A few weeks ago, Malea Hoepf Young and her husband Tom, a native of Nashville, Tenn., returned from a two-year assignment working in Rwanda with the Peace Corps.
Malea is a 1997 graduate of Columbian High School. At the time they started in 2009, the couple had been married about 18 months. They met at Kenyon College while Malea was earning an undergraduate degree in international studies. She took a position at a global health agency in Washington, D.C., while working on a master’s degree in public health at the University of North Carolina.
“I was finishing up my degree and learning all this stuff, knowing that I was probably going back to work in an office, so I started thinking about getting an opportunity to work at the community level,” Malea said.
After discussing her idea with Tom, he also was interested in using his business degree for a hands-on type of experience. They applied to the Peace Corps as a couple.
Malea said the corps tries to place applicants in the programs and locations where they are most needed. She and Tom specified they “preferred not to be cold,” but they could not choose their final destination.
“We got put into a health and community development program, and were matched with a country that was looking for that. We couldn’t have picked Rwanda because we didn’t know it was open. … we were the first group to go back. That was a really exciting surprise,” Malea said.
Peace Corps had pulled volunteers out of Rwanda when political tensions were building in 1993. The new government welcomed the return of the Peace Corps and released a statement that Rwanda had as much to teach the volunteers as it had to learn from them.
Although genocide there resulted in thousands of orphaned children, survivors have taken in as many relatives and friends as possible to form large, extended families.
“There was an orphanage system, but they live in houses,” Malea said. “A lot of kids lost either one or both parents or in some cases, everyone in their family.”
Upon their arrival in Kibungo, Rwanda, the Youngs had 10 weeks of training to learn about health concerns in the region where they would be working and to learn the local language, Kinyarwanda. The other official language had been French, but the government declared English as its second official tongue shortly after the Youngs arrived.
The surrounding countries speak English, so the government wanted more Rwandans to learn English to promote commerce and communication between other progressive countries such as Tanzania and Kenya.
Malea and Tom were able to give instruction.
“There weren’t very many teachers who could teach English,” Malea said. “People really wanted to learn English, so we could really feel like we were being helpful.”
She and Tom were assigned to a program run jointly by the Anglican Church in Rwanda and an American project called Humanity For Children. The plan was to build a public health center and a more remote health post to give rural Rwandans better access to health care.
Malea said health centers provide primary care such as vaccinations, growth monitoring for children, prenatal visits for expectant mothers, family planning, reproductive health, nutritional guides, first aid and emergency care. Patients having more serious illnesses or needing more complicated surgeries would be referred to hospitals.
The Youngs were not expected to do much of the building, but they were responsible for getting plans approved, obtaining supplies, lining up contractors and serving as a liaison between the crews and the sponsoring agencies and donors.
The couple also worked with small business ventures to boost family incomes. Most Rwandans live on less than $2 per day.
“They have lots of cooperatives for income-generation … so we were raising money for these small business projects and serving as a go-between to get them funding, monitoring them, teaching them about what works and what doesn’t,” Malea said.
Tom’s projects included helping families establish “permagardens” that could provide fresh vegetables for their families and extras to sell.
By enriching the soil with manure, they could grow more produce in a small space. The average diet includes casaba roots, bananas, rice and white sweet potatoes, which are starchy.
Malea adapted well to African foods.
“The fruit was amazing. I think that was my favorite. There is something called isombe that I liked but I didn’t make for myself,” she said. Isombe consists of casaba leaves pounded into a pesto-like consistency and cooked in a stock.
Malea said dairy products, beef and chicken are available, but they are too expensive for most Rwandans.
Owning a cow is a sign of wealth. Tom helped another group raise chickens and sell them and their eggs. People who have eggs usually choose to sell them for $2 a dozen rather than feed them to their families.
Malnutrition among children is rampant, which makes them vulnerable to diseases such as pneumonia and malaria. Malea said people often contract intestinal parasites from unclean water and from walking without shoes. The government requires children to wear shoes to school and organizes shoe programs for adults as well.
Water shortage is another challenge.
“They’re building a lot of wells, but during the dry season, there isn’t that much. People have to carry it long distances, which makes it harder to do basic things like bathing and washing their hair and their hands at the latrine,” Malea said.
