To conclude my Peace Corps service, I interviewed every Volunteer in my group who will COS with me. Below is the article I wrote about our experiences.
“It will change your life for the better no many how many times you cry or second-guess yourself,” my friend Leslie W. Stewart IV, Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote to me during my first months serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in southwestern Ethiopia. I copied his words onto a sticky note and kept it on my desktop throughout my service.
Leslie, who is now serving as a Peace Corps Small Business Volunteer in Rivas, Rivas, Nicaragua, was right: I have cried—a lot. I’ve second-guessed myself. But I have never regretted my decision to serve as a PCV in “G4,” the fourth group to arrive in Ethiopia since Peace Corps’ return to the country in 2007 and the first group of Conservation and Natural Resource Management Volunteers in Ethiopia.
Peace Corps has a long history in this country. In September 1962, only one year after President John F. Kennedy established the program by Executive Order, 279 Volunteers arrived here to work as secondary school teachers. About 20 of those Volunteers recently returned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Yet the last five decades were not an unbroken chronicle of Volunteer service; there are conflict-shaped holes in the record. Peace Corps was terminated for most of the 18-year rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist regime, and the program was suspended again for the duration of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict.
With its complicated history, legacy of foreign aid and relative cultural insularity, Ethiopia is a challenging—and rewarding—place for foreigners.
“Even having Africa experience, I knew Ethiopia was going to be different, but I didn’t know exactly how it would be different,” says Dorsey Burger, Ashland, Ore., a G4 Volunteer who also served in Togo from ’83 to ’85. He notes that even within Africa, Ethiopia is unlike other countries, and “integration,” which is Peace Corps ‘speak’ for adapting to your host community’s cultural norms, is particularly difficult.
“[In Ethiopia], foreigners mean: They come, they give, they leave,” says Chase Rollings of Santa Cruz, Calif., who served as a PCV in Madagascar prior to coming to Ethiopia with G4. Ethiopia’s long history of foreign aid has led to a situation where foreigners are viewed as monied outsiders, says Chase. It is uncommon for foreigners to actually live in Ethiopian communities at the same living standard as the people there, and this can make community integration a challenge.
“This is a very unique country,” says Dan Baker, the Director of Programming and Training at Peace Corps Ethiopia. Dan, who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in the rural Appalachian town of Crossnore, N.C., was a PCV in Bolivia from ’99 to ’02 and served in East Timor from ’02 to ’03. Following his Volunteer service, he worked as Peace Corps staff in Costa Rica and at the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before joining Peace Corps Ethiopia. “It is culturally different from any place I’ve served and any place in the world. It has a truly unique history in Africa,” he explains. “Every other place I’ve worked and served was colonized.” Ethiopians are a proud and nationalistic people, Dan says, while other places he worked felt more beholden to colonial powers.
“It’s also one of the poorest places I’ve been,” Dan continues. “It’s nice to work in a place with so much need.”
As I was talking with my fellow PCVs, several mentioned that Ethiopia has the highest percentage of Volunteers who leave before finishing their service—what Peace Corps calls an “Early Termination,” or ET—out of all the countries with a Peace Corps presence. From looking over official Peace Corps data, that is not completely accurate, but it’s not far off. In 2008 and 2009, the annual ET rates were 27.9 and 21.7 percent. However, the Ethiopia program had only reopened in 2007, and by the fourth year of its return, the ET rates had dropped down below the Peace Corps global average.
In keeping with Ethiopia’s reputation as a land of contrasts, our program also has a high rate of extensions—Volunteers who decide to stay an extra year or two. Ten PCVs from the cohort before mine chose to extend, and from my calculations, that’s an extension rate of about 23 percent (although several extenders left before finishing their extension).
