Peace Corps Volunteers Christelle Domercant and Ursula Wright recently practiced our Second Goal by sharing the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with preschool students who are learning English in Costa Rica!
Happy National Peace Corps Week!
Remembering my days living in northeastern Kenya as a volunteer in the 1970s. It was an amazing experience that taught me so much about the developing world — and about myself.
This is a great week to learn more about the Peace Corps mission. It might change the course of your life.
With no family to spend Christmas with during my two years in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, my fellow volunteers became my family. One year my Christmas holidays were spent in northwestern Kenya. There my fellow volunteers gathered to celebrate the holidays in the Pokot tribal area, home to a traditional tribe whose customs included wearing animal skins and eating a meat-based diet.
We didn’t exchange gifts – volunteers have no money to spend. Instead, our focus was on spending time together. We honestly didn’t mind sleeping on the floor or in tents and having too many people sharing one bathroom. We were having fun in the way young people can. But we never dreamed it would be so difficult to cook our Christmas dinner, the focal point of our celebration.
The volunteer who was our host had purchased a turkey for the occasion – a live turkey. She thought she was keeping it safe near her house but two young children practicing their hunting skills with bow and arrows killed the turkey a week before Christmas! With no refrigerators in sight, my friend and her neighbors ate the bird before we arrived.
Ever resourceful, our group pooled its cash and bought a few chickens for our Christmas feast and made a Robinson Crusoe-style oven (a large metal pot with a lid and charcoal on the top and bottom) to cook them. The chickens took forever to cook; yet, when we finally ate, what we lacked in style and cuisine, we made up for in spirit.
Perhaps feeling responsible for our missing a turkey feast, community members, dressed traditionally, gathered the next day and danced and sang for our group. Soon, they paraded in a cow and slaughtered it in our honor. One enterprising member of our group, experienced from working in a butcher’s shop while in high school, elbowed his way to the front and carved out the filet steaks. That night we ate the best meal that the tribe could offer us. We were grateful.
From my work with ChildFund, I know that 870 million people do not have enough to eat, and 98 percent of them live in developing countries. As you enjoy your Christmas dinner and count your blessings this year, I would ask you to also think about what you can do in 2013 to ease the hunger of others across the world.
I learned very early during my 20 years of living overseas that it was a waste of time and money for my parents to send me gifts for Christmas or other big occasions. Two things generally would happen to any presents sent: Either the package would show up very late or never or, if it did arrive, I would have to pay import duty (taxes) that was generally a higher cost than the gift itself.
While working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, I did receive a Christmas package from my mother that first year - about eight months late. Among other things, my mother had sent me her homemade fruit cake wrapped in tin foil. Although never a big fan of fruit cake, I have to report that between the alcohol she soaked her fruit in and the tin foil wrapping, the cake arrived edible – as least edible enough for a volunteer. But the cake wasn’t the most important part of the package. To me, the package was all about love – and my mom telling me I was still part of our family traditions even though I was living in a mud house in a remote part of Africa.
I am pleased to say at ChildFund we give people the opportunity to send gifts of love and hope to children all over the world through our holiday catalog. My personal favorite this year – mattresses. Why? Because when I was in Bolivia earlier this year, I visited a family who had received mattresses for their children through ChildFund. Sleeping on the floor anytime is no fun; sleeping on the floor when it’s cold is horrible. The cold goes right to your bones. The children were thrilled with the mattresses and so was the mom, whose eyes filled with tears.
Long ago my siblings and I stopped exchanging Christmas gifts – we focus our Christmas giving on our many nieces and nephews. But this year, in honor of my seven sisters and brother, mattresses will be bought and given to children sleeping on cold floors. It’s my way of passing on the gift of love my mother sent me wrapped in tin foil all those years ago.
My mother recalls that after I returned from the Peace Corps, I would talk about anything at any time, even if it wasn’t proper “dinner table” talk. What she was mostly referring to were stories I told about latrines and diarrhea. Here in the U.S., we have no problem telling others we have a headache. Similarly, people in many places I’ve lived would just as comfortably talk about their intestinal problems and how often they make trips to the toilet.
