Beginning last May, I have been serving as a health PCV in Mozambique. The goal of the health program here in Mozambique is to improve the health of Mozambicans through increased health-seeking behavior and prevention of HIV/AIDS and malaria as well as health system strengthening through capacity-building of men, women, and organizations throughout the country. My assignment as a community health and organizational strengthening worker broadly implies that I am partnered with a non-governmental organization (NGO) here in Moz to help build capacity within the organization and the community. The focus of my work with my organization, the ariel glaser foundation, is to improve their monitoring and evaluation and help design and implement various projects dealing with HIV in my town. Additionally, I work at the community level giving health talks (palestras) alongside my Mozambican counterparts, forming groups to provide psycho-social support for PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS), developing projects to improve adherence to anti-retroviral treatment, distributing and improving correct use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and generally working to improve health-related knowledge in my community.
I live in a two-room cement house inside a yard (quintal) which I share with my landlord, his wife, and his young son. Being based in a district capital, I have energy (well, most of the time) and access to water nearby via a tap. My house has a corrugated metal (chapa) roof which means during rainy season storms, it is nearly impossible to speak to someone sitting across the table from me. During the heat of the day, chapa-roofed houses act as a tiny hotboxes so generally no one is inside during the sweltering afternoons; instead you can find me on my hammock and most of my neighbors on straw mats (esteiras) under the shade of our mango trees. I have a dump flush toilet, which means that the base, bowl, and seat of a toilet are on top of a pit latrine. Because there isn’t actually a flushing mechanism, I have to dump buckets of water (hence the name) into the toilet after each use. Without running water, I’ve grown very accustomed (and even started truly to enjoy) a good bucket bath.
My friends, co-workers, and neighbors are easily the most fulfilling part of my service thus far, as I’d guess most PCVs might say). The relationships I have formed and am continuing to form with Mozambicans around me motivate me to continue my work even on the difficult, disheartening, and frustrating days. Their hope and courage to improve their country through small actions is truly inspiring.
Challenges are inherent in the job of any PCV, regardless of the country he or she is serving in. Many of those challenges may overlap between countries. Here in Mozambique, challenges can range from the slow pace of life to transportation struggles to cat calls and sexual harassment being a white female walking in town. Frustrations one week might be as trivial as coming home with dirty, sandy feet every day and not having water coming out of the tap. The next week though, obstacles may instead be the death of a neighbor due to a chapa accident at night or your neighbor’s five-year old child being diagnosed with malaria for the second time this season despite her having a mosquito net and knowing she should be using it.
I think this is the biggest, most frequent question every Peace Corps Volunteer has had to answer. Coincidentally it remains one of the most complex and challenging to answer fully. My reasons for joining the Peace Corps were not unilateral nor where they entirely selfless – I love to travel, I love experiencing new cultures and foods, I love learning new languages. For me though, the largest reason was essentially a utilitarian decision: I have skills in the field of public health centered specially around designing and implementing programs focusing on infectious diseases; the largest burden of infectious diseases today still remains to be sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like Mozambique are still combating, both medically, economically, and socially, diseases that we know how to prevent and for which we know the cure. When I think of where my skills can be of most use, Peace Corps offers me the opportunity to bring those skills not only to a country in need of those skills, but to do so in a way that hopefully allows me to share and spread those skills and knowledge long after I leave. As I approach the one-year mark of my Peace Corps service, I can certainly say those reasons still apply to me now. The added bonus is that now I have a handful of other reasons keeping me here as well: I have the beautiful overlook of the river running through my town which takes my breath away some days and reminds me how small I am; I have a family here that is sharing their lives with me as I share mine with them; I have held the babies whose future i might have the smallest, tiniest positive influence on if I’m lucky.Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Undoubtedly. The $379 million budget of the Peace Corps is a small fraction of the overall US government’s budget (of which less than 1% of the $4 trillion is devoted to international affairs anyway!). The benefits of the Peace Corps program are numerous: representing America abroad, broadening the experiences and perspectives of Americans through grassroots work abroad (oh, and employing them and providing them with new skill sets in the process), and fostering future leaders who return to the states to devote their careers to public service work (name an american agencies or organization and odds are they employ an RPCV). Moreover, PCVs have played a large and historic role in terms of the progress in international public health, agricultural, and educational strides in the last 50 years. My list of reasons why the Peace Corps is a worthwhile program could go on and on…
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
First, I’m jealous of how easy your application process will be compared to mine (Ha!). But in all seriousness, you are about to embark on one of the most formative experiences of your life. It is said that Peace Corps is ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love.’ Those words could not be more true. You will be tested and pushed to your limits during your 27 months. You will not change the world, but you may just change one person’s world through your small actions – through your teaching, through your community health work, through your involvement in their youth group. Don’t join the Peace Corps expecting to change the world and make the biggest impact; join the Peace Corps because you see the need and the importance of this type of work at the local level, and because you value relationship-building as much as (if not more than) measurable, tangible, outcome-related goals.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Definitely nothing is set in stone right now. It’s still early enough in my service that I’m open to most career trajectories in the international public health field. I am toying around with a few different possibilities these days including finding a way to stay in Mozambique (or another country in sub-Saharan Africa), returning stateside to work for a community-based non-profit, or a life of travel to and from a country with a USAID or CDC job. Who knows!
Want to read about Alex’s service in Mozambique? Check out her blog!