Not one Volunteer said Peace Corps Ethiopia was easy, but their responses brought to mind an oft-repeated Peace Corps tag line. In a 1981 Peace Corps brochure entitled, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,” I discovered the following passage:
By becoming a member of a neighborhood, village or town, Peace Corps volunteers don’t just share their work with the people they live with. They share themselves. That means they return home with a unique knowledge of other people and cultures. And their experiences help our nation better understand what’s happening in today’s world. It also helps make the hard work, long hours and personal sacrifice worth it. Despite the rigors of Peace Corps life, more than 9 out of 10 volunteers say they’d do it again. Sound remarkable? It is. But, then, so are the people who have become Peace Corps volunteers.
Those words are still true 30 years later. My fellow PCVs clearly recognize the importance of their service, and of their hardships. Alexandra Woodward, a G4 Volunteer from Redding, Calif., says that her Peace Corps service has kindled her passion for economic development and taught her the importance of balancing assistance with “not taking over” in developing countries. However, she also says Peace Corps can leave you a little jaded and angry after coming from “our comfortable American lifestyle” and seeing the hardship in others’ lives.
On a recent trip back to the U.S., I was in Ohio visiting my family. A couple of my parents’ neighbors wanted to hear about my Peace Corps experience. “What is the hardest part of living in Ethiopia?” they asked. I suppose they were expecting stories about days without electricity, drinking water from a river, or being culturally isolated, but I told them, “The hardest part is knowing that, whatever challenges I face, I can go home at the end of two years. My friends in Ethiopia, they can’t leave.”
My fellow PCV Eleanor Oldberg spent the first 18 years of her life abroad, growing up in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. After completing university in the U.S., she returned to Africa to serve in G4. “It was not what I expected at all, and there were definitely hard parts of it,” she says of her time in Ethiopia. “But I wouldn’t regret it for anything.” When Eleanor and another PCV were invited to the baptism of an Ethiopian friend’s baby, she says becoming “part of the family” was a particularly rewarding moment for her.
Ethiopian culture is rich and complex, with more than 80 distinct ethnic groups, each with its own language, traditional clothing and music, cultural foods and character. Abyssinia, as Ethiopia used to be named, is the cradle of humanity, the oldest independent country in Africa, and one of the oldest civilizations in the world. This makes Ethiopian culture hard to penetrate, and those moments when PCVs feel embraced by their adopted community are often the moments that make their service worthwhile.
G4 Volunteer Emily DiGiovanni, Frenchtown, N.J., has been taking photographs of women and their work, in addition to the gardening and conservation projects she has done. She says it took a while for the women in her town to trust her enough to open up to her and her camera. Through this process, Emily says, she has been able to capture the sense of pride the women have for what they do. “It’s a very beautiful moment, when [the women] feel like what they are sharing will be understood,” she says.
“I didn’t expect to become close to many women because of the cultural barriers. I had this idea that that wouldn’t happen for me,” Emily says. She developed friendships with women in her town through her gardening and photography, and by learning from them how to prepare the cultural foods of her community. She also became a mentor to a confident and artistic high school student whose friendship she greatly values. “I was really lucky,” Emily says, “meeting someone like her.” She says she learned to be more active in creating the experience she wanted to have.
“The thing to remember is that a lot of [one's experience] is self-made,” says Tracy Hruska, Lyndonville, Vt., who joined Peace Corps Ethiopia with his wife, Ramona Arechiga of Redondo Beach, Calif.
“Peace Corps is what you make of it,” echoes Ramona, who prioritized learning the local language of her community in order to teach English to youth, something she says she found great joy in. Through her teaching, she came to know her students and their families and felt closer to her community. She says Volunteers have to “create the Peace Corps reality that’s going to make [him or her] happiest.”
Ramona and Tracy have spent their service in a rural mountain town with no electricity on the edge of a national park. Tracy started a tree nursery with local residents, and the couple have also advocated on behalf of their community in relations with the park. Tracy calls theirs “a stereotypical Peace Corps experience.” Which, he says, “is pretty much exactly what we wanted from Peace Corps.”
For the majority of G4 Volunteers, the process of creating one’s experience has gone hand in hand with adjusting—or completely obliterating—one’s expectations. Volunteer Drew Gamble, Monticello, Ind., called it the “no expectations mantra,” and he says it helped him adjust after realizing his host organization was not what he thought. Staff turnover and other issues at the organization caused him to decide, a year into his service, to focus instead on independent projects with committed community members. He is now extending his service for a third year to continue developing ecotourism opportunities in his community.
