On a typical day, Beth Renckens, a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, wakes up early to make rounds visiting friends in her small village, Agodokpe, in Togo.
Calling on friends first thing in the morning to give formal salutations is a custom in the village, Renckens said, and there is a prescribed way that one greets the people they visit on these trips.
The rite involves the host asking the visitor, “What is your motivation for being here?” and the visitor responds, “I’ve come here just to visit,” she said.
Renckens told a group of sophomores from Clark Magnet High School about this Togolese custom as she chatted with them via telephone Tuesday while in West Africa.
Students in Jennifer and Chris Davis’ integrated English and world history class at Clark took turns asking Renckens questions during the hourlong phone call about what her house looks like, what she eats and why she joined the Peace Corps.
The two teachers, who are married, have organized these kinds of communications with volunteers through the Peace Corps’ Coverdell World Wise Schools program since 2001, Chris Davis said.
The World Wise program is meant to expand students’ knowledge about culture and geography, and to promote service, according to the program’s website.
The partnership with Peace Corps volunteers started when one of Chris Davis’ friends was serving as a volunteer in Burkina Faso, and the exchanges have continued with other volunteers over the years, he said.
Students in the class look closely at Africa when studying colonialism, and hearing about the modern-day state of affairs in Africa helps them understand colonialism’s legacy, Chris Davis said.
Renckens, who is in her second year as a natural resource volunteer with the Peace Corps, told students about her work on environmental projects like brush-fire prevention and reforestation.
She explained how she biked or walked almost everywhere, ate foods like cassava and tried to teach farmers new practices to improve or safeguard their crops.
“I also carry a lot of things on my head,” she said.
“That’s genius. Everyone should carry things on your head.”
The students took turns stepping up to the telephone and asking questions, while the rest of the class listened to Renckens’ responses on speakerphone.
Alex Hacopian, 15, asked Renckens which jobs men and women typically held, and she explained that most are farmers.
The students have been exchanging e-mails with Renckens since the beginning of the school year, so getting to speak with her on the phone was a big deal, Chris Davis said.
“It just made it much more real to hear her own voice,” he said.
The class has also donated about $200 to Renckens’ development efforts.
The money will help Renckens plant trees that will restore nutrients to the soil, she said.