Electricity is not reliable, so many people use candles for lighting. Malea taught a group of women how to make candles from beeswax.
She also spent time knitting and crocheting socks, scarves and other items.
One Peace Corps friend, Anna, started working in a hospital pediatric ward. To comfort and distract children while they were receiving injections, Anna would bring in crayons and pictures for them to color. Because no toys were available for patients, Malea helped Anna sew bean bags and dolls for them. They also got permission to have weekly work sessions with female inmates at a local prison, some with their own children, to help make the items.
Because families only have basic possessions, children must be creative. They tend to play with hoops and sticks and spinning tops. They make toy vehicles out of plastic bottles and other cast-off items. Moms carry babies on their backs, so little girls play house by making bundles of banana leaves to carry like a baby.
Malea said she also served as a facilitator during youth empowerment camps hosted by the Peace Corps. The camps included activities, sports, dancing and workshops. The Rwandan government wants its citizens to be self-sufficient. Everyone who can afford it must participate in a national health insurance program. The government only provides services for the poorest citizens.
Likewise, volunteers are encouraged to work beside and guide the local populace, rather than distribute donations.
“The Peace Corps goal is for us to be part of the community and live like anybody else lives, and help people from the bottom up. When you’re there for a long time, it can be hard to do that when you show up and give things away,” Malea said. “I gave everything away at the very end, and that was really fun.”
The Youngs trained Rwandan counterparts to take over their responsibilities before departing. The health center the couple started is under roof, but more funds are needed to complete it. In her blog, Malea said the government, church and Rotary International worked together to convert an office building.
During the Youngs’ last two weeks, in mid-March, the Peace Corps officially opened the Gashanda Health Post. The event attracted local and district government officials, church representatives, the radio station, school children and local residents.
“The first couple days, there was hardly anyone there, maybe two or three people a day. But the word spread. By the time we left, they were seeing hundreds of people a day,” Malea said.
During their last weeks, the couple paid final visits to Peace Corps friends. Malea also had her last sewing session with female prisoners and said goodbye to the former sex workers she had been working with.
“It was hard saying goodbye to the women I’ve become close to in this group they are some of my favorite people I’ve met in Rwanda, and the sources of my best conversations, held in my mutant Kinyarwanda. They have been generous, open, funny, and patient with me, and they don’t have phones or Internet, so I have no idea how I’ll ever keep in touch with them,” Malea said in her blog.
The Youngs also hiked and picnicked around the region to bid farewell to their temporary home that Malea calls “achingly beautiful.” Rwanda, which is smaller than the state of Maryland, has a variety of landscapes, including some savanna-like areas, rain forests and mountains. They had to hike for more than an hour to see gorillas in a wildlife park before hiking back.
“Tom and I visited the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali during our stay. We went for the first time the day after we landed here more than two years ago, and it was very moving and informative. I think that I was expecting it to be easier this time, more museum than place to mourn. I have no idea why I thought this. It was so much more intense,” Malea blogged.
Although the Youngs could have applied to extend their assignment, they decided not to do so. Now back in Ohio, they are enjoying time with their families while searching for jobs in the U.S. Malea said she wants to stay in global health. Most of those jobs are in Washington, D.C. Her experiences have changed the way she thinks about development.
“It made me critical about the ways people go about doing projects. Sometimes, a big expensive project was implemented and the funding under it. Then they left and people lost their jobs,” Malea said.
Also learned were lessons in resiliency, forgiveness and humility. Malea admired the way Rwandans had moved beyond the chaos of the genocide and were living peacefully with the families of people who had done terrible things to their own loved ones.
“It makes me really hopeful for their future … With all the pain that’s still there, they have pulled themselves up and moved forward,” Malea said.
In some ways, Malea misses her Rwandan lifestyle.
Here, she drives more, listens less to radio, and spends more time watching television. Shopping at modern grocery stores with their endless choices of merchandise is still “pretty overwhelming” for her.
Malea said she hopes to return to Rwanda someday. The government is determined to heal the wounds of the past and restore peace and prosperity. Many building and rebuilding projects were completed during their stay and are continuing all over the country.
“I definitely would love to go back in the future, maybe not to work but to visit. It’s a really interesting country because it’s changing really quickly,” Malea said. “Everything was destroyed in the genocide so they’re really working hard to catch up and surpass where they were.”