I serve with some of the best volunteers in the world. Every now and again, I like to interview them to learn more about who they are. Today I’m proud to introduce you to one of my fellow Mambwe speakers and nearest neighbors in the Mbala region.
Calla Summers – Age 22
Where are you from?
I’m from Springfield, Illinois.
What Peace Corps program do you serve in?
I am a community health improvement project (CHIP) volunteer for Peace Corps Zambia. I’ve been in Peace Corps for just over one year, and serve in a very rural part of the Mbala region (Northern province) approximately 70 kilometers from Mbala (and the nearest paved road).
What’s your background like?
I have a bachelors degree in psychology from Eastern Illinois University and a minor in Spanish and latin American studies. I studied abroad in Argentina during my junior year of college and really enjoyed experiencing post-secondary education in a different country.
Why join Peace Corps?
I heard about Peace Corps early on, but never really understood what it was. Right after I studied abroad, one of my friends from Argentina posted on Facebook about their own application process. This piqued my interest, and so I started doing a little research of my own and quickly fell in love with the idea of Peace Corps. I think the idea of helping people pursue their own development and projects based in local interest, need, and knowledge is really great. I had done some mission trips within the United States (5 different states) and knew I liked travel, and integrating into local communities.
Ultimately, I think it came down to the fact that I really like pursuing the non-traditional life. The whole “grow up, go to college, get a job, get married, have kids” life just isn’t for me. Peace Corps was a chance to have twenty-seven months of something completely different.
Tell me more about the CHIP program.
The CHIP program has three main goals: mother and child health, HIV prevention and positive living, and malaria prevention. Mother and child health includes components of basic health care, nutrition, birth control, and safe motherhood. HIV prevention is based around educating people about how HIV is contracted, how it progresses to AIDS, and how to live a positive and healthy lifestyle if you are already HIV positive. Malaria prevention includes education and distribution of bed nets, teaching irradication of mosquito breeding areas (like standing water in villages), promoting indoor residual spraying of pesticides in homes, and utilizing local clinics for malaria testing and appropriate treatment.
There are a lot of myths about HIV/AIDS and malaria in Zambia, and I spend a lot of time trying to educate people (also sometimes called sensitization) about these diseases. When it comes to HIV, people have a lot of misinformed beliefs about where HIV comes from, and how it should be treated. Some people believe HIV comes from condoms, or that if they test positive for HIV that they will immediately show fatal symptoms and die. Others believe that you can cure HIV by having sex with a virgin. Perhaps the most difficult attitudes to combat are those of hopelessness when it comes to HIV/AIDS. Some people feel that if there’s no available cure, then why bother with prevention? Others feel that if anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) are available and can help you live a generally normal life, then what’s the harm in contracting the disease in the first place? These attitudes are very difficult to change.
With malaria education, there are similar challenges. Some people believe you can contract malaria from the rain, or from eating certain foods like green mango or unripe bananas. Others view malaria as a fact of life, unpreventable and treatable when you do become sick. People rarely seek testing when they are sick, and most diseases (such as the common cold or the flu) are assumed to be malaria. Clinics will give out malaria drugs without testing people, creating drug resistance. Expectant mothers are treated three times during their pregnancy for malaria, even if their malaria tests are negative. This is because malaria can hide in the placenta and the mother can still test negative for the disease, and so it’s assumed to be better to treat for malaria, just in case, than let the mother potentially go untreated and the baby potentially pay the price.
Aside from these proejcts, I also work with nutrition clubs, help with mosquito net distribution, am developing positive living groups (support groups for those with HIV/AIDS), and work with Neighborhood Health Committees (NHC). NHCs act as liasons between the local clinics (often chronically understaffed) and the communities in promoting education, sensitization, and understanding the health needs of local people.
What sort of secondary projects do you work on?
I work with two women’s groups, teaching income-generating activities like sewing, gardening, cooking demonstrations, GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) clubs, and most recently, working toward starting a little sundries shop in our village.
What’s been the hardest part of your service?
I’m a 2nd generation volunteer, which means that I have faced a lot of expectation in my community that I will be just like the previous volunteer (a male). It’s difficult to be compared to a former volunteer all the time. The Mambwe language has also been challenging, and I’m continually trying to learn to communicate. The lifestyle itself isn’t too difficult, though I have two constant struggles as a remote volunteer: the expense and logistics of transport to and from my site, and access to fresh food (there’s very little available).
What have been the rewarding aspects of your service?
It’s really rewarding to see people seek learning opportunities and being able to teach and affect change in my community. I also really value the time I spend with my host family, especially my host sister. She’s 16 and works tremendously hard to run the household.
How has Peace Corps service personally changed you?
I find I’m a lot more patient these days. Before coming to Zambia, patient is not a word people would have used to describe me. Now, I feel I’m much more able to go with the flow and shrug off disappointment. Knowing what I know now, if I had to go back I would definitely do Peace Corps again. Even now, I consider the possibility of doing it again later in life.
What do you miss most about your home in America?
Food! No, no, [laughs] definitely my family. But food is up there! And the pets I left behind.
If you were to give advice to people applying to Peace Corps or those about to leave for staging, what would you say?
To people thinking of applying: don’t apply to Peace Corps as a way to escape your problems, or because you don’t know what to do with your life. This is not the pleace to figure out your problems while trying to also figure out a new culture, language, and way of living. It’s a great thing to do as an act of service, as a means of developing yourself, or to better prepare you for a job or graduate school. But, it’s not a way to escape your problems.
To people about to leave for staging: It’s difficult, but try not to have any expectations for what your Peace Corps service will be like. You could read two blogs of two people who are neighbors in the same area (like, for instance, Calla and myself), and they will represent two totally different ways of living, working, and having a Peace Corps experience. Try to accept things as they are, and as they happen.
Do you have any plans for after your service?
Travel, and maybe graduate school. I’d like to pursue a masters in public health, or perhaps international work.
Okay, last question: Do you think Peace Corps as an organization is still a worthwhile pursuit of the USA?
Yes, but Peace Corps faces a lot of struggles in the international aid community. Other NGOs frequently come into rural communities, especially in Africa, and give away money and resources without supplying the appropriate training and education. Peace Corps volunteers live in communities, speak the local languages, but don’t provide money or free stuff. So, which is more appealing to local people with a very basic education? Obviously, money talks. So, it’s hard to compete with that at the local level. However, when we do work successfully with people and change attitudes and behaviors for the better, our work is much more sustainable after we leave.
Thanks Calla! You can read more about Calla’s work over at her blog: http://www.callacazambia.blogspot.com.