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Kate Fjell, Malawi 2001 - 2004

From an interview with Peace Corps Fellows, MU's Peace Corps Fellows Program

Kate Fjell
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Kate Fjell graduated from the College of Wooster, in Ohio, with a degree in archeology. The Seattle native watched her friends pursue different graduate degrees, but didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation. “I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school at some point, but I was also aware of how much grad school cost, so I didn’t want to go unless I knew it was something I was really passionate about and interested in,” she says.
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Fjell already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade and continuing through high school. She went abroad in high school and studied abroad in college. The Peace Corps, therefore, seemed to make sense: “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus.” Moreover, Fjell adds that she wanted to leave something good behind; “so I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
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From 2001-2004, Fjell worked in Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa that is neighbored by Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. "While I was there, I was doing community health and HIV/AIDS work. Like a lot of places in southern Africa, Malawi has really been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic,” she explains.
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Fjell was assigned to work at Kalaluma Health Center, in the central rural region of Kasungu. By the end of her time in Malawi, Fjell was primarily working on three projects: 1) a drama group on the topic of HIV/AIDS, 2) a group of high school girls on the topic of life skills and self-esteem, and 3) a youth success team, which did similar things in the context of soccer. “In Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, there isn’t a word for ‘self-esteem’ or ‘confidence’ or any of those things, so we did a lot of teaching about what it means to like who you are, and that, if you like who you are, you are not going to make poor life choices or risky behavior choices,” Fjell says.
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While Fjell’s approach toward her work was holistic—ranging from education and economic development to agriculture and self-esteem training—whenever possible she focused her attention on women’s groups. “Women really are the key, in my mind, to change in Malawi,” she observes, and so she tried to connect with women’s networks: “I always wanted to be sure I was seen as a woman, and not just a white person, or an HIV/AIDS person.” As such, Fjell made a special point of getting involved in traditionally female activities like pounding maize and cooking nsima (the Malawian staple food).
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For Fjell, language acquisition was one of the most challenging parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer: “I remember, after all those hours of language training, I felt pretty confident, and I went into the village and I was surprised that they didn’t talk as slow as my teacher, and they didn’t speak in such formal tones.” In the end, Fjell says she learned from young children: “They taught me a lot. I learned so much of my language from going to primary school! I remember that one of the first phrases I learned was ‘what is that?’”
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About sixteen months into her service, Fjell experienced a major accomplishment: “I still remember [when] I got my first joke in Chichewa, when I knew I understood the language. We were all waiting for the prenatal clinic to start, just hanging out, talking, and somebody cracked a joke, and I started laughing. And they all looked at me, and someone said, ‘Did you understand that?’ and I said, ‘I get it! I get it!’ It was so amazing. It was just like everything clicked. From that point on, my work was better, my relationships with people were better, and it started to really feel like home instead of just somewhere I was trying to survive. And that was a major shift in my service.”
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Expectations versus the Actual Peace Corps Experience

From an interview with Peace Corps Fellows, MU's Peace Corps Fellows Program

When they think about the Peace Corps prior to going, many volunteer trainees have basic questions and fears about such things as bathrooms and living conditions, and many expectations get shattered. “I had a really idealized vision of what the country would look like and the language that people would speak,” Julie Feeney recalls. “All these preconceived notions that you come with, I think they are your biggest obstacles.” For example, ahe chuckles when remembering how she had expected it to be “like a fairy tale, where everything is green and beautiful,” only to discover that Paraguay’s industrialized cities do not fit that image. Likewise, Nick Spina had imaged that he “would be living in a hut in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, he was assigned to an Armenian city of 60,000 people.

Many Peace Corps volunteers discover that they have underestimated the language barrier or the technical assignment. For instance, Feeney expected that she would use Spanish principally, but soon discovered that people in the countryside in Paraguay speak Guarny instead. “It was a struggle,” she says. “I hadn’t expected to feel that kind of dependency on others for communication…. I didn’t expect to be a child again. So there were many different things that I had to reevaluate.”

Having already volunteered, worked with non-profit groups, and traveled abroad, Kate Fjell felt prepared for certain aspects of her assignment in Malawi. Yet, she remembers; “it totally blew me away. It was nothing like my expectations. It was so much harder, so much more rewarding, so much more challenging. It was just more. Everything was ramped up by a power of ten, I’d say, or maybe even a power of 100!”

Moreover, Fjell adds, she hadn’t expected to feel so socially isolated and awkward: “Peace Corps volunteers will always talk about it being like living in a fish bowl. I was the only white person for forty miles, so I definitely stood out…and that was really hard. People were so fascinated. People would follow me to the bathroom, you know, because they wanted to know if I went to the bathroom the same way…. I wasn’t used to being watched all the time, and it took me a long time to get used to it.”

Because of these kinds of experiences, Spina reached an interesting conclusion: “I think the most successful Peace Corps volunteers are those who don’t set high expectations. You have to be flexible. Those who go in, saying ‘I want to do this, I want to do it there, and I only want to do that’, end up having a really hard time. The fun of it, the adventure of it, is in the randomness, the unknown, the difficult stuff that you face.” Beyond flexibility, one of the most important bits of advice for anybody considering the Peace Corps, according to these Peace Corps, is re-evaluating the meaning of success. “It’s not always tangible,” Feeney cautions, “it’s not always quick, it’s not always something that you can expect, so we learn to appreciate little victories.” Agreeing, Matt Rysavy adds: “You really think that you can go and make these humongous changes. In reality, they are just small dents,… but it’s still positive change. That’s what you have to remind yourself of when it’s all said and done.”