Monday, November 21
7:30 pm

MY NAME IS BETH OPRISCH. I live in Toronto, Ohio. I am a residential counselor at a group home for adolescent girls and currently working on my Master’s degree in Counseling. I was a Community Health Volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa from 1984 to 1986.

What a difficult task. To talk for three minutes about one event that crystallizes my Peace Corps experience. How to select just one. I went through journals, read old letters, looked at pictures, watched my slides and finally a common theme emerged. That theme was Yeabul Kamara.

I knew Yeabul was different from the start. She was spirited, feisty, sarcastic, assertive - not the typical characteristics of the women in the male dominated Sierra Leoneon society. Her firey temperament contradicted her slight, almost frail appearance. I’ll always remember her smile - those incredibly white, straight teeth, highlighted by her dark, clear complexion, illuminating even the darkest of the Sierra Leoneon mud huts. And that infectious laugh - always evoking a similar one from me. I still remember the delight she found in watching me struggle with the native language while she, knowing very good English, would rather watch me struggle than help me.

I’ll never forget the time she was bitten by a poisonous snake. I kept an all-night vigil by her side; assuring her, trying to comfort her, and praying for her recovery. I had only been in country for a few months but had already witnessed three deaths resulting from snakebites. I was scared and ready to catch the next plane home if Yeabul died. But she was a fighter and somehow survived. That incident brought us closer together.

For the rest of my time there, our friendship continued to grow. We prepared meals together, beat clothes on rocks together, and gossiped together. Yeabul taught me gardening, the tribal language, and the customs of the Sierra Leone culture. I taught her English, some basic health practices, and Yahtzee. We shared ideas, dreams, and philosophies about life. About a year into my stay, she became pregnant. Two days before I left Mapaki, she gave birth to her second child. She told me she intended to name the baby after me but since it was a boy, it wasn’t really feasible. (Beth isn’t the most popular of the Sierra Leoneon male names) I was touched just the same. Instead, she named her baby Carl - Carl Kargbo - after my father. When I left, I didn’t know if I would ever see Yeabul again, but I left hoping that someday, somehow our paths would cross again. Perhaps that hope was a defense mechanism to lessen the pain of goodbye, but as long as we were both alive, I felt the possibility existed.

About a year after my return to the States, I received a letter from the Peace Corps Volunteer that had replaced me in Mapaki. She was writing to tell me that Yeabul Kamara had died. Pneumonia. Something so treatable; so incredibly curable - in this country anyway - had taken the life of my best friend in Sierra Leone. I kept re-reading the letter, hoping for a different conclusion, that perhaps I had misread something. But I hadn’t. Yeabul Kamara had died.

For days that was all I thought about. But I think it was by working through the loss of Yeabul that I realized just how significant my Peace Corps experience had been for me. By living with Yeabul and the other people of Mapaki I learned so much about myself. From chats under mango trees to walks to neighboring villages, I learned by their simple examples. I learned how selfish I was, how impatient I could be, and how dogmatic my thinking could become. I truly did my best in providing health education but what I gave them and taught them paled in comparison to what I learned from them. I learned Christian values living among Muslim people.

I can never repay the people of Sierra Leone, but I can take those lessons, that personal growth, that broadened perspective and apply it to my work back here. So many people questioned my motivations for joining the Peace Corps - why go overseas, we have so much that needs to be done here? That statement is hard to dispute. But I believe that we do have a responsibility to help other nations of the world. As President Kennedy said in his inaugural address 27 years ago, “we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves . . . not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”

It is right to help other nations less blessed than ours. And I feel fortunate that I had an opportunity to serve in an agency that does so. But it is equally right to help those in this country. Any accomplishments that I might contribute, any difference that I might make in even the smallest sense in improving conditions in this country will in some way be shaped by my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone.