Ebola, Politics, and Mixed Feelings

Mercedes Sullivan, ED15 – Tanzania

When I first began my application process to the Peace Corps I was excited about all the possibilities to come. I was curious about where in the world I would end up, the future projects I would work on and more importantly what relationships I would develop with my future host country. Like most people, I wanted to gain as much insight from previous Volunteers or people who knew them. While serving on jury duty one summer, a lady who overheard me discussing my future plans to join the Peace Corps with my professor (also summoned for jury duty) came to tell me about her nephew. She explained how excited she was for me to make this move in my life, but cautioned me with her nephew’s story. She explained to me how he had been evacuated twice, and after the second time, decided that was enough, and returned home. I recall scoffing and reassuring her how rare that is, and the likelihood of that happening to me, let alone anyone else was extremely low.

Flash-forward one year, it was the summer of June 2014 and I, along with 49 other individuals were excited and probably over packed, were ready to head to Liberia to serve as Math and Science Education Volunteers. The whole past year I had done so much research regarding Liberia, read several books, even wrote about it in a paper during my final quarter of college. In short, I was excited beyond words; I was finally taking the first steps of a lifelong dream of mine. As time quickly unfolded while in country, bad news followed. That summer was the largest Ebola outbreak in human history, and there we were at the epicenter of it all in Liberia. After two months, after forming strong bonds with our host families, after nearly completing PST and becoming ready to swear-in, to take an oath of dedication to a country that had so warmly welcomed us with open arms and plenty of rice; we were informed one seemingly normal afternoon that our post, in addition to Sierra Leone and Guinea, were being suspended.

Being evacuated was not easy. Within 48 hours of the announcement, our training class was on a plane heading back to our respective homes for the largest evacuation in Peace Corps history. Coming to America from any country in Africa at that time was difficult. However coming from Sierra Leone, Guinea, or Liberia, was miserable. Not once in my life have I felt so unwanted. Having to take care of medical forms for Peace Corps in the United States essentially meant enduring harassment among other things at medical offices. The same people who were happily giving me shots and filing out my paperwork just months ago, wouldn’t even take a pen and clipboard back from me because I “might be infected and put [her] health at risk”. I also came home during a peak of Ebola jokes and general insensitivity while still facing the reality that one of our trainers had passed away from contracting the disease while volunteering to help fight it, as well as several host families becoming fatally affected. I came home when people I knew personally were petitioning to not let us back into the country. Of all the things I envisioned in my Peace Corps service, being evacuated and unwanted by my home country wasn’t one of them.

Flash-forward one more year, it was the summer of 2015 and I, along with 59 other individuals, including 14 evacuees from Liberia and Sierra Leone, were preparing to head to Tanzania. Returning to Tanzania had a lot of emotional triggers for those of us returning, mostly we felt out of place. We felt that we should have been with our initial host countries. Though throughout PST we slowly became re-energized to serve Tanzania.

One thing that was mentioned to us on occasion, and especially as we were departing to our sites was that we needed to remain cautious, aware, and mostly safe during the upcoming elections. Without going too far into the history of Tanzania and its elections, let’s just say the election of 2015 was one for the books. We were also cautioned, that the islands (Zanzibar – consisting of Unguja and Pemba) were known to have a little more friction during elections, and have a history of violence. By some force of nature, or sheer bad luck, 4 of the 10 volunteers placed on the islands were previous evacuees. I was one of those four. The elections on the islands were one of the most anticipated elections since the independence of Tanzania and the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar. It was the first time someone from the opposition party had a chance of becoming president of Zanzibar. Once the results were thought to be in, the opposition party leader declared himself the victor, thereby leading to much tension on the islands and mainland Tanzania, resulting the president of Tanzania declaring to annul the votes of the people of Zanzibar. Clearly, this didn’t sit well with the people of my host region, and that same morning I was put on a plane to mainland Tanzania to wait and see how the fate of the elections would decide if I return to my site or not. After three weeks away, I was cleared and returned to my site to attempt to pick up where I left off.

Flash-forward three more months, the Tanzanian officials decide to host a re-election in March 2016. This time we were able to plan our departure from the island ahead of time. Though still due to certain activities on the islands, schools closed down, and it was another three weeks until I could return to my site.

Having been both evacuated and consolidated I have learned many things. Mostly, that if I could choose this experience again, I don’t know if I can say that I would. It has been difficult constantly being pulled away from things I love and have worked hard for. It is also difficult to say that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I have led a life similar to those in which I serve, it is simply not true. I always have this privilege of knowing I can leave when things turn sour. I can never un-feel the way I felt boarding a plane leaving Liberia knowing that I was coming back to a place of sanitation, running water, and a place far away from the terrors of Ebola. It was difficult boarding a plane again leaving my community when the elections that they had rallied so much for didn’t go their way and yet they have to live with the consequences of the election results, and in many ways oppression until the next round of elections. They don’t have the option to leave to the comfort of America when things go bad, but I do. Additionally, readjusting to my community after time away is always sad and consumes a lot of emotionally energy. I felt that I had to try harder each time to prove that we were still here together, or “tupo pamoja” in Swahili. Aside from Liberia, in Tanzania I tried not to disclose why I was leaving, but they knew. My community knowing that I will leave when things get stressful isn’t the easiest way to build trust, and it takes a lot of time to regain trust, in addition to the other things expected of me as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

One aspect from my experience that I want people to know, is that there is no amount of flip charts or scenarios that can prepare you for the effect these events will have on you, and unfortunately due to the alleged rarity of these circumstances, there is still a lot of work that needs to be developed in our program to better address these issues. As we approach the summer of 2016, I have now dedicated two years of my life to Peace Corps, and still have one year to go. Unfortunately, because I have been repeatedly pulled away, I have little to show for that. I hope that in my last year I can be the person and Peace Corps Volunteer that I set out to be two summers ago.


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