Turner, 26, returned to Colorado this summer after living and working in Pobé-Mengao, a community of about 5,000 in the West African state of Burkina Faso.
While his Peace Corps experience imparted some practical lessons (how to speak French and cook for himself, for example), it offered something much deeper.
“It’s a sense of perspective, of having a more rounded view of the world,” said Turner. “It’s very easy for any American to get consumed in one’s life here and not have a tangible recognition that there are billions of people in the world that live in very, very destitute conditions.”
Living in primitive conditions is often a reality of working in the Peace Corps, Turner said, and the village where he stayed experienced temperatures as high as 110 degrees and had no electricity or plumbing.
“Volunteers are faced with extreme cultural isolation,” Turner said. “I lived in a village 200 miles from the nearest paved road, 100 miles from the Internet and 45 miles from the nearest American.”
Turner said while he made lasting bonds with many in the village, there were often times he found living there difficult.
“During those two years, I experienced some of the toughest and some of the most positively memorable days of my life,” he said. “It ended up being the most incredible experience of my life.”
Turner’s assignment was part of the Girls’ Education and Empowerment program. He worked as a liaison between parents and teachers to come up with ways to increase enrollment for girls, in a culture where their education is not traditionally valued.
“Given the cultural barriers that were deeply embedded, this was much easier said than done,” Turner said. “Many volunteers (including myself) found our job to be next to impossible without adapting to the ironclad cultural mores.”
Still, Turner and others found ways around those rules. By working with Salam, president of the village literacy center, and Hamidou, president of the parent-teacher organization, the Turner helped form a women’s empowerment association, with the goals of promoting literacy among women, setting up workshops on micro-financing for small businesses and raising women’s health awareness.
“With the micro-credit clubs, the women create a small group and each pitches in something like 50 cents a week,” he said. “After six or seven months, then they can start taking out loans.”
The women might use the money to buy flour or oil for selling fried goods or peanuts by the roadside.
Burkina Faso is surrounded by Mali to the north, Niger to the east, Benin to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Cote d’Ivoire to the southwest. Formerly known as the Republic of Upper Volta, the country gained its independence from France in 1960.
The country is mostly flat scrub land, Turner said, with few trees, a “transition belt” between the coastal tropical areas and the Sahara Desert, and only receives rain a couple of months out of the year.
“It’s purely subsistence farming and during those two months of rain, they cultivate and grow their food,” he said. “The staple in their diet is millet, essentially what they eat two times a day, every day.”
Despite the hard living conditions, overall applications to the Peace Corps were up 16 percent in 2008, the highest increase in five years, said spokeswoman Josie Duckett, from her office in Washington, D.C. The number of applicants over the age of 50 increased 40 percent.
“Things are good at the Peace Corps,” Duckett said. “It might have ties to economic problems, but 16 percent is a pretty large increase.”
But those motivated to join the Corps because of the hard economic situation shouldn’t expect to start any time soon, Turner said. He submitted his application in March of 2005, after meeting with a Peace Corps recruiter while a student at Colorado State University, but didn’t get the offer to go to Africa until January of 2006. He didn’t leave the country until June of that year.
“So after 15 months of submitting additional information, medical records, dental records, college transcripts, etc., I was finally able to begin the 27-month experience,” he said.
The process is so long only partly because of government bureaucracy.
“That long, oft frustrating process is a great way to weed out those that possess only a marginal interest in committing the time that the Peace Corps requires,” Turner said.
But if you can stick it out, the Corps seldom turns anyone down.
“Of all who apply, two-thirds either cancel their application or are found medically unfit for service,” he said.
Turner will soon be heading to Denver, where he will look for a job in the nonprofit sector, preferably working with at-risk youth. He studied sociology and political science at CSU and said he hopes to eventually get a degree in library and information science with a focus on international development.
Once he accomplishes that, Turner said he’d like to go back to Africa or Southeast Asia to help small libraries catch up with the information age.
It all goes back to literacy, he said.