Editor’s Note: This article was guest written by Adam Nothem, a fellow UW-Oshkosh alum.
Sometimes, a seed sprouts best after it lands in new soil.
I was born and raised in Wisconsin. I grew up near Green Lake in Farmington and I always felt a sense of community around me there. We all knew our neighbors and people watched out for one another. My summers were spent with my friends swimming in the lake, exploring the nearby woods, and hanging out in the yard with my family and our dog and having campfires. Where I’m from, and likely many of you as well, we walked through yards to visit our neighbors because no one has fences. And when I got called home for dinner, it was by hearing my name being called from the porch. My drive home from school passed innumerable corn fields, dairy farms, and a quaint village named Cheeseville. Wisconsin was always my home and, in 2014, when I was leaving home to live in Tanzania for my US Peace Corps service, I had no idea I’d be returning to a very similar sense of community; one that I had lost slightly during my time in college and while living in the city.
In case you are unfamiliar, the Peace Corps is a government organization that favors a grassroots development strategy and a commitment to a particular village for at least two years. I lived in a small, rural village named Mnavira near the southern border of Tanzania where the sandy soils nourish mostly corn, beans, mangoes, coconuts, and lots and lots of cashews. Most people are subsistence farmers but many farm cashew nuts for pay as well. Cashews are the main cash crop and are harvested once each year. Many villages like Mnavira are absolutely dependent on the cashew harvest. If the rains or high winds affect the trees and the yield is less than planned, many families can be left with light pockets and heavy burdens. It’s common for extended families to share homes to all help one another out. Generally, the men do the farming and are responsible for bringing in income and the women maintain the home. Often though, with their child on their back and more in tow, the women find themselves in the fields as well or hauling water from the stream or spout.
Upon first arriving, one may focus on many of the cultural differences. But part of what makes our 2 year time frame so advantageous is that it gives us and our community members time to get used to the shallow differences and start to connect to our deeper commonalities. And what I began to see early on is a very similar sense of community that I grew up with. This was partially due to how readily they welcomed me into their community. My neighbors kept watch on my house if I was gone, they would check on me if I was sick, and they would always welcome me to share meals with them. The Tanzanian people are an extremely welcoming people. That made my time here so much more comfortable and helped me integrate to my new home. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to receive a cold welcome or open animosity. It would’ve been nearly impossible to integrate effectively or to learn the Swahili language. As a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), I have several goals. The first one, since I am a health extension agent, is to assess the health situation in Mnavira and to try to improve it in any way I can. The second goal is to make Tanzanians more familiar with America and the American people. For many people in Mnavira and Tanzania in general, their only experience with America is through news headlines, movies, or music videos. As you may imagine, that leaves people with a pretty interesting perspective of our home and an endless flow of questions. The third goal is to make Americans more familiar with Tanzania and see it as the individual country that it is among the vast expanse of Africa.
The familiar sense of community that I returned to made reaching those goals possible. It’s amazing how much information you can share just through normal day-to-day conversation and inclusion into a new culture. I would do this while helping my neighbor farm his cashews, while my friend Mudi and I would do home projects and he’d teach me the local way of doing it, and while I would just sit with my neighbors on the grass mat under a mango tree. I was there during holidays, weddings, and funerals. These were new experiences for me because of the difference in culture but also because they were done along the Islamic traditions and prayers.
In Tanzania, Muslims make up nearly half the population and Christians make up nearly the other half. This ongoing interaction creates a very peaceful life with most people thinking of others as fellow Tanzanians first, and their religion or tribe second. In Mnavira, nearly everyone is Muslim but the few Christians were warmly welcomed to share their food even on holidays like Eid. I celebrated Eid twice during my time in Mnavira and I highly recommend it. There is just such a good mood in the air and the food is fantastic. And during Christmas and Easter, many Muslims break bread with their Christian neighbors. This close sense of community and togetherness gave me all the motivation I needed to do health work.
