Dr. Erin Reynolds: Self-discovery
Imagine your first experience living on your own: Did you have electricity or running water? You probably didn’t live in a rural compound with a drop ceiling full of mice, or ride with chickens as fellow passengers and the occasional goat or sheep tied to the top of village taxi, a hot-wired jalopy.
That is exactly the way Dr. Erin Reynolds, assistant professor of health services , got her first taste of independent living when she joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Togo in West Africa in 2004. “This was my first time living alone. I had to learn how to cook. I had no electricity, no running water, and this is how I learned to take care of myself,” she said.
Reynolds had previously planned to spend her life as a microbiologist until reading the book Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues by Paul Farmer. Farmer wrote from his experience as a doctor in Haiti during the early AIDS outbreak, and it inspired Reynolds. She decided she wanted to make a difference and to experience that difference through personal interaction, rather than with the numbered nameless samples she had worked with in microbiology.
Reynolds’ assignment was with the Community Health and AIDS Prevention program (CHAP). Her team administered polio vaccines to children, anti-malarial shots to pregnant women, and discussed nutrition, prenatal care, and HIV/AIDS prevention with mothers.
Reynolds was asked during her Peace Corps interview if there were any issues that make her a less than stellar choice; she answered honestly that she was “afraid of insects and a picky eater, but would be OK.” That concern was soon tested when armed with a broom and a can of insecticide; she battled against daily visitors in her compound: three-inch-long camel spiders. She animatedly described blasting them with the spray then beating them with a broom until they were crushed beyond recognition. She also discovered that she was “more polite than picky” when it came to being offered tchouk, the local brew or fufu, an African yam pounded to a starchy, gelatinous pulp. She would rather partake of the cuisine than be perceived as rude.
One of her biggest challenges was being the village curiosity. It was rare for anyone in Togo to have seen a Westerner before, and it left Reynolds feeling at times like a “superstar doing the Miss America wave.” As she traveled the dirt paths hearing her assigned local name, Pyalo, called, “the children would see me and call my name way out in the bush.” Other children, hearing the call would rush to the road to watch as she passed. “Sometimes I felt like a one-person parade, but other times I felt like a circus freak. I would be interacting with my colleagues and a child would run up, touch my elbow and run away screaming.” But it would also be the local children that provided the most satisfaction during her stay. “When you have this group of children who love spending time with you and have such great smiles, they make it really worthwhile,” Reynolds said.
Overall the journey brought many new and interesting experiences, from numerous marriage proposals from strangers, to having a permanent “peanut gallery” of children peering into her classroom. To wind down from the stress of the day, Reynolds would take a peaceful solitary bicycle ride down the dusty narrow village road, happy to spend time with herself.
Dr. Peter and Mary Jo Cashel-Cordo: Discovering love
For Dr. Peter Cashel-Cordo and Mary Jo Cashel-Cordo, new love was characterized by love letters written by moonlight, motorcycle rides to local villages, and long bus rides to spend a few stolen moments.
Peter, professor of economics, served as a fisherman’s volunteer in the Peace Corps in a tiny fishing village called Madarounfa in Niger located in West Africa from 1978 to 1981. Mary Jo, instructor in the intensive English program, served in the Peace Corps from 1979 to 1981 in Say, Niger as part of the teaching English as a foreign language program (TEFL). The couple was introduced through mutual friends when members of the Peace Corps visited the capital, Niamey, for the appointment of the new director of the Peace Corps, Richard Celeste.
The couple’s distant locations required a 16-hour bus ride to see each other. When Mary Jo finished teaching, she would hop on the back of Peter’s motorcycle and visit the villages with him. Mary Jo recalls writing letters daily, often by the light of the moon. For many years afterwards, she and her husband would celebrate their anniversary by pulling out boxes of these old letters and reading them to each other.
As a TEFL instructor, Mary Jo recalled coming in early to work to write crossword puzzles or a test on the blackboard for her high school students. With no electricity, a Xerox machine for running copies was not an option. But the extra work did not keep a smile from her face. “I’d incorporate a lot of music and games to make language learning fun,” she said. She fondly recalled teaching the students how to square dance, and the proud expressions on their faces when they came to class wearing matching handmade square dance gear.
As for the cultural differences, she described how the villagers found ways to reuse things. “Tires were made into sandals; wires were made into toys; if food was left over, it was put outside for others,” she said. “Poorer countries find ways to reuse things. They were so happy, and they had nothing. How’s that for a cultural difference?”
Meanwhile, Peter worked with locals in Madarounfa weighing the daily catch and ensuring the lakes weren’t overfished. He also re-introduced rice cultivation into an area where it had been discontinued, providing the area with both additional nutrition and income, since rice was a cash crop for the region.
Thirty-one years of marriage and five children later, the Peace Corps experience still has a lasting effect on the Cashel-Cordo family. Mary Jo said each of her children have spoken about doing a Peace Corps tour themselves, and one son, Christopher, has already followed in his parents’ footsteps, serving as an EFL teacher in Mongolia.
Photo Credit: Submitted by Dr. Erin Reynolds
Dr. Erin Reynolds (last on the right), is pictured with a fellow volunteer and students.