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Benin

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Volunteers had projects and grants to fund them. They had to leave and the money was frozen. see more

    Volunteers had projects and grants to fund them. They had to leave and the money was frozen. But that’s not the end of the story.

    By Bethany Leech

     

    Photo: Katherine Patterson and students of Bumbuta Secondary School in Tanzania. Patterson started the Save the Rain project to provide clean water for the school community.

     

    When Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from around the world, we heard from thousands asking for advice and help. They were not only worried about their own well-being, but time and again they wanted to know: What about the communities they left? the work they were doing? the projects developed together — already approved for Peace Corps grants that would now be frozen?

    Our answer: the Community Fund. We set up an application process for Volunteers and reached out to the Peace Corps community for crowdfunding support. Regulations for the Peace Corps grant programs require a Volunteer to be in a community to oversee a project. As a nonprofit organization, National Peace Corps Association ramped up a more flexible solution. That especially makes sense when many Volunteers are in regular contact with their host communities. Thanks to your support, some projects are already fully funded. Some are seeking contributors. We get new applications from evacuated Volunteers each week — and we welcome more. peacecorpsconnect.org/give

     

    Vanuatu | Chelsea Bajek

    Home: Rochester, New York / Arlington, Virginia

    For close to two years I served as a Community Health and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Education (WASH) Volunteer. I lived and worked in a small rural community on Paama Island, where I was given the name Lumi. I helped facilitate water and sanitation projects and programs to improve awareness on health, nutrition, and hygiene. I had been accepted to extend my service for a third year to work with the Ministry of Health in the capital on public health initiatives. When we were evacuated, I left behind not only my belongings, my house, my work, but also my community and my family and friends. I left behind people I called Mama and Papa, auntie and uncle, brother and sister, and countless abus (grandparents).

    One of the projects I was working on was with the local women’s group, helping them to raise funds to purchase sewing machines and related materials to be used in skill-building workshops. We had an open Peace Corps Partnership Program grant, but we lost funding when Volunteers were evacuated. There are limited resources on this small remote island, and supporting the Paama Women’s Handicraft Center will help increase opportunities for women’s economic development and empowerment; the clothing and baskets they make will be sold to pay school fees and support families. Though I am back in the United States, I continue to work with the women’s group on this project, believing it can provide real change for these women. 

     

     

     

    Benin | Cristal Ouedraogo | FUNDED!

    Home: Montgomery County, Maryland

    In Benin, women and girls face more barriers to education than men and boys. As an education volunteer, I heard people in my community express a desire to bridge that gap. So we put together a plan for a literacy and research center to create a safe space for girls to pursue academic excellence and increase gender equity in school — and give them the tools needed to be independent, lifelong learners outside the classroom. The project will benefit some 500 secondary school students — boys as well as girls — and provide technology training for teachers and community members as well.

    The project was approved for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant that was suspended when I was evacuated. But with support the Peace Corps community has given through NPCA, we’ll still help these students — and inspire boys and girls to thrive academically, socially, and creatively.

     

      Speak and Spell: Cristal Ouedraogo was working with these students in Benin when she had to evacuate. A grant from the Community Fund will ensure the project she started becomes reality. 
     

    Moldova | Alyssa Gurkas

    Home: Westfield, New Jersey

    To combat violence against women and empower the female population in Hînceşti, Moldova, I worked with colleagues at the Mihai Viteazul Middle School to develop a plan for a tech-equipped community room. It would also host seminars on domestic violence, financial literacy, and online safety. It will benefit teachers and parents and scores of students. The funds will be used to purchase a smartboard, a computer, speakers, printer, paper, markers, flip-chart, notebooks, and lunches for seminars.

    Originally this project was going to be funded through Peace Corps’ Small Project Assistance Program, but due to the COVID-19 evacuation the project was canceled before it even began. The school actually had installed internet and already purchased chairs and desks fulfilling their community contribution — 25 percent of the grant that was required — only to find out that the project was then canceled. That hit my colleagues hard.

    But when I let them know that the Community Fund might still make it possible, English teacher Aliona Goroholschi wrote me: “I felt happiness without edges … Anything is possible when you have people who care and support you.”

     

    Colombia | Elyse Magen | FUNDED!

    Home: San Francisco, California

    As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was working with a women’s group in Santa Marta who harvest cacao and make artisanal chocolate desserts. These women are all cacao farmers themselves and have had little economic opportunity. They have not had a formal education; at a young age, they were displaced due to violence in their region. But with the business they have started, Transformación, they will be building disposable income in a culture where women have little opportunity to work.

    The grant provided by the NPCA Community Fund will allow them to carve out a workspace that complies with health sanitation codes. It will allow them to purchase machinery to make an edible chocolate bar, which will expand their market and increase profits. This, in turn, will allow them to provide for their families and invest not only in themselves but also in their children. Transformación hopes that other women can get involved in their business and that it can symbolize a wave of social change.