In Mnavira, many people get infected with the malaria parasite. At the local clinic, an average of twelve people a day tested positive for malaria and got treatment. This is a heavy burden on a community both financially and emotionally. For some, the symptoms are fever, chills, muscle pain, and vomiting. For others, it can be serious enough to cause seizures, cognitive impairment, or death. These severe outcomes are more commonly seen in children under five, pregnant women, and people living with HIV. Mnavira, like many Tanzanian villages, also struggles with water availability, nutrition, and HIV. These factors combined with low income, inadequate health education, and inconsistent healthcare access can create a crisis for many families. That is why the headmaster of the primary school, Rweikanisa, applied to the Peace Corps for a health volunteer. He and I quickly became close friends and he was an invaluable neighbor to have throughout my service. Together, we came up with new ways to teach people about health information. To name a few, this ranged from doing formal lessons at the primary school and clinic, to painting a mural on the school wall, making radio programs for the nearest station, an educational storybook to be read by students and parents, and making visualizations of the high cost of continually treating malaria in the village rather than preventing it. He was also essential in our lessons about reproductive development and gender equality, a beekeeping program for people living with HIV, and in organizing the construction of a new pit latrine at the school.
During our time working together, he always helped me integrate further and helped strengthen the community ties between all of us. These projects were no easy task as many people often seem complacent in their situation. Malaria has always been here and it is difficult for people to imagine life without it so they can sometimes look at the disease like we may look at the common cold. I focused on malaria in my time at UW Oshkosh, so I was especially keen to put forth extra energy to our malaria work. It is a disease that is entirely preventable and treatable and I find it unacceptable how many people, especially young children, die of the disease. The number of funerals I attended for my community members was truly saddening and I was highly motivated for the two years I lived in Mnavira to give help in any way I could to the community who welcomed me so thoroughly.
In fact, I decided to extend my time in Tanzania for another year. I found a small non-profit organization in the north of the country in a city called Tanga called MEA. I saw that they trained community health workers (CHWs) in the surrounding villages to treat their fellow villagers for minor ailments. Often, minor ailments can go untreated and can develop into bigger problems so these CHWs put in the time and effort to help. The organization, MEA, mentioned how they’d like to get those CHWs involved with malaria work and I applied to help start the program. During my third year of service, I was technically still a Peace Corps Volunteer but I was also the Malaria Program Manager for MEA. During the course of the year, we were able to gather the support and encouragement from the district level to the national governments for our new program, the first of its kind in Tanga region, and we were able to train and certify nearly 200 community health workers. The health workers, along with their usual treatment duties, now also test people for malaria using rapid diagnostic tests and treating people with the proper drug regimen. Most of them do this in addition to their normal work because they are paid whatever little bit their patients can chip in and no one is turned away for not having any money to pay. Their individual agreements are driven by their shared sense of community. The patient wants to help the health worker be paid for his or work, but the health worker doesn’t want to burden patients to where they won’t seek treatment any longer. As of now, nearly 200 health workers are participating in a program that will test and treat more than 41,000 people each year for malaria.
When I was at UW Oshkosh, I dreamed of being able to do direct malaria work. I thought often of what it’d be like to live in a new place, to learn a new language and actually be able to use it to teach and have conversations, and to immerse into a new culture. I knew that, if I wanted to fulfill that dream, I’d have to leave my home of Wisconsin. I had no idea I’d be finding some of Wisconsin here in Tanzania. Life has had a habit of reminding me that people just aren’t so different. As my service comes to a close this week, I can’t help but reflect on that and count myself very privileged for being able to have this opportunity. It can be a scary thing leaving one’s home. For some, time like this can be a break from the life they were living and they can go right back when they’re done. For others, it can be a jumping off point to a new life if and when they return. For myself, I’m happy to not choose and just to see where it goes while enjoying my newfound perspective.
Adam Nothem, a native born Wisconsinite, has spent spent the last 3 1/2 years living in Tanzania serving with the US Peace Corps. There, he has continued with his passion for combating malaria; a passion he’s had since his time as a biology student at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.