Face-to-Face for the First Time
By Jonathan Pearson on Monday, November 22nd, 2010
Etienne Tuo was supposed to spend a recent Saturday night at a party he helped organize. But he decided to begin the evening by attending the Annual Meeting of the Friends of Cote D’Ivoire. That’s because he wanted to meet returned Peace Corps volunteer Patricia Mertz.
Mertz, who served in the Peace Corps from 2001 – 2003, began her service in Cote D’Ivoire, but was forced to leave the village of Braffoueby when violence forced Peace Corps to leave the country in 2002. Mertz was in neighboring Ghana at the time of the evacuation, and never had the chance to say goodbye. “It was heart wrenching.”
After several years of reminiscing and sharing experiences about her time in Cote D’Ivoire, Mertz said a basic question from her niece (“What do you want to do about it?”) spurred her into action. She decided to pursue the construction of a health clinic – a project requested by her community to address a situation in which villagers had to walk one and one-half hours to receive basic health care.
Working in Illinois with friend Marisa Swystun, Patricia created Ivory Coast Mothers and Children. More than two years ago as the project got underway, Patricia realized an immediate challenge: Her lack of fluency in French was an immediate obstacle that needed to be addressed. Patricia placed a phone call to Washington DC to her former Peace Corps colleague Briana Fischer, to see if her husband – Cote D’Ivoire native Etienne – could assist her with translation.
“When I heard about the project, I thought she wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Tuo. But he was impressed by the attributes Mertz brought to the project: a strong sense of determination, a great sense of humor, and above all – patience.
Over the past thirty months, Mertz and Tuo have engaged in at least fifty phone conversations. Tuo was able to speak with villagers, as well as family and friends in Cote D’Ivoire to help lay the groundwork and advance the construction of the clinic. He also coordinated with his family to pick up and support Patricia when she traveled back to Braffoueby for the first time in seven years. Villagers lined the street to celebrate her return, with cheering and drum playing and waving of both the Cote D’Ivoire and U.S. flags.
While the clinic brought them together from a distance, Mertz and Tuo had never met – until that recent Saturday night. “I feel like we’re old friends,” said Mertz. “I was so happy to finally meet him.”
The clinic is built, although a final construction payment and establishing housing for a nurse and midwife are the key next steps before the clinic can begin operations. Meeting Tuo wasn’t the only happy development for Mertz at the Saturday night gathering. Ivory Coast Mothers and Children became the first recipient of a new small grants project recently launched by the Friends of Cote D’Ivoire.