Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Laurel West Kessler (Ethiopia 1964-66)
Carolee and Art Buck (Senegal 1968-70) met years ago at the University of California at Santa Barbara and discovered they shared a desire to work and travel around the world.
“We were young, starry-eyed dreamers,” Carolee said.
They were inspired to join the Peace Corps by the compelling stories of people doing good works in foreign cultures and by the words of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
They got married and joined the Peace Corps as a couple in Senegal, the western-most country on Africa’s mainland.
Fast forward some 50 years to find the Ashland couple retired and enduring the oppressive pandemic like everybody else. It was last May when the seed of an idea planted earlier by a friend — but dismissed initially — blossomed into a project.
The project resulted in a 133-page hardcover book with 209 photos chronicling the couple’s Peace Corps stint in Senegal from 1968 to 1970. She created the book on the self-publishing online platform Blurb.
She completed the book in September and ordered 16 copies, mostly for family. After she finished the project, she checked Wikipedia to learn about current trends in Senegal and found out its president, Macky Sall, grew up in Fatick, the small town where the couple had lived and worked during their Peace Corps years.
“I thought he’d appreciate knowing about the book and perhaps recognize some of the people and places in his town,” she said. She sent a copy to the Presidential Palace in Dakar.
Imagine her surprise when she received a letter of appreciation from President Sall himself, with an invitation for the Bucks to revisit Senegal, offering to provide round-trip air fare, hotel accommodations and local transportation.
“My reaction? Shock, delight, boundless joy, amazement,” Carolee said. She thought she might receive a note of thanks from a secretary, but nothing so grand as the president’s personal letter and invitation.
Upon reading the president’s letter of Dec. 30, it became clear why he had responded so enthusiastically.
“Let me tell you how much I am particularly touched by your kind gesture,” he wrote. “Through the pages of your book and its amazing pictures, I fondly remember my youthful years in my hometown of Fatick.”
But that isn’t all.
Some of the people pictured in the book were indeed familiar to the president.
“Yes, I do recognize Madame Bane Soumare, my elder sister in Fatick,” he wrote. “I will be more than happy to receive you again in Senegal and of course in Fatick where I was a mayor from 2002 to 2012.”
Bane Soumare was a next-door neighbor and friend of the Bucks when they lived in Fatick. The family was welcoming and helpful. In fact, the Soumares helped organize a party at the social center to welcome Carolee’s parents when they came for a visit.
Sall went on to study geological engineering and served as minister of state for mines, energy and hydraulics; minister of state for the interior; and as prime minister. Then he was elected in 2012 as the first president born after Sengalese independence from France. He was reelected in 2019.
The Bucks hope to make the trip to Senegal in about six months, or at least by the end of the year. They have their passports, but they’ll most likely need shots, including the COVID-19 vaccination.
“We are reviewing our French,” Carolee said. “Art is concentrating on grammar. I am reading a book by a Senegalese feminist novelist, Miriama Ba. And we’re reading about current events in Senegal.”
One of the first things they did when they moved to Ashland in 2007 from The Hague in the Netherlands was join the Southern Oregon Returned Peace Corps Volunteers organization. Returned volunteers like to tell their stories, and the most receptive audience is often other RPCVs.
Carolee never considered herself a writer or storyteller, but acquiesced one day, telling a story to a friend about Peace Corps training in Baker, Louisiana.
“My friend said, ‘Write it down!’ I did not. But when the pandemic kept us in and away from normal activities, I had a talk with myself — Why am I fighting it? So, I finally began writing it down and I couldn’t stop.”
Those many years ago when they decided the Peace Corps was for them, Carolee and Art had different destinations in mind.
“I wanted to go to Africa,” she said. “It was a mystical place for me. I wanted to go to French-speaking West Africa because my university majors were French and art.”
Art had applied to Latin America.
“My soon-to-be husband had studied Spanish,” she said. “But when we decided to get married and go as a couple, he was a good sport and switched his proposed area to Africa.”
They were assigned to the social centers program in Fatick, Senegal. She taught women’s classes in health and sewing and started a kindergarten class. He helped on construction projects and was a substitute teacher in the high school. During the second year, they both taught high school English.
Fatick was a town of about 7,000 at the time, swelling to about 12,000 during the school year.
“Students came in from neighboring areas to go to school,” Carolee said.
She said it was a “romantic” setting, with towering fromager trees, flowering flamboyant trees, and baobab, the national tree known as the tree of life.
The Sine River flowed through Fatick to the Atlantic Ocean.
“It was tidal, so we had a saltwater river we could swim in,” she said. It was a blessing, she said, because the parasitic flatworms (schistosomes) usually found in fresh water could not live in saltwater.
Fatick was a bustling market town.
“The outdoor market had plenty of fresh and dried food, meat, fish, rice, couscous and vegetables,” she said. “Most people lived in family compounds of several buildings, some of cement, some of thatch.”
She says they felt safe in Fatick. “And we didn’t feel a lack of company or activities.”
Senegal is sub-Saharan and very hot.
“People worked early,” she said. “Everyone went home and hid out from the heat from noon until about 4 p.m.”
In the years between their Peace Corps adventure and retirement, the couple had a variety of jobs.
When Carolee worked as a fire lookout, Art was a firefighter. They worked winters in those early years on the Mammoth and June Mountain ski lifts.
Art later earned a law degree, and Carolee got her master’s degree in reading. And when he worked five years in the foreign service, she tagged along. In the intervening years, he worked as a lawyer, an attorney general, and a prosecutor; she taught in elementary and high schools, tutored and volunteered.
In retirement and before COVID, Carolee sang with the Rogue Valley Peace Choir and had a studio at the Ashland Art Center. She looks forward to resuming those activities.
President Sall requested additional copies of her book. “Those will be a gift from me,” Carolee said.
The couple’s pending visit to Senegal will be for a duration of two to four weeks.
Will be there be another book in the offing? “That’s a good question,” she said. That’s a definite maybe from the woman who had to be talked into writing the first one.
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.