Under African skies

The Peace Corps takes two Oak Parkers to the other side of the world

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Kids leave. They grow up, go to college, find jobs. But Mia Yankow and Ruth Giorango have taken leaving a bit further than most. They joined the Peace Corps last year, and are now in Africaâ€"Mia in Mozambique and Ruth in Lesotho.

Both young women grew up in Oak Park. They met at Oak Park and River Forest High School, graduated in 1999. Mia went to Truman State in Missouri and Ruth to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; both earned degrees in 2003. Their families are still here.

Joining the Peace Corps was Mia's idea. "Senior year she toyed with grad school, but she just decided to do this," says her mom, Johnilee Yankow. Mia's always been a volunteer, interested in service. And because Yankow was a flight attendant, her kids traveled a lot. So Mia's parents weren't too surprised when she picked such a grand adventure.

"Mia got [Ruth] going on this," says Ruth's mom, Sue Giorango. She was surprised that Ruth, who was "stuck to my hip, with me all the time," as a child, would venture so far away. "Mind-boggling," she calls Ruth's decision.

"I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to travel and experience another culture," writes Ruth. "I thought the Peace Corps would be a good way to do it because I would be volunteering and working with people who need help."

Joining the Peace Corps requires lots of paperwork, references and dedication. It's a four to five month process. Although volunteers are free to leave if they want, they make a 27-month commitment on signing upâ€"three months training and two years in the field. Mia and Ruth wanted to go to Africa, and were thrilled with their assignments.

Mia left Oak Park in October 2003, and Ruth left a month later. Their families recently visited them in Africaâ€"Johnilee and Dick Yankow, along with older daughter Amanda, were in Mozambique last November and December, and Sue, Ruth's brother T.K. Giorango and his friend Lauren Frey just got back from South Africa and Lesotho last week. They shared Mia and Ruth's letters and e-mails (and Ruth wrote out answers to questions her family took along on the trip) with WEDNESDAY JOURNAL, to give us a taste of what it's like to be so far from home.

Adventures in Mozambique

Mozambique is in southeastern Africa, between South Africa and Tanzania and bordering the Indian Ocean (actually the Mozambique Channel). It's slightly less than twice the size of California. Mia was sent there to teach biology in a private school that requested Peace Corps volunteers.

She trained in the capital city, living with a local family. Teaching biology wasn't too much of a stretch. Although she ended up majoring in psychology in college, she started in biology and had a lot of coursework. The difficulty was that people in Mozambique speak Portuguese, so Mia had three months to learn to teach biology in Portuguese.

Since early last spring (fall there, since seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere), she's been in a tiny, remote village of thatched-roof huts called Vanduzi, teaching eighth grade biology. Her school has about 750 students ranging in age from 14 to 25 (many come from far away, and board with local families). Classes run in three shifts of five hours each, with at least 50 students to a class. Students who complete 10th grade can become teachers, or go on to a technical school for two more years. With a 12th grade education, Mia reports, they can get a really good job.

Mia teaches one shift, but the locals teach two. Like the other teachers, she earns $4 a day. There are no books, no desks. Mia writes her lessons on the board. Students sit on long planks that often collapse during class. "No one even looks upâ€"they just get up, dust off and set them up again," says Johnilee Yankow.

Most of the students are male. "Schooling for women and girls is extremely hard because of the large amount of responsibility they have for the household," Mia writes. Only three or four out of a class of 50 are female, but "these are some of my most eager and attentive students."

This is actually Mia's second assignment. The first was in a school in another remote Mozambique village, Manicia. She and another female Peace Corps volunteer were housed in a one-room hut away from other people. No electricity, no indoor plumbing.

"They were robbed twiceâ€"at gunpoint, by candlelightâ€"by the same guy," says Yankow. After the first time, the Peace Corps assigned them a nighttime guard. But one night he didn't show up, and the gunman came back.

"He was taking everything. Mia managed to get her Swiss Army knife out of her backpack. But when he grabbed her roommate's shoes she saw red, wrestled him, bit his gun hand and got the gun," says Yankow, repeating the story Mia told to her. When Mia tried to shoot she realized the gun wasn't loaded. Her roommate ran for help as the burglar ran away. When she returned with a crowd, they found Mia on the front porch, "gun in one hand, knife in the other." She burst into tears.

The Peace Corps pulled them shortly after. Last March, Mia wrote, "I am now happy and very safely living in my new home of Vanduzi ... a smaller town than my old site but everyone is very friendly and super excited to meet the new girl in town."

She and another Peace Corps volunteer, Dan Johnston from Chippewa Falls, Wis., live in a tiny two-bedroom house that has the luxury of occasional electricity. No refrigerator or running water, but there's a water pump out back (another luxury). They cook on a hot plate.

Food comes from the local market, about two miles down the road. Women sell seasonal produceâ€"onions, mangoes, avocados, oranges, bananas, tomatoes, beans and green peppersâ€""from the ground with their babies tied to their backs," Mia writes. Behind them, in small huts or "bancas," men sell oil, candles, condensed milk, soap, candy, sugar, dried fish and fresh goat meat. A vegetarian when she left Oak Park, Mia has learned to eat goat, and has even killed her own chickenâ€"a staple of local cuisine.

Across the highway, secondhand clothing and a variety of pots and pans, shoes, and other stuff are for sale. Tailors charge $1 to make a pair of pants.

"Because there are no cars, visiting the market is almost a daily occurrence," she writes. "But because of the slower pace of life, doing your shopping is not only functional but also highly social, especially on really hot days."

Living in Lesotho

Ruth has a degree in early childhood development, so she was happy to get an assignment working with preschool teachers. She and the local "teacher trainer,"â€"Ruth's "counterpart" in Peace Corps lingoâ€"conduct workshops for teachers and visit the five preschools in their district, Leribe, in Lesotho, a mountainous country of 2 million people completely surrounded by South Africa.

