From Hilo to Tanzania
Anyone who questions whether one person can make a difference in the world hasn’t met Kanoelehua Ho of Hilo.
Ho, 24, is entering the final stretch of her 27-month Peace Corps program in Tanzania, where she is a health extension volunteer.
Since February 2014, she’s lived in a village of 3,000 people in the rural southwestern Njombe region, surrounded by mountains and stands of tall pine and eucalyptus trees. There are corn fields and dirt roads; most in the village are subsistence farmers. A good job, like teaching, pays $100 a month.
Peace Corps health volunteers provide education and services relating to topics like nutrition, sanitation and hygiene. They often work in areas impacted by HIV.
Ho’s village is one of those places.
“In Tanzania in general, the overall HIV rate is dropping,” Ho said earlier this week in a choppy Skype interview from Dar es Salaam, where she was attending additional volunteer training. “Where I live, it’s not. It’s actually increasing; it’s the highest in the country.”
She said the rate of HIV infection in her village is 20 percent, more than double the nationwide average of 7 percent.
“I had no idea that it was so bad before I came,” Ho said. “I learned all this when I got here.”
A Kamehameha Schools alumna, Ho attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and has traveled extensively throughout the continental United States. But the Peace Corps stint is her first time out of the country, and it’s been a busy 21 months.
“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do after Gonzaga,” Ho said. “I (knew) I wanted to come to Africa and travel the world, but also do service at the same time.” After going through the Peace Corps’ lengthy application process (it takes nearly a year to be accepted), she was accepted into a Kenya-based education program.
In September 2013, one week before Ho was set to leave for Kenya, the program was cancelled following a deadly shooting spree at a Nairobi mall.
“I was definitely ready to leave, and then everything kind of just fell apart,” Ho said. Her service was postponed for five months, and her entire Peace Corps assignment changed. In February 2014, she left for Tanzania.
Since arriving, Ho has hosted World Aids Day events and started an arts-based program as part of the global Let Girls Learn initiative. She founded a grassroots soccer program, teaching kids soccer-related games and offering health lessons with each class. She wrote grants to bring menstruation supplies to the village, since girls often miss classes when they have their periods.
Ho also wrote a grant to bring a handwashing station and a more efficient stove to the primary school.
“They have about 450 kids that they feed every day, and currently they just have some bricks set up on the ground, and they just build a fire every day with wood,” Ho said. “We’re also doing new bathrooms for the younger kids, and we built a new water tank so that they’ll have more water available.”
Each project presented its own challenge, to say nothing of the basic challenges of living in a poor and rural country. Ho’s home was broken into earlier this year, and she was a passenger in a bus accident that killed several, including a fellow Peace Corps volunteer.
“We take for granted that we have (bus) safety regulations in place,” Ho’s mother, Brenda, said. “They don’t have that there.”
Ho’s parents were able to visit over the summer, staying in the village and taking time for a safari. The trip was “amazing,” Brenda Ho said. It’s clear from just a brief conversation how proud she is of her daughter’s work.
“The country, no matter what country it is, is going to throw a lot of things at you, and a lot of things are going to change, and your expectations are going to change,” Ho said.
For anyone considering Peace Corps service, she recommended going in with few expectations: “You’ll have a much better service because you’re ready for anything and you’re up for anything.”
“I think my favorite part about my service is just learning about the culture and forming the relationships ... just learning about Tanzanians and their way of life,” Ho said. Family and extended family is important, she said, and Tanzanians are “incredibly generous people.”
When her position started, Ho took intensive language classes to become near-fluent in Kiswahili, the local language. Trainings now are often specific to the projects Ho works on in her village.
Her latest seeks to set up sources of income, food and medication for villagers and was funded by a $3,000 grant from the Rotary Club of South Hilo. The Rotary Club supports global projects throughout the year, but it’s not often they get to help someone local by doing so.
The grant funds completion of the village’s visiting physician house and brings running water to its health clinic — currently, there is only a central well in town for people to use.
With the grant, Ho also brought 20 beehives to the village, so people can become beekeepers and sell the honey. Besides providing income to buy HIV medication, the bees also will help pollinate a plant that can help treat HIV.
Ho attended special training for beekeeping along with one of the villagers. Projects are meant to be self-sustaining, so that when Ho leaves Tanzania her efforts can continue.
That’s also the case for the two acres purchased with the grant, where Ho and the villagers will plant 300 avocado trees come February. The avocado crop serves as another source of income.
“For our South Hilo members, this particular project is especially inspiring, and makes us so happy and so proud,” Rotary Club president Kim Arakawa said. “How much impact the $3,000 that we’ve given her is just phenomenal.”
“Doing tangible projects is definitely nice,” Ho said. “I can see the things being built, I can see the beehives being built.”
Email Ivy Ashe at iashe @hawaiitribune-herald.com.
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