By Budd Bailey
Chrissy Corrigan has a suggestion for anyone headed to a strange and exotic location while serving in the Peace Corps.
Bring running shoes.
Buffalo’s Corrigan recently returned from a 27-month stint in Sierra Leone, and running turned out to be a valuable tool in her work.
Corrigan went to high school at City Honors and college at SUNY-New Paltz. When she was finishing there in 2009, she thought she needed an adventure.
“I started thinking about what was next, as any college student would,” she said. “You always hear about the Peace Corps. I realized I didn’t even know what Peace Corps volunteers did. Something about it just clicked - the emphasis on being part of the local community, working through relationships. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
She was accepted and assigned to work in 2010 in Sierra Leone, and the first order of business was finding out where she was going (“I went right to Google,” she said). Sierra Leone is on the western coast of Africa, next to Liberia. Arrival there was almost overwhelming.
“Even if you couldn’t have said what expectations you had before, you feel a sense of ‘I didn’t feel like it was going to be like this,’ ” Corrigan said. “It’s a hospitable country. Everyone wants to be your friend.”
Since she was the newest English teacher in the village of Bandajuma, her first job was to get to know the community. That’s where running comes in. Corrigan was a swimmer at New Paltz but ran more after graduation.
“It set everything up. You always wound up meeting people while running,” she said. “People would run along with me for a minute or two. One teenage boy became my running buddy.
“I’d get lots of double-takes. Everyone had heard about us, but they hadn’t seen us. I’d run into the bush and then stumble into a village. The whole village would just stare at me. I’d introduce myself and get comfortable and then turn around.”
Running isn’t part of the culture in Sierra Leone, except in the capital city of Freetown. No one ran in her village for recreation. However, lots of schools had a tradition of something called a “cross country” once a year. The entire school would run as a group to another village, singing songs along the way.
“I had hopes of getting more kids to run with me, but it’s hard,” Corrigan said. “When they aren’t in school, they have a lot of responsibility. It’s tough to get a structured program going. ... None of them had sneakers. Some have sandals, and some run on the hard ground in just socks.”
Corrigan was particularly happy to have the chance to introduce young girls to running. She said women there don’t exercise as much as the men traditionally, so it was nice to show a healthy activity to them.
West Africa is known more for sprinters than long-distance runners, something Corrigan noticed along the way.
“Schools have a track and field competition for a couple of days,” she said. “They take an overgrown field - the stuff grows quickly because the ground is so fertile - and cut out an area for a meet. They have relays. It’s a big, big deal. They have some impressive sprinters, even though they don’t train consistently.”
Corrigan is back home for now, planning her next career step. She’d like to get into social work, and a move to Seattle is one of her options. Wherever she goes, though, she’ll be packing memories of her time in Africa.
“I’m in touch with some of the other volunteers,” she said. “I can use Skype. I’m trying to send books to the library. One of my best friends there was a great old man who was very protective of me. He loves American chocolate, so I’ll have to send him some.”
Ask Corrigan to sum up the experience, and she pauses at first. Then the words tumble out in a stream.
“Toward the end of service, it was hard to talk about what I learned without cliches,” she said. “It felt very huge. It changed me as a person. It made me realize there are so many ways to live, and that I can get comfortable with so many of them. All these judgments that you bring into situations, it forces you to let go of them.
“In America, we get caught up in the story. It’s easy to get discouraged and trapped here if you’re not on a path to success. But there’s not one way to do it.”