Bethany Shenise. Shoulder-length, honey-coloured hair. Blue eyes, black eyeliner. Red lips. A woman from suburban New Jersey, a graduate of Rutgers University, and a veteran of the United States Peace Corps.
She was twenty-one years old and had been out of the country only once. She applied her last semester of college, alongside grad schools. The application process was long, grueling, and very mysterious. A few months after the initial submission and lengthy interviews, she was told she would be going to the village of Edaga Arbi, Ethiopia, as a volunteer in the health sector. This came as a nerve-wracking surprise. She had no background in health and limited knowledge of east Africa.
Her fears were many. Would she be able to pick up the language fast enough? Would she get sick? Would she make friends? What if she did a bad job? Worse, what if she hurt someone?
A few months later, she boarded the plane.
Edaga Arbi. A relatively small village with a bank and a small clinic that served as the local hospital. Many of the residents lived in mud houses, called a “jojobet.” Folks with more money lived in square cement rooms, which is where she stayed. Some people had a television set, a cell phone, and poor electric lighting. Computers were rare, and wi-fi was nonexistent.
Getting water was tricky. People collected it from water spigots, outdoor faucets. But it only turned on a few times a week, at random. You had to learn to listen for the sound of the water, and rush to the queue with your jerry can (water jug) when you heard it.
As a health volunteer, her main objective during the two-year programme was to educate the locals on proper hygiene and simple healthcare techniques that would effectively improve their standard of living. For example, she taught mothers to mash up food for infants instead of feeding them solid chunks. Or, she advised them to always boil water before drinking it, to kill any bacteria that may have contaminated it. This was extremely important because in that area, diarrhea was the number one cause of death for children under five. She also distributed mosquito nets and taught the proper way to hang them over people's’ beds to prevent them from contracting malaria, another huge problem in many African countries.
There were two major components to local culture. First, the coffee ceremonies. Coffee was a very important tradition among the locals. It was a ritual. Everyday, people spent hours performing the intricate process of grounding, roasting, and boiling the beans. It was absolutely essential to offer your guest a cup coffee in your home, and it was considered polite to accept up to two or three cups during your visit. The second component was simple hospitality. Kindness and friendliness was at the center of Ethiopian culture. Greeting a fellow passerby on the street was a must, and most of the time, unless you were in a rush, it wasn’t just a mere nod or hello, but a lengthy honest conversation between the two. It was common for people to invite you to their homes for a meal and coffee, people were always more than willing to extend a friendly hand.
Yet even with this great, hospitable culture, her greatest challenge was dealing with feelings of loneliness. It was not loneliness brought on by lack of peers, but rather one that could not be solved, where the root lies in cultural divide. When you go abroad, no matter how friendly people are, they will always have ways of doing things that seem alien to you, a slightly alternated way of life that will make you realise that you are in fact, a foreigner, and that is the sweetly saddening fact that you must carry always within your heart.
Of course, another big challenge was malnutrition, an unavoidable circumstance when living in a small village in Africa. But experiencing the very struggle you went to fight against can be a good thing. In her own words, “You understand malnutrition because you are malnourished.”
To close, I asked Bethany why she decided to join the Peace Corps. She told me, “Birth is a lottery.” You don’t choose what kind of life you are born into. By pure luck, she and I and probably most of you reading were born into relatively privileged lives. So she asked herself, how can I use this privilege, handed to me for free, to best help those who weren’t as lucky?
We could have all easily been born into another life where it was a struggle to have even our basic needs met. So how can we look down upon those that did end up with that life? We can’t. As the lucky ones, we have a duty to help those who weren’t so lucky. It’s just the right thing to do.