December 16, 2003 - West Liberty Index: Kenya RPCV Tommie Petersen returns to family Christmas traditions in Iowa

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: The Peace Corps in Kenya: December 16, 2003 - West Liberty Index: Kenya RPCV Tommie Petersen returns to family Christmas traditions in Iowa

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Wednesday, December 17, 2003 - 10:16 am: Edit Post

Kenya RPCV Tommie Petersen returns to family Christmas traditions in Iowa

Kenya RPCV Tommie Petersen returns to family Christmas traditions in Iowa

Tommie Petersen returns to family Christmas traditions in Iowa
By: Stacy Ervin December 16, 2003
By Stacy Ervin

As Christmas draws near, Tommie Petersen is especially looking forward to enjoying the traditions her family has established, like baking and having Christmas morning breakfast. But she may miss the ugali, which likely won't be on the Petersens' menu.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, the West Liberty native has spent the past two Christmases in Africa. She left the United States in June of 2001 and returned back home on July 17, 2003.

While in Africa, she spent her time in Naitiri, a rural village in western Kenya, as a public-health volunteer. Her primary goal was to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS, including how the disease is transmitted, its symptoms and how to prevent it. Approximately 700 Kenyans die every day from the virus.

Not speaking the native language of Swahili or other tribal languages was a barrier to getting the job done. But Petersen quickly found an interpreter who not only helped her deliver the message at hand, but took her into his own family. It was partly that sense of family which helped make her time away from her own family in Iowa better.

"My interpreter's family was wonderful to me," she said, noting she spent Christmas with them last year.

An association with another Peace Corps volunteer also helped make last year's Christmas bright for Petersen.

"I invited another Peace Corps volunteer who lived about an hour from me. He was the closest one to me. He came on Christmas Eve and we had grilled Velveeta cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and Oreo cookies for dessert. We just thought it was wonderful," she said with a laugh.

On Christmas Day, the two rode bicycles to the interpreter's house and had lunch with his family. Though his wife was very sick with malaria, she still cooked chicken, rice and ugali, a combination of corn flour and boiling water, for their dinner.

Though the holiday was enjoyable, Petersen did miss some American traditions that she'll be able to reconnect with at Christmas 2003.

"When I was in Kenya, I wished I had a Christmas tree and lights. I missed the snow. I love snow," she said. "I'm really looking forward to things like spending time with my mom and my sister baking and having our traditional breakfast at home on Christmas Day."

But even with a return to familiar family traditions, Petersen recognizes that her views of the world-and particularly life in the United States-have changed her a bit.

"It's great to be with my family, but I was very content with very little in Kenya," she said. "Now I see the excess people have here."

For instance, when Christmas lights began to go up on houses around the area, Petersen's first thought was about how much money families had spent on the light displays and how that money could have helped the people in Kenya.

"We don't consider ourselves rich, but even people who live in poverty in America don't know what it's like in Kenya," Petersen said. "They're living in mud huts. Students are sitting on dirt floors in school. They have no shoes and no books. They wear school uniforms and for most, that's the only clothing they have."

Her experience made her more aware of her own wealth and reminded her of the true meaning of Christmas.

"I'm looking forward to getting together and baking, but there's a lot less emphasis on gift-giving," she said. "I insisted last year that nobody send me gifts, except that if they wanted to send money. I had chosen a school and bought textbooks with that money. They were very happy and thankful."

It was one of very few ways that Petersen was able to provide monetary help during her time in Kenya. In order to help the Kenyan people realize she was not there to give them money, the Peace Corps requires that volunteers live in similar means as the people they're serving.

"They don't want you to be wealthy because they want to put you at their level and experience what it's like to be a Kenyan. If they think you are wealthy, the people aren't going to trust you or they're going to be intimidated or you're not going to be safe," she said. "If they see you in the same hotels and restaurants eating the same food they are, you're going to be accepted. The first part of the job is establishing relationships and trust."

That proved to be a challenge, but that is what Petersen was looking for. After graduating from West Liberty High School in 1983, she earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and went on to earn a master's degree in social work from Boston's Simmons College.

"I've always had an interest in serving the underprivileged. I worked a lot here with children from abusive homes, substance abuse and things," she said. "But I felt there was something bigger out there. I wanted to see another part of the world and work on a more global, international level."

Feeling the Peace Corps may be the answer to the change and challenge she was looking for, she applied for volunteer work. It took about a year to get through the application process and determine where she would be assigned and what she would be teaching. She chose Africa because it was a place she'd heard about, but didn't know much about other than it had a lot of interesting wildlife.

"Your placement boils down to language abilities, so that eliminated western Africa because they speak French," she said. "They said with my background they could use me in public health."

So she was sent to Kenya, which has the fifth-highest number of people affected by HIV/AIDS in the world and where residents don't have access to accurate resources on how to prevent the disease from spreading.

During training, she lived with a family to help her learn the culture and language of the area.

"The mother spoke no English and only a couple of the kids spoke English," she said. "Most of them speak Swahili. Each tribe has its own language, so some speak three languages. There were some in the village-the educated ones-who spoke English."

When she was able to move into her own space and begin getting into her assignment, her interpreter became critical, traveling everywhere with her. While she taught in English, he taught in Swahili.

When she did move away from the family with whom she spent her training, her government-issued dwelling space didn't change much. Both houses were constructed of cement block, with an iron sheet roof. These are considered middle-class homes in Kenya.

"The Peace Corps has certain criteria. You're not going to live in a mud hut, you have to have access to water, a cement floor and a non-leaking roof. And the area has to be safe," she said. "I had no electricity and running water was intermittent. By the end, from March to July, I had no water. I was collecting rainwater off my roof, so I always wanted to be home when it rained so I could get my big bucket out there."

