On the coast of West Africa, situated near the Guinea border in southeastern Senegal, there is a small village called Segou, population roughly 1,000.
The village natives are largely easy-going, friendly people who live in bamboo or mud-brick "houses" with thatched roofs. They wash their clothes by hand, and they live off the fat of their land, which isn't much, but it's enough.
Satisfied as they may be, however, their village - like many African villages today - lacks any sort of formal economy or business that they would need to truly thrive, and it is not as if they don't know that, or want that, either, because they do.
They just need help to get there, and they need it pretty badly.
That's why Zach Swank, a Dewittville native, joined the Peace Corps over two-and-a-half years ago, and it's also why he's still there today - not ready to come home just yet, despite the fact that his contracted two-year term of voluntary service is long-since expired.
Swank is busy helping a handful of Segou natives develop, construct and officially open what will be Segou's first-ever formal business: an ecotourism lodge where hiking and backpacking tourists passing through the village will be able to stop and rest for the night, eat at a restaurant, use proper bathroom facilties and even shop.
"Many of the other ecolodges throughout Senegal offer only a minimum of services; they are just places to sleep and eat. Our goal is to develop the Segou ecolodge to the point where the ecolodge itself and the services it offers becomes an attraction," said Zach, via e-mail from a hut in a village two-and-a-half hours from his home village, a distance he must bike to when he wants to use the Internet. He has been doing that and working specifically on the ecolodge project for more than a year now.
Zach voluntarily extended his stay to make sure the project becomes a reality, and he still needs to raise about $2,000. That is a mark that must be obtained before the second phase of the project can begin, and dedicated as he is, that is also a mark that must be obtained before Zach will even consider coming home.
"The whole reason I am still here in Senegal is because of my counterparts, Samale, Ablaye and Boubacar Diallo. It was their motivation and dedication to the ecolodge project that brought me here in the first place, and it is why I'm still here," Swank said. "They really want the project to succeed as much for the benefit of the village as for their own personal benefit. They are pretty much the definition of a social entrepreneur."
According to Zach, the lodging facilities will be able to employ more than 20 people, and will give 15 percent of its profit directly back to the community in order to fund further business ventures.
A WINDING ROAD
When Zach first joined the Peace Corps and traveled to what would be his home for the next two years, however, he had no idea he would be working on a project such as the ecolodge.
His original assignment was a different one altogether, and was not in Senegal.
He first arrived to West Africa to live in the country of Mauritania, just north of Senegal, very much in the Sahara Desert, and he was there to serve as an environmental education volunteer.
He ran two weekly environmental clubs for elementary school students and was also making gardens in the schools, among other things.
That was all until his assignment abruptly ended due to political unrest within Mauritania, and he was moved southward out of the country and into Senegal, for safety's sake.
Zach, on the other hand, says he never once felt threatened or in danger while working in Mauritania.
"I trusted my friends there just as much as I trust my friends in America," said Zach. "The best part about Mauritania was meeting such welcoming people in such a harsh climate."
It was so harsh, in fact, that after experiencing sand storms that went on for days and temperatures reaching the mid-130 degrees Fahrenheit, the only thing that upset him about leaving was the people to which he would have to say goodbye.
"It would have been even more difficult to leave (Mauritania,) but I was offered to live in a village with 'chimpanzees and waterfalls.' Coming from the desert, that made the transition and starting new work all over again much easier," said Zach, who found great purpose in his second assignment, the ecolodge in Segou.
EXCITED TO COME HOME
When asked how he came to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the first place, Zach was confident and immediately able to link his current work to his childhood upbringing; there was no "I'm not sure why," about it.
"From an early age, with the help of my parents' influence, I was attuned to environmental issues and naturally my passion for that area grew. I always knew my life's work would be in that field," said Zach. "However, the fact that my particular passion is for achieving a sustainable use of our environment is not what is most important in my mind. There are endless possibilities of things to be passionate about, but the real point is to be passionate about something. Growing up where I did and as I did guaranteed that I would be sensitive to environmental issues, but it is the passion that I have that turns my sensitivity into meaningful action."
All this from a man who still does not consider what he's doing to be "entirely remarkable."
It's something he loves to do, and something that needs to be done, and so he's doing it, and he's not stopping until the job is done.
"Zach has always been environmentally minded," said his mother, Susan Brown, a now-retired special education teacher at BOCES and later at Chautauqua Lake Central School.
"He has always had this goal of wanting to make a difference in the world, and he was raised with a truly grass-roots style upbringing," said Susan, who went on to explain that they live in a largely Amish area on Burdick Road in Dewittville. "He was raised with a lot of self-sustaining ideals."
The ambition, however, comes naturally.
"I remember when he was 4 years old, he was sighing one day, and I asked him what was wrong," said Susan. "He said 'Mom, I don't know everything I need to know to be president.' I asked him 'The president of what?' To which he responded 'The president of the United States."
Though his goals have changed slightly since he was 4, his motivation and dedication has not, and that is why he is not yet home with his friends and family, which are what he says he misses the most.
"I am very excited to come home. At this point I have been in Africa for 31 months, and I am ready to come home," said Zach. "I miss my family, I miss my friends, I miss being in my culture. I miss speaking English with people who are fluent in English, and I miss America."
As he said before, however, he will not be returning home until his work on Segou's ecolodge is complete, and he is sure that the lodge will be successful in the hands of the natives who have put so much time and effort into making their village's first formal business a reality.
A large part of making that happen, however, is raising the final $2,000 needed to begin the project's second phase, and Zach is looking for donations of any size. To learn more about Swank, his project or to make a donation, visit sites.google.com/site/segouecolodge.