Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Kuzizima article: A Great Example

This is an article I wrote for the Kuzizima magazine last month (a newsletter distributed to all of the Peace Corps volunteers in Malawi). Most of you probably didn’t know that I have experienced a bit of Peace Corps romance since I’ve been here. I quickly hit it off with a second year Environmental volunteer named Corie, but unfortunately last month she was medically separated due to a rare illness that is effecting her pituitary gland and has caused her to develop diabetes isopodous. We were really just getting to know each other but I really gained a lot from our relationship, and that’s what this article is all about; the lessons that other Peace Corps volunteers and myself can draw from Corie. Enjoy!

As most of you know by now Corie Eastridge from the second year environment group was medically separated last month after being diagnosed with lymphocytic hypophysitis a rare disease caused by an autoimmune disease and has been sent back home to Chicago. I know I was not the only person in Malawi to fall for this extraordinary red head, her charm and ever-positive attitude made her one of the most mutually loved people in Peace Corps Malawi. So the news of her sudden departure created an emotional typhoon for all who know her. It’s hard to imagine a Peace Corps gathering in Lilongwe without Corie’s wild dance moves, twisted sense of humor, and constant giggles unbashfully bubbling up in any situation no matter how inappropriate. I had precious little time to get to know Corie, but in that short time I was fortunate to learn a lot from her attitude, her approach to Peace Corps, as well as the circumstances that led to her premature end of service.

In regards to what I learned from her circumstances it has given me a renewed appreciation for my own service. Her experience has taught me that being here is an opportunity not to be taken for granted; it can be over in a flash as she was sent home without having the chance to go back to her village and pack or say goodbye. Corie’s experience encourages me to view everyday here as a gift. Sometimes volunteers start to look at their service in Malawi as an endurance contest, which is no way to stay happy, and in my opinion is counterproductive to Peace Corps goal of providing Malawians with a positive image of Americans through its volunteers. Seeing our service as a gift reminds us that this is a chance to experience a world that, at least in my case, I never could have imagined a year ago. It’s also the opportunity to at least try to make a small difference in one of the worlds most under-developed countries. There is also the opportunity everyday to have a positive impact on some individual’s life, which can be something as small and simple as a smile and kind words to the shy unconfident woman you might pass on the street, or something as significant as helping your neighbor start the small business that changes his or her whole life.

Corie’s attitude while working here in Malawi is one of the lessons that I could most benefit from striving to imitate. Being able to put your frustrations aside and always remain positive the way Corie has done can make any volunteers service more effective. The positive influence Corie had on the people of Maliera was inspiring. When I first visited her site I saw that she approached every interaction with a smile on her face, and always left the other person infected with a smile on their face too. I was amazed at how well integrated she was at her site, and the way people in Maliera truly loved her, clearly a product of her cheery attitude and good-nature towards everybody in the village. She is the definitive example of a Peace Corps volunteers’ role as a diplomat for the American people. Ten years from now when the children of Maliera have grown up, when they think about America they will associate it with the smiling ginger from Chicago they loved as a child. That’s an everlasting impact that can’t be expressed on any description of service.

Corie wasn’t just here as a diplomat though, she also took her approach to being a capacity builder very serious which we can also draw lessons from. She worked with the community to start a peanut butter making project, which is not only an income generator, but also provides a source of much needed protein and fats locally for the areas many malnourished children. She pressed on with this project despite many stumbling blocks, one of which I was there to witness. The group she was working with had become frustrated with making stabilized soil blocks (SSBs) and were ready to abandon the method all together and cut down trees to burn bricks, a method they were much more familiar with. I probably would have gotten frustrated with them being so quick to abandon SSBs. She had worked hard on writing a funding proposal, budgeting, and working out all of the tedious details. Corie did not get angry though. She calmly explained the benefits of doing SSBs and left the decision up to them, and ultimately they were willing to give the soil blocks another try. As their experience with the machine grew, they quickly got a system down, and by the next time I visited her again the building was finished and the group was looking to extend the project to a youth community center. This was the first major project they had ever done as a group, and her patience and persistence helped them see what they were capable of doing together. The new enthusiasm of the group shows that this project is sure to continue and grow even though she has left. The lesson that I think we as Peace Corps volunteers can draw from this is to strike the balance of remaining persistent and confident in our ideas without ever being forceful or patronizing.

People in Corie’s village won’t be remembering her simply because of the projects she did, but mostly they will remember how she was smiling and laughing all along the way; this is the most important lesson that I see in Corie’s example. Even though her service ended early and unexpectedly, she can feel comforted that she made the most of her experience every day that she was here, just simply by being so happy. While she was in Malawi she fostered nothing but positive relationships with people who certainly won’t be forgetting her anytime soon. . Corie came to visit my village for just two very short visits, but people still ask me about her all the time, they say, “Oh Corie, that one is sooo cheerful.” This is probably the most important lesson I have learned form Corie, the importance of just having fun and enjoying each day as it comes to you. Just because somebody works hard and takes their assignment seriously, doesn’t mean that they have to take themselves seriously; at least Corie illustrated this with every giggle, at regular rate of about five per minute.

That propensity to always be laughing was the most important thing I learned from Corie, and also happens to be the first thing that drew me to her. At my groups swearing in one of the Malawian speakers from the department of forestry said “We understand that Lady Bill Clinton may be the next President of America.” Every American present at least shared a quiet chuckle with the person next to them, but one giant laugh carried over the whispers without reservation, and I turned around to see Corie’s ear to ear grin. I knew then that she was somebody who knew how to enjoy life, but as I spent more time with her I became more and more impressed with her ability to laugh and appreciate the world around her regardless of the circumstances. These last few months she has really demonstrated this ability. Even when she was in tears telling me about her frustrations with not being allowed to go and say goodbye to anybody in her village she joked about her sickness as a punishment for all the evil jokes she has told over the years. Her ability to laugh and remain positive despite having her entire world turned upside down by this very serious illness is nothing short of remarkable.

I really have no frame of reference to understand what she is going through as she deals with this rare illness that will affect her for the rest of her life. I can only hope that I would have half the strength and dignity that she has demonstrated so far. Corie said it best the last time I spoke to her about how little the doctors knew about what is happening to her, “Eh, We’ll see what happens….everything always works out.” That sort of optimism and ability to see the futility in worrying about what is to come in ones life is something rare and beautiful, and I am ever-thankful to Corie for providing such a spectacular example to try to live up to.