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  • Writer's pictureJulie Early Sifuentes

Singing and Dancing with the People I Have Always Been Connected To...

Dynamic mother-daughter duo, Lena Ham and Heidi Hoffman shared their reflections with me as they anticipate a long-awaited trip to Gabon this summer. Lena, a Peace Corps Kid, recently graduated from college with a major in journalism. Heidi served in the Peace Corps in Gabon in the early ‘90’s. She was a Maternal and Child Health volunteer and is now the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Director at Colorado’s state health department.

Lena’s parents Heidi and Jean-Blaise met while Heidi was serving in the village where Jean-Blaise lives. Heidi came back to the States to give birth to and raise Lena, and Jean-Blaise stayed in Gabon and became a teacher. Lena grew up in a very small town in Colorado and recently graduated from Colorado State University. She currently lives and works in New York City. This summer will be the first time that Lena visits the village in Gabon where her dad’s side of the family is from and the first time she will meet her father in person.

About their upcoming trip to Gabon...

Lena: I’m excited, overwhelmed, anxious, and happy about visiting Gabon. I know that it’ll be a highly emotional visit, for both me and my mom but I’m really excited about meeting my Papa. I always tell people that it’s sort of like he’s died - I know a lot about him, I’ve seen pictures of him and heard a lot of stories but I’ve never met him. I’m excited to meet my half-siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, to see the places my mom spent her time, see the village where my family comes from and to eat the food I’ve heard about, to dance and sing with people I’ve always been connected to.

Heidi: I am feeling widely emotional - happy, anxious, nervous, curious, fearful, giddy, weepy. This will be a sort of full-circle experience for Lena, me and our Gabonese family. Lena’s heritage has always been a story, a picture, or unknown for her...this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her to meet her family and experience a sense of connectedness to the place and to her relatives.

To be able to witness her meeting her father and see how much it means to him that she is there is really indescribable. She will have the opportunity to participate in traditions as she is welcomed into the family that I never got to be a part of when I was an outsider. It’s such an important part of my job as her mother to connect her to her roots.

I am also really looking forward to seeing people and places from my memory and how they’ve changed as well as eating distinctly Gabonese foods - atangas, baton, feuilles de manioc, Regab beer.

About the Peace Corps experience...

Lena: I’ve always known about the Peace Corps, as it was a normal topic around the dinner table or long car drives. As I was told, my mom packed her bags and headed to Gabon, a small Central African country located right on the equator. She did many things during her time in the PC, but I know most about her helping women and children making sure they had appropriate education on health, nutrition and maternal care. I know that my mom’s time in the PC changed her entire life, not only because she had me, but because it was the first time she was away from her family for an extended period of time. She's always been open to answering any questions that I have regarding her experience in the Peace Corps, my Papa and his family. I’m lucky too, because my mom made several close friends during her time in the Peace Corps, women that literally knew about me from the start and continue to be major support systems in my life. They fill in the gaps where my mom can’t, sharing stories about my Papa and the villages they lived in.

Heidi: I come from a long line of people in public service of one kind or another and was taught by word and deed to contribute when I could. And, at age 24 with a college degree but no desire or idea how to settle down, joining the Peace Corps seemed bohemian, selfless and daring, all the things I desperately wanted to be. I wanted to change the world for the better and to pay forward for the privileges and opportunities I had inherited. I thought it would be an exciting and adventurous path to postpone a traditional life, a chance to travel, and a way to help people.

Service shaped my adulthood permanently by giving me the opportunity to become a mom to Lena which was definitely the best and most significant outcome. I learned that being welcomed into a community is a gift and being vulnerable among strangers generally works out better than you could have possibly hoped. It exploded any remaining beliefs I had about a one-size-fits-all life path and helps me remember to be grateful for access to resources and services. I was permanently humbled by being laid out with malaria and dengue fever, digging sand fleas and bot flies out of my skin, riding awkwardly in the back of countless pickup trucks, eating python, drinking palm wine, having a snake in my outhouse, accidentally killing a neighbor’s pig with rat poison, filtering the snails out of my water barrel, making embarrassing language mistakes, showing my appreciation through gifts of the clothing and items I brought from home. I realize now that I have met others who served at different times and places that it was a pretty run-of-the-mill Peace Corps experience but I can’t imagine who I would be without it.