Because many developing countries suffered from inadequate sanitation, diarrhea is a huge problem. The most common toilets in poor communities are pit latrines. Properly installed and maintained they can function as a safe and effective sanitation system for a family. Poorly done, they can help spread disease (tainting nearby water supplies) and sometimes be downright scary – and even dangerous. I speak from experience. In the mud house I rented (yes, you can rent a mud house) as a Peace Corps volunteer, the pit latrine was in the back yard, a considerable distance from my back door. The outhouse had the prerequisite opening in the cement floor, with the waste pit below. But it lacked something important – a covering for the opening. One night, I learned the hard way that bats liked to spend time down in that pit. Suffice to say that when their exit was partially blocked, they wasted no time in flying out, much to my surprise.
Next week, we will be celebrating World Toilet Day. Yes, it does sound like an unusual thing to celebrate. But ChildFund is well aware that diarrhea is not a humorous story; globally, this disease is the second leading killer of children under 5 years old, claiming the lives of 1.5 million children every year, according to the World Health Organization.
Many of ChildFund’s programs around the world include a sanitation component, an important part of our fight to reduce the death rates of children under 5 and to ensure that children stay healthy. With World Toilet Day still a week off, I might share another story or two that my mother wouldn’t approve. Stay tuned.
The stupidest thing I’ve ever done brought me dangerously close to a lion.
Living in northeastern Kenya where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’70s was like living in a game park. Wild animals were commonplace. There were crocodiles in the river that I rode my motorcycle through (no bridge). I often spotted gazelles, dikdiks and zebras running through the bush. Baboons and monkeys were common—one monkey even tried to steal the freshly made bread out of my kitchen.
For those of you who saw the 1960s movie Born Free about Joy and George Adamson and their lioness Elsa, you may be interested to know that I met the real Joy Adamson—she was still living in the area but had moved on to working with leopards.
You would think that my everyday game sightings would be enough. Not for me and my husband. One weekend we rode our motorcycles a few hours deeper into the bush and set up our tent at an animal watering spot. We made a fire, cooked dinner and as the sun set, had a front-row seat to the beauty of nature as many animals made their way to the river to drink. It was fantastic—no one around—just us and the animals!
It was about midnight when we were awakened by a lion roaring behind our tent. It was terrifying. Our fire had burned down. Too afraid to leave our tent, we reached out for whatever we could find and threw it on the fire, hoping it would encourage the lion to move on. The roaring continued. Not having a car to take refuge in, at one point I suggested my husband start his motorcycle, thinking the noise would scare the lion away. My husband was wiser than me and “politely” declined (“Are you crazy?”).
For hours we lived in absolute fear, hearing the lion, thinking it would attack any minute and we would be killed. In complete exhaustion, we fell asleep shortly before dawn.
I hadn’t thought of that night in years. That is until recently when Kony 2012 made the news. ChildFund works in northern Uganda and was among the first groups to respond to the needs children who had become “night commuters” during those horrible years. Afraid of being abducted, or worse, by Kony and his followers, children living in rural areas gathered each night and slept together in large groups, praying for safety in numbers
Like me when I heard the lion, I imagine those children slept only when exhausted, fearing for their lives at any moment. Unlike me, it was not their poor judgment that put their lives in danger. They slept in fear for years because they were vulnerable and lived in an impoverished country with an uncontrolled madman at large.
ChildFund responded with programs in some of the worst affected districts of Pader, Gulu, Lira and Soroti in northern Uganda. We provided child protection and psychosocial support to thousands of children in the large camps of internally displaced people (IDPs). The last decade, since Kony fled Uganda, has seen IDPs returning to their homes and gradually returning to their normal lives.
Things always look less scary in the daylight. That morning in Kenya, my husband and I awoke with a start, and when we ventured out, we found lion prints about 10 feet behind our tent. We felt the thrill and the high that comes with surviving.
I hope the former night children of Uganda have found some peace in their own survival. I also pray that Kony and his followers are finally stopped and brought to justice.