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Ben Skelton ~ Peace Corps Volunteer
~ Christmas musings ~
by Beth Boswell Jacks

“Christmas is not a time nor a season
but a state of mind. To cherish peace
and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy,
is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
~ Calvin Coolidge ~

Ben Skelton is cute as a bug, smart as a whip, and is the type person who has Christmas in his heart year ‘round. He’s also my cousin, and I’m proud.

A Greenville, Mississippi, native, Ben graduated from Delta State University in May, 2006, with a French degree and decided he wanted to do something extraordinary while he was young and unattached. He sent off for Peace Corps applications, filled them out, interviewed, and early that fall found himself in the west African country of Senegal.

After 8 weeks of training in the city of Thies, Ben (newly anointed with an African name, Fonsa Diallo) found himself residing and working in a small remote village, Mansadala, population 300.

“I have my own little round hut in a family compound. The huts, arranged in a circle with dirt yards, are sparsely furnished with slabs for sleeping, and there’s no plumbing or electricity. We have no television, of course, but I have a small battery-operated radio. We do have cheap flashlights with batteries and we cook over open fires. My ‘father’ is the village chief, and the language is Johanke, a dialect of the Mandinka group,” said Ben. “At first I felt like an outsider, but no longer. I have a two-year contract as a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer and have no intention of leaving before my time is up. I love what I’m doing.”

I had a good visit with Ben when he was home for a brief 2-week break. The 3 hours we spent together passed far too quickly, and on my way home I was struck with the thought that Ben is not just talking about the hope for peace in our world, he’s actually in the trenches. He’s not simply talking the talk so many of us spout, especially during the Christmas season, he’s walking the walk.

Ben proudly showed me pictures of his “family,” his brothers and sisters. He shared that his social life in the village consists of sitting around in the evenings, telling stories by the fire. He described how he rides his bike each day to the outskirts of the village, a bucket strapped to the bike frame, to retrieve water from one of the village wells for his personal use.

We watched videos on his computer – amazing footage of Ben and his African family and friends, conversing easily and freely in the Johanke language. Their affection comes through loud and clear as they work in the gardens and socialize. The value of working toward world peace through the American Peace Corps program is evident.

“We don’t want to be considered a government or charitable agency,” said Ben. “The Peace Corps doesn’t just ship tractors and food to third world countries; we’re working right beside them to teach, coach and encourage. And the truth is, we Peace Corps volunteers learn much more than we’re teaching. To bring these skills we’re learning home to America, eventually to work more effectively in our communities as good citizens, is invaluable training.”

Ben was absolutely inspiring, and I was moved to ask about age limits for Peace Corps volunteers.

“They’re actively recruiting older volunteers,” he explained. “We had one lady who was 86 years old! Check out the information at www.peacecorps.gov.”

So here’s to Cousin Ben and to all who work for a peaceful world. Howard Thurman expressed it well: “When the song of the angel is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins …to bring peace among brothers and sisters.”

And to that I say, “Amen.”


For more SNIPPETS stories, read these:
Dancing the Weight Away
Granny Does the Shoshone
Trail rides, cantles and beans...Hellooo, Mama!
Smiles, Not Fists...
Dance ~ the Soul's Hidden Language

Editor of USADEEPSOUTH, Beth Boswell Jacks is the author of 3 books (Grit, Guts, and Baseball and Snippets I and II) and is also a weekly columnist for a number of Southern newspapers. Readers and editors may contact her at bethjacks@hotmail.com.
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