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For Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, joining the Peace Corps was a solution when his job search floundered after college. Rysavy majored in sociology and wanted to experience another culture. From 2004-2006, he worked in Niger as a natural resource management volunteer in a village named Kobe, a Zarma word that means “in the shade of the baobab tree.” Saddened upon his arrival to learn that all the baobab trees had died in this region, Rysavy determined to help repopulate the area with these once majestic trees. “I thought it was wrong that the name of the village didn’t actually stand for what it was,” he explains.
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Zarma was a very challenging language to learn, he comments, partially because the initial training program offered inconsistent phonetic spellings. “Looking at two different manuals, you’d get two different pronunciations of the same word, which is very frustrating,” Rysavy notes. He relished those moments that marked some degree of success, as when the person with whom he was bargaining would stop and say, “I swear to God, you know the language,” or when he spoke up at a village meeting: “Having the majority of people understand you…getting your point across to a hundred people is very satisfying.”
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Beyond language training, he took fieldtrips to learn about the soil and trees. “You go into the village being a jack of all trades,” he explains, emphasizing the importance of being open to what the community desired. “Every village is so unique and has its own needs,” he says. “If a village isn’t behind a project, it’s not going to work.” Projects were initiated by the villagers themselves, he goes on. <br/ > <br/ >
One of the most remarkable moments during Rysavy’s tenure was when a natural disaster derailed his plans: “I was there when locusts came and, in 45 minutes, destroyed all the crops within a couple hundred miles radius. It was straight out of the Bible. All of my village’s fields were absolutely gone. They had no food for the next year.” In response to this catastrophe, most of the village’s young men left the next day for work elsewhere. Rysavy was struck by the strong sense of community: “Everyone was very generous and wanted to help. If you were ever hungry or thirsty or needed to talk, there was always someone there.” A big social faux pas, in fact, was being alone. “Other than when you’re sleeping,” he explains, “you should always have someone around and always be connected to the greater village.
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Whether thinking of the projects, the people he met, or the amazing events that took place while he was there, Rysavy finds that there are certain moments he will always remember. He thinks, for example, about “jockeying for a little bit more butt space” in the back of a bush taxi that was barely road-worthy. Many of these experiences are of the character-building kind, he has decided, experiences “that make you slow down and rethink what you’re doing and if you really need to get there on time.” “If there’s nothing you can do about it,” he concludes, “just sit and relax and try to enjoy the ride.”