I just upped the number of president's hands i have shaken in my lifetime from zero to one. Woo!
For those of you who do not have their fingers on the pulse of the Peace Corps community, PC is celebrating it's 50th year of existence. Yay for half a century of development! It also happens to be PC's 45th year in the Gambia, which is somewhat of a milestone in and of itself. PC countries worldwide have been holding celebrations all year to commemorate this occasion, and yesterday the Gambia joined in with an epic celebration thrown by His Excellency, the President of the Gambia, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh.
And I shook his hand 4 times. Not surprisingly, he has an excellent handshake. I noticed during the event (which, all told, was about a 12 hour affair) that he does a lot of hand-shaking. He shook everyone in the Peace Corps' hand at least twice, and there are around 90 volunteers, not to mention all the staff. When he arrived (in quite a fanfare, marching band and shiny black SUV) he shook all our hands. After every speech-and there were a lot-the speaker would go over to where he was presiding over the ceremony-and shake his hand. He was extremely cordial the whole time, including at the end of the night WHEN HE GAVE US DRESSES! that's right, he gave each and every one of us a dress. it was amazing. I can never wear it for fear of destroying it. the men all received haftans (traditional long shirts worn by Gambian men) or shirts. It was incredibly generous, especially since he'd already given us a free motorcade to the event (travelling in a motorcade is approx 1,000 times greater then a gelly-gelly), lunch, dinner, a place to sleep, and a ride home. He also gave us a touching speech about how he is grateful not only to the volunteers who serve here, but also their parents who allow their children to live so far away for so long. As a public speaker, His Excellency is truly gifted. He really knows how to reach an audience and connect on a personal level.
The night was a celebration of Peace Corps, and the legacy each volunteer leaves. There is a story passing around Peace Corps, one told to pick up volunteers when they are feeling down. The story is about the President of a small, developing country who comes to America for diplomatic purposes. Upon his arrival to the White House, before meeting President Obama, his first request on American soil was to meet the Peace Corps volunteer who taught him English while he was in middle school.
And I think, really, this is one of the most beautiful definitions of a volunteer...the first American a host country national wants to see (even before the beloved Obama). And I hope I have been that American to at least one person during my service. This volunteer had no idea he was teaching a future president, he may have even thought he wasn't reaching his class. He may not even have been particularly close with the boy. But the impact he had on his life was impossible to predict. And that's what makes PC different. You have no idea the impact you have on someone, and sometimes you never know. But sometimes, if you're really lucky, you get a chance to find out.