Q&A With Anya Russom – Peace Corps Volunteer

HH: What drew you to the Peace Corps? 

AR: The first time I remember considering the Peace Corps was in 6th grade. It was introduced to us as a way to work overseas, and it never really left my mind. I started traveling internationally when I was 15 and never stopped. First it was high school-led trips to Europe over the summer, then Sister City exchanges in Japan followed by three study abroad terms in university. It never felt like enough. As soon as I returned from one trip, I was on to planning my next. I never liked feeling like a tourist, and the Peace Corps was a way for me to get the true experience while advancing my professional life. It felt like the gradual next step. I was ready to leave my job at the time and didn’t know where to go or what to do. So I thought, if not now, when?

HH: Where are you and what is your role there?

AR: I live in Salima, central Malawi, a tiny (about half the size of Minnesota) land-locked country in sub-Saharan Africa. Luckily, I live really close to Lake Malawi which feels like my own surrogate Lake Superior (except this lake is much warmer and has much prettier fish). My area is one of the hottest in the country with temps reaching 120F in hot season. I work with Kuti Wildlife Reserve and its 12 border communities (communities are groups of around five villages each) as a community-based natural resource management volunteer. Together with my Malawian counterparts, we work on programs relating to wildlife conservation and environmental awareness. My role is to use my knowledge and skills to help build capacity within these communities so that people are empowered to make positive changes in their own lives. So many people don’t understand the importance of having a wildlife reserve nearby. They don’t see the benefits of preserving wildlife or engaging in eco-tourism. The communities rely on Kuti’s resources for their daily needs and livelihoods. We have a huge problem with poaching, especially of wood. Everyone cooks by fire here, and they start no less than three fires a day. Aside from some fruit trees, people have stripped the land bare. The tree line starts at the park fence; it’s pretty staggering to see. Unfortunately, wood poaching is still poaching and is illegal. When park scouts catch people stealing resources, disciplinary actions are taken. Our most receptive programs all relate to natural resource management. We’re doing a big push to teach about charcoal briquettes that can act as a firewood substitute (made from paper, leaves, rice husk, and maize husk) as well as improved, fuel-efficient cookstove demos.

HH: What were you doing for a career when you left?

AR: Immediately before leaving, I was a visual merchandiser for HOM Furniture and worked concessions at Zinema 2. Before that, I spent about 10 years involved with the Lake Superior Zoo as a junior docent, zoo keeper aide, seasonal guest services, and assistant director of guest services.

HH: Has this experience changed the way you see the world?

AR:  Absolutely. It’s given me a whole new perspective on international development.

HH: How?

AR: It’s so easy to romanticize this experience, and treat it as that—an experience. But what is a two-year chapter in my life is the whole book for countless millions of people, and it’s a lot more complex than you might think. Being a foreign volunteer trying to help is very difficult. It’s a long process that takes way more than 27 months (the length of a standard Peace Corps contract). Peace Corps has definitely given me strong opinions on how foreign aid is managed. A lot of it is harmful to people in developing countries. I used to be the person who bought Toms shoes and donated chickens without ever thinking about what the implications might be. And sometimes, those gestures aren’t bad, but it really depends on the organization that you’re going through. You need to do your homework. Toms recently gave away shoes in my village, and it was mayhem. Now I’m the white girl living there who doesn’t do that, and my village wonders why. I’ve come to resent NGOs when I hear they’re coming into the communities with which I work. So many of them rely on “handouts” that it’s what people expect. There’s no accountability on local people. One thing I know for sure is that foreigners who think they know better about what’s best for Malawi than Malawians are delusional.

HH: What do you do in an average day?

AR: That’s a tough one because there isn’t really an “average” day in the Peace Corps, but generally, I get up at around 5 am with the chickens and the sun, laze around, eat breakfast, and maybe do yoga, cycle or walk to the wildlife reserve around 8 am, cycle to a border community to do a program between 9 and noon, have a long lunch and cup of tea from 12 to 1:30, then work on program planning, marketing for the wildlife reserve, communications work for Peace Corps Malawi (I’m the chair of our communications committee), or I just walk around and enjoy the park. I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I see wildlife every day, and I try not to take it for granted. I go home with the sun (around 5), make my dinner and read or relax by candlelight until I fall asleep at about 9. Time moves differently here. There’s a phrase called “Malawi Time” where people rely on the sun more than the hands on a watch. It suits me.

HH: What’s your staple diet like?

