Helen Hildebrandt (Tunisia 1966–68, Senegal 1973–75)

Monday, November 21
6:18 pm

MY NAME IS Helen Hildebrandt. I am from Wheat Ridge and Lakewood, Colorado. I was a kindergarten teacher in Sidi Amor Bou Hadjla, Tunisia and an English teacher in Bizerte, Tunisia from 1966 to 1968, and an English teacher in Ziguinchor, Senegal from 1973 to 1975.

I have many vivid memories of my Peace Corps experiences. I can still see the Bizerte children happily playing barefooted at the community water faucet. I remember the frail Tunisian man who carried our two beds on his head all the way across the capital city of Tunis. I recall the 14-year-old Senegalese student who implored me to accept his homework paper in spite of the burnt fringes explaining that his young sister had knocked over the candle while he was studying and he couldn’t spare another sheet of paper. And I reflect on the Senegalese man who walked three hours each way in the tropical African sun to work in a neighboring town. These and other Peace Corps experiences served to reaffirm my belief in the dignity of the human condition.

But one of my first encounters symbolizes it exceedingly well. It happened in the spring of 1966 about six weeks after arriving in the village of Sidi Amor Bou Hadjla, Tunisia. I heard a commotion one day while I was inside with my young preschoolers. I walked outside and saw a Bedouin woman at the gate of the kindergarten. She was beautifully regaled in bright red Bedouin cloths with silver jewelry jangling and sparkling in the morning sun, and she carried a small bundle. I came up to her and asked what the matter was.

She held out her arms and, with piercing eyes, spoke to me. I didn’t understand what she said. She repeated in a pleading Bedouin tongue. I looked quizzically at my Tunisian counterpart, and she explained in Arabic I could understand. The Bedouin woman continued to thrust her arms toward me – arms which held a small baby. She wanted me to take her baby back to America. She offered life in its purest, most innocent form to a complete stranger – to an American Peace Corps Volunteer. She offered a child of one generation to that of another, a child of one heritage to that of another. The love she had cannot be measured, and the trust she showed was pure. How would we have known about her gift if the Peace Corps had not been there? Finally convinced of its impossibility, she sadly turned and stoically walked away – disappearing into the desert horizon. She knows not how deeply she touch my life.

One sleepless night I was wrestling with the turmoil in our world. It seems that a basic element is missing in our intercultural relationship. That element is BONDING. I would like to leave you with the following thought:

If we bond with one another
by holding dear
what is common to everyone,
Celebrate the cultural aspects
that distinguish us,
We can ensure a truly rich life
for all humanity,
Explore the essence of our universe.

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