January 9, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Service: The News & Observer: Kenya RPCV David Womble continues to go where the need is and ask the anguished what would ease their pain

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: Peace Corps Kenya : The Peace Corps in Kenya: January 9, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Service: The News & Observer: Kenya RPCV David Womble continues to go where the need is and ask the anguished what would ease their pain

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-141-157-13-244.balt.east.verizon.net - on Sunday, January 16, 2005 - 1:46 pm: Edit Post

Kenya RPCV David Womble continues to go where the need is and ask the anguished what would ease their pain

Kenya RPCV David Womble continues to go where the need is and ask the anguished what would ease their pain

Kenya RPCV David Womble continues to go where the need is and ask the anguished what would ease their pain

World's hot spots call him

By Martha Quillin
The News & Observer - Raleigh, N.C.
January 9, 2005

The September day after Chechen rebels turned a bustling Beslan school into an open-air morgue, local hospitals overflowed with the injured and the mourning. Hundreds of family members paced the hospital halls, frantically looking for missing students, teachers and parents who had been doing the most ordinary of things -- starting a new school year -- when the rebels had taken them all hostage, held them for two days and then blown the buildings and their captives apart. In the aftermath, doctors and nurses, many of whom had been working for 24 hours without sleep, went from one medical crisis to another.

They lacked beds. Their medical equipment was antiquated, depleted by years of civil war. Grief was the only thing in full supply.

Amid this chaos, a quiet voice with a North Carolina Sandhills accent asked a simple question: "What do you need?"

First at the little hospital in Beslan, then at three others in nearby cities that were accepting casualties, David Womble, working for a Christian relief agency, took the head doctors aside and interviewed them. In the stolen quiet of an office or even a supply closet, some of them cried for the first time since the bombs and gunfire erupted.

"What do you need?" he said, and took notes as they wished for supplies they couldn't buy on their own. Diapers, they told him. Scalpels. Blood-pressure gauges, mattress covers, bedside monitors, lung-ventilation machines.

What do you need? It was the same thing Womble might have asked if there had been a death in the family or a fire at the house of a friend back home in Sanford.

As he has for nearly a decade, at trouble spots on three continents, Womble continues to go where the need is and ask the anguished what would ease their pain.

At home for a visit, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, with brown leather boots and short brown hair, Womble looks too young to have witnessed the suffering he has seen. But then, so do the young victims he tries to help.

Womble, 34, set out after college to see the world, not to save it.

Born and raised in Sanford, he studied English and education at UNC-Chapel Hill, planning to be a teacher. And he was, in the Rowan County town of Salisbury. He liked the classroom. He learned to feel comfortable conveying new ideas to a group. He felt useful.

He also felt a powerful wanderlust.

"I had never been outside the United States before," he says. For reasons he can't quite explain, he says, "I really wanted to go to Africa."

Growing up in Lee County, he knew people who would never see much more of the world than what lay between their hometowns and the beach. Womble had glimpsed more.

As a teenager, he went on a 3 1/2-week camping trip to the Southwest with a bunch of other kids. His best friend, Eric Caldwell, made the same trip a year later. In high school and college, Womble went to New Hampshire and Wyoming to work as a counselor at children's camps.

"If you don't get out, you have a tendency to see the world as a fishbowl: just your hometown and the people you grew up with," Caldwell says. "We didn't grow up with that perspective at all. We both knew there were cooler places than where we lived.

"Seeing that kind of opens your eyes and makes you think, there's a lot of good places to go, and you might want to get cracking on seeing them all. I think that kind of helped David want to get out and do the aborigine walkabout."

Womble especially wanted to venture overseas long enough to get to know another culture. He figures there are three ways to do that. One is to work in international business. He'd never even worked for a for-profit company, except for a couple of part-time jobs in high school.

Another is to work in foreign service. He would eventually apply for a job with the U.S. State Department, but the screening process takes years, and the soles of his shoes were too hot to wait around for that.

The third way is providing humanitarian aid, working for NGOs -- non-government agencies -- which can be grueling, but will satisfy that need to feel useful in a way that beats bumming around Europe with a rail pass and a backpack.

Out of Africa

In 1994, Womble volunteered for the Peace Corps.

They sent him to Kenya, where he taught English for two years, learned to live without his mom's cooking and without ACC sports and his beloved Tar Heels. There was no e-mail. He had to walk for miles to the nearest phone.

"It was intense," he recalls, back in the comfort of his parents' Sanford living room for his annual visit, three precious weeks at Christmas. Like the westward camping trip and the summer jaunts, Womble's two-year stint in Kenya just made him want to see more. He came back to the States briefly, working for the Peace Corps in the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters. He had begun to suspect by now that he might never fit in at any company prosperous enough to have offices in several countries, but foreign service and the NGOs remained viable options.

As a long shot, he took the State Department's written exam.

Meanwhile, a friend from North Carolina who was working in Azerbaijan for a humanitarian aid agency told him of an opening at World Vision International. The agency needed a commodities program manager in Azerbaijan, someone to oversee the distribution of food to 180,000 hungry people.

