Shoulder to Shoulder

Every Volunteer has a counterpart. That’s Peace Corps lingo for one person in the community tasked with helping make this endeavor possible.

 

Interviews Edited by Steven Boyd Saum and Cynthia Arata

Photo: Sharmae Stringfield (left) Chippie Ngwali. Courtesy Sharmae Stringfield.

 

 

Malawi | Sharmae Stringfield, Volunteer
Home: Virginia, United States

 

The day I had to leave my village in the district of Blantyre was the day the painter I hired finished our mural at the health center: a dedication to sanitation and critical times to wash hands. Seeing as the evacuation was due to a virus that spreads rapidly through a lack of both those things, it was a fitting project to have left behind.

I left my neighbor and best friend, Vincent Zitha. I had less than 24 hours to say goodbyes. My co-workers were health care workers, teachers, community leaders. One of my favorite responsibilities was supervising the local youth club that I helped re-establish. We were able to have two community service projects, and we invited health workers to give talks. The youth absorbed these health messages and turned them into song and plays. After I left, they created a play about coronavirus and performed it at the health center.

We were going to tackle tough issues troubling girls in the community — including dropping out of school due to early pregnancies and young marriages.

I co-facilitated an after-school girls’ club with the chair of their mothers’ group, using the Go Girls curriculum. The day I got the email to evacuate would have been my last day to facilitate. Schools then closed to take precautions against COVID-19. The work I was doing came to a halt; the program was only half complete. The head teacher and I have remained in contact to ensure its completion. Shortly before evacuation, I began a partnership with a local NGO, FACT Malawi. We were going to tackle tough issues troubling girls in the community — including dropping out of school due to early pregnancies and young marriages. Youth of Malawi need programs that cater to teaching young boys how to be gentlemen and teaching young girls how to assert and protect themselves. Communities can benefit from the Peace Corps approach to both community health and environment issues. Our fellow
Malawians valued our presence in their country, and they welcomed us with both hands.

 

Sharmae Stringfield and Mdeka Youth Club. Photo courtesy Sharmae Stringfield.

 


Malawi | Chipiliro Ngwali, Counterpart
Home: Phalula village in Balaka district

 

I am married and I have a son, and I am now working under the Ministry of Health as a health surveillance assistant at Mdeka Health Center. We do field work in hard to reach areas: monitoring health of community members, engaging in health talks, and providing immunizations and other preventative medication. Malawi has few health workers in rural centers, so people have limited access. We work in collaboration with Peace Corps; they help fill the gap — and bring volunteers like Sharmae. This made me excited.

In the last few months, there have been so many changes due to coronavirus. Health workers’ efforts have diminished; they are afraid of contracting the virus, since there’s little personal protective equipment. Society discriminates against health workers because of that risk. Many health centers close early to avoid overcrowding. Projects initiated by Sharmae have been affected. Groups she brought together have stopped receiving education she used to provide. Safety measures have prevented the other programs from continuing.

Americans need to understand that the work we did was important … The work that was started doesn’t have to end.

People are still eager to know more and acquire skills Sharmae was teaching. As for the mural Sharmae was working on at the health center: With people being afraid of getting coronavirus, we have been avoiding large gatherings. Instead, we let people view the mural to self-educate. People see the times when it’s critical to wash hands. They see how waterborne illnesses happen. Americans need to understand that the work we did was important. There are skills that were taught and prevention techniques that can be practiced.

The work that was started doesn’t have to end. Peace Corps Volunteers should continue to pass along information on COVID-19 to counterparts who can reach remote areas. They can teach ways of ensuring food security in this time of pandemic. And PCVs can stay in communication with counterparts to try to preserve any work that can continue after the coronavirus is less of a threat. 

 

Malawi: Health mural, Mdeka Health Center. Photo by Sharmae Stringfield.

 


 

Panama | Bill Lariviere, Volunteer and José María Barrios, Counterpart
 

Panama: Volunteer Bill Lariviere (left) and counterpart José María Barrios, admiring the work they organized for a reforestation event in Nuario, Los Santos. Photo by Eli Wittum. 

 


Morocco | Omar Lhamyani, Counterpart
Home: Zagora Province

 

I was born and raised in a village called Tazarine in southeast Morocco. It was once a green oasis with an economy centered on agriculture; years of drought and desertification have changed the region into more of a commercial area.

I was introduced to Peace Corps in 2010. I have worked with three cohorts of Volunteers as a language and cross-cultural facilitator, counterpart, and language tutor, and as member of the multimedia committee creating and translating content that showcases the amazing work Volunteers and community youth are doing.

This work is life-changing for the youth in my community, just as it was for me.

We focus on youth in development. This work is life-changing for the youth in my community, just as it was for me. As a young high school student I participated in a linguistics camp in my town where I felt the influence of PCVs. They were role models for me.

Most recently I worked with Gio Giraldo. She worked with community members and focused on girls’ empowerment with the Dar Chabab Youth Club. She is an accomplished soccer player and trained withcollegiate and professional athletes in the U.S. That was new and fascinating, especially for the girls in Tazarine. It is rare to see boys and girls playing sports together in rural villages. Gio wanted to create a space for girls to feel welcome to play soccer. Now I see boys and girls playing competitive soccer games together.

We are lucky in Tazarine to have had PCVs for more than 10 years. They help students improve their English skills and connect us to resources, such as scholarships. Ideas and perspectives that Volunteers have brought have influenced and inspired us.

When I first heard of the evacuation, I couldn’t believe it. But I knew the situation could become more difficult. The community understands why Gio had to leave; her family must want her near in this time. We hope the sadness we feel seeing Gio go will be temporary — but her impact on our community will continue to thrive.

Community members ask about Gio all the time—and if she will come back. Mostly the girls from the community ask me if they will continue their soccer project with Gio. Her kindness, and the way she carried out her service, made the community trust and respect her.

 

Omar Lhamyani. Photo by Giovana Giraldo.


Morocco | Giovana Giraldo, Volunteer
Home: Miami metropolitan area, United States

They called the region the gateway—the entrance to big cities from Sahara country. Doors open up to the desert. There are beautiful canyons and a blend of cultures. I arrived last year. We were excited about a grant proposal from the U.S. Embassy to organize a summer leadership program for youth. I was coaching a girls soccer team that started off as pick-up soccer; the dream was to develop it into an organized association. Soccer can be great for integration. I’ve played all my life. Opportunities I’ve had are due to people coming together to make things happen. That was my goal in Morocco. There was amazing talent. Traveling has shown me that talent is equally distributed but not necessarily opportunity.

Omar is a selfless and motivated person. He is incredible. Peace Corps influenced him when he was younger; he has repaid that tenfold.

Omar is a selfless and motivated person. He is incredible. Peace Corps influenced him when he was younger; he has repaid that tenfold. Anyone who reached out — he would connect and help.

Other counterparts I worked with were also focused on providing opportunities. I like to think the work will go on without me being there. Though evacuation has thrown all my emotions into a washing machine. I’m disappointed because of the timing. Sad because of what it all meant to me. For Moroccan staff, Peace Corps means livelihoods, careers. They were nothing but supportive and positive. I feel like I’ve lost a little family.

 

Girls hiking expedition. Photo by Giovana Giraldo.

 
 


This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

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