UNC alumna Tracy Blackmon poses with a young South African villager during her two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. Photo courtesy of Tracy Blackmon.
For the past two years, UNC has ranked among the top colleges and universities its size in the number of graduates serving in the Peace Corps. As the volunteer organization celebrates its 49th anniversary, UNC alumna Tracy Blackmon (B.S., Biology, 1999) shared her story as a Peace Corps school and community resource volunteer in the small South African village of Keerom from July 2002 to November 2004. She lived with a traditional healer and his family, helped start a school and community library, and assisted teachers with lesson planning and classroom management during the transition to a new post-apartheid educational system. Her experiences were life-changing, as evidenced by the following excerpt from her personal journal, written upon returning to the U.S.
It’s midnight. I should be in bed waiting the arrival of yet another day - but I’m not. Instead I sit here haunted by past ghosts of a former life that I think couldn’t possibly be my own. So many returned Peace Corps volunteers say that Africa feels all but a dream; distant like the tales we were once told as a child. But doesn’t it feel that way here as well? This reality that I now find myself in seems just as made up, just as surreal and dreamlike.
Sometimes when my heart is low and aching for the familiarity of the village I’ll start talking to a friend and yes sometimes even my cat to find only a hollow wall, a deaf ear. No one wants to think of a life where desperation reigns, sickness comes calling and knocking at your door all hours of the night. Innocent faces who find solace in the emptiness of the streets- no home to turn to. No one wants to think about those who have no shoes, no food upon their table, no way out. Let me stay hidden beneath these covers we say and all will stay perfect. All will stay safe in our world and we can go on living without feeling guilty or feeling as if we could have done more. That we could have made a difference if only we had been brave and opened our eyes to the way the world really is. I don’t want to find myself back under those covers. Those blankets of ignorance that so plague and dominate our society. You want to know my fear? That’s it. That I will find myself years from now saying- once I lived a courageous life. Once I wasn’t afraid to face the unknown. Once I put the life of another above my own.
"So how am I now that I’m back?" so many ask. Struggling. I struggle. I do. And I’m glad for that. Thankful for that. Thankful that I can’t just accept and fall back into this life that I once led. If I did I would be betraying all that I just went through, all that I experienced, every relationship and friendship I left behind in that village.
So many times I think if I don’t do something, if I don’t help, then who will? I can’t tell you how many times that has been confirmed by people saying "well, I’m so glad you went because I’d never do it. You’d never find me giving up two years of my life." I can’t help but wonder why? How can we put the things of this world above helping another living person? How can we let a fear of the unknown stop us from reaching out? How can we become so detached from the suffering of so many others that we’d rather look away than look into its terrifying depths?
There’s a quote that I keep with me. I took it to Africa and keep it with me even now for those moments when I doubt why I was put here or why I bother with this chaotic world. For a moment it gives me clarity. It allows me to catch my breath, gather my strength and go back out for another round.
"You cannot be happy when the rest of the world is unhappy. You are an organic part of the world community. Share your prosperity with others; strive to alleviate the suffering of others. That is your duty."
-Sathya Sai Baba
That is our duty. To help those who may struggle more than others; those who may go unnoticed, unvalued. That is our duty to humanity. Even when we may find ourselves in the bottomless depths of commercialism, in the center of an all consuming society that beckons us to be selfish, to be concerned with only our wants and desires, and that reinforces the belief that this is the way life is to be lived, that this is what other countries must struggle to become.
If you think I sit here pointing a finger blaming please reconsider for I know that this computer and the words inscribed upon it are a mirror of judgment reflecting back on to me as well. There’s so much more I could do but don’t. So please, please don’t think I stand here upon my soapbox preaching, for that is not my intent. I sit here merely trying to figure out this world that now surrounds me. Trying to place meaning to a life that I know is but a whisper resting upon the second-hand of life.
Tracy Blackmon went on to earn a master’s degree in urban education and now teaches at an alternative school in North Carolina.
For more information about how many UNC graduates volunteer for Peace Corps assignments, read the news release at http://www.unco.edu/news/releases.asp?ID=951.