Learning the Differences
MONTCLAIR, NJ- “White woman!” “White woman!” This is how Raven Moore, an African American woman volunteering as part of the Peace Corps, was greeted on her first day in West Africa in 1999. Although many people might interpret the nickname as an insult, turn around, and get on a plane headed back to the United States, Moore stuck around. What she found was an enriching experience which not only allowed her to learn about West African culture in Cote d’Ivoire, or the “Ivory Coast,” but gave her insight into her own life and culture back home in America.
This was also the case for Glenn Miller and Montclair State Professor Carolyn Demefack, both former Peace Corps volunteers in the West African region. The three former volunteers shared their experiences at an event at Montclair’s George Segal Gallery on March 23, titled “The Masks We Wear.” In the midst of a 14-piece West African art collection donated by Emily Wingert, sat the three speakers, and a podium, which was occupied by curator Adam Swart. Swart, also a former Peace Corps volunteer, is the Art Education Coordinator at Segal Gallery. He led the night’s discussion on culture, art, and experience; one which drew empathy and laughter from the filled gallery before him.
“The Masks We Wear” was part of Montclair’s Art Advocacy Week, which shines a light on the arts and the inspiration that they bring not only to MSU’s campus, but also to the world at large. The collection of pieces only added to the culturally-rich storytelling which happened that night.
Moore served in the Peace Corps from 1999 to 2002 as a health and education volunteer with a focus in HIV/AIDS and malaria awareness. Despite the unsettling name-calling when she first arrived, being called “white woman” by the people living in her village, Moore decided to use it as an opportunity to shape her own identity. “Identity is subjective. It’s who you decide who you are,” said Moore. “I’m black and I was going to correct them.”
Feeling accepted is a large part of living in a country that is completely foreign to you. While Miller and Demefack both found their places in their designated villages, Moore still struggled to feel that external sense of belonging in the home she lived in in Cote d’Ivoire. “It just never happened, I was never home, but I was home in my own skin. I learned who I was. Realizing you’re home is realizing who you are and not letting people push you around,” Moore said.
That is not to say that Demefack and Miller’s trips didn’t come with any surprises of their own. Professor Demefack was surprised to see a large presence of polygamy while she was volunteering in Cameroon from 1998 to 2000. Although she was familiar with these types of relationships, Demefack had never gotten the chance to actually hear about real-life polygamous relationships until she arrived in Cameroon. Once she began befriending the women in her village, Demefack realized that many women in polygamous relationships are not in it for the romance. They are taken care of and loved, which “made [her] question what [she] believed to be good or bad.”
As told through the three stories of these extraordinary Peace Corps volunteers, the differences in culture, food, skin color, and more are what help make the world such a vibrant and exciting place. Whether it be through volunteering, strolling through an art gallery like Segal, or simply trying a new cuisine, experiencing something different than your day to day routine is what life is all about. Miller, who served as a math teacher in Benin from 1984 to 1986 described his experience as simply, “different.” “I wrote to my mom and said that even the stars [in Benin] were different. Different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.”