Peace Corps still life-altering experience

After dealing with poverty, disease, unfamiliar lifestyles, frustration and loneliness, Bemidji native Tessa Reff and Park Rapids resident Walter Harrison realized how unprepared they were and felt strong urges to quit and go home, to give up on ...

After dealing with poverty, disease, unfamiliar lifestyles, frustration and loneliness, Bemidji native Tessa Reff and Park Rapids resident Walter Harrison realized how unprepared they were and felt strong urges to quit and go home, to give up on their purpose.

Burying their doubts, they pushed forward and continued to make a difference, not only for the people they reached, but also within themselves, making the experience and all they learned while in the Peace Corps for two years worthwhile and unable to be forgotten.

In 1962, one year after the Peace Corps was established, Harrison jumped at the opportunity to apply when his professor announced that the Peace Corps needed geographers to teach in Nepal. He missed the Nepal project but was soon asked to go to Chile and told to report to duty with only three days notice.

Harrison found himself in training for 14 weeks among 35 other volunteers, ranging in age from 19 to 67. Some of which had only a high school diploma while others held doctorates.

Basically, if they thought someone could help and had a genuine concern for other people along with work experience or an education, they were admitted.


He set off to Chile to a town of about 80,000 people, 650 miles south of Santiago, complete with a central business district, some nice housing and plenty of slums that seemed to pop up overnight like mushrooms. There, he and his counterpart were to help set up credit unions. At least, that was what they were trained to do.

Reff, who began service in the Peace Corps in 2003, had just finished college and wanted to take a break before medical school, which she is attending this fall at University of Minnesota - Duluth. Having enjoyed her study abroad program in India and wanting to see more of the world, she figured the Peace Corps would satisfy her needs.

During the application process, Reff was put through an extensive interview that checked her psychologically and medically to make sure she could remain stable and healthy while handling the hardships that laid ahead miles away from a hospital.

Many hopeful applicants are "selected out" through the in-depth application process the Peace Corps has nowadays. With few exceptions, every volunteer is required to have at least a college degree and even being obese or needing medication could stop applicants from being admitted.

Willing to adjust

Reff was also checked on her willingness to be flexible and adjust to the culture she would soon face.

She was asked if she was willing to wear skirts every day and eat different foods.

After almost three months of training in Swaziland in southern Africa, with 37 other volunteers, mostly in their mid 20s, she was transported to and dropped off by herself at Nsubane, a small town of about 300 people within Swaziland spread out over a rural area.


Her role was to be an HIV/AIDS educator.

Swaziland is home to the highest percentage of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world - about 40 percent of the adult population. Reff quickly found out just how frustrating her task was to become.

Frustrations found Harrison and his partner, too. The host organization they were to set up credit unions through wasn't doing anything of the sort, so they were left to use their "good, old American know-how" to help the residents in some other way.

They first got involved in a small project to install corrugated tarpaper shingles in the slums. There, they met a group of people who supported themselves by picking through the garbage in the dump and collecting glass, bones and metal scraps to sell for a small profit. Most of the "garbage pickers" were there only as a last resort.

Harrison and a Chilean coworker got an idea to develop an organized cooperative with the people loading Peace Corps Jeeps with bones, metal and glass and transporting them to trucks to be brought to Santiago and sold for more profit than what the garbage pickers were currently receiving.

They were able to triple their income this way.

"Working conditions were pretty crude," says Harrison. "They had a spirit I couldn't believe. They laughed at their own poverty."

Harrison worked right along with them. He recalls the Burlap sacks of bones, which were used for fertilizer, piled high behind his seat with maggots dripping out and down his back.


"Most of us couldn't survive, I think, down there."

Assignment frustrating

Unlike Harrison, Reff was able to dive straight into her assigned role as an educator. She worked primarily with youth at the local school teaching even the youngest students through fun activities and games the basics of what the disease HIV/AIDS is and how it's spread. No one was considered too young to be educated when the disease is such a problem.

Reff's frustration didn't come from teaching the youth; it stemmed from educating the adults.

"It's hard. People say 'okay, we understand where AIDS is from, and we understand what's causing it and how it's passed,' but they don't really do anything to address the cultural aspect of that, and the king doesn't do anything at all."

