Special to The Examiner
Once he was signed up, James Bick never had any doubts. He wanted to travel, he wanted to help people, and he wanted to learn.
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience,” he said.
Bick, an Independence native, returned to the states this summer after spending two years in the West African country of Senegal, where he worked with the Peace Corps. He was stationed in the region of Fatick, located in the center of the country north of a small country called The Gambia.
Bick, who holds a degree in conservation enforcement from the University of Central Missouri, worked in several villages, mainly focusing on the development of community nutrition.
“They have a huge problem of nutrition there,” Bick said. He worked with locals to start home gardens and revamp their diets. He even put his conservation degree to work – aiding in the reforestation efforts in the area.
Upon arriving, Bick's Senegalese family immediately took him under their wing. His host father, an elderly man, stood up and declared to the entire village the evening Bick arrived that he was his son, and that the village treat him as such.
And while the 2005 Truman High School graduate was welcomed graciously, the transition from his American life was drastic. Coming from a family of four, Bick went to living with a family of 25, most of whom were children under 10 years old.
Nearly half of Senegal's population of 13 million is under the age of 15.
It is with the children that Bick said he bonded most. In any project he worked on, it didn't take long for a small army of helping hands and smiling faces to assemble.
“That was the hardest part for me,” he said. “Saying goodbye (to the children).”
Bick said his most rewarding experiences were making connections with people, including his new family. But that wasn't always easy. While French is the official language of the country, the only language spoken in the area Bick was stationed in was called Seeree, one that he didn't study at UCM.
Bick can recall the moment when the complete immersion finally kicked in.
“One day, it clicked. You're suddenly realizing the conversation that mystified you was just about the price of beans and rice,” he said with a laugh.
There were some cultural hurdles as well. Senegal is a predominately Muslim country, while Bick grew up with an Episcopalian background. A few weeks after he arrived, the holy month of Ramadan arrived – when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
“I thought, ‘why not?’ I'm over here, I'm in an Islamic country – I might as well fast,” Bick said. “I only lasted 15 days, and I cheated because I drank water during the day.”
Ramadan concludes with a feast called Eid – locally referred to as Korite in Senegal. He also remembers villagers going into the wilderness to listen to the local imam read from the Koran during Ramadan.
He says it was these kinds of moments that made the experience memorable – one he would recommend for anyone. Bick would encourage anyone who is interested to learn more about the Peace Corps.
More than 200,000 Americans have served in the Corps since its founding in 1961, when President Kennedy challenged the nation’s young people to serve the cause of peace by volunteering in developing countries.
Thirty-eight others joined Bick in Fatick, part of the 250-strong force of Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal during his time there.
They went to “help others learn to help themselves,” but Bick said he also came back with a few lessons of his own.
“They are so resourceful,” he said. “One of my brothers made a flashlight out of six batteries, a shampoo bottle, some rubber tubing and an LED light bulb.”
That was one of the most valuable lessons he learned: recycle, reuse, and be resourceful.
“We're so concerned about things over here,” he said. “Always things – never people.”
Independence man returns from Senegal
Special to The Examiner