World Vision, founded in 1950 to care for orphans in Asia, is a Christian relief and development organization that provides emergency aid, education, health care and economic development assistance. The agency has about 22,000 employees on six continents, and is especially interesting in improving the lives of children.

Womble did so well for the group in Azerbaijan, after two years World Vision sent him to Albania to open a new office in the northern part of the country. "You want to go where the need is the greatest," he says.

That's where he was when the State Department called.

A selection

Womble had passed the written test, an arduous part of the screening process that winnowed all but 2,000 to 3,000 of the 10,000 to 12,000 people who took at that time. He was invited to move to the next step, the oral exam, which about 90 percent of applicants fail.

Womble flew home and took the test, an interrogation, really. At the end of the day, he was told he had passed. Investigators would have to verify that he wasn't a security or medical risk, then his name would be added to the roster of available hires. The offer of employment would be open for 24 months. After that, he would have to take both exams and pass the vetting process again.

Womble returned to Azerbaijan, then went to Albania to do World Vision's work there. You never want to stay in a place more than a year or two, he says. The danger of burnout is high and besides, none of these locations "is somewhere you want to build your career or plan for retirement." A year passed, and nearly another. His name moved farther and farther down the State Department list.

"The foreign service is a great and rare opportunity," Womble says with the grateful voice of a man who has been allowed to test-drive one of his dreams to see if it was as good a ride as he imagined. "I really felt that I couldn't turn it down."

After 22 months on the coveted list, Womble called and said he'd like to be put to work. He left World Vision and reported to the State Department's facility in Arlington, Va., for a year of training. He studied languages. He learned "protocol," the government's word for what women in Sanford would refer to as knowing how to act when you're a guest in someone's home, but on an international level. He learned to "evaluate and minimize security risks," which the men in his hometown might call not getting killed.

His first assignment with the foreign service was in Bujumbura, in tiny Burundi, Africa.

"It was the perfect first assignment," he says. "It was a small embassy where there are only about 20 Americans, so everybody has a lot of responsibility."

In that job, Womble says he learned how to negotiate with government leaders to get access to work in their jurisdiction. This is a valuable skill, he says, and the work was interesting. But it didn't feel as good as humanitarian aid work.

The need calls

While in Africa, he had been keeping up with events in Chechnya, where instability caused by one civil war from 1994 to 1996 and a second that began in 1999 and is going on still, had left hundreds of thousands of people without permanent homes, jobs, reliable food supplies. Womble fished around on the Internet to see what World Vision was doing in the region and sent a message to one of its workers there.

"A couple of months later, he wrote back and asked if I would be interested in taking over as manager of the program there," Womble says.

In February 2004, Womble left the warmth of Africa and the dream of working for the State Department and went back to work for World Vision, this time in Nazran, a city in Ingushetia, just over the border from Chechnya in southern Russia and about 12 miles from Beslan. It is in the Caucasus mountains, with great ragged, rocky ridges that are as good a symbol as any of how hard it can be to do a good thing.

The needs are many and plain. Medicine, winter clothing, food, tents. The infrastructure, starved by the costs of war, is crumbling. Children, if they can go to school at all, attend classes in shifts in buildings without windows or doors, with no heat.

Delivering aid, repairing anything, is complicated by the fact that the people of the region -- Ingushetians and Chechens, and North Ossetians -- do not trust one another.

Because of the instability, World Vision considers it too dangerous to keep personnel in Chechnya, which is why Womble and his staff work from across the border. Even then, they don't go anywhere without an armed guard.

Caldwell, who has known Womble since both were babies, doesn't worry too much about his friend getting hurt, for the very reason that Womble does know how to act. That's despite Womble's penchant for working in places that consistently make the list of the 10 most dangerous places on the planet, and despite the fact that some misguided people view an American, even a do-gooder, as a target.

"David has great empathy," Caldwell says. "It's part of what allows him to sit down with elder statesmen and displaced nationals and get along with both. It's awesome to watch. David is who he is, but he has the ability to see who you are, too. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anybody that he couldn't sit down and have a meal with."

Womble downplays the safety risk.

"We take security very, very seriously," he says. "I tell my parents that I was probably more at risk when I was working in Washington, D.C."

There have been tense moments.

"He has called me from a phone booth in Nairobi with tear gas bombs going off in the street," Caldwell says. "And he called me one day to say they had shot the water tank behind his house, and he had to plug it with a wad of Juicy Fruit."

That's the kind of thing that occasionally makes Womble's father, Mike, wake during the night and wonder whether the younger of his two boys is OK. His mother, Joan, says she sleeps pretty well but adds, "We say a lot of prayers."

So do the people of First Baptist Church in Sanford, where Womble attended from the time he was born and where he is viewed, incorrectly, he says, as something of a missionary. While he was home over the holidays, Womble took his laptop to the church and did a presentation on what he's been doing for the past year. It included photos of the school in Beslan after the siege, the roof gone, the masonry walls cratered by rifle fire.

