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Hilo woman, others discuss Peace Corps service in Tanzania

Most people leave their Peace Corps tenure knowing that their service has had an impact.

On returning, volunteers have challenges that are very different from those faced in the corps, from learning new cultural norms to working in the confines of often-corrupt governments. They readjust to life in the United States — and they continue to educate.

Kanoe Ho, 24, of Hilo, began her 27-month assignment as a health extension volunteer in the southwest Njombe region of Tanzania in April 2014. She returned to Hawaii earlier this month.

On Wednesday, Ho and three friends, fellow Peace Corps volunteers who also served in Tanzania, spoke about their experiences at a community forum sponsored by the South Hilo Rotary Club.

For Brenda Ho, Kanoe’s mother and a member of the Rotary Club, it was a perfect opportunity to let people know about the Peace Corps experience.

“We all got together and wanted to put it on,” Brenda Ho said Wednesday. The forum at the Church of the Holy Apostle in Hilo was attended by more than 35 people.

Last year, the Rotary Club provided Kanoe Ho with a $3,000 grant to fund several projects in her host village, including building beehives so villagers could produce and sell their own honey, buying avocado trees so the fruit could be sold (and provide an additional source of nutrition for locals) and bringing running water to the medical clinic.

All were conceived as self-sustaining projects, intended to continue long after Ho had left.

Ho and her fellow volunteers discussed their village-specific projects (each volunteer lived in a different location in the country) as well as common outreach work, much of which revolved around HIV and AIDS education.

They also provided insight — occasionally shocking, as when the audience gasped at the idea of corporal punishment being the norm in schools, but often reassuring, as in the daily invitations to eat meals with neighbors — into regular village life.

Serving as unofficial ambassadors is part of being a Peace Corps volunteer, whether abroad or at home.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about the United States in other countries,” said volunteer Rochelle Latka, 24. “A big part of our job (in Tanzania) is just to educate people, especially about the diversity here. People have no idea we’re such a melting pot.”

The misconceptions work in both directions, making outreach such as the Wednesday forum all the more important.

“A lot of people kind of generalize, especially with Africa,” Latka said. “Our job is to come back and tell Americans about the lives of Tanzanians.”

Audience members asked about mundane matters such as weather, curious if it rained as much as in Hilo (Tanzania has several different climate zones, similar to the Big Island), but also wondered about issues such as personal safety.

“People are not violent in Tanzania,” Ho said. “In the villages we were really safe. The big cities like Dar es Salaam and Arusha were more dangerous.”

All of the volunteers considered extending their Tanzanian stays — 11 of the 29 volunteers in their corps ultimately stayed longer.

“It was definitely an idea,” Ho said.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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