.

Unlike many of the villages that Peace Corps volunteers work in, Frambo has seen economic development in the past. The village was once the main border crossing point to Ghana, benefiting from a constant flow of traders and tourists.

Unlike the mud huts in surrounding villages, people here have homes built of cement and bricks. They have electricity, and many have toilets. Frambo was an important trade center, crowded with travelers and vendors along a dock where a ferry made constant runs across the lagoon to Ghana.

But fortunes changed in 1983 when an asphalt highway and a bridge were built several kilometers away, taking all the border traffic. For 18 years, Frambo has languished. Shops have closed. The ferry now sits rusting on the edge of the lagoon.

Frambo's economic decline has resulted in a crumbling infrastructure, and a rise in malnutrition and disease especially among children.

A little more than a year ago Tim and Alex Foxwhite, a young married couple from the U.S. state of California, arrived in Frambo to work as Peace Corps volunteers.

In the United States, Tim had worked for a literary magazine and Alex was a restaurant manager, and later a teacher. Both are college educated. Tim explains he and his wife wanted to explore, rather than settle down. "We were not ready for the tract home, the two cars, and the child," Mr. Foxwhite says. "That [Peace Corps work] was the logical next step. It is not that we did not want that eventually, but things starting pointing toward our going a different path and Peace Corps was one of our options."

At first, residents were not sure why Tim and Alex had arrived. But like others, village elder Moriba Doumbia says he was glad to see them. "It makes us very happy to see them among us because we know that anytime we work with Westerners, there will always be some kind of development," Mr. Doumbia said. "We need help to develop. On our own, we cannot develop."

One of the first tasks for Tim and Alex was to improve village sanitation, and that meant building latrines. Alex says coordinating construction efforts taught her that there are elements of her culture that she can not impose on others.

"I feel like when we came, our ways certainly were more rigid because they were the only ways that we knew," Mrs. Foxwhite said. "But the more time that we have spent here, I think the more we have tended to let go of a lot of that. For instance, one of the first projects we did, we created a timeline and told everybody 'this is how we are going to proceed.' But then we discovered that the same timeline is not applicable all over the world. There is a whole different timeline here."

Mrs. Foxwhite added, "When people die, when people marry, everything is suspended. So we had to revise the whole way that we might go about doing a project. We have had to have faith in the organizational systems that are already in place, because they are [in fact] in place."

Villagers like Aikpa Affoue say they expected the Peace Corps, as an American aid agency, to hand out money. But she says that over time villages learned the two volunteers were there to provide something more important: encouragement. "They came more than a year ago and up to this time, we have not seen enough done. We have seen nothing more than two latrines," Ms. Affoue said, "They want to help us, but it must come from within ourselves. Their encouragement should help us do things by our own means."

The two Peace Corps volunteers say what they want to leave behind when they finish their two year service in Frambo is the sense of empowerment and independence. Tim says he hopes he will have done more than improve health conditions in the village. "I do not have any ambition of being remembered as the 'king' of latrines, as the person who built 70 latrines, or the person who got the maternity [clinic] started for Frambo," he said. "I think that the best thing we can do is [leave the impression of] there were Americans who lived here. They lived with us. They ate the same food that we eat. They worked with us in our fields, and they wanted to understand us."

Tim and Alex Foxwhite say the benefit has been mutual, even if the results are not exactly what either side expected at the outset.

The villagers have not gotten a massive infusion of cash. And they have not gotten an overnight transformation of their village. But villagers say they have learned that they have the power to work together to solve problems on their own.

The two American Peace Corps volunteers say they have not taught the villagers how to carry out projects on a precise schedule. And they have not eliminated infant mortality in the village, but they have learned the value of living in a community and of dealing with obstacles as they come.

The result, both sides say, is an increased understanding about themselves, and about their world.