By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
This week, we recognize Peace Corps volunteers, many of whom leave the United States to live thousands of miles away from family, friends and familiar cultural landmarks. In exchange, volunteers gain global perspective and unforgettable experiences.
To celebrate Peace Corps Week (Feb. 24-March 2), we spoke with a few of ChildFund’s Peace Corps alumni, who shared their stories of living in the field.
Bethany Tebbe, who joined ChildFund in January as a grants management officer, was posted in Togo, a western Africa country, from 2003 to 2007, where she worked in girls’ education and empowerment. “I was 22,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any preconceived expectations.”
At first, she lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof, no electricity and no running water — a home she recalls fondly. It was Bethany’s first time outside of the U.S., but she says that she adjusted fairly well to village life and especially street food. She bicycled constantly.
After a mishap on a mountain hike that caused a serious knee injury, Bethany was posted in a Togolese city with greater ease of mobility. During her time in Togo, she traveled to many African countries, including Niger and Morocco.
When Craig Stein, senior grants and contracts manager at ChildFund, landed in North Yemen in 1982, it also was his first experience overseas. Craig had decided to apply to the Peace Corps after taking a college history class taught by a former diplomat who had piqued his interest in Middle Eastern history and culture. “I wanted to do something different,” he says, and he hoped to work in a Middle Eastern, Islamic society. A posting for an English as a Second Language teacher opened in Hodeidah, Yemen, and Craig was accepted. He lived in a three-bedroom home with three other volunteers, and he later moved to a mountain village as an office administrator of a water project.
Upon his arrival, Craig experienced a great sense of welcome. He and a friend were traveling in the mountains north of the capital city of Sanaa, and they stumbled into a wedding ceremony. They were immediately invited to be guests — for three days, the typical length of a Yemeni wedding. “The Yemenis were a lot more open to Americans or Westerners than I anticipated,” he says. “I’d expected some hostility or at least suspicion, but that wasn’t the case at all.”
Although volunteers cannot choose the country where they are stationed, they do have some control over the type of work they do and sometimes can pick the environment where they’ll live — such as city versus village.
Elizabeth Frank, a program assistant for global programs in ChildFund’s Washington, D.C., office, was posted in Ukraine from 2006 to 2008. Surprisingly, Ukraine has the most Peace Corps volunteers in the world. Elizabeth lived in the western half of the country, which identifies strongly with its Ukrainian heritage; the eastern half has a stronger Russian identity.
“It’s a very divided country,” Elizabeth says. She lived in a small village with a population of 3,000 or so and taught English and HIV prevention. She came away feeling strong respect for Ukraine’s “resilient people.”
“Overall, it was fabulous,” she says, and she remains very close to some of her former students. Two of them came to the United States for high school because educational standards remain very poor in Ukraine; now, they’re attending university in Western Europe.
Elizabeth, Craig and Bethany remain attached to the places where they lived and served, and concur that their perspectives on global issues are strongly influenced by their time in the field.
Since finishing their stints as volunteers a few years ago, both Bethany and Elizabeth have maintained ties to the Peace Corps and the people they met on their tours. Bethany also spent a year in Malawi working for the Peace Corps Response, a short-term assignment that is focused on a particular area of expertise; Bethany’s focus was on HIV and AIDS.
Craig eventually married an English nurse he met while working in that mountain village in Yemen. The couple went on to work in international development in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Senegal and the United Kingdom before settling in the United States.
“My Peace Corps experience had a profound effect on my life,” Craig notes.
by Wendy Hirsch
ChildFund Strategy Manager
Haiti is a place of extremes, which demands a lot of you and rewards you immensely for the effort. I discovered this while a Peace Corps volunteer from 1998 to 2000 working in and around Cabaret, Haiti.
I regret that most people are only exposed to the most negative of these extremes — dire poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, insecurity — and over the last week, the absolute horror that comes when you add a natural disaster to the mix. I don’t deny any of these. But I’m not going to write about them here. I want to talk about the other extremes of Haiti — beauty, vibrance, kindness, gratitude, humor and wisdom, and lots of hard-earned wisdom.
I don’t possess the literary gifts necessary to describe the grace that is Sunday morning in Haiti — regardless of religion, whether you go to services or not — it’s a quiet and comforting time. Nor can I adequately convey the gift that is Haitian drumming, or the life and energy that literally leap from the paintings. But I can share with you some Haitian wisdom, as conveyed through proverbs.
I used proverbs a lot when I lived in Haiti. They provided a bridge to understanding the culture, attitudes and thinking of Haitians — and usually got a laugh when delivered through the mouth of a small, blonde American woman. Tenacity, effort, acceptance, practicality, hope and humor are all showcased in the proverbs — aspects of the Haitian people that I treasure and am privileged to share with you.
One proverb in particular came to mind as I learned of the earthquake last week:
W’ap fè’m monte nan sièl pado.
You’re making me go to heaven backwards.
Here are a few of my other favorites…
Chita pa bay.
Sitting doesn’t get you anywhere.
Piti piti zwazo fè niche li.
Little by little, the bird makes her nest.
Yon sèl dwèt pa ka manje kalalou.
You can’t eat okra with one finger.
Men anpil, chay pa lou.
Many hands lighten the load.
Practicality…and its associated wisdom
Tout moun se moun. Tout moun pa menm.
All people are people. All people are not the same.
Ou we sa ou genyen, ou pa konn sa ou rete.
You know what you have, you don’t know what’s coming.
Wendy Hirsch works at ChildFund International headquarters in Richmond, Va. Her Haitian friends and family survived the earthquake. Some are now homeless and some hurt, but as they put it: “We eat, we sleep. We can’t complain.”