The idea, she writes, is to bring new teaching techniques and develop new materials "using locally available resources." Ruth has also started a youth group in her village teaching "life skills and peer leadership."

It can be a frustrating business. Mostly, the kids play outside on old tires, reports her mom. Ruth's been pushing story time to the teachers, but only one has agreed to give it a try. Meetings can be hours "where I think everything [the teachers] say is wrong and stupid and they think everything I say is wrong," she writes. Change comes slowly.

Lesotho has two official languages. "Luckily one of them is English," says Ruth. The other is Sesotho, and she's learned "enough to get around."

HIV/AIDS is a horrendous problem in Mozambique and Lesotho. While Sue Giorango was visiting last month, Ruth's counterpart "told me that people don't accept that AIDS is there. They deny it, or they say there's nothing they can do about it," she says.

When she first arrived in Lesotho, Ruth wrote, "At the very least, 33 percent of the nation has [AIDS]. ... You should hear some of the things people think about it, like if you have sex with a virgin you will be cured. So the preschoolers wear T-shirts that say, 'We do not cure AIDS.' Pretty intense."

Ruth lives in the village of Popopo, in a family compound. Her home is half of the garage. It has electricity and a small propane stove, but no running water and no refrigeration. There's a water pump and a pit latrine outside. It's a bit less rural than where Mia is, and there are other Peace Corps volunteers in the district. They visit each other on weekends. She can catch a bus (more like a minivanâ€"they leave whenever they're full) or walk the four miles to town to buy food.

"She eats eggs and cheese a lot," says Giorango. "She's decided they don't really need refrigeration."

In spite of the difficulties, Ruth "loves it," says her mom.

"The Basotho (people of Lesotho) are very friendly and all the people in my village treat me like part of their family," Ruth writes. "When I get discouraged, my walk from the bus stop to my house makes me feel better. Everyone greets me and makes me feel like a part of the village. Especially the childrenâ€"they call 'Ausi Palesa,' (my Sesotho name) as I walk by and have big smiles on their faces."

Staying connected to Oak Park

Both Ruth and Mia are keeping in touch with classes in Oak Park. Mia's AP biology teacher at OPRF was Marie Urbanski, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia in the early 1970s. Before Mia left for Mozambique, she visited Urbanski and even tried out a practice AIDS education lesson for students before school one day (they got extra credit for attending). She sent letters and pictures last year, and has been keeping it up this year for a new set of students.

"It's wonderful for my students," says Urbanski. "The idea is to expose them to another culture, how they learn, their living situation."

"Mia's teaching in Portuguese. That takes a lot of fortitude. The Peace Corps is a wonderful experience. What they say is true: It's the toughest job you'll ever love," she adds.

Ruth's aunt, Kathy Wiedow, teaches a multi-age class of first and second graders at Lincoln School in Oak Park. Ruth visited the class last year, explained where she was going and read an African folk tale to the kids. She's been sending letters and drawings made by her preschoolers. Last June, the Lincoln students collected picture books and mailed them to Lesotho.

This year, they've teamed up through Coverdell World Wise Schools, a Peace Corps program. Wiedow's class has been selected to receive a 40-minute phone call from Ruth on March 3. Wiedow's not sure what they'll do to hold the attention of 44 first and second graders that long, but a packet of materials is due to arrive soon.

"Ruth is very upbeat, enjoying it all," says Wiedow. "We're thrilled we're able to connect with her and her kids."

Embracing the adventure

Being able to travel is a big part of the Peace Corps experience. Volunteers have 24 vacation days a year, and can also travel on weekends. Ruth's been to Mozambique (to visit Mia), Swaziland and South Africa. She took a three day hike in Lesotho with some other Peace Corps volunteers, up and down mountains, through rivers, past waterfalls, by tiny villages.

Mia's also been to South Africa. In Mozambique, Mia and Dan have hiked and camped in the mountains, and endured the eight hour ride in a "chappa" or minivan, complete with "chickens at your feet and a goat or two on the roof," Mia writes, to reach the country's beautiful beaches.

The beaches used to be a tourist destination for South Africans, her mom notes, but after the civil war lots of land mines remained buried. There's no money to remove them, but they're marked by wooden sticks.

Yankow, an adventurous spirit herself who has been very supportive of her daughter, says her recent visit convinced her that Mia is fine. "It's a pretty tame group in that village. They seem goodhearted."

The gun incident was scary, but, Yankow says, "Evil people are everywhere. It could have happened in Chicago, but the gun would have been loaded."

And, she adds, "[Mia] really does like it. After our vacation, in a hotel with running water, she said, 'I can't wait to get back.'"

Giorango says it was hard to leave Ruth behind after she saw the hard conditions in which her daughter's living, even though Ruth is clearly loving it. "I don't know how she does it. I cried when we left, but she said, 'Mom, it's OK.' And I know it's an experience she'll never have again."

In November, Mia Yankow sent an e-mail to friends and family reflecting on her first year in the Peace Corps. Here's some of what she wrote:

You know you're been in Mozambique a year when:

TV has been replaced by watching your dog play with chickens, goats, cows and other dogs.

You favorite mode of transportation is hitchhiking.

You use dirt when you've run out of dish soap (dish soap would mean a three to six hour round trip).

You eat five to 10 bananas daily.

You have learned how to say thank you when people call you fat.

You think English is a secret language that only other Peace Corps volunteers know.

You think 70 degrees is really cold.

The difference between formal and informal wear is flip flops and sandals.

Yes means maybe to you.

You regularly say hello in three different languages while walking around town.

You've seen many wonderful, beautiful places.

â€"Mia Yankow

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