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Alumni Volunteering with the Peace Corps

Jason Hahn '99 | Warren Hedges '00

Jason Hahn ’99
Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger

Bonjour! Ça-va? Mate aran kani? Such were the greetings I heard almost every morning as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger. I served in the Peace Corps in Niger, a country in West Africa, from my graduation from Washington and Lee in June of 1999 until October of 2001. The Peace Corps is a government agency founded by President Kennedy. Its goals are three-fold: to provide technical assistance to developing nations, to allow Americans to increase their understanding of other nations, and for the people of other nations to increase their understanding of Americans. I found my work to fulfill those three goals in Niger both challenging and rewarding.

After 3 months of training I spent my first year in Niger living and working in a small village of 400 not far from the Niger River. My life was very simple, no running water, electricity, or television for distraction. Just the BBC and VOA from my trusty short wave radio and plenty of conversation with my neighbors and friends. I spoke a local language, Zarma, as none of the people in my village spoke French, Niger’s official language. Luckily the people I lived with really enjoyed teaching me their language. Their understanding of my situation, as a foreigner thousands of miles from home, and their desire to make me feel comfortable was incredible. Zarmas have a saying “your guest is your God” and they certainly made me feel that way for most of my time there. There were times, of course, when my ability to understand their culture and their ability to understand mine reached its limits but throughout my experience I was in awe of their openness to many things I am sure they found very odd about me.

During my first year I spent much of my time trying to build up the institutions in my village. We, my villagers and I, worked together to set up a community bank that 30 women contributed to weekly. They used the money in their bank to invest in grain, selling it later for a profit, and to give loans with interest to women in the group. The bank served both as a vehicle for women to save money and as a source of credit in a nation where available credit is scarce. Working on the bank also gave women the impetus to organize to work communally on other projects such as rehabilitating over-farmed land. Additionally, I worked with the men and the women to set up a village peanut bank that gave loans in peanuts, before planting, and collected the loans with interest, again in peanuts, after the harvest. This provided a dependable source of peanuts for planting every year. Both of these projects provided good preparation for the grand finale of convincing the Ministry of Education to place a school in our village. I worked as a liaison between my village and the Ministry officials to secure a teacher and then I helped the village build the school and sign children up for classes. All of this work involved leading meetings, designing and implementing projects, and then conducting evaluations of those projects – all skills applicable to jobs here in the States.

During my second year I lived in a larger town and lead a team of 6 other volunteers. In addition to the perk of being one of the last Peace Corps Volunteers in the world to drive a motorcycle I spent a great deal of time working on HIV/AIDS education. It is well known the threat HIV/AIDS poses to Africa and we spent a great deal of time educating Nigeriens on HIV/AIDS and its methods of transmission and prevention. I also worked a great deal with the Ministry of Education and local non-governmental organizations to encourage parents to send their daughters to school. Often because of traditional or economic reasons parents would not send their daughters to school. We reached parents through village meetings and over the radio to encourage them to send their daughters to school. The work on HIV/AIDS and on Girls’ Education required organizing diverse groups, administering budgets, and working with government agencies all while speaking a language other than English – all experiences with direct application here in the United States.

If you volunteer in the Peace Corps you will increase your foreign language skills, learn how to work with people of different cultures, have responsibility for projects with a direct effect on people’s lives and have the opportunity to serve those in need. If you are struggling to find an opportunity which allows you to do good and develop skills for your life in a globally aware job market then take a closer look at the “toughest job you will ever love” and join the Peace Corps!

Letters home from Tbilisi, Georgia
by Warren Hedges ’00

Warren Hedges is a Peace Corps volunteer in the town of Sachkhere, which is located about 85 miles northeast of Tbilisi, Georgia.

October 14, 2001

Winter is slowly approaching life in Sachkhere. My host mother, Lia, is going through liters of cooking oil canning cooked cabbage and tomato salad. Driving into Tbilisi this morning I could see the leaves starting to change in the mountains. Our own stack of firewood sits in shed in our yard. Right next to it is the real treat of this season – 200kg of white grapes sitting in a hollowed out log with a hole at one end. We’ll press these today or tomorrow and pour the ‘new wine’ into huge clay pots buried in the ground.

