Into Africa

Peace Corps volunteer employs the adaptability she developed as a military brat

On Mother’s Day, Sheila and Randy Sellers were in an airport en route to Africa. Between PCS assignments and Randy’s deployments, The Air Force couple and their now-grown children have lived and traveled around the world, but this was a different kind of trip: a visit to their 23-year-old daughter, Dana, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia.

The following day, Dana Sellers awaited her parents’ arrival at a friend’s house in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. While waiting, she sipped coffee and answered questions via webcam about her Peace Corps experiences. Discussing her training to be a healthcare educator, she stopped mid-sentence, a faraway look in her eyes.

“Sorry, I lost my train of thought,” she said. “I was thinking about this coffee I get to drink. I’m in a real house right now, so it’s kind of crazy.”

Crazy, because Dana’s own home in Zambia is a thatched-roof mud hut in a remote rural village without running water. She cooks her meals over a charcoal fire in an outdoor kitchen. Brewing coffee is for special occasions.

Having seen pictures of her home, including essentials like mosquito netting and water filter, and decorative touches like shelves, pictures and brightly painted walls, I asked what she had to do to make her place livable. She said her host family provided a good home from the first. This was not the case for all her Peace Corps colleagues, some of whom found their quarters lacked walls or an adequate roof. Dana said all her house needed when she arrived was a new lock for her door and a cover for the outdoor “toilet hole.” What more could a girl want?

“Maybe you’re thinking, what did I do to decorate my house,” she said, laughing. “I’m thinking I have walls, and I have a roof that doesn’t leak. That’s livable!”

Dana painted the two-room house, covering the whitewashed mud walls blue in the living room, yellow in the bedroom. She began with a roller paintbrush, but the wall surface disintegrated with each stroke.

“So I used the best tools I have,” she said. “I scooped paint up and painted on the walls with my hands.”

She said her fellow Peace Corps volunteers—the nearest is posted 40 kilometers away—agree that her living quarters are the “homiest.”

“I think it’s from being a military kid,” said Dana. “Moving all around all the time, having to make places your home fast. (Living here has) caused me to be really creative, because I can’t just go to the store and buy things. I have to design and make it myself, or get someone to make it for me.”

She commissioned a local carpenter to make several pieces of furniture to her specification.

“To feel like a place is home, everything has to have a place. I have pictures of family, stuffed animals. All the things I need to feel at home I brought with me.

I think the experience of military life helped me do that. On the good days and the bad days, I ride my bike home, and I’m so excited to be in my house,” she said. “It really is my space.”

Learning how to maintain and repair her bicycle was part of the training Dana received during her first 11 weeks in country.

“Out in the villages, our bikes are our only transportation,” she said. “I’m really far out there, so no one can just come and help when something goes wrong.”

Each province in Zambia served by the Peace Corps has a provincial house, which includes an office and accommodations for volunteers, including Internet.

“I can go there for four nights each month. I don’t always use that, because it’s time-consuming for me to get there, but I can go if I want to or need to. Internet may not be fast, but it works — usually.” In her village, Dana depends on her cell phone for communication.

Much of Zambia is rural and agricultural, but Dana said not all areas served by the Peace Corps are so remote.

Volunteers like Dana assist communities around the world with agricultural and economic development, education, environmental, and health care issues. During 11 weeks of formal preparation, Dana received training for her job, as well as intensive instruction to learn local customs and to speak Bembo, the language of the region. Although English is the primary language in Zambia, many rural residents do not speak it, Dana said. Volunteers are required to learn the language of the region they serve.

The job also requires adaptability and flexibility, and Dana’s mom said military life was a good training ground.

 “Dana is not afraid to launch out and explore,” said Sheila. “Before leaving for the Peace Corps, she had lived in five states and two foreign countries.”

As events often unfold in military life, Dana’s family PCSed the same day she departed for Zambia.

“We cried for most of the eight-hour trip,” Sheila said. “As a military spouse I learned to deal with my husband being TDY or deployed … I think it is a little harder to let your baby go to a distant land in such austere settings. It is hard to think of her so far away and without family, but we trust that God is there to care for her when we are not. I knew that she was prepared. That gave me comfort.”

Travels as a military child were just the beginning for Dana. During college, she completed two mission trips to Ghana and one to Iraq.

In Zambia, Dana often works with the district clinic in her rural area, which serves about 30,000 area residents in a 40-kilometer radius. She sometimes works with the clinic on outreach projects, but also works on smaller projects in her own village, aimed at disease prevention and good health practices.

Helping out at the clinic has provided Dana with many and varied experiences and opportunities for growth. She witnessed a birth on her first visit to the clinic. Another day she saw death.

“Someone said a boy was choking. I thought something was lodged in his throat, (but) … something was lost in translation from Bemba to English. We walked in, and there’s this little boy. He had swallowed some sort of pesticide and he was convulsing, choking on his own vomit and sputum,” she remembered.

“I hadn’t seen death before. I had seen someone who was dead, but I hadn’t seen someone die, hadn’t seen life leave someone’s eyes. I wasn’t prepared for it.”

Dana said her journals and video diaries reveal how she’s being changed by her Peace Corps experiences.

“Some good ways, some bad ways. Some things I didn’t expect … There’s life and death and lot of hard things.” she said. “There’s no place I would rather learn about life and how rough it can be than from these people. It’s frustrating, and it’s challenging, because … you see people suffering and dying from the things you are trying to teach them about.”

With a year in Zambia still ahead, Dana said thinking about leaving already makes her sad.

“My family here has been incredible … a model family for any country. They’re just wonderful human beings,” she said. “Also, I’ll miss the way of living. In the village it’s simple and quiet. It’s complex, but it’s simple. Everything is more difficult, but somehow because of that it’s easier. I don’t know how to explain it.”

“I’m learning and I’m going to continue learning. I know I’m going to be different, stronger, because of all this.”

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