“My expectations were much more idealistic and positive,” says Claire Lowstuter of Fort Collins, Colo. “I expected it to be hard, but not this hard.” Claire and her husband, Derek, had first discussed joining Peace Corps when they were dating, and they were glad to be placed in the site they requested: the Simien Mountains National Park. Since Derek is studying forestry through the Peace Corps Master’s International program, their location seemed ideal. They soon found, however, that the tourist town they lived in was a rough place, and transiency in the area made community integration hard.
“I used to always give Derek shit for being cynical,” Claire says, laughing. Now, she says, she is more realistic, “maybe to a fault.” Despite how challenging their site has been, Claire and Derek recently completed a library project in the park. They not only made the library resource-laden, but they created a comfortable and inviting place for students to use them, says Derek. After one semester, there was a 10-fold increase in student use of the library and a 20-fold increase in teacher use.
“I think we did the best with what we had,” Claire says.
Like the rest of G4, Brendan Callahan, Taunton, Mass., arrived in country expecting to do environmental work, and his site assignment was in a dense forest near Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. But when that site fell through, he found himself in a new town without many natural resources to conserve. This town did, however, have a school for children who are blind, and the school welcomed his help.
“I’ve worked at the blind school here for a year and a half, and that’s what I really consider my Peace Corps work,” Brendan says. “I think I’m happier for it because it’s been really rewarding, but it’s not at all what I expected when I joined Peace Corps.” At the school, Brendan has focused on finding students the support they need, improving the school’s infrastructure and making the campus safer. He says he is proud of the work he has done.
“Everything about Ethiopia continues to surprise me, but I guess the thing that really surprised me was… it kind of became the experience that I wanted it to be,” Brendan says. “I wish I could bring every single one of the kids at my school back to America with me because I love them to death.”
Brian Barbre from Virginia says he spent two semesters with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) at his university, “hanging out and hearing stories.” Through this, he learned not to expect anything specific when he joined Peace Corps as a member of G4. When he got to his site in the Bale Mountains, he was pleasantly surprised, realizing he would be “living in a mountain forest paradise.”
“I feel like I won the Peace Corps lottery with my site,” Brian says.
Whether we won the Peace Corps lottery, most of G4 learned to love or at least make the best of our sites. “One think that Group 4 excels at is that [they] are creatures of adaptation,” says Sher Vogel, Virginia Beach, Va., a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in the Bahir Dar office.
G4 Volunteer Celeste Abou Negm of New York City says that having other PCVs nearby helped her enjoy her site. “I loved having site mates and a VSO volunteer in [my site],” says Celeste. Her site mates have been “incredibly supportive,” she says, not only helping with projects, but by simply being there to have dinner or let off steam with her.
Several G4 Volunteers also told me that having a surrogate “Mom and Dad” in our group helped them feel supported during their time in Ethiopia. Nancy and Bob Sturtevant, Fort Collins, Colo., had first discussed joining the Peace Corps 25 years ago, when they stored furniture for some friends who were serving as PCVs. “We’d been planning it for 25 years, dreaming about how it would happen,” says Nancy. While their friends were buying timeshares and second homes, she and her husband resisted burdening themselves down with property they would have to liquidate. “We continued to live simply so that we could leave without attachments,” says Nancy.
Bob spent his career as a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, and the couple had long played the role of “Mom and Dad” to local and international university students. When the couple arrived in Ethiopia, they found they were able to provide similar encouragement and guidance to their fellow Volunteers.
“It’s a role we expected that we’d be able to fill, not as ‘Mom and Dad,’ but as mentors,” Nancy says. “The ‘Mom and Dad’ part was just a plus.”
Bob says he has enjoyed watching Volunteers grow and mature during their service. “It’s been a privilege because there are so many fine people that are here,” he says. “It’ll be fun to watch your careers.”
