Dealing with divorce halfway around the world: John Leos, The Gambia 2015-2017

Thousands of miles from home, John Leos contended with failed projects and the unexpected divorce of his parents. But his service in The Gambia, a small West African country bordering the Gambia River and bounded by Senegal, was not defined only by these hardships. On this episode, John fondly remembers his host family, the nephew named after him, his fellow volunteers, and the family cow.

Photos from John’s Story

John Leos’s Peace Corps Story

Where and when did you serve? What did you do?

I served in The Gambia from 2015-2017. I was in the Education Sector working as a Primary Teacher Trainer at a small Lower Basic School in the Upper Baddibou District of the North Bank Region serving approximately 250 students. I worked with teachers and administrators to improve teaching practices and student performance through lesson planning, co-teaching, model teaching, conducting workshops, and developing school resources.

I also had the privilege of serving with some pretty amazing fellow volunteers. Whether it was conducting malaria prevention workshops along the Gambian river or teaching career skills to Gambian youth in the capital, I was privileged to work with dedicated volunteers and host country nationals.

What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?

There are countless stories to tell. Attending a Gambian friend’s wedding, the night my namesake was born, the first solo lesson I taught in Pulaar, witnessing the intriguing and tumultuous Gambian presidential election, or jumping into the ocean after my cohort’s Swearing-In ceremony.

But the memories I cherish the most are the simple nights lying on the bantaba after a long day, chatting with my host family, drinking attaya, and listening to the hyenas call in the distance.

What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?

Living off the grid with little access to international communication, it was easy to believe that my “real life” in the states would be the same as I left it. But time moves on no matter where you are and change is inevitable over two years. I learned this quickly as six months into my service, my brother broke the news to me that my father had moved out of the house and my parents were getting divorced.

Dealing with my parents divorce while serving in the Peace Corps was extremely difficult. As the months went on, it really felt like the home support system that everybody had stressed about needing for a successful service dropped out from under me. I didn’t receive the kinds of care packages that my peers were getting, and every time I would hear from the states, it never good news. My family didn’t tell me at first what was happening because they didn’t want to distract or upset me. After I knew, whenever I would float the idea of coming home early, they would protest, saying, “there’s nothing you can do to help the situation here, you’re service is so important to you, don’t leave because of us.” Still it didn’t help having hours and hours of down time in rural West Africa to imagine what was going on, all the while dealing with the everyday stresses of integration and project work.

On top of that, my projects at site were not going well, at all. My clubs weren’t popular with the kids, the Peace Corps and school staff were not excited and interested in any of my project ideas, and one time, I organized a school wide spelling bee and made almost every student cry. I think my lowest point was when my Peace Corps programming assistant asked me to teach an IST session for new volunteers on failures at site because I was “the volunteer of many failures.”

Sometimes, I really question my decision to complete the whole two years of service. There were months where I was pretty depressed, unproductive, and not at all present in my community. I think I fell victim to a mix of escapism and ET stigma, and that somehow terminating my service early was a sign of weakness.

The silver lining in my story is that I learned how to provide myself with self-care and how to lean on my site mates and friends for support. Because of this, I am still very close with these people. In fact, I recently moved to Washington, DC with my closest friends, and I’m having dinner with my three of my site mates tonight.

What do you miss about Peace Corps?

As I sat on the plane, leaving The Gambia for the last time, I made a list of things I would miss from my Gambian life. Here’s an abbreviated version:
• Eating ices on the ferry
• That moment when you return from travelling, and the children from your compound run up to you singing “Gallo Bah came back!”
• Napping on the bantaba under a tree with the village elders
• The feeling of being in an air conditioned room after weeks in village
• When the rains come in the middle of the night, pounding on your metal roof
• Receiving pocket fulls of peanuts from the neighbors when walking through the village.
• Chicken in the food bowl
• Biking to the river with your site mate
• Those moments when you’re having a terrible day, and you’ve locked yourself in your concrete room. Then you hear a kid knock on your screen door, and you open the door to yell “go away” but you see she’s holding a small glass of attaya for you from the neighbor. Suddenly, the day seems bearable again.

What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?

Leaving for the Peace Corps was the first time I had ever left the United States, so you could say the whole two years was an education; daily lessons in humility, communication, and compromise.

The most important thing I did in the Peace Corps was get to know more about myself. I applied on a whim, taking the yearlong application process to decide if it was something I was actually going to do. Most of my experience had been in arts education, and I didn’t know anything about international development. It’s because of Peace Corps, I know that international service, learning about different cultures, and travelling are where my passions lie.

After closing my service, I returned to Dallas to pick up my previous position at a theatre company, and while I truly respect the work the company was doing, I didn’t find the same kind of fulfillment in the professional theatre work I once had. So I took some savings from my readjustment allowance and took three months in Europe to serve as an international volunteer with refugee aid organizations. I returned from that trip at the beginning of the year, and I hope to serve abroad again in the fall.

Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?

I used proverbs as a way to help learn Pulaar with my host family, so I have many local quotes that are meaningful. Here are a few of my favorites.

Riiwi Hebaani, Arti Tawtaani “Chase, and you will not have, Return, and what you left will not be there.”
Aduna ko laacel njiire “The world is like a squirrel’s tail (it’s smaller than it appears)”
Si ko bawli, ko warri baaba ma, sa yii’I caaw, a doggat “If what killed your father was large and dark, when you see a black heron, you’ll run.”

And my favorite, and most applicable to Peace Corps,
Leggal ngal ndeer maayo boyi, wonata nooda “Even if a log is in the river for a long time, it will never be a crocodile.”


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