From ordnance corps to Peace Corps and back
December 14, 2011
- Picatinny Arsenal employee volunteered for two years with the Peace Corps.
- Served in the West African nation of Mali.
- His work centered on water and sanitation projects.
There are many ways to volunteer. Most people choose to do so locally.
But one Picatinny Arsenal employee travelled halfway around the world to the African nation of Mali to volunteer two years of his time with the Peace Corps.
"I heard about the Peace Corps in high school; sometime in college I decided I wanted to do it before I got too settled in with my post-college life," said Matthew Clemente. "To be honest, I never fully educated myself about what the Peace Corps was."
Clemente, a mechanical engineer at the Munitions Engineering Technology Center, said that he did not choose the country he eventually went to, nor did he know very much about it.
"There's not a whole lot of information out there on Mali, so my expectations were limited. I knew it'd be hot and I knew the people would be really welcoming," Clemente said. "Most of my expectations were actually exceeded; it was hotter then I'd imagined and the people were even friendlier."
The West African nation of Mali is the only country where the Peace Corps serves that is also a Federal Service hardship post, said Clemente. "Unfortunately, because you volunteer, there's no bump in pay."
According to Clemente, Peace Corps volunteers are given the opportunity to choose which region of the world they want to serve. But the Peace Corps places volunteers where they willl be most useful based on their skills and experience. Upon his assignment to Mali, Clemente chose to go to the southernmost region of Sikasso.
"It's the farthest you can get from the Sahara and it's considered the immoral region of Mali," Clemente said. "Sikasso's known for slanged out language and their animist beliefs. I loved it."
In Mali, Clemente's work centered on water and sanitation projects. His largest project was building a latrine. But what he enjoyed the most was the way he could work on and complete his projects.
"Some volunteers like to hold meetings every week and pressure people with established times and events," he said. "Spending time with Malians is what led to the style of work I prided myself on: informal.
"There's a lot of things volunteers do, that you have to be reminded that it's work because it all feels like you're just hanging out. That's the approach I took."
Taking that approach also allowed Clemente to learn more about his host nation's culture and to immerse himself in it.
"In Mali, the Peace Corps takes the approach of full immersion as part of its training," Clemente said. "You can't be prepared for everything, but being able to adjust is an asset the most successful volunteers all shared."
"Malians love to gossip," Clemente noted as an example. "So if someone invites me to eat and I tell them 'no' because I know they haven't washed their hands and I don't want to eat feces, the whole town will know about it."
Clemente also said he joined in as many of the animist groups as he could. Animism is the belief that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical being.
"I'm a member of quite a few, the biggest one being Komo," Celmente said.
Komo's a secret group for men in Mali. I loved joining in on things like that. "Being a part of something like Komo also gets you respect from Malians as an outsider. It also gets a lot of laughs because, even over there, it's considered counter-culture and a bit obscure. It shows how deep you've gone to integrate to undertake joining Komo. It also means you're very well trusted not to spill the secrets of such an ancient organization."
There were other religious groups in the region and they came together as a community on many occasions.
"In my town there were animists, Muslims and Christians. The whole town celebrated everyone's holidays so we had a lot of parties," he said.
His ability to socialize and be accepted into the Mali culture allowed Clemente to address some of the local social issues.
"When you've got a bunch of people in their mid-20s partying, you can transition into a lot of talks about sex education, gender roles, substance abuse, racism and general culture exchange," he said.
"I did not expect to get so involved in gender development, but by the time I left, the Peace Corps was asking me to help develop methods for gender development training in West Africa because I'd garnered a good reputation on advice of this subject amongst other volunteers.
"Getting all the unmarried girls in my town to come to a class on sex education and condoms was really rewarding considering women are extremely shy when talking about sex, especially with men and even more so with an 'outsider.' I was really glad the girls trusted me that much and I had even more opportunities to help afterwards," said Clemente.
His experiences not only left a lasting impression on the Peace Corps and the community he served, but on Clemente himself. It was a time in his life unlike any other and one that he hopes other people would experience.
"I would tell them how one-of-a-kind the experience is," he said. "You can never live life like you do in the Peace Corps. You're technically working 24/7 but your job is to get to know people then use those connections for development. Not everyone gets into the Peace Corps, so it's an honor to serve.
"There is no way to prepare for everything when you reach such a different environment. The Peace Corps does its best to train you and educate you on everything they can but certain aspects of the culture will always shock you a bit, whether it's good or bad. You can re-adjust to America later. The Peace Corps isn't for everyone, but you'll never know if it's for you until you try."
Would there be more volunteering in some far-off land for Clemente?
"I'd love to volunteer again, but I feel that I do owe some time to Picatinny, though. The dream since I was a little kid was to become an astronaut," he said.
"In all likelihood that doesn't work out, I'll see what other opportunities come my way. Maybe the International Office here at Picatinny has something they'd like me to do? If you guys read this, please consider me for everything."