The hardest thing for Nancy will be leaving the group. “I know I’m not leaving them,” she says, “but it’s hard, just to close one chapter and move to the next.”
Several Volunteers have thanked me for taking the time to write up an account of our service. I graciously accept their gratitude, but I realize I don’t have a choice. In order to close this chapter, as Nancy aptly calls it, I feel compelled to make sense of my time here, to offer a rational narrative of service—of what I experienced and how it will impact me. My journalistic hero Joan Didion has written, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I truly believe that, and yet, I’m still unsure of what my story is.
As I spoke with my colleagues about their service, I hoped to help them elucidate their own stories, but instead of asking leading questions, instead of prying like a good interviewer, I held back, waited for them to process. I found myself wondering whether some of my colleagues’ experiences, some of my own, are too raw and complex to neatly summarize in a few lines. Perhaps in order to honor our experiences, we have to check our impulse to find a clear meaning in them.
A big part of why I came to Ethiopia was simply to be a witness, and I have seen joyful and sorrowful and hysterical things here. What does that mean? I’m not sure.
We joke about returning home and formulating pithy answers to the question, “How was Africa?”, but when I try to sum up my experience in any coherent way, words fall short. There were points of anger, laughter, tears, chastening. There were ways I changed, and ways I failed to change.
When I ask G4 Volunteer John Stevens-Garmon of Roopville, Ga., if he has advice for the newly arrived group of environment PCVs, he tells me, “Take it one day at a time because if you try to look at the big picture while you’re here, it can be overwhelming.”
G4 Volunteer Joe Aretz, Montgomery, Ala., says his experiences in Ethiopia have taught him to “accept things as they happen,” and to “be willing to just take it all in and not judge.” During his two years near the Simien Mountains, Joe was assigned to a remote, “off-the-grid” site that fulfilled part of the experience he was seeking when he joined Peace Corps. When he was forced to move to a new site, he says, “It was an extremely difficult experience for me.” He suddenly found himself leaving the place he came to think of as home.
Although Joe also faced his first real heartbreak in Ethiopia, there were also joyful parts of his service. He tells me about the time he taught a classroom of children how to conjugate verbs in Amharic. “Never did I feel better than after I finished teaching those little kids,” Joe says. “It was a heart-lifting, inspiring moment.”
“How do you not change after being in a very new place for two years?” Carl Reeder, G4 Volunteer from Colorado Springs, Colo., asks. “And the largest changes are probably invisible to other people.”
Carl tells me that he expected Peace Corps to be both an adventure and a way to gain experience, a “win-win,” and he says it has been that. During his time here, he has developed more respect for foreigners and a deeper understanding of “how ridiculous” conventional development projects are. To him, Peace Corps is an important avenue for diplomacy. “That’s the real gold that we get out of the Peace Corps,” he says. Beyond diplomacy, the experience is about how we learn to see another culture, take that back home, and have a positive effect in the U.S., he says.
My fellow G4 Volunteer Libbey Brown from Baltimore joined Peace Corps directly after her completing her undergraduate studies. “I think the hardest part for me was just making the decision [to join],” she says. She’d never traveled, but says she had a “romantic vision of saving the world.” Now coming to the end of her service, there are personal, professional and cultural aspects to the changes she sees in herself, she says.
She finally grasps the concept of culture and the importance of one’s upbringing, she says. “Every little thing is different because of that.” She also says her views are no longer one-dimensional. “Now I think I’ll seek out culture wherever I go,” she says.
When Libbey returned to the U.S. for the holidays, one of her friends told her she was more confident, more poised, and had a greater sense of herself than before she joined Peace Corps. What she has noticed, she says, is that her service enhanced her “ability to love people and be part of a community.”
Like Libbey, Mark Stevens, Wichita, Kan., joined soon after completing his bachelor’s degree. He says he had no altruistic plans at the time and was interested in making money, but one day, he decided to apply to Peace Corps. “Things changed,” he says simply.
