2006.09.26: September 26, 2006: Headlines: COS - Burkina Faso: Keep Me Current: Kirsten Benham will serve as Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Burkina Faso: Peace Corps Burkina Faso : The Peace Corps in Burkina Faso: 2006.09.26: September 26, 2006: Headlines: COS - Burkina Faso: Keep Me Current: Kirsten Benham will serve as Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso

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Kirsten Benham will serve as Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso

Kirsten Benham will serve as Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso

"My goal is to encourage empowerment," said Benham, who will work both in a health care clinic and visit families in the villages to teach them how to care for themselves independently. Benham flew to Philadelphia Sunday for two days of briefing. She learned how the Peace Corps removes its workers in case of civil unrest or war and got shots for two strains of meningitis, dengue fever, typhoid, tetanus and rabies. Then, it was on to Burkina Faso.

Kirsten Benham will serve as Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso

Into Africa: woman seeks her future far from home

By David Harry

LYMAN (Sep 26, 2006): A graduate of Massabesic High School and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has joined the parade of young people who leave Maine to find a better future.

What's different about Kirsten Benham is that she is going half a world away to a country many would have trouble finding on a map, let alone pronouncing its name.

At 23 years old, Benham is a new Peace Corps member who left Sunday to serve in the west African nation of Burkina Faso.

"My goal is to encourage empowerment," said Benham, who will work both in a health care clinic and visit families in the villages to teach them how to care for themselves independently.

Benham flew to Philadelphia Sunday for two days of briefing. She learned how the Peace Corps removes its workers in case of civil unrest or war and got shots for two strains of meningitis, dengue fever, typhoid, tetanus and rabies. Then, it was on to Burkina Faso.

In her first three months in the country, Benham will be trained in a provincial capital as she lives with a host family.

Afterwards, she will be assigned to a rural health clinic as an outreach worker. With a Peace Corps-provided bicycle, she will visit families in villages to assess healthcare needs and show them steps that can improve their lives.

Benham will ostensibly be an employee of the nation’s ministry of health. She has been told to expect to live without running water or electricity for the 24-month assignment she will take on.

On days off, Benham expects to ride to a larger town with an Internet café to write home. She will also write to Mary Lyons’ seventh-grade class at Massabesic junior high school, giving them a virtual tour of Africa.

“I knew she was going to do great things,” Lyons said of Benham, who she taught nine years ago. “She is an outstanding person, always outgoing and passionate.”

While there will be vacation time for Benham during her assignment, she will not be back at her Lyman home. Travel is too expensive and the chance to explore Africa too good to pass up.

"This is the experience I’ve been waiting for," said Benham.

Still, the butterflies in her stomach fluttered as she worried about how to pack for more than two years overseas in one 30-pound bag and one 50-pound bag and what dietary surprises she might find when she arrives. She also struggled with irrational fears: Had anyone been told she was coming? She wondered.

The larger bag will stay in storage as she trains, and Benham stuffed the smaller pack with the essentials that will be hard to come by once she arrives.

Friends and other Peace Corps members suggested taking toilet paper, sandals, bedrolls, pillows and a frying pan. As a personal perk, Benham is taking chili powder.

Benham, who holds an anthropology degree, has no medical training, but expects to learn it on the fly as whatever clinic she is assigned to will require versatility.

The field visits she will make might well be viewed as men’s work in a nation that is 50 percent Islamic. Benham relishes the idea of overcoming those perceptions because of her passion for understanding different cultures.

Burkina Faso is a long way from Lyman and almost as far from Washington, D.C., where Benham once expected her studies would keep her.

That was when she was still a political science major and a sophomore who had just transferred from Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania to George Washington University.

A general requirement course in anthropology piqued her interest enough to make her switch her major. Benham was convinced that anthropology should also play a role in the development of government and countries.

In her senior year, Benham wrote her thesis on how public school students in Washington, D.C., help shape education on HIV and AIDS.

Benham’s interest in the Peace Corps developed in the summer between her junior and senior years. She was not ready for graduate school, but ready to apply her knowledge and “be a part of a greater think tank.”

She applied to the Peace Corps in January, listing west Africa, South or Central America and the South Pacific as places she would like to be assigned.

"I wanted to go somewhere warm," said Benham. She will arrive just at the end of the rainy season, and knows the heat and humidity will be strong again by February.

Once accepted, she was not sure where she would be assigned, although she knew she had been nominated for Africa.

Only in the summer did she learn of her destination, setting off a flurry of Internet research about Burkina Faso. Her parents, Michelle Benham of Lyman and David Benham of Waterboro became study partners. Benham says her father is still giving her tidbits of information she had not known about the country.

She also took two intensive courses in French – the language spoken in Burkina Faso – at the University of Southern Maine.

Benham is not alone in a crowd of college friends who have left the country for further work and study. Her boyfriend, Lucas Keene, is already teaching English in China for a year.

Another friend on Peace Corps assignment in Tanzania has given her some basic tips on how to live alone far from home and how to maneuver through the Peace Corps bureaucracy.

“I want to be a voice that advocates that we slow down and pay attention to other cultures,” said Benham.

Based in Waterboro, Editor David Harry can be reached at 207-247-8700 or by e-mail at dharry@keepmecurrent.com.

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Headlines: September, 2006; Peace Corps Burkina Faso; Directory of Burkina Faso RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Burkina Faso RPCVs

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