In other words, most citizens weren't willing to turn their behavior away from polygamy and having girlfriends and boyfriends outside of marriage, a behavior that feeds HIV/AIDS but is considered a cultural norm and is accepted. The king even has several wives, some as young as 16.

Often times, people didn't even like to say that HIV/AIDS was the cause of death; the disease was simply hushed.

Feeling the sting of the seemingly hopeless task, Reff began to find new ways to help the residents.


In a journal entry from July 6, 2004 Reff wrote:

"My official job is HIV/AIDS education. However, in the past four months, I've dealt more with boreholes, irrigation systems, sewing machines and roofing materials than I have with HIV. Even though these things might not seem to be related to the AIDS pandemic, poverty is one of HIV's best friends, so a sewing machine may be just as strong a defense as a condom in the fight against HIV/AIDS."

While working on her numerous community development projects, Reff often felt she was a businesswoman when talking on the phone with Swaziland's government officials.

"(These were) things I never imagined I would ever do. Here I am doing them."

After finding that setting up projects, such as establishing a fertile garden, took months to get a small amount of funding for through the Peace Corps, Reff began to ask local Bemidji organizations to provide money for the endeavors.

She said it was "easier to not work with the Peace Corps office, a lot easier." With the Peace Corps, there was "bureaucratic red tape" you have to go through.

Harrison also hit the same problem years ago. He was trying to get only a few thousand dollars to build a storage building for the bones, metal and glass. The money was not forthcoming months after asking for it, even as he left Chile.



Both Reff and Harrison had little communication with the Peace Corps while they were volunteering.

Harrison said, "We figured out we could go to Europe, and they (the Peace Corps) wouldn't know it."

The projects Harrison and Reff committed themselves to were only a small part of the Peace Corps experience.

The Peace Corps has three main goals: Members are to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and help promote a better understanding of the peoples on the part of the Americans.

Stepping into a new culture made Harrison and Reff realize that they had much to learn.

Reff felt she was poorly trained to speak siSwati, the language of Swaziland.

"(I was) not prepared for the language at all."

Luckily, she was able to teach the people and students in English. Even after two years, she didn't have a strong hold on the language.


Harrison, on the other hand, went to Chile with some Spanish background, but he became much more fluent in the time he was there.

He remembers trying to order a hotdog at a restaurant putting the words for hot and dog together, assuming that it was correct. After two strange looks from two confused waitresses, he pointed at a hotdog on a nearby table only to learn that the word was the same as in English, and he had been trying to order a dog in heat.

Harrison found the food in Chile to be relatively cheap and good. Most of the garbage pickers could rarely afford meat, so they settled for rice, beans, breads and whatever else they could get.

For $35 a month, Harrison was able to get a nice concrete room with running water and electricity and board from a local widow, which included "solid" meals of meat and potatoes. On the nights spinach pancakes were served, he would eat enough to be respectable and head out to a Germanic restaurant and get a roast duck meal for a dollar.

The local food was fine, but on occasion, he drove 60 miles just to get some peanut butter.

Cheese and homemade pizza were the products that were part of life's few, simple "highs" for Reff when she was able to get her hands on them.

She stayed in her own nice concrete guest hut provided by her host family, but it lacked running water and electricity. Many huts were made of stones, sticks and mud.

Meals she ate with her host family usually consisted of beans, a cornmeal mush served with a chicken gravy-like substance, spinach and occasionally a vegetable if the family had it. Sundays were a special treat when they killed a chicken.

"It was the same thing everyday. They can't afford the better things."

Living Simply

Reff had to learn to live without refrigeration and to bathe and wash clothes in buckets on occasion. She wore very few outfits and quickly became sick of being constantly dirty.

"It was really cool the first month, and then it got old really fast."

She noticed that her own clothes didn't match up to the more revealing ones that some of the young women wore in Swaziland.

"You're suppose to be a role model in your community," she mentioned.

Reff dressed in "decent" clothes and almost always wore skirts. Pants seemed to draw more stares.

Harrison noticed the same trend in Chile.

"In two years, I saw one girl with pants on," he said.

Explaining how people in Chile dressed very formally, he pointed out that even the garbage pickers wore sport coats.

Women in Chile aren't treated as they are in America.

"You didn't see women out by themselves."

