Ky. Voices: Peace Corps at 52: people-to-people diplomacy

Children returned to class in Gao in northern Mali Feb. 18, nearly a month after al-Qaida-linked militants were driven out by French troops.
Children returned to class in Gao in northern Mali Feb. 18, nearly a month after al-Qaida-linked militants were driven out by French troops. AP

The coup d'état in Mali last March made a huge impact on my life. My wife and I were serving as Peace Corps volunteers in that landlocked West African country, which ranks as the 13th poorest on the United Nations' Human Development Index.

When we heard about the coup, I was in the middle of distributing thousands of tree saplings to 10 villages to fight deforestation, and she was organizing the construction of a mud-brick elementary school with village leaders. We were soon told to say goodbye to our Malian friends and leave with what we could carry.

For the first time ever, Peace Corps Mali had to be evacuated. Serving in Mali's underdeveloped conditions was tough, but leaving our communities to such unsettling circumstances was devastating. From there, the Mali conflict deteriorated with invasions by al-Qaida linked rebels in half the country and an 11th-hour rescue by the French.

Today, Mali has regained most of its territory, but reconstruction has only just begun as an estimated 350,000 people have fled their homes. While our friends were not among those killed or who fled, we care deeply now for the whole country and the struggles that lay ahead.

We care because, despite the alarming headlines, we learned in Peace Corps that the vast majority of Malians are peaceful and good-natured people who work hard in the day, laugh easy at night and share generously with friends and guests. After we left, both of our development projects were completed by community members, even in the midst of turmoil. When we call now, we are given blessings and welcomed back with enthusiasm.

I am proud and glad to have served in Mali, which is why I celebrate Peace Corps Week and the organization's 52 years. Peace Corps continues to provide a unique role in our country's foreign policy with its three goals: helping people, promoting a better understanding of Americans worldwide and teaching Americans about our host countries. By fostering personal relationships with foreigners, Peace Corps puts a friendly face on American values, which ultimately improves development efforts and strengthens national security.

Volunteers are often more efficient than other organizations due to our awareness of local culture, emphasis on community involvement and sense of stewardship when using American tax dollars and donations. By focusing on lives changed instead of things bought, Peace Corps projects are also more effective, and they prepare volunteers to be among our next international development professionals.

Knowledge of other cultures helps me define what it is to be a citizen of the United States and the world. Sometimes without knowing it, my wife and I also shared ideas with Malians concerning gender equality, democracy, education and leadership, frequently on our radio show or while drinking tea with friends.

This approach stands in stark contrast to that of al-Qaida, who invaded villages and forcefully imposed their laws. While our moderate Muslim friends sometimes disagreed with our views (on polygamy, for example), they appreciated us more than al-Qaida, whom they considered to be bandits and offensive to Islam.

This distinction is vital to stopping anti-U.S. extremism — by making friends before we can be called the enemy.

Peace Corps service, supported by taxpayer dollars, represents the best of American values: generosity, sacrifice and service to the poor. By living, eating and working with community members for two years, volunteers collectively communicate the diversity of the American Dream; not through imperialism or cruelty, but through friendship and love.

The United States should pride itself in having invited over 200,000 citizens to serve in 139 countries since 1960.

France should be commended for stopping al-Qaida in Mali, but ultimately I believe the Peace Corps encompasses the West's best approach to stopping terrorism in Africa and elsewhere: effective grass-roots development that builds relationships between people of different cultures.

Buildings will crumble, gifts are forgotten, but shared experiences last a lifetime.