My Experience as a Peace Corps Health Extension Worker – Part 2

After I became acclimated, it was time to get to work.

Each volunteer was tasked with collecting data, facilitating several group discussions, and writing a Village Analysis Report. The main reason volunteers were asked to do this was to see how we could be of assistance within the community; and what resources and skills were readily available.

Before executing the tasks, I had to find someone to help me; someone who could gather people and translate my version of Kiswahili. I asked Dada Agnes (Sister Agnes), a primary school teacher who spoke English. Because Dada Agnes was busy with her school schedule, she recommended that I work with Mama Gonsalva.

Mama Gonsalva was a Community Health Worker, and with the help of my homemade brownies, was able to gather several groups of people for our group meetings. I made the brownies and people showed up. We’d chat, laugh, and work until sun set. In undergrad, I learned about group facilitation and conducting assessments, but being able to put what I learned into practice was incredible. After several community meetings, I had enough information to write my report. Thanks to Dada Agnes, I was able to submit my report to the government of Songea.

While I had a great time executing the assessment, I quickly learned about the village hierarchy. Because my village contact kept putting the assignment on hold, I went around him and didn’t bring my concerns to the village chairman.  I avoid procrastinating and because of that sometimes I tend to jump the gun. After explaining to the chairman why I went around my contact, he said that he understood and accepted my apology.

Time to teach:

Not long after I completed the Village Analysis, and presented it to others in my Peace Corps class, I began teaching at two of the primary schools, the local clinic, and throughout the community.

For my first time teaching in the village, I went to the clinic and taught women about Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). The Mamas (the women in the class) looked on, some confused and others amused. Once Mama Gonsalva was able to help translate what I was saying, the Mamas laughed at me dancing as I shook the bottle with the solution, listened as I took them through the steps, and even asked questions. It was another moment cementing that I wanted to educate others for a living. Working at the clinic became a regular experience, and I was even able to assist with weighing babies and helping the doctor, nurse, or health workers with several tasks. My favorite part was connecting with the women and building friendships.

Because I enjoy staying busy, I also decided to teach at both primary schools. One of the great tools that Peace Corps provided was a handbook of lessons in Swahili and English. I was able to modify lessons based on age range and created games to help the children learn. I taught but I also learned from the children that I worked with.

As I mentioned in my previous post, it took time for me to adjust to my new surroundings. I would visit people’s homes, shops, and community hangouts to sit and speak with them about their healthcare concerns. During a visit at one person’s home, I was offered water which had not been boiled or treated. I returned to the person’s home after teaching them about the importance of boiling water and how wadudu (germs/bugs) can enter the body and make them sick. She offered me water again, but told me that she started boiling her drinking water before use. A small accomplishment with a major impact.

I would also sit and speak with the vijana (youth) who were not in school; speaking with them about health topics and answering the questions they had. Because I was open and spent time with community members, they began to feel more comfortable around me and started visiting my home to ask questions, to sit and talk, and to read health materials.

I continued to teach, but one day after teaching a group of Mamas, I decided to create a Mama Lishe (Mama Nutrition) group. The formation of the group came about because of an event that took place. One day, when I was teaching a group of Mamas, my meeting was interrupted by a leader in the community. I was cut off as I was teaching and the Mamas were scolded and spoken down to like children. As he walked off, the Mamas were whispering and looked helpless.

During training, volunteers were taught how women in Tanzania are oppressed; and volunteers were encouraged to work on women empowerment projects. I remembered how my Mama during training would walk around the house quietly when Baba (father) was around, and how her personality would shine through, and laughter would fill the house, when he was at work. I wanted to experience that with the women of Nakahuga, so I turned to Dada Agnes for help.

Dada Agnes quickly got the Mamas together and the nutrition group, which was created for the Mamas to learn how to cook healthy meals based on their resources, was a success. The Mamas were also able to use the group as a means to openly communicate with each other.

An unexpected departure:

After months of becoming acclimated, something seemed off. About two months prior, Stacy was moved from Ruvuma to another village in a different region. I had no idea of the impact it would have on me. We were friends from the beginning and were excited that we would be living in the same region and could meet up in Songea to hangout and regroup. I connected with other volunteers in the region, but Stacy was my Peace Corps best friend.

My Peace Corps Buddy & Hero (She guided a tarantula the size of my palm out of my bedroom)

The work also began taking a toll on me. There was so much that needed to be done and I wanted to change the world. I would wake up early and stay up late at night. I’ve always been a hard worker, but because of all that I saw and experienced, my mind was on overdrive and I experienced chronic insomnia for the first time. My mental health began to suffer.

I tried pushing through feelings of isolation, sleep deprivation, low-self confidence, and loneliness, but I was shutting down. I reached out to the Peace Corps nurse who connected me to a psychologist. After speaking with the psychologist, I was told that I would be returning home for a brief period of time to recover; however, when I returned home, I was told that it would be best for me to stay home for my mental health. I was heartbroken. I felt like I let everyone down, especially myself.

Lessons learned:

In retrospect, there are many things I would have done differently. I would have practiced patience, taken mental health breaks, spent more time with other volunteers, and spread out my work over the full two years.

Although I was only a volunteer for 10 months, I always think back to my time in the Peace Corps and the lessons I learned. I learned lessons that have impacted my career and how I work, how I see myself, and how I interact with others. My time in the Peace Corps is an unforgettable experience that I will forever hold dear to my heart; and I am forever grateful for all of people I met, and the heartfelt and hilarious stories I am able to recall, all of which would take a series of several posts to cover, as a Peace Corps Health Extension Worker.

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