AR: There’s a big difference between MY staple diet and the MALAWIAN staple diet. Malawians eat something called nsima (n-see-mah) which is maize flour and water boiled into a thick paste and eaten with leaves boiled in oil with tomato and onion. They will also eat some form of protein such as beans or meat if they can afford it. Malawians eat nsima three times a day, every day. They say, “If you haven’t eaten nsima, you haven’t eaten!” I do not like nsima. I spent my first two months eating it every day, and it has since been ruined for me. I will eat it when it is culturally expected of me at events or when my neighbors invite me for meals, but otherwise, there is no way. I mostly make rice, popcorn, pudding, salad, pancakes, and eggs. I eat a lot of guacamole. I can get avocados for about 25 cents when they’re in season, so I go pretty crazy with that. I’ve come to identify myself as a “village vegetarian” and get most of my protein from avocados, peanut butter, eggs, and beans. I don’t have easy access to cheese which is pretty devastating. What they lack in cheese, they make up for in fresh produce which is readily available and very cheap. Malawi has next level bananas and I can get enough to eat three a day for a whole week for a dollar. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat bananas in the U.S. again. I eat peanut butter banana sandwiches almost every day.

HH: Are there dangerous animals and venomous critters where you live?

AR: Yes, there are. We get standard issue treated bed nets when we arrive, and we are highly encouraged to sleep under them every night. Malaria is a very real, very dangerous disease here, and Salima has countless parasite-carrying mosquitoes. So I sleep under the net for the mosquitoes. I tuck every inch of the net for the giant venomous centipedes, scorpions, spiders, and bees. I even had a rat in my bed once. Honestly, I’ve always been a bug person and they don’t really bother me, but when the centipedes are blue, as long as your hand, venomous, and crawling up your bed net, they’re not quite so endearing. I do hear the occasional hyena outside my house and there was an incident a couple of months ago with elephants coming into town about 15 km from my village. At the wildlife reserve, our most dangerous animals are snakes. We’ve got pretty much all of Malawi’s top offenders and they love to pop up when you’re least expecting them.

HH: What do you miss most about home?

AR: Of course I really miss my family and friends, but with social media, it’s hard to feel too distant. I really miss the music scene. I listen to a lot of Northland jams here and try to keep up with my favorite artists, but it’s hard. I get really homesick around Homegrown time. I also really miss craft beer. There is only one solid beer choice here (Carlsberg) and it is just terrible. I spend a lot of time daydreaming about Bent Paddle, Thirsty Pagan, and Canal Park Brewing Company.

HH: What do you want to do for a career when you return?

AR: Let’s change that “when” to a strong “if” I return. I’m not totally convinced I’ll be back in the long-term. I’m currently looking at either extending in Malawi for a year in a different position or pursuing a Peace Corps Response (short-term professional posts) position in another country. If that doesn’t work out, I’d love to work for Peace Corps at one of their regional posts. Either way, I’ll visit home for at least a little while to visit and catch up with all that I’ve missed (and get a Baked Potato Pizza from Pizze Luce).

HH: Can you share a funny experience from your year there?

AR: Sometimes, kids in my village are scared of me. I’m the only white person for miles and a lot of them have never seen any other race of human before. When I was still pretty new, one of my neighbors used to bring her baby daughter, Mari, around. Every time Mari saw me, she’d scream. Full on tantrum. And so I’d nervously laugh and try to exit the situation as quickly as possible. Some time passed, and Mari slowly got used to me. At first, she’d hide behind her siblings and keep her distance. That distance grew shorter, and one day, she approached me on her own with a smile. From that moment on, she was glued to me. So Mari and I are total pals now and any time her family sees me outside, they call her to come see me. I also spend a lot of time with her family at their compound. One day, they call me over to chat, so I sit on their mat and Mari waddles over to me and plops down on my lap. I’m busy chatting with neighbors, when Mari turns and reaches into my shirt. Since kids are grabby, I think nothing of it, and keep chatting. The reaching gets more aggressive until Mari is full on tugging and slapping my chest. Her mom and the rest of the ladies pause, burst out laughing and yell, “Mari, stop! She’s not your mom!” Public breastfeeding is about as common as scratching your nose here, so I’m totally desensitized to it. Apparently so much so that I don’t realize when babies are trying to use me as their substitute mamas. I must say, the day Mari first tried to breastfeed on me was the day I felt truly integrated into my community.

HH: What are your living arrangements like?

AR: I live in a village in a big cluster of houses. My house is made of brick and mud with a tin roof and cement floor. I have an external kitchen that’s attached to a chicken coop, a small building called a bafa for bathing (I bathe with a bucket of [typically cold] water and a cup) and a small building called a chimbudzi which is my toilet (a hole in the ground). All of it is enclosed in a thatch fence that’s reinforced by moringa trees.

HH: Anything else you would like to share?

AR: They’re not kidding when they say that Peace Corps is “the hardest job you’ll ever love.” I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. In training, they tell us that we can have our worst day and our best day on the same day, and they’re absolutely right. But I wouldn’t trade all my worst days for a life other than this. It’s been a phenomenal experience and I feel so lucky to have support from my family and friends both home and abroad. Every day, I wake up and feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I’m so exceptionally grateful for that.

If anyone is considering applying for the Peace Corps, I’m more than happy to chat. I can be reached at AnyaRussom@gmail.com.

Written by Holly Kelsey-Henry for Duluth.com, the magazine. Available now on newsstands at finer retailers.