Ethiopia challenged Mark’s materialistic views. “You see the people who are 100 percent blissful in their lives, and they farm and live in a mud hut,” he says. Since his arrival, Mark’s goals have shifted—and so has his emotional life. “Before I came, I was a macho man,” he explains. “Crying alone in my room to Toy Story 3 was a bit of a moment for me,” he laughs. Twelve hours alone in his room some days gave him “time to contemplate life.”
When Mark joined Peace Corps, he left a significant other in the U.S., pursuing her graduate degree. The couple had been together since they were 15 years old. Mark says the distance changed their relationship. “It made me realize how much I love her,” he says. The two are now considering teaching English together in Korea after Mark completes his service.
Michael Waidmann, Arlington, Va., also left a girlfriend back home when he joined G4. “It was harder and longer than I imagined, and it took a a lot of work, but I can’t imagine a better job or a better girl,” he says. “Somehow, I was able to hold on to both of those things.” His girlfriend’s two visits to Ethiopia during his service and his vacation back home helped keep their relationship strong, he says. Being apart also allowed their relationship develop in ways it may not have back home. “Our growth was spiritual and emotional and mental,” he tells me. “But it was very, very challenging, and I would not recommend it for anyone,” he says, laughing.
“I originally said, ‘Please don’t send me to Africa,’” Michael says about the first time he spoke with his Peace Corps recruiter. Now, he says, “I couldn’t imagine a better country to work in.” I admire Michael because he is a smart guy, a great writer (check out his blog at http://waidsworld.wordpress.com) and yet, he is extremely humble. When I asked how his Peace Corps service has impacted him, he told me: “You learn so much about yourself. A couple of the things I’ve learned are it’s important when working, as a manager, to lose your ego… and to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.” He also told me he learned you have to “stay curious,” and continue to ask questions. Michael is one of my colleagues who embodies the dedication and earnestness that make me proud to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
My fellow Volunteers have taught me so much, not only technical skills like tree planting, but how to be resilient, and how to face unnerving situations with grace and a sense of humor. G4 Volunteer Lindsay Einhorn, Montclair, N.J., told me about a time she was excited to go outdoors after days of ceaseless rain. “It had been raining for ages,” she tells me via e-mail. “I was practically skipping down the road—which was only slightly moronic considering that it ended with me on my rear end sliding through the mud in front of half the town!”
“I’m going to miss Ethiopia,” says G4 Volunteer Jon Schmierer of Burney, Calif. He says he’ll miss the ability to relax and to always have someone available with whom to relax and drink coffee. When I ask him what he won’t miss, he laughs. “The constant baseline level of illness and harassment,” he says.
Jon and I were two of the Volunteers who spent a significant amount of their service in various stages of illness. When I ask him what he’s taking back to the States with him, he says, “First of all, Giardia,” referring to an intestinal protozoan infection caused by unclean water. More seriously, though, he says he’s acquired the ability to step back, relax and breathe in the face of challenges. “Nothing is in my way anymore,” he says. “It’s all possible.”
While there are things Jon says he wants to hold onto from his time in Ethiopia, there are changes he sees in himself that he hopes to wear away. “I grew up in Northern California, so I have a soft heart, but that heart is no longer soft,” he says. “I want it to be again.”
There are changes I see in myself, too, that I hope will fade, like my newfound propensity to feign incomprehension when someone asks me a bothersome question. I know this skill will not be as effective back home. I have also noticed how meek I have become in some ways. Will I again grow accustomed to wearing skirts above the knee? But my deeper cultural understanding, the patience I’ve developed, and the ability to be present—I want to retain these.
I will miss my neighbors and the satisfaction of eating meals with my hands. I’ll remember the thousand kindnesses I’ve been shown by friends and strangers alike, and how the sky above the rural town where I live is a majestic expanse of unadulterated beauty.
The G4 Volunteers who have served together for the last 26 months will soon be scattered. Scott DeBruyne of Joppa, Md., plans to return to the Washington, D.C., area and continue working in his field of soil science and forestry. He is bringing home “a bunch of Christmas presents” for his family, as well as some pottery, coffee and spices. Scott is one of the culinary artists in our group, who made a supplement to our Peace Corps cookbook to include entries for spare ribs and dampf brote with crème anglaise. He says his time in Ethiopia has also given him “a bunch of new food and cooking ideas.”