Rain was infrequent since she was at a high altitude in a very hot, dry climate.

"I'm sure it was hotter than I ever realized, but I never had a bank sign to tell me the temperature," she said.

Petersen had two choices for a toilet: an indoor "choo" or an outdoor "choo," which resembles what Americans know as an outhouse. Her indoor option only flushed when she had running water.

Though her teaching duties varied, each day started off generally the same. First, she boiled her drinking water for the day. Then she heated her bath water and splashed it over herself. That routine made her much more cognizant of daily tasks taken for granted in the United States.

"Every time I flush the toilet, I think how much water I'm wasting," she said, adding she also takes pause when taking a shower. "It's really a privilege to turn a knob and have hot water coming out, especially from above you."

During her time in Kenya, communication with her family in Iowa was mostly through letters, and even that was unreliable.

"There are many things I never received. I'm still waiting for a package I sent home before I left Kenya in July," she said. "Eleven hours away from me in Nairobi, I had access to e-mail, but it was very slow. My final year, I had cell-phone coverage, so my parents would arrange to call once a month."

While in Kenya, the Peace Corps provided her a monthly living allowance which wouldn't get most Americans through one week. But the most valuable thing she got was a bicycle she used to travel to residents she was supposed to educate.

"I had a 45-minute bike ride from any blacktop road. I was way out in the bush. I had an area that would be similar to a county here, but I had no vehicle," she said. "Some areas, it would take me hours to get there."

The Peace Corps recognized there was no way for her to reach everyone in the area, so most of her work was done in schools or a nearby community center, where she met with a women's group.

"There were times I rode two-and-a-half hours with my backpack and all my stuff," she said. "What would take an hour in America sometimes took all day in Kenya."

Petersen said many days didn't go as she had planned, so she learned to "expect the worst and hope for the best."

"That was the only way, otherwise you would go through little mental breakdowns every day," she said.

There were certain advantages to not having a vehicle, however. Though it took up more time than she sometimes wanted, she enjoyed the many people who would stop her on the road just to talk.

"I was the first Peace Corps volunteer in my community and the only white person around. It's a big area, but when a foreigner comes around, word spreads fast," she said. "They were very welcoming. Everyone wants you to visit them and they'll give you Chai (tea) and something to eat. They were very good to me."

Still, there were times she felt as though she was "living in a fish bowl."

"Everyone watches you. I couldn't sit in front of a window," she said. "Sometimes I felt like a caged animal in the zoo. They would yell at you, but all they wanted was for you to say hi."

While most Kenyans recognized Petersen was there to help them, for awhile they assumed she was associated with a monetary donor.

"Eventually I could go out without people asking me for money," she said. "The Peace Corps has three goals: to teach skills, teach American values and then teach Americans about the culture."

There were lessons she learned quickly in Kenya. First and foremost, never shake the hand of a person in the midst of building a hut.

"Cow manure is the main ingredient in most homes," she said, adding that soon after she learned that lesson the hard way, she wrote an important letter: "Please send sanitized wipes."

She also had to battle misconceptions the Kenyan people held about Americans.

"In a country where most people don't have electricity, they will mostly hear about Hollywood celebrities. If they do have TVs, they're hooked up to car batteries. What they get is (daytime soap opera) "The Bold and the Beautiful" and WWF (wrestling)," Petersen said. "I heard the comment that everybody in America has a swimming pool in their backyard."

With Kenya's 35-percent unemployment rate, about 60 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day, she said. Many residents asked Petersen to take them back to the United States with her.

"I heard that many of the people believe that after they die, they go to America," she said. "They think it's heaven."

Though Petersen was in Kenya during the attack on America on September 11, 2001, and throughout the ensuing "terrorism time" that's followed, she said in her village she never felt any anti-American sentiment. But some of the residents did think that she was in Kenya to look for Osama bin Laden.

In her teaching about HIV/AIDS, she had to battle some other serious misconceptions about America, as well. For one thing, many thought she was infected with the virus and had come to infect others.

"Many believe that Americans created the virus in a laboratory because the Americans are trying to kill off the Africans. They hear of test-tube babies, so why not create a virus," she said. "I usually said we're not smart enough to do that. I would say that we have the virus in America too, and that we're kind people."

But that was a hard sell with the Kenyans, she said, because of the war going on in the Middle East.

Even with the difficult perceptions she faced, Petersen still has mixed feelings about leaving Kenya and returning to Iowa.

"I loved what I did in Kenya. I wish I could have gotten paid to do that. Towards the end, I thought about extending it for one more year," she said.

Since returning to her parents' home in July, she has spent her time teaching a class at Muscatine Community College, playing volleyball and volunteering for the Salvation Army. After Christmas, she'll turn her attention to finding a job so she can get her own space.

"I think I'm home for awhile, but I would do it again," she said. "It's a great way to experience a new culture."

©West Liberty Index 2003

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Story Source: West Liberty Index

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; Christmas



By Alexander Waswa Lutalala ( - on Monday, October 02, 2006 - 1:28 pm: Edit Post

Ikindly thank you for the efforts that you put across for the fight against HIV/AIDS while on your study in Naitiri.
please it's my request that you make another arrangement and come back to this country and have alook of the positive change that you brought to our people. Surely it's great that you
changed so many lives in Naitiriespecially the awareness of this killer disease that is wiping our generations.
Thanks for your work and God bless

Alexander Lutalala
Resident of Naitiri currently student at
Kenya Technical Teachers college Nairobi- Kenya

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