My Experience as a Peace Corps Health Extension Worker – Part 1

Ten years ago, I embarked on a journey that would change the course of my career. This is my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer Health Extension Worker.

The beginning:

This story would not be complete unless I explained why I joined the Peace Corps.

During my final year of undergrad, I decided that I wanted to work before attending graduate school. Because I originally wanted to become a child psychologist, I spoke with one of my professors about her career path and explained my career goals to her. After our meeting, she stated that I should consider a career in public health. I had no idea what public health even was.  Not only that, but another one of my professors suggested the same career field without knowing what the other said.

I knew that I had always been passionate about health, loved teaching, and wanted to serve others. Because I enjoyed volunteering, I went ahead and applied for the Peace Corps.

The application process was a little tedious, but with the help of my Peace Corps recruiter, I was able to finish the first step in becoming a volunteer.

Kwaheri Amerika (Goodbye America):

Not long after returning home from Ghana, I attended a Peace Corps event with my mother. At the end of the event, it was announced that I would be going to Tanzania. I previously learned about Tanzania and even knew people who lived there, so we were overjoyed. In July 2010, my family drove me to Pennsylvania where I would meet up with the other volunteers in my class. We said our goodbyes.

Now I’m not shy at all. However, I’m reserved, even around my family, unless I’m teaching. Meeting everyone was a little overwhelming, but I knew that I wasn’t the only volunteer who felt that way. It was a reminder that we were all in it together. The next day, we went to New York, had two layovers (in Switzerland and Kenya where there was a giraffe within close distance to the plane), and finally landed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Training was for three months and took place in Dar es Salaam at the Msimbazi Centre Hostel, and Tanga where volunteers spent most of our time. Training opened my eyes to how non-Tanzanian Blacks were viewed. I already knew how some people would view me because of things I’d heard from my friends. There were two other Black Americans in my class, but at times it became hard. After one training, I spoke with the Program Manager about my concerns. I asked him why some Tanzanians looked down upon Black Americans. He told me that it was because of the stereotypes seen on T.V. I told him how I felt, and he reassured me that the Peace Corps was working to recruit more African Americans and incorporate training that would benefit people from different racial backgrounds.

After we completed training at the Centre, volunteers traveled to Tanga where we each stayed with a host family. I quickly learned how to adapt to my new living conditions, and my time in Ghana mentally prepared me to expect the unexpected. The only thing I wished I would have expected, was the mouse that decided to get in bed with me…that’s a story for another day.

My host family consisted of two parents and three children. The oldest child stayed with a family member so that I could stay in his room. When I arrived, they stared at me with smiles on their faces. All of us looked at each other and I began showing them pictures of my family and friends. The only person in my host family that could speak English was my host father. There was a language barrier as he wasn’t fluent in English and I could barley put together a short sentence. However, I think the language barrier pushed me to learn as fast, and as much, as I could. Kiswahili is one of the most beautiful languages and was easy to pick up on once I learned greetings, nouns, adjectives, verbs, and how to structure sentences.

Karibu Nakahuga (Welcome to Nakahuga):

After three months of learning about Tanzania, the culture, the language, and different health topics that affect Tanzanians, volunteers graduated and were sent our separate ways.

During the drive from Dar es Salaam to Ruvuma, I quietly sat in the front seat of the SUV as the other volunteers were in the back chatting. Being on the continent of Africa felt like a grounding experience. I looked on excitedly as we passed animals at a watering whole. I thought about what my late grandmother would think of me living across the world. It was the moment where it hit me that I would be living alone in an entirely different country, and that it was my opportunity to do as much as I could do to serve others.

Each volunteer was dropped off at their new home. Now, before we entered the village I lived in, we encountered a large fire that was on both sides of the road. The driver stopped the car and an Associate Peace Corps Director, Pascal, jumped out of the SUV. We waited for a few minutes to make sure it was safe then we proceeded to Nakahuga.  

The drive was bumpy, and people stopped to see who the wageni (foreigners) entering their community were. When we got to my homestay, I was greeted by my village contact and the nurse whose home I was to live in. I said goodbye to Stacy, my Peace Corps best friend, and watched the SUV as they drove off.

The next day, I met almost the entire village. I don’t believe they expected their volunteer to look like me, but many of them eventually warmed up. It took a while for others to do so, and at times, I had to take a stance and respectfully voice my concerns when faced with opposition. I started attending events, showing up on community members doorsteps saying, “hodi hodi” (greeting when arriving at someone’s home), visiting schools, and hanging out in public spaces. Spending time with community members, asking questions and answering them, helped me to adapt to my new surroundings.

I experienced a range of emotions from the time I left my home state of Maryland to the moment it hit me that I was the only American in my village. Excitement, nervousness, frustration, and joy; a stillness and feeling of contentment. I was ready to make a difference and begin my job as a Health Extension Worker.

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