My term was cut in half when I decided to medically separate from service, return home to Colorado and have a baby. I didn’t come back feeling like I had made a difference at all to my host country which seemed to already hold wisdom beyond anything I could contribute. I still don’t know if my work or relationships made the world better for anyone else but the gift of my daughter reminds me that I came out of service much richer than when I entered.

Growing up as a Peace Corps Kid...

Lena: I grew up in a couple of tiny mountain towns in Colorado, where I’m not sure if most people had even heard about the Peace Corps, let alone knew where Gabon was. My mom chose to raise me in the United States for a variety of reasons, but I think one of the main reasons was the family support she had in Colorado. I’ve never been upset about her decision to move back to the States, it was something I know she didn’t take lightly. I was always aware of who my Papa was because I had pictures in my room, photos and stories in my baby book, I remember her waking me up in the middle of the night to talk on the phone with him and according to her I would even make the same facial expressions as him when I was a baby; but we’ve never met. His native language is French, so I couldn’t ever fully understand him but we could say a couple of basic things to each other - and it was cool to hear his voice.

Lena's Gabonese passport she made for herself.

One of the coolest things about being a PCK, in my opinion, is that you already kind of grow up with this understanding about different cultures, food, countries. My mom always displayed art around the house she got in Gabon, exposed me to different kinds of foods and gave me books about kids in different cultures - from a young age I was very aware that the world was big and pretty diverse.

Identity and Growing up in a Rural Community...

I grew up in these tiny (primarily White) mountain towns who didn’t really have an understanding about mixed kids. Many assumed that I was adopted, and that’s really when I figured out that I didn’t look like

my mom - and it bothered me that people felt the need to point it out.

My Papa has always been a somewhat sensitive topic for me. I believe that’s mostly because there’s only a small circle in the world who can relate, and when I

was younger, I would often get irritated with others because of their lack of understanding surrounding the subject. I’m not opposed to talking with someone about my story, but I’ve noticed especially since I’ve gotten older, that I’m very cautious about what I disclose and who I choose to disclose it to. One of my first memories I have about talking with friends about my Papa was in the second grade. I’ll always remember a classmate, who waited until I was finished with my story to promptly proclaim, “So does your Dad have his own elephant?” It’s a complex story for a second grader to wrap their heads around, but after that interaction I remember not wanting to talk with anyone else for a while, they didn’t get it and obviously didn’t understand.

Being a mixed kid, I tend to lean towards identifying as African-American, mainly because that is literally what I am. I feel connected to both of the countries my parents are from - in different ways. I’ve grown up in America, so I identify strongly with culture here but whenever I see pictures, videos or hear music from Gabon I notice that I also have a deep connection with those. Although I’ve grown up with an understanding of Gabon, a large part of the reason why I want to visit next summer is to connect and learn more about that side of my family.

Parenting a mixed Peace Corps Kid….

Heidi: In Gabon, where I served in the Peace Corps, kids who looked like my daughter had skin described as “cafe au lait” and I always loved thinking of her as a delicious, rich, and multi-faceted gift (although don’t all parents feel this way?!?). I loved when people said we looked related and pointed out the similarities in our smiles and cheekbones which also looked like my mother’s. This gave us a commonality when sometimes our differences seemed more obvious - like her curly black hair, chocolatey eyes, dark eyelashes and thick, expressive eyebrows. Sometimes people assumed she was adopted or looked confused the first time I showed up at parents’ night and I appreciated the people who could see our bond beneath the superficialities of first impressions.

I did and do have fears about her experiences as a woman of color that I might not have been able to prepare her for or protect her from but I’ve learned from other parents that we all feel this way when our children venture out into the world. As she has grown and expanded her own world, I think she and I both see that being “different” actually gives her more in common with millions of people and that her unique facets, biologically and from experience and worldview, have prepared her to thrive in an increasingly-small and interconnected world.

What are you most grateful for as a PCK?

Lena: Everything! I couldn’t be more grateful and I’m proud of my story. I love that it’s worldly and unexpected, but I’m really grateful for my mom. She didn’t enter the PC knowing she’d leave with me! But she’s raised me on her own and built her own village. She’s made a huge effort to expose me to strong Black women, strong White women, providing books, articles or movies - or seeking out people who could help me if I ever had any questions about being a PCK. The only challenge I’ve had recently, is coming to the realization that I was ready. My mom had proposed that we go to Gabon when I was 12 but ultimately, I wasn’t ready and didn’t feel totally comfortable with the idea until recently. I’m really excited to meet my other half of the family, meet my Papa and see Gabon.

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