Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Fiji.
Kristen – Age 24
During my Peace Corps service I go by a name my host sister gave me; Keresi, which is the Fijian version of Grace.
Where are you from?
I hail from Algonquin, IL a suburb of Chicago.
What country and program do you serve in?
I am currently a Community Health Empowerment volunteer for the 91st group in Fiji. For the many who do not know, Fiji is a small island in the South Pacific very near to New Zealand and Australia. I am serving in a sub divisional education office for the largest school district in the country. We have volunteers who are working in other types of offices, teaching in schools, and those who are working in hospitals/health centers.
The Community Health Empowerment Project (CHEP) project purpose is designed with the idea that Fijians will have improved health and wellness as a result of increased access to effective health education and the adoption of healthy behaviors and lifestyles. This is accomplished through the project’s four goals:
1. Promote adoption of Healthy Behaviors (prevention of diabetes) and other NCDs
2. Community members will adopt behaviors and practices that contribute to improved maternal, neonatal and child health outcomes
3. Promote Healthy Families and Communities (includes improved water sanitation and hygiene practices, and the prevention of HIV/AIDs).
4. Build the capacity of Health Service Providers and Organizations (Includes training in use of technology and non-formal education methods).
Working in partnership with, and under the supervision of the Ministry of Health (MoH) and Ministry of Education (MoE), Volunteers will assist the MoH in developing and building the capacity of existing health education programs. A key aspect of Volunteer work is to increase community members’ health knowledge, as the first step in promoting healthy behaviors.
Depending on the specific needs of the MoH, Volunteers may be involved in the following activities:
Designing, developing and delivering health education trainings and workshops;
Conducting participatory assessment and diagnostic exercises with communities to help create an awareness of the health issues and potential mitigation strategies;
Developing and/or strengthening programming for Health Promoting Schools and non- formal educational programs to provide life skills training for Fijian at-risk youth, including: HIV/AIDS and STI awareness training;
Providing training of trainers for community members selected to be village health workers;
Assisting with evaluation and monitoring strategies for health education initiatives;
Promoting the inclusion and participation of women and youth in health promotion and life skills activities;
Encouraging environmental health awareness and promotion in communities involved in improving water, sanitation and hygiene practices;
Building organizational capacity the MoH or community level by training staff on information technology, planning, non-formal education etc.
*information derived from Peace Corps Fiji Volunteer Assignment Description
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have?
I got really lucky with my housing. I live in a government rented flat in Lautoka, the second largest city in Fiji. I have electricity and solar heated running water. I had a washing machine until last month when it decided to no longer drain water, so now I am hand washing and hanging on the line. It’s a large place with 3 bedrooms and 2 full bathrooms, vaulted ceilings in the living/dining room, a backyard, and 2 balconies; one looks out over the surrounding neighborhoods and the ocean. I share housing with one other Peace Corps volunteer whom is part of the previous year’s group. The biggest challenges in my lifestyle include the nasty neighbor dogs and my hours at work. I am working 40+ hours a week at the office which permits very little time for secondary projects. There are 6 dogs that live in a house just below our flat that have been known to attack people. They have made attempts to bite my visitors and myself but it seems they are only a threat after dark so my housemate and I lock ourselves in before the sun sets.
I have great access to a variety of food. The market provides all organic products year round with seasonal crops. We also have various “supermarkets” to choose from where we can buy both imported and locally processed foods. Rugby season has started so lately I have been preparing a meal like soup to last me all week. This way all I have to do is pull it out of the fridge and heat it for a few minutes on the stove. My favorite soup right now is made with brown rice, canned kidney beans, tomatoes, spicy peppers, moca (pronounced matha) a green similar to mild spinach and spices I brought from home.
On the other side of the islands I know of a volunteer who resides in a traditional bure – a hut made of sticks, leaves and pounded bamboo three paces from the sandy beach. His housing does not have electricity but he does have running water. He pays a neighbor to cook so his food is traditional Fijian food consisting of fish, cassava, fried bread, and locally farmed vegetables.
We also have volunteers in the interior who, when it rains too much, have to put buckets out or retrieve water from rain catchments for cooking, bathing and drinking. It’s a strange thing here in Fiji that when it rains too much we no longer have our regular access to water.
What are Fijians like?