Seth Kammer, a G4 Volunteer from Seattle, plans to stay in Ethiopia for a third year as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer with Trees for the Future, a non-profit organization addressing issues of deforestation and environmental degradation. Seth is currently in the Peace Corps Master’s International program studying international forestry at University of Washington. “I realize there is a whole thing called experience that is outside of the classroom and is just as important as the theory,” he says. Living and working in a rural town enabled him to see the foundations of community change. He tells me that after reading “Influencer: The Power to Change Anything,” he began to see the processes of change at work in his site: Who the innovators were, where connections needed to be made and how he could help move new ideas. “I think that’s an insight I can bring back to the States or anywhere I work,” he says.
While Bob and Nancy are on their way home to Fort Collins, Colo., Nancy says they will continue nurturing connections between Colorado State University and the two universities they worked with closely in Ethiopia. The couple also plans to return to Ethiopia as volunteers with the Murelle Foundation, a non-governmental organization supporting conservation of cultural and natural resources in Ethiopia. “What [my service] has done for me is reignite my passion for what I was doing already,” Bob says. He plans to “un-retire” when he returns. “I’ve decided to go back to work and try to make more changes in the world.” Bob advises his fellow Volunteers to go into interviews with confidence. “The fact that you’ve gone through two years of working in a situation of ambiguity and having to make things work that in our society we’d just walk away from puts you in a really good position to take those skills and use them in many jobs.”
“Be flexible. Look at the future in a broad sense. Be open-minded about what’s possible professionally,” says Greg Engle, the country director for Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Greg is a former ambassador to Togo and was an officer with the Foreign Service for 26 years. He and his wife, Maureen, served as PCVs in South Korea, and he spent the last two years as a singer-songwriter in Austin, Texas. He recommends G4 Volunteers keep in touch with other RPCVs through regional and national associations, both for professional and social support. “And a huge thank you for everyone’s great service,” he adds.
Some of us will look back on our Peace Corps service as an adventure that took us out of our day-to-day, American life and broadened our perspective. For others, our service was a watershed event. When Campbell Diebolt from Fort Collins, Colo., arrived in Ethiopia with Peace Corps, it was his first trip abroad.
“I will definitely be one of those people who will go home and speak very highly of my experience,” Campbell says. He will not be home for long. He will return to Ethiopia in early January to begin a Peace Corps Response position with the Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance, the organization he worked with during his service. His work focuses on promoting biodiversity conservation and economic development through the establishment and support of sustainable community tourism enterprises.
“I didn’t think I’d be so involved in a project that means so much to me,” Campbell says. “[My service] has definitely claimed a very special place in my heart.”
In addition to the professional outcomes, Campbell also met someone in Ethiopia. “I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend [whom] I’m in love with,” he says. He and his girlfriend are planning to go abroad together after his service so she can pursue a master’s degree. Campbell says he is also considering private-sector work in Ethiopia in the future.
For all the successes and happiness, Campbell told me he has also experienced a lot of tragedy here. In the past year, four of his Ethiopian friends have died in accidents or under circumstances he says are specific to the environment of a developing country. “These are people [who] loved their country and wanted to take it to a better place,” he says. “It makes you realize how fragile life is here, and that it can be easily taken away.”
In each blog post I made, in every letter I wrote to someone back home, I tried to capture the essence of Ethiopia, the colors and scents and textures of this place. When I was a little girl, my mom gave me a collection of crystal glass pendants from an old chandelier. I strung them on thread and hung them along the curtain rods in my bedroom. As the afternoon sun cut a path across the sky, the little prisms scattered the rays like a disco ball. I’d spend hours chasing the diamonds of light across the floor and walls. My time in Ethiopia is similar; the moments are refracted just as I think I’ve caught them. To gather them up again is futile; besides, they are sublime just as they are.