Two weekends ago I went out to the eastern region of Khaheti, considered by Georgians, Russians, and others in the know to have the best grapes in E. Europe. We spent the day in one family’s vineyard picking 700kg of grapes and pressed them that evening. Everything – the juice and the pressings go into the same pot. After a few weeks they strain off the pressings and transfer them to another pot. These ferment for a few more months and the are distilled in a simple still to make the potent “tcha-tcha.” It can be used for cleaning greasy gears, starting fires or getting wasted.

The past week I went to one wake and a separate funeral. The wake was for a 40-something man who was working on a roof when his scaffolding collapsed. His family is now one of many in town who have lost a young father. The most common causes are the recent (and on-going) war in Abkhazia, accidents, and drugs. The funeral was for the mother-in-law of one of the teachers at school. The family keeps the body at home for 5-7 days. The elder women watch over the body and wail as people walk through to pay their respects.

This is all followed by an enormous supra. And toasts. And wine. Lots of it. The tamada (toastmaster) made a toast to all the victims of the attacks in the US. Shortly afterward the wine must have gotten a little strong ’cause it hit me much harder. My host mother again reminded me “ghvino tsudia” (wine is bad) later that night.

The other major news here deals with Abkhazia – a breakaway region in Georgia’s western territory. Following the downing of a UN helicopter and a so-far mysterious bombing attack on an Abkhazian village, everybody here as been tense. A PCV closer to the border has seen several troop transports heading west. In my own town several of the officers of the National Guard unit have been dispatched. Many of the young officers in the guard unit have been to the US, mostly to Fort Benning in Georgia.

School continues to be a chaotic mass of lour little kids and teachers. But they are learning. I had my first English club on Friday. About 35 kids crowded into a small trailer to learn all about witches, ghosts, pumpkins and trick-or-treating. Halloween is the word of the week. No word yet on the further construction of the school. One of the USAID backed organizations has been dragging its feet with issuing the final contract.

Preparations for winter continue. No idea what canned item will be going on next week. Anything is guaranteed to be good. Last year they went three months without any electricity. But on the bright side, winter also means more meat on the table as slaughter animals that can’t be fed all season long.

February 24, 2002 – Snow Storm and Stalin

A massive snowstorm hit Sachkhere last week, cutting of the roads to Tbilisi and the electricity for 4 days. We almost ran out of water in our basins. That translates into another week Warren goes without doing his laundry. Ah, the wonders of baby powder. The big news at school now is that we have two computers running. They are in a secure room at the post office where we can use them for two hours a day while the generator is running. I’ve been training teachers how to use them. So far the teachers are almost as impatient as their students. And almost as fun.

The other big news is the continuing hepatitis outbreak at school. The sixth student this year to get the virus is home for about 2 months. We have sterilized the boxcar classrooms twice with some disinfectant; the contamination is most likely from food or water. Having a latrine up hill of school and no washing facilities doesn’t help either.

School continued despite the foot of snow on the ground. No real road crews here so digging out, really is digging out... shovel by shovel. I helped clear the snow from the roof of our wine cellar and corncrib to prevent collapse. Late on the third day we got some running water. Mom, Dad, Jason and others who tried calling, my phone was off once the battery went dead.

This coming week I will be leaving my host family and moving uptown to Stalin Street (the apartments on Lenin Street weren’t that good... I’m serious). After wandering through the smoky rooms and construction sites of the local real estate market, I have found an apartment, now complete with iron bars where I can escape from nagging host mothers (really, I know when I am hungry and when I want to eat), and enjoy living on my own Georgian style. I still need to get a plastic basin to store water in.

In other news, I have no idea what is going on in the world. Of course one in 10 Georgian men approach me and ask me to explain the foreign policy of the US and how exactly we are going to capture bin Laden. This ratio increases to 1 in 5 when there is a supra. So, what ever is going on out there, I hope its going well for you. I’m doing just fine.