Peace Corps Service in Africa is all about the Unexpected

I have spent the last six weeks removed from my village and school. I am not happy about it. There was denial, anger, a grieving period and boredom in the city, a place where none of us ever wanted to be. The situation was unprecedented and fluid. We received briefings on new developments every day. We all stayed in hotels and finally Peace Corps had to make a decision on how to proceed.

And they decided to remove all volunteers from the entire Southern Region of Malawi for the duration of this year due to ongoing suspicious as well as isolated violent behaviors in villages and counter reactions based on rumors and folk tales.

I remember the day when we finally were told that there is absolutely no hope anymore to go back to our lives as we knew them. It was an emotional day because we were also given the choice to take “Interrupted Service”, an honorable discharge from service due to unforeseen circumstances. Two weeks before we had all hastily packed our bags with valuables and personal things for about two weeks, leaving our homes and belongings thinking our absence would be short lived. Our pets were cared for by neighbors, and some of us still wrote lesson plans so students could be taught during that time. And now we learned we would never go back, not even to say good bye.

While everybody tried to figure out what to do and how their decision would impact their lives we now were also concerned about all our belongings we left in our homes, our pets, our students, fellow teachers, schools, neighbors. We never had a chance to explain, tell them what they meant to us, and our Malawian friends and counterparts were grieving, too. They had lost as much as we had.

For all of us who decided to stay in Malawi it meant we would have to move to new locations. Will we have to start all over again with the process of integrating into a new village, finding new friends, creating trust? Absolutely. Will we need to learn new languages? For most of us, yes.

After the decision to not return to our sites and to move forward the process started for our trainers and supervisors to find new sites for us. We also started to learn new languages since Malawi has many tribal dialects. PC also collected all of our household belongings from our home all across the South and consolidated them in the parking lot of Head Quarters. And in between we still had long stretches of unstructured time in a large, hot, and dusty city. Some of us helped out in the embassy, some visited sites like Habitat for Humanity, a refugee camp, an animal rescue operation, helped with collecting data, organizing our living space, organizing little parties and get-togethers and more. But no matter how you looked at it, it was still a stressful time filled with waiting and the hope that our new sites would be ready for us and that we will be able to depart soon.

Six weeks, for some of us seven, is a very long time to stay put. But it also was necessary for us to go through the lengthy emotional processes that will enable us to let go of the old and fully embrace the new.

What have I learned during this time? I have learned to take life day by day. In the face of uncertainty, we must discipline our thoughts and emotions to focus on the very thing in front of our eyes. We must be flexible to follow and react to new developments as they present themselves. I have learned that emotional support by humans or animals is a big deal. Small gestures of understanding or empathy go a long way. I have learned that people grieve in their own way and time and how to respect that time for myself and others. And last but not least I have learned how the members of a large organization like Peace Corps can be efficient AND human. Huge logistical problems and complex situations, as well as high stress levels can be navigated without any signs of anger or hot temper. Maybe it is a sad account that I have never experienced this before, but I am so grateful that I got the chance to see this done, experience the calm strength that comes with confidence, respect, care, responsibility, and purpose. What a privilege. And I will pledge to take this experience forward into my life to the best of my ability.

 

 

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Visiting Mzimba- Learning about work in the Environmental Sector

Peace Corps service allows for occasional cross-site visits with other volunteers if there is an educational or professional benefit. I recently was lucky enough to be granted such a visit which took me into the North of Malawi to the site of environmental volunteer Scott Tilton. Scott and I went through training together in Kasungu and share a few common interests. As we were talking I became interested in his environmental projects with community groups and students of a local secondary school.

Mzimba is about 4-5 hours north of the capital Lilongwe and it might as well be a foreign country because people here speak a different local language to the one I studied during training (Chichewa) called Chitimbuka. I was surprised how different the language is expecting only slight differences. However, to my relief people in the North seem to all know some Chichewa and most speak English rather fluently.

Thanks to Scott who introduced me to many people, including his counterpart, I had no problems feeling welcomed right away. An environmental volunteer’s work and schedule looks rather different to the one of an education volunteer. Projects are scheduled according to the local pace of the community and some of time is spent organizing, coordinating and conducting meetings with different entities.

During my visit I was lucky enough to meet with different community groups and 300 students of the local secondary school. I learned about permagardening, fence building, bee hive construction and placement, cook stove building, cooking demos to local food workers, and how to operate a tree nursery. I observed first-hand how local farmers organized to teach students their local skills in fence building and how materials and workers were transported from one location to the next.

Permagardening is a form of gardening that takes into consideration the large amounts of water that pour down during rainy season, traps them in the soil and makes them usable during the long dry spells in the months of hot season.

Fences in Malawi are often built out of sticks and corn stalks that have been left after harvest.

Tree nurseries have been a new-found interest by some Malawians and community groups since deforestation is a major reason for soil erosion, water shortages, and general changes in the ecosystem like loss of animal species. Malawians use mainly wood or charcoal to cook and illegal wood cutting is rampant. Planting trees is one way to mitigate the effects of deforestation and creating a renewable source of fire wood.

“Changa-changa-moto” cook stoves are build out of the local bricks and mud and are more fuel efficient than the traditional three stone fire places.

My favorite things to do here are riding a bicycle through the villages, helping to facilitate hands-on projects with the students, meeting community members, walking through my closest village late afternoon, having time to draw, hiking (and getting lost) in the nearby forest reserve, and eating Scott’s ever-so-delicious home cooked meals fresh from his fire place.