Men are a lot less restricted. It was more acceptable for men to have a mistress outside of marriage. Wives mainly stayed at home raising the kids. Chile is a very family orientated society.

Reff said Swaziland was very much the same - family orientated and the women were treated differently.

Swaziland is more extreme on how they deal with women. Women are seen more as "property."

Reff got to witness a family "selling" their daughter for a bride price. The bride's family could barter for more cows for their daughter if she was beautiful or if she was the firstborn.

Reff didn't really feel disadvantaged being a woman in Swaziland nor did she feel unsafe. She took precautions, such as not going out at night alone, to keep her from becoming vulnerable.

When she visited the city, she often got several marriage proposals. A leader in Nsubane, where she lived, had previously told the men they couldn't do that or Reff might leave.

Harrison said he felt "really safe" while in Chile.

One day, he noticed his Chilean coworker, Mario Lopez, carried a pistol.

When he asked him why, he mentioned that a person was knifed on the same street that he and Harrison had walked down the night before five minutes after they were there.

Mario told a story of when he once got beat up just because he was a Christian democrat. He had called out to a teacher for help. When the teacher learned the reason he was being beaten, he told them to keep beating him.

The Chileans are "very politically astute. Politics invades everything."

There are communists, neo-Nazis, Christian democrats and so forth. Harrison said people could tell what political party people are in by the people they hang around.

Once Harrison attended a political rally ranting against America being in Chile's copper mines.

"People liked Americans as individuals."

For example, when John F. Kennedy was killed the country seemed to stop for three days out of respect, and the soccer game on Sunday was canceled. People recognized Harrison as an American and offered their condolences.

The citizens just didn't like some of the decisions the American government made. Chilean's knew more about America than most Americans because "they study us."

Reff was told by the Peace Corps not to get involved in political rallies or the like. She, too, noticed that most of Swaziland's citizens followed American politics closely.

The people there liked Americans also.

When asked by the residents what she thought about their government, Reff could honestly answer, but was told not to promote democracy or say that their government was wrong or bad. Swaziland is under an absolute monarchy.

"The people just accept it."

Political parties are banned. Any group that attempts to form against the government must be "underground," or secretive. If the king finds out he may send people after the group's members.

Healthcare poor

Besides the caution to stay away from politics, Reff was told to be wary of diseases that could be picked up simply by what she might touch or eat - Tuberculosis, gastro intestinal illnesses, etc.

Both Reff and Harrison admitted they probably ate and drank everything that was put in front of them. When offered drinks of water or punch in a filthy glass, they didn't want to offend the person, especially if they were friends.

Harrison's counterpart, Mario, became a close friend he respected because Mario "really cared for the people."

One day, Harrison noticed that Mario's toddler son was noticeably ill and told him he would give him money to take his son to the hospital.

Mario brought him.

Three days later, Harrison got a knock on his door from Mario asking if he could borrow $5 to bury his son.

The doctors misdiagnosed him with pneumonia when he had dysentery and was neglected at the hospital. The child's diaper had not been changed for three days.

Public healthcare in Chile was "tough." Long lines and lack of money kept patients from being well taken care of. Only those with money could afford the nice hospital and good treatment.

Reff said Swaziland's healthcare was "pretty bad and not organized enough." The government often pocketed money and the nearest clinic, which only contained nurses, was 40 minutes away along with what could be a full day's wait in line.

Paying for healthcare was expensive there, too.

Reff's close friend Mpumi asked for money only once from Reff, and that was to bring her child to the hospital.

Mpumi was around Reff's age, married with two kids. She was one of the few who didn't ask Reff for money or befriend her only because she was seen as a "wealthy" American.

Reff also got close to and deeply respected her Swazi assistant, Elmon, who was an inspiration.

Elmon could have made much more money elsewhere, but he wanted to show the educated people in Nsubane that they could improve their community.

"How many people in America would do that?" asked Reff.

A priest inspired Harrison. He had run a rebel radio station in Argentina prior to coming to Chile.

Once in Chile, he led a group of people in a slum to stand up against being kicked off the land they were on. The area is now a decent neighborhood named "the victory" in Spanish.

"He was charismatic. The women would have loved to get with him if he wasn't a priest."

Harrison said the people of Chile were really friendly.

"When they said 'your house is my house,' they really meant it."

When Harrison said he would stop by sometime, they would ask why he didn't if he never popped in on them.