     

     

    Tanzania | Katherine Patterson | FUNDED!

    Home: Washington, D.C.

    With the secondary school in my community of Bumbuta, I was working on a rainwater catchment system and handwashing stations to increase access to clean water. Right now, students must carry large buckets containing drinking and cleaning water to school every morning; the water that many bring comes from unsanitary sources. With a rainwater catchment system, the school community will gain access to clean water — and improve education on water, sanitation, and hygiene practices.

    The project was approved but funding was halted as a result of the COVID-19 evacuation. I was over the moon when I found out there’s another option for funding. My ward executive officer messaged: “We wanna thank you so much tusaidie ... we love you so much!”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To leave the world a bit better ... to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived — that is to have succeeded.” I’ll be able to keep a promise to myself to leave my village in a better place than when I arrived. More important, this will enable students to live healthier lives! 

     


     

    Colombia | Joshua Concannon

    Home: Kansas City, Missouri

    I was working on an effort to train dozens of women in clothing design and production by providing them with technical workshops and entrepreneurship classes from professionals. Their community is heavily reliant on agriculture for its source of jobs, so this project will diversify the economy — and provide jobs and sources of income for women. We worked together on a grant application and were approved through the Peace Corps Partnership Program. The women were overjoyed — and justifiably proud.

    One week later, all Volunteers were evacuated and Peace Corps rescinded the funds. But the opportunity with NPCA has revived my hope. Edilsa Mascote, the leader behind the project, was very emotional when I told her that there is still a chance we can get the funding. She started tearing up because she thought all hope was lost. She told me it was the perfect light they needed in their lives during this very dark time.

     

    Learn more about these and other projects supported by the Community Fund — and make a gift to help Volunteers complete them.


    Bethany Leech is International Programs Coordinator for NPCA. She served in 
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) 2011–13.
     

    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:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Epidemiologist Anne Rimoin on listening to community — and bringing global understanding back home see more

    Pandemic Lessons: Epidemiologist Anne Rimoin on the importance of listening to community. And how a public health problem anywhere can be a public health problem everywhere.

    From a conversation with WorldView editor Steven Boyd Saum

    Photo by Peter Israel

     

    In epidemiology, you have to look at things holistically. And in the midst of this pandemic, as an epidemiologist whose whole career trajectory was shaped by my experience with the Peace Corps, I find myself asking: What does Peace Corps have to do with how we respond to COVID — and how we need to do more? Peace Corps is all about working in a community; my work, whether related to COVID or not, is really about having your ear to the ground in the community and understanding the community’s perceptions — and understanding how important local community is in terms of being able to effectively run public health interventions. 

    A case in point: We’ve learned over and over again with Ebola outbreaks that you have to pay attention to local community leaders and understand their perspective. Having empathy and creating relationships to reach that understanding, and targeting communication to what’s really happening — that’s critical. 

    The window that Peace Corps Volunteers have into that — that we have to bring our experiences in working in communities globally back home locally — is so important now. It is going to be critical in terms of being able to get to the other side of this pandemic, whether we’re talking about vaccine hesitancy, wearing masks, social distancing, or basic public health measures. In public health, everything that I do, I lead with listening to community.

    This is a matter of life and death. Bringing the world back home has never been more important.

     

    This pandemic has shone a light on how we are no different than anywhere else.

     

    We always think that this is the “Third Goal,” the last thing out there in the Peace Corps experience. But our country has never been more vulnerable. This pandemic has shone a light on how we are no different than anywhere else. And that an infection anywhere can be an infection everywhere; a public health problem anywhere is a public health problem everywhere. 

    The whole idea of “global is local, and local is global” has never been more important. We have not been paying attention to the community here in the same way that we do overseas.


    Information and misinformation

    Whenever you have lack of information and lack of communication, you open the door for disinformation, misinformation, and misconceptions. We’ve seen this happen over and over again in the United States. 

    I served with the Peace Corps in Benin in the 1990s, in the village of Bopa. As a Guinea worm eradication volunteer, my job was disease surveillance and health communication. The lessons I learned there are important today: You must be able to have direct and open conversation and communication with community leaders. Those leaders are not just the politicians; they are people who are key to the community. In a place like Benin, they could be traditional healers. Here, they’re religious leaders, sports figures, celebrities — where people get their information. 

    When I was in Benin, there was a Guinea worm song contest: Every village had a contest to come up with the best song about how to avoid getting Guinea worm — which you do by filtering your water and some basic public health steps. That sounds quaint, but it’s really a perfect example of great public health communication stemming from grassroots communities and finding creative ways to get the message out. Beninois culture really embraces music, so it was a genius idea that every community got involved in.

