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  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    The complex work of HIV/AIDS prevention in St. Lucia see more

    Yemi Oshodi

    Peace Corps Volunteer in Swaziland (2003–05) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer in St. Lucia (2011–12) | Peace Corps Staff (2011 to present)

     

    As told to Sarah Steindl

     

    Photo: Yemi Oshodi in April 2021, speaking to communities in the Eastern Caribbean after the eruption of La Soufrière, on the main island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

     

    Go back a decade: I had about eight years of experience in public health — advocacy, international policy, HIV/AIDS work. I wanted to give back in a similar way that I had as a Volunteer in Swaziland 2003–05. I looked into Peace Corps Response and took a position in St. Lucia, as project development coordinator with St. Lucia Planned Parenthood Association. I co-led the men’s health initiative, focused on HIV prevention and mitigation. We worked with police officers, firemen, and correctional officers, training them so they could train other men on HIV prevention and other men’s health issues. The training also explored social constructs such as masculinity and machismo.

    The workshop was highlighted in a local television news program. And the training opened the door to numerous other opportunities to work on HIV prevention. One project involved visiting the crowded bus ranks where we would spend hours engaging mini-bus drivers about HIV/AIDS prevention. I appreciated the authentic conversations and seeing people’s eyes light up when they grasped new concepts. Through other projects, we also addressed the unique HIV-prevention needs in St. Lucia for members of the LGBTQ community. 

     

    Bus driver talks with HIV-AIDS prevention educator

    In St. Lucia, “one project involved visiting the crowded bus ranks, where we would spend hours engaging mini-bus drivers about HIV/AIDS prevention,” says Yemi Oshodi. Photo courtesy Yemi Oshodi

     

    Response work is a collaboration between the Peace Corps and the host partner organization; it’s not about just bringing people in to do the job. It’s about a transfer of knowledge, skills, and collaboration. I saw the job description — tasks and expectations — and I understood quickly that I couldn’t do it on my own. It was something I had to do with my counterpart, Patricia Modeste, who was awesome. She was so knowledgeable about sexual and reproductive health. And she helped reaffirm that public health work can be engaging — you can make it hilarious. During our weeklong training, we designed a session that had a talk-show format, because in St. Lucia at that time, talk shows like Jerry Springer were quite popular. So in our talk show we educated people on sexual and reproductive health using the drama and even the bit of fun mayhem that comes with being in a television show.

     

    It’s not about just bringing people in to do the job. It’s about a transfer of knowledge, skills, and collaboration. I saw the job description — tasks and expectations — and I understood quickly that I couldn’t do it on my own.

     

    I’ve worked with the agency for the past eight years in Washington, D.C., in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), and currently in Guyana. I’m timing out in May 2022, so I’ve been thinking about a question a lot of Volunteers face at the end of their service: What is my unfinished business? For me, it’s often interpersonal. Have I practiced empathy enough? Have I practiced humility enough? Have I learned enough from those around me? And have I grown enough in this context here in Guyana, where I am working as director of programming and training? Have I challenged people enough to be supportive, empathetic leaders and managers? Because you can never do that enough. Have I worked to equip others to be able to finish the work we started together — specifically my local colleagues? Because at the end of the day, this is their country. It’s their legacy, too, right? A good legacy, for me, as a Peace Corps Volunteer and now Peace Corps staff, is leaving a place better, and even more equipped than I found it.

     

    This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.

     September 04, 2021
  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    One of those moments I thought, We’re doing something right. see more

    Lily Asrat

    Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia (1996–98) | Crisis Corps Volunteer in Guinea (2000) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Eastern Caribbean–St. Lucia (2006)

    As told to Ellery Pollard 

     

    Photo: Reviewing HIV records in St. Lucia: Lily Asrat working at the National AIDS Program Secretariat. Courtesy Lily Asrat

     

    I’m Ethiopian American, and my parents exposed me to a lot of travel early on; they essentially raised me to be a global citizen. I understood that there’s so much out there in the world, and that there isn’t just one way of being. I saw Peace Corps as a continuation of this trajectory that started from childhood. 

    For my first Peace Corps service, I went to Namibia, which had just achieved freedom from South African colonial rule and the apartheid system. It was like coming to the United States immediately following desegregation: a lot of post-conflict tensions, a society coming to terms with racial healing, and people trying to coexist in a new landscape. It was a difficult time because there were still vestiges of armed struggle. But it was also a hopeful time because the majority of the population — who had been brutalized and subjugated — were feeling and seeing hope, freedom, and access to information and education. 

    I was a teacher trainer on a collaboration with USAID. The country was moving away from an education system based on apartheid — separate and unequal. The new Ministry of Education charted a path to develop new curricula that would be accessible to the whole population of Namibia.

    While I was training teachers, my community was faced with a growing HIV epidemic. There was no treatment or testing accessible. There was a lot of stigma; it was considered a disease of gay men in the Western world, so people didn’t speak about it. But there were people sick and dying — a lot of teachers whose funerals I attended. My host sister died from HIV. It was devastating. That was the impetus for me to go down the track of public health. I realized that the real threat to the education system — and to the majority of the young, viable, productive populations of the country — was HIV. I got involved in doing HIV prevention work and education, collecting teaching aids and materials that I could share within the community.

    Over a decade later, I found myself once again in Namibia working for another organization and witnessed significant improvements in access to treatment. At one clinic there was an HIV-positive woman seeing her doctor; she gave me her baby to hold. The baby was HIV negative. They had the knowledge and treatment available to provide the mother with antiretroviral therapy so she could avoid transmitting HIV to the baby during birth and breastfeeding. It was one of those moments in my life when I thought, We’re doing something right.

     

    They had the knowledge and treatment available to provide the mother with antiretroviral therapy so she could avoid transmitting HIV to the baby during birth and breastfeeding. It was one of those moments in my life when I thought, We’re doing something right.

     

    In 2000, I went to Guinea as a Crisis Corps Volunteer seconded to the International Rescue Committee, which was responsible for providing housing, nutrition, education, and psychosocial support for Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees. Speaking French was one key criteria; the other was being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer — able to hit the ground running. Being professional and flexible, able to develop relationships and trust in communities where you’re working — and do anything required with minimal support within hardship areas.

     

    Refugees in Guinea

    Child refugees in Guinea, where Lily Asrat worked as a Crisis Corps Volunteer seconded to the International Rescue Committee, responsible for providing housing, nutrition, education, and psychosocial support. Photo by Lily Asrat

     

    We had an entire stock of food intended for refugee kids that was stolen overnight. It was clearly an inside job; the people responsible for guarding it had disappeared. Those moments are heartbreaking — but not so uncommon. I sought out immediate solutions, using our resources to help navigate that crisis. While the theft of food intended for refugee children was difficult, we also had many examples of wonderful community engagement such as the groups of women who volunteered on a daily basis to cook, distribute, and clean up. They put time, effort, and love into preparing meals for those kids. They made the hardships worth the effort. 

    By the time I served as a Response Volunteer in Eastern Caribbean (St. Lucia), I had worked at the CDC for three years, had two more master’s degrees, and I’d been in my doctoral program at U.C. Berkeley, studying public health; it was an opportunity to apply my training and experiences, and give back in a different way. I was placed at the National AIDS Program Secretariat to support strategy and guidance, monitoring and evaluation, and planning and grant writing. I have been very lucky in my career to have worked for three government agencies, several multilaterals, and prestigious academic institutions, but nothing has been as rewarding for me as my three stints as a Volunteer in Namibia, Guinea, and St. Lucia.

     

    This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.

     September 06, 2021