"They expect you to stop by."

With strangers there was a "really big distrust." To fulfill some of his big projects, Harrison had to "find someone who knows someone" just to get what he needed.

"They just don't work well with strangers."

Harrison also found their culture to be quite fatalistic, quite the opposite of the American way where you try and try again.

"If it doesn't work the first time, they quit."

Time unimportant

The flexible scheduling also took some getting used to. A 9 a.m. appointment could mean anywhere from 9 a.m. to noon. Harrison came to like it.

"It's a lot less hectic than it is here."

Reff noticed the same type of time schedule in Swaziland and also grew accustomed to it.

She went to pick up Elmon for a meeting at 9 a.m., but he told her people wouldn't start showing up until 11.

Overall, she found Swaziland to be more similar to America than she thought, but she noticed they have a "deep culture."

"It takes a while to figure out what people are thinking."

The biggest part of the Peace Corps experience both Reff and Harrison felt the most unprepared for was the loneliness.

Even when surrounded by others, Reff said, "No one else understands what you're going through. I grew up... just to deal with the loneliness."

Reff often passed time and occupied her mind by getting lost in books. She read several, new and old, including classics like "Moby Dick."

She was lucky enough to use a cell phone to talk to her parents about once a week, and she had access to email every month in a city.

The emotions weren't easy to deal with.

"There was a funeral every week."

"I thought about quitting once a week for sure, but I stuck through it, and I'm glad."

After describing the time when she and others rode in the back of a truck next to a huge African drum with chickens in the front seat, she said, "There are some moments where it's like 'this is so cool, I'm in Africa.'"

Some quit

Only 18 of the 36 members Reff trained with stayed for the entire program. She felt so many quit because they weren't prepared and were put in the worst conditions. Her group members were "guinea pigs", the first Peace Corps volunteers to return to Swaziland since the early 1990s. Reff guessed that's why the training was so "disorganized."

Only two of about 35 quit from Harrison's group, including his partner. When Harrison asked who his new partner would be, he was told he'd be on his own.

"It's lonely as hell. You're out there dealing with real life - people struggling, people dying. You go through tough times like that, and nothing else in life, I think, is going to get to you that much."

After six months, Harrison was ready to quit, but his boss said, "Walt, if you quit now, you'd be abandoning the poor, and, worse off, you'd be abandoning yourself."

Harrison stayed.

"I promised myself I could make it through that year and a half."

Like Reff, Harrison felt his training wasn't sufficient.

"They tried to prepare us. We had to find our own way. It's very rewarding in itself."

He said he often passed time by reading books and going to movies.

"One day, I saw six movies," Harrison said, describing three double features.

Communication wasn't as easy for Harrison as it was for Reff.

His parents wrote once a week and even tried to send cigars, but they got taken by postal workers. Packages didn't always make it to their destinations.

Decades before cell phones, calling was much too expensive and time consuming to use very often. It took 8 hours to book a call during the day, and about an hour at night.

"Local hotels cost like twenty-some dollars for three minutes."

Though he rarely talked to anyone back home, he did take part in an American tradition - Thanksgiving.

After missing it the first year, he and other Peace Corps members rented a cabin on a lake and filled the floor with about 30 sleeping bags their second year. They got live turkeys and laughed at a new guy who they taught how to properly kill one. The former football player ended up chasing it down when it literally ran around with its head chopped off.

Harrison and Reff both had tight bonds with other members. Even today, when talking to them it's like they've only been missing each other since yesterday.

The Peace Corps alumni found it hard to make the transition back into American life.

Harrison headed straight back into grad school.

"I couldn't relate to the other students. They seemed superficial."

Reff said, "Volunteers have a hard time coming back into Target and seeing all the materials."

They both revealed that their priorities had changed.

Harrison, who was originally going to be a businessman, changed his career to become a geography teacher, retiring recently from Park Rapids high school in 2005.

"Having money isn't as important to me."

Reff agreed adding that family became more important to her and having a real conversation.

"We don't take the time to talk."

Harrison and Reff both recommend trying the Peace Corps.

"It's important for people to see a different culture and see what you have and they don't," Reff said.

Harrison tallied up his experience saying, "I'm sure I learned more in two years of the Peace Corps than in seven years of college."

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