     

    The human experience

    We in the United States have always felt like we were different. We’ve held ourselves as being so much more sophisticated and that these things don’t apply to us here. But they really do. And isn’t that one of the big lessons of Peace Corps? The hubris that we feel as Americans might be tempered a little; we might be a little more open to learning about other cultures — and what we can learn from them to do better here.

    The three goals of Peace Corps are essential. Training people in low-resource settings and helping promote better understanding of Americans — both of those are certainly important. But bringing home the understanding of what’s going on in the world is so critical going forward. “What do countries want and need? How can we be of assistance?” Answering those questions takes a lot of listening. As Americans, we’re really great at talking. We haven’t always been so great at listening. This last year of the pandemic just demonstrates how critical listening is.

     

    Public health work in Lomela, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Anne Rimoin, left, is currently stateside, but an entire team of Congolese and UCLA field director Nicole Hoff are there full time. Photo courtesy Anne Rimoin

     

    So is community. In the United States, people are not used to public health crises affecting their daily lives. In Africa, people are — and they understand the need to pull together as a community. That definitely has had an impact. Los Angeles County, where I am, is the most populous county in the United States. It’s extremely diverse; you have a lot of frontline workers and multigenerational households; and a lot of pandemic fatigue. Together, that has probably created the perfect storm, possibly in addition to a more contagious strain circulating. And it has created a situation where we have a public health emergency on our hands.

     

    How the pieces fit together 

    As a professor at UCLA, I have continued to run my research here in Los Angeles: working on asymptomatic infection, immunity, and occupational exposures for healthcare workers and first responders, as well as studies for veterinarians and veterinary clinics. Our team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been continuing work as well, which is extremely important: with Ebola survivors from outbreaks in 1976 and 1995 to the recent outbreak, working with healthcare workers and trying to understand exposures. An entire team of Congolese and UCLA field director Nicole Hoff are there full time. So we’re continuing to collect samples and do studies in DRC — where COVID hasn’t hit as hard. That needs to be studied as well. And we’re continuing studies to understand population immunity to vaccine-preventable diseases.

    At the Center for Global and Immigrant Health, which I direct, we’ve been continuing to support global health, locally and globally. That includes learning from people working overseas and what their experience with COVID has been. At the same time, we’re trying to reimagine what global health is going to look like in the future, how we’re going to get back to working in partnership overseas; many projects have been grounded. 

     

    In public health, having the long game in mind — the essence of Peace Corps — is key.

     

    Global public health work is changing profoundly. In the time since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, a lot of capacity has developed on the ground, as well as the ability to build more capacity. This pandemic has shown how important that is. People in a country should be able to do the work themselves on the ground, so that it really becomes a collaborative partnership — not a situation of people from high-resource settings going to low-resource settings, doing the work, and leaving. Having the long game in mind — the essence of Peace Corps — is key. The pandemic will definitely have an impact in that global health will be reimagined: by growing grassroots capacity, thinking through a new way forward.

    When I started as a Volunteer in Benin in the early 1990s, in terms of public health there was very little infrastructure. The internet and cellphones have completely changed the landscape in terms of public health communication. I was in a village where there was one phone that didn’t really work. It’s very difficult to do surveillance in those circumstances. There are now good schools of public health in Africa, and people who have been trained elsewhere and come back and are able to lead public health and scientific work.

    In the months ahead, I’m hoping to see vaccines rolling out with equitable distribution globally, since that will be an important way forward. What’s also going to be important is monitoring variants of COVID that are cropping up, and how that may impact vaccine effectiveness and treatment effectiveness. Viral surveillance is going to be critical: being able to collect samples globally and sequence them to see if the virus is continuing to mutate — which it will.


    Debt and investment

    I feel a debt to Peace Corps; it changed my life and how I think about the world. The experience informs everything that I do. And while I know “the toughest job you’ll ever love” is no longer their tagline, it’s so true! It really was the hardest thing I ever did. Why? Because it’s dealing with culture: listening and understanding and trying to respond to the needs of a local community. That’s really hard.

    At Middlebury College I was a history major, focused on Africa — though I didn’t know what I would do with it career-wise. As a musician, I was interested in the music industry; I actually interned at IRS Records and thought I would become a music entertainment lawyer. I was going to take the LSAT while I was in Peace Corps. Because I spoke French, I was offered a position in Benin with this perfect public health program. My dad was a respected medical geneticist and scientist. I didn’t think I would go in that direction; really, I was intimidated. But instead of going to law school, I ended up getting a master’s in public health. My dad used to say I avoided science like the plague — and became a scientist studying plagues. That was all because of my Peace Corps experience. 

    In a very real sense, the investment in Peace Corps is an investment globally and an investment locally. It does change how Volunteers view and interact with the world. We need a lot more people who have that perspective.