A mission

Though World Vision is a Christian organization and Womble is of the faith, he has only worked for the agency in Muslim environments. He does not see his role as a proselytizer, but believes working alongside the poor to improve their lot is what Jesus taught.

"As hokey as it sounds, I never question why I get up and go to work in the morning. I know that my predilection is to help other people. And I never dread going to work."

He does make a conscious effort to get away from the stress of working under the constant protection of a Kalashnikov, dealing every day with people whose eyes show the weariness of loss. Unemployment in the area of Russia where Womble works runs about 80 percent.

"Here," he says, speaking of the United States, "people think, 'In five years, maybe I'll move out to the country.' They think, 'Maybe next summer, I'll put a new roof on the house.'

"In the places where I work, in general people think more in terms of weeks or months. For most, it's a daily struggle just to get by.

"It can break your heart," he says. "You have to remove yourself from it. That's healthy. And you have to look at the progress you're making. It's like the glass half full. You can look at the poverty and despair, and focus on that, or look at what's being done to improve it."

Lately, his escape is most often a trip to Moscow. He and other aid workers also get together regularly, share stories, especially of those moments that can be called success. Womble says exercise is, for him, the best therapy, along with keeping in contact with his family and old friends.

"You want to stay rooted to people where you come from," he says. "It keeps you close to that life that you used to lead."

When the tsunami struck the countries along the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, Womble half-expected to get a call, a new assignment. Relief work in the dozen countries has been agonizingly slow and grim. World Vision workers in the area have reported that at a mass grave for 7,000 bodies in Matara, Sri Lanka, officials had to sever one finger from each body in the hope of making an identification later. World Vision provided refrigerators where the parts could be stored.

Womble says he was a little relieved when the call didn't come and he realized he would be going back to Nazran.

He wants to stay there another year, he says, put to use what he has learned about the region so far. But already he is sketching a new itinerary.

He's been thinking about Somalia, another war-torn country whose suffering has continued though the world's attention has largely turned elsewhere.

There is something he wants to ask them.

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Senator Norm Coleman, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, says in an op-ed, A chance to show the world America at its best: "Even as that worthy agency mobilizes a "Crisis Corps" of former Peace Corps volunteers to assist with tsunami relief, I believe an opportunity exists to rededicate ourselves to the mission of the Peace Corps and its expansion to touch more and more lives."
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In the new session of Congress that begins this week, RPCV Congressman Tom Petri has a proposal to bolster Social Security, Sam Farr supported the objection to the Electoral College count, James Walsh has asked for a waiver to continue heading a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, Chris Shays will no longer be vice chairman of the Budget Committee, and Mike Honda spoke on the floor honoring late Congressman Robert Matsui.

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RPCV Jose Ravano directs CARE's efforts in Sri Lanka 6 Jan
Persuading Retiring Baby Boomers to Volunteer 6 Jan
Inventor of "Drown Proofing" retires 6 Jan
NPCA Membership approves Board Changes 5 Jan
Timothy Shriver announces "Rebuild Hope Fund" 5 Jan
More Water Bottles, Fewer Bullets 4 Jan
Poland RPCV Rebecca Parker runs Solterra Books 2 Jan
Peace Corps Fund plans event for September 30 Dec
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Peace Corps made an appeal last week to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps and more than 30 RPCVs have responded so far. RPCVs: Read what an RPCV-led NGO is doing about the crisis an how one RPCV is headed for Sri Lanka to help a nation he grew to love. Question: Is Crisis Corps going to send RPCVs to India, Indonesia and nine other countries that need help?
The World's Broken Promise to our Children Date: December 24 2004 No: 345 The World's Broken Promise to our Children
Former Director Carol Bellamy, now head of Unicef, says that the appalling conditions endured today by half the world's children speak to a broken promise. Too many governments are doing worse than neglecting children -- they are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. Read her op-ed and Unicef's report on the State of the World's Children 2005.
Changing of the Guard Date: December 15 2004 No: 330 Changing of the Guard
With Lloyd Pierson's departure, Marie Wheat has been named acting Chief of Staff and Chief of Operations responsible for the day-to-day management of the Peace Corps. Although Wheat is not an RPCV and has limited overseas experience, in her two years at the agency she has come to be respected as someone with good political skills who listens and delegates authority and we wish her the best in her new position.
Our debt to Bill Moyers Our debt to Bill Moyers
Former Peace Corps Deputy Director Bill Moyers leaves PBS next week to begin writing his memoir of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Read what Moyers says about journalism under fire, the value of a free press, and the yearning for democracy. "We have got to nurture the spirit of independent journalism in this country," he warns, "or we'll not save capitalism from its own excesses, and we'll not save democracy from its own inertia."
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Read the stories and leave your comments.

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Story Source: The News & Observer

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



By IMenez (h-64-105-211-82.miatflad.covad.net - on Thursday, April 07, 2005 - 3:22 pm: Edit Post

I've got a friend that would love nothing more than to say "hello" to David. After leaving Azerbaijan, the two lost touch. Please contact me with any infor on David. Thank you.

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