Dec 2, 2016
by Jolise Elsinghorst
Me with my neighbor and best friend, Zinha. She's 16 and, like most teenagers in the neighborhood, she wakes up every morning at 5 to wash dishes, sweep the yard and go to the water pump. Then she cooks breakfast and lunch for the family, goes to school in the afternoon, comes back and washes dishes, goes to the water pump and cooks dinner. That's one busy teenager.
I had the privilege of interviewing Kari Smith, past BELIEF coordinator and graduate of Whitworth University, who is currently in Mozambique working with the Peace Corps. Kari is humble and friendly which made this interview very easy and fun. As an education volunteer in a village in Mozambique, Kari spends 20 hours a week as teacher, teaching an 8th grade English class, and a 10th to 12th grade Computer class. Additionally, she works with a theater group to bring awareness to the value of education and equality of women and copartners a community library program which meets every week to practice reading and writing.
Computer class. We have four laptops total. One is mine. Two are in German and won't let me change the language setting. There's no electricity in town so I individually charge the computers using a car battery that is charged with a solar panel.
Community library program. Here my friend and counterpart is reading to a group of kids that we meet with every week to practice writing and reading. (What's impressive is the book is in Portuguese but she's telling them the story in the local language.)
Kari would definitely say that the culture of Whitworth has affected her decision to join the Peace Corps. Although she was interested before Whitworth, Whitworth strengthened her desire to serve. She went to Guatemala for two summers as an intern where Whitworth partnered with a dental, medical and vision organization. There she met a woman who told her of the benefit of spending two years in service after college. Professors at Whitworth were also supportive of service in general, instead of focused on their students getting high paying jobs. She also mentioned how she felt the importance of valuing people. Kari emailed me later to add to this to her answer of wanting to serve:
"In our interview I mentioned that encouragement from faculty and staff at Whitworth to pursue service over money increased my interest in Peace Corps. . . Just as important was seeing the hurt that many of my friends experienced at Whitworth simply because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation/expression/ identity or cultural values. And whether intentionally or by ignorance, I began to see that we are culprit at every level - systems, organizations, individuals, myself included. Hearing the stories, frustrations and hopes of these friends, I came to realize how important it is to engage as much as possible with other cultures. My friends opened my eyes to the damage caused by single-mindedness and I wanted to expand my vision, to pursue openness and inclusivity."
Kari lives in a traditional community in Mozambique and I learned about her experiences there. In her traditional community there are underlying assumptions about the lesser value of a woman compared to a man, which is why Kari works with a theater group to help people see that women are of equal value. In her traditional community a woman's future is almost set at birth. When girls get their first period their fathers are able to marry them off at a bride price. Fathers do not let their girls go to school because they think it is a waste-women should stay home and do the cooking and the cleaning. In Kari's class of 30 students there are ten girls. In her 8th grade class of 40 students there are four girls.
In the theater group students make up their own skits. One of the skits tells the story of a community member giving a student a pen. This pen allows the student to go to school. Three students end up going to school. Because of this schooling two girls become a teacher and a nurse and one boy becomes a doctor. It was extremely important for the community to see that the girls could also have a profession. These three educated students have the capability to help the community member who is now elderly. The skit showed the community that if they help educate their youth, the youth can help the community.
JUNTOS group. This skit encourages parents to keep their daughters in school. The kids create their own skits and often present in the local language.
Her thinking about international development had changed more in Mozambique than with her studies and service at Whitworth. The negative impact of international aid in her village has created a culture of receiving. For example, when having a conversation about going to school by saving, the conversational partner said that someone could just give them the money. She talked a little about how international aid has affected Mozambique. In the schools the students are required to learn three languages: English, Portuguese and French. English is spoken in the surrounding countries and Portuguese is the nation's unifying langue, but she did not understand why these students needed the extra burden of learning French. It is rumored that France gave Mozambique a program or money and in return France asks that French be taught in their schools.
Kari talked about the many highs and lows in the Peace Corps and that for every low there is a high. The lows were so much lower and different, and I suspect deeper than the lows she experienced in America. One of the worst moments she had was on the first day of teaching school when she realized how inexperienced she was. She had never taught before, and was expected to teach some pretty difficult 11th and 12th grade physics. As she was telling students what she expected of them and she asked what they expected of her, one of the kids raised his hand and said something like "If you are a good teacher then we will be good students." This moment floored her and caused her to doubt herself and her abilities, but she reiterated how she would often think that what she couldn't handle previously she now handled like a champ.
The best moments in the Peace Corps were when she felt accepted and like part of the community. She talked about how the public transport was not fun to take because it was a 12-person bus crammed with 20 people. In general, she said that experience was not enjoyable but sometimes you end up getting dropped off in a completely wrong spot and are lost. This would happen to her and a person in the village would drop everything they had to walk her to her destination. When getting off the bus to walk home sometimes she would meet people in her community who would hug her, take her stuff and/or walk her home.
When asked what the biggest culture difference was she said, after confirming with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, it was the idea that all your stuff was fair game for neighbors as well as all the neighbors stuff was fair game for you compared to the individualist ideal in the US. If she had not cooked that day she could just walk around the village and someone would let her have dinner with them. The other day someone came up to her and said "I know sometimes you like to eat alone, but I have also noticed that you haven't cooked so here's some food." This was a great moment because this woman realized she was different and met her and gave in that difference.
These kids invited themselves over for breakfast.
I asked her how the Peace Corps had changed her vision. She responded that she was on the verge of being open minded. She realized how judgmental she had been about money in the US. If you have money, then everything must come to you easily. She often thought about air conditioning and all the luxuries she could not have now. She has wanted to become more understanding of different lifestyles. She separates personal and professional life somewhat because the teachers she works with in the school also live in the same village. Because they live in the village she sees different sides of these people-how they treat their wives, etc. She explained that people can be good people, but make poor choices and how she falls into that category often.
When asked how her work in the Dornsife Center affected her position in the Peace Corps she talked about how grateful she was for her experience as a BELIEF conference coordinator. The idea of service-learning has stuck with her-the hyphen in service-learning belongs because you cannot have service without learning. To go with that thought, she also noted how in serving she was also being served. She talked about Asset Based Community Development being something she always reminded herself about. Asset Based Community Development is the idea that we are not looking for the needs of a community, but we are instead looking at what the community already has going for them so we can partner with them. She talked about needing to look at a community's assets and letting people come to her in comparison to going out and approaching people about the ideas she has.
I am so grateful that Kari shared part of her experience with me and in her sharing that experience I got to have a small look at what service outside of this country might look like.
Kids and monkey in my kitchen.
To learn more about global citizenship look at this site: http://www.kristafoundation.org/.