Peace Corps volunteer shares experiences
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As he approached his final semester at Ohio University in 2003, Jeff Rhodes was unclear what he wanted to do next. But a chance encounter with a young woman at a party set him on a path he could not have envisioned.
When he asked Carrie, whose last name he never learned, what she was doing, she responded she had just returned from the Peace Corps in Paraguay.
It wasn't long before Mr. Rhodes was talking to a Peace Corps recruiter on campus. He applied in June 2003, but in November of that year, a car accident left him with his left leg broken in two places.
Although he had hoped to start the corps in 2004, his assignment was postponed until January 2005 when it took him to Zambia, a world away from his East Washington roots.
"I'm a pretty big geography geek. I knew where it was but that's about it," he said of the nation of 11 million about the size of Texas.
Home last week for a two-week stay to attend a friend's wedding and reconnect with family, a bearded Mr. Rhodes sat in a wicker chair on the porch of his parents' comfortable red brick home and talked about his experiences.
East Washington is cultures removed from the grass roofed, mud-walled, two-room house he moved to in the stable African country that occasionally hosts refugees from other nations. He had no electricity and no running water, drawing from a well, just like resident villagers.
He stayed with a host family for three months in Kitwe but eventually was assigned to Chipungu, a village of about 1,500, which includes a clinic and commercial farming block. Mr. Rhodes, a journalism and political science major, rose between 5:35 and 6:30 a.m. and retired at dark, often reading himself to sleep by candlelight.
"It's amazing. Essentially you get into a habit of waking up at dawn and falling asleep at dark," he said, a habit that confused his internal clock when he returned home.
He is assigned to assisting the country in health care, or the Community Action For Health Program. An applicant does not know where he is going until he accepts the assignment.
The Zambian government concentrates on six areas of health: malaria, HIV and AIDS, child nutrition, maternal health, tuberculosis and water and sanitation. Although Zambia as a whole has an AIDS rate of 23 to 25 percent, in the villages the disease varies from 10 to 15 percent. Towns and cities, where it is highest, raise the overall rate.
His assignment was to help form and train neighborhood health committees of 10 to 15 people, and assist in educational programs.
"They are essentially village-based volunteers interested in improving the health of their communities," he said.
They survey their villages to determine what disease or diseases are most prevalent, why that is and how to correct it. Most villages are nothing more than an extended family or two, he said.
Rural Chipungu, whose main crop is nshima, a corn that is ground into a fine flour, has a single health center serving 6,395 people. The closest doctor is about 16 miles away. In an emergency, the Zambian Ministry of Health provides ambulance service.
Mr. Rhodes got around on a bicycle, and because of the exercise and different diet ended up losing about 40 pounds.
A typical work day for Mr. Rhodes involves helping a nurse with paperwork or with education programs such as immunization or nutrition. The whole purpose, of the Peace Corps, he said, is to show Zambians ways they can directly and specifically help themselves, said Mr. Rhodes, who has nine months of service left.
"Ultimately if I do my job correctly, I'm not needed," he said.
When he returns from his visit here, he will assume a job as Peace Corps volunteer leader, coordinating volunteers, government officials and nongovernmental organizations. For that job, he already has moved to more urbanized Chipata, whose metropolitan population is about 120,000.
He's also had the opportunity to do some traveling, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and visiting Zanzibar.
Mr. Rhodes said Zambians have treated him like royalty.
"You are the main attraction most days," said Mr. Rhodes, who received a couple of marriage proposals.
The Zambians have a huge fascination with Western culture in general and American culture specifically, he said. They are fans of martial artist Chuck Norris, wrestling, country music and action movies, asking him how Arnold Schwarzenegger could become a governor after having "killed" so many people. There was an obvious disconnect between Arnold the movie star and Arnold the person.
What surprised him most about Zambians, he said, is how similar they are to Americans in terms of motivation and character traits. He observed some of the same traits among them that he sees in family and friends.
"There's nothing that you can't relate to people about," he said.
The Zambians are soft-spoken and modest people, who because he is an American, assumed he is wealthy. He quickly dispelled the notion however, when he took one man to the hut where he lived.
One problem he had with Zambians, however, was their willingness to say yes to whatever he asked of them, regardless of the request. A positive response, however, did not always translate into action. He attributed it to an interest in making him feel good. He has since learned to ask more than one person to do something, hoping that at least one will show up for the task.
On the whole, he is happy he chose to enroll in the Peace Corps and has already taken the Foreign Service exam. If he passes, that's where his career path will lead him.
"There are those moments when things speak to you . . . it's been the best decision [to join the Peace Corps], he said.
First Published July 9, 2006 12:00 am