Fiji is made up of native Fijians known as iTaukei, Indians who were brought over to farm sugarcane by the British, and a small percentage of other pacific islanders. Where I reside there is approximately a 50/50 population split between Indians and iTaukei with about a 2% make-up of other pacific islanders. This is because of my urban location.
The people are incredibly hospitable here in Fiji. I will never want or need here and I definitely won’t starve. There is an ongoing joke that they will fatten me up so much my mother will not be able to recognize me when I return home. This is seen as a compliment and they want my mother to know that I was well taken care of here.
The two primary races lead very different lives. iTaukei are communal people. They have many traditions that date back to before colonization. Most often these people live in village settings run by a monarchy consisting of a chiefly family. The men farm and collect firewood while the women take on various domestic duties. One tradition I find fascinating is that of the “kerekere culture”. Kerekere; meaning please, is asked in a way as to not return. For instance, if a cousin likes a shirt that you own they can “kerekere” it and you would give it over willingly without expecting its return. Some aspects of the culture involve village law and include; not being allowed to wear hats or sunglasses in the village, keeping one’s head lower than the chiefs when in his/her presence, and no wearing a bag with a shoulder strap while visiting a village other than one’s own. iTaukei children spend a majority of time playing outdoors and spending time with their cousins in the village.
The Indians reside in areas that are more spread out or allowing more privacy. Often, families live with the husband’s parents. Men go to work or farm and women partake in domestic duties just as the iTaukei but the children spend more time indoors with their immediate family.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
The most rewarding parts of my service are definitely those involving the relationships I’ve made. My host family with whom I stayed during my first two months of training has been instrumental in my joy while living here. I have nephew who will be 5 years old in May and he is my little pal. The boy follows me around the village grabbing for my hand and asking to be carried. He dances and points at me while he sings the songs. His smile and laugh light up the room. He’s a playful, enthusiastic kid and I miss him all the time when I’m away at my site. Then there is my host sister. She is only a year younger than me so we share a lot of the same interests. She is my good friend. There was a time I had the flu for three days and she slept on the floor beside my bed and only left to get me more water/food and to change the bucket she retrieved for me to vomit in. She is caring and humble; so humble that when I try to give her gifts she ends up sharing them with everyone else.
At my site I have a family that has taken me as their own. Every Sunday I eat lunch with them and spend some time with the mother. I am surrounded by people whose aim is to support me and make me feel welcome. It’s beautiful really! I start as a perfect stranger and they accept me immediately as part of the family.
I have wanted to join the Peace Corps on and off since 7th grade so it is hard to say I didn’t have any expectations for my service however I did enter knowing that there was no way I could imagine what it would be like to serve and therefore I should not have expectations. Thankfully, this means that I do not feel expectations were not met or trampled on but I do feel some disappointment when faced with situations that block or lessen my efforts. Being a woman in a country that is not yet equal I feel crippled by the men I work with/for. Often times I present an idea that gets side stepped (a downside to the non-confrontational culture; I would rather be told no so I would not keep putting effort into a project that will never happen).
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I originally heard about the Peace Corps in 7th grade when my mother’s childhood friend came in to tell my Girl Scout troop about her experience serving in a village in Belize. The passion and drive to apply fluctuated in the leading up to my eventual acceptance. In 2012, the death of a friend shook me. The memory of her spirit in life inspired me to finally apply. Within one year I was on my way to the southern hemisphere on the opposite side of the world. To this day I serve in remembrance of that friend; her character drives me.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I do believe Peace Corps is a worthwhile program for the US as it helps people grow. If the PCV is not a good person prior to joining my hope is that they are after. You see and do things that help build character in the Peace Corps; things that will carry on for the rest of our lives.
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?
I would tell those considering Peace Corps to really do research before applying. One blog that I have found to be brutally honest but accurate is http://peacecorps.tumblr.com/…/73…/dont-join-the-peace-corps
A Tale of a Peace Corps Volunteer is a great book to read before applying as well. I love what I am doing and if I was asked if I would do it over again I would say yes in a heartbeat. There will be ups and downs, points when you might want to quit and go home but it is important to remember it is only 2 years and that is such a short time in the grand scheme of things.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
After Peace Corps, I plan to love on my new niece as much as possible and to eventually work for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA.
Want to read more about Kristen’s service? Check out her blog!