April Muniz has been back in the U.S. for three months, and she is still readjusting to traffic and iPads. After two years in Senegal with the Peace Corps, she said she wasn’t prepared for her return to the never-ending fast pace of American culture. The photos of her students hanging on her office walls, a tote-bag made of artisan-crafted African fabric, and frequent e-mails from her host family remind her of the small Senegalese town she called home for two years, and her new position as UVA’s on-campus Peace Corps recruiter keeps her connected to Africa.
Muniz, now in her 40s, caught the travel bug at an early age and has yet to shake it off. As a child, she watched close friends set off for Kenya to join the Peace Corps as a family, and she immediately had travel envy. Throughout high school and college, Muniz took advantage of every opportunity to go abroad, and her first job out of college sent her all over Europe and Canada.
She worked for two companies over the course of 20 years, and has considered Charlottesville home for most of that time. She said both jobs were challenging and fulfilling, but she couldn’t quiet the voice that told her to get out and do something different.
As a Mexican-American, Muniz always felt a connection to the Spanish language and Hispanic culture, so she applied to serve in Latin America in the Peace Corps —decades later than most volunteers who apply fresh out of college.
But the Peace Corps often places volunteers based on language skills, and only fluent Spanish speakers are sent to Latin America. Muniz was told the chances were slim, but if she could pass the language exam, she might have a shot. So she enrolled in Spanish immersion classes, and after six weeks of studying, passed with flying colors.
She spent the next 10 months practicing her Spanish with anyone who would listen, and getting things in order to spend two years south of the border.
“Six weeks before I was supposed to leave, they called and said I had been assigned to West Africa,” Muniz said.
New regulations now give volunteers at least four months notice before a trip, but at the time, Muniz had only six weeks to wrap her head around the idea of living in Senegal and to brush up on her French.
With a year’s worth of useless Spanish under her belt and only a slight idea of what she was getting herself into, Muniz set off for Diourbel, a regional capital in Senegal about the size of Waynesboro. Some volunteers in the area lived in rural mud huts, but because Muniz was serving as a business volunteer, she was “much more connected” and spent the two years in a concrete building with running water and Wi-Fi.
“It made me realize how quickly the information age was speeding up in America while I was gone,” she said.
As a business volunteer, Muniz worked with the director of an environmental group, the Earth School, and taught locals how to deal with regional changes and prevent future degredation. Energy sources and fuel efficiency are hot topics here in the U.S., but it’s a whole other story in West Africa. The region has been through years of severe drought; trees are a rarity, making wood for stoves more expensive than ever. And paying for propane or charcoal is out of the question for most families.
One of her favorite projects was mashing wet paper into burnable bricks using briquette machines with her class of teenagers.
The paper briquette maker is a small, hand-
held, metal box-like tool that presses a watery paper mixture into a solid brick that, once dried, can be burned in a stove. The simple tools cost the equivalent of $10 in U.S. dollars a piece, so Muniz collected donations and paid local metal workers to make five briquette machines that she gave to her students.
“I taught the kids to use them; and more importantly, I taught them to teach other people how to use them,” she said.
When she wasn’t teaching classes at the Earth School and working with her host family, Muniz was helping local entrepreneurs. She tutored a woodworker on business skills, and introduced a seamstress to the tourism market through nearby artisan fairs. When the seamstress came home from her first fair with hundreds of dollars, her husband was so impressed that he joined her on the next trip. After Muniz taught them both how to keep sales records, he began working as his wife’s bookkeeper—something Muniz said is unheard of in West Africa.
“That is a true example of the organic work the Peace Corps does,” she said. “The work we did was really tangible.”
But her favorite aspect of the trip was a group of 12-year-old girls that immediately latched onto her. Twice a month she gathered them together for “girls’ club” to teach them crafts, share American snacks from her care packages, and work on their English skills.
“My replacement ended up being another mid-career volunteer like myself—but he was a man,” she said with a laugh. “I had to warn him that I sort of set him up to run a girls’ club, and he better practice up on his arts.”
The volunteer who took over her position won the girls over by telling them their first project would be to write letters to Muniz.
She’s recruiting people much younger than her, but she said that underscores a key truth about the Corps.
“If there’s anything I want people to know about the Peace Corps, it’s that you can join at any age and you’ll get as much out of the experience as you give,” Muniz said.