Under African skies
 Updated from Jan. 26, 2005

It’s been nearly a year since we glimpsed Africa through the eyes of Ruth Giorango and Mia Yankow, two Oak Parkers who joined the Peace Corps right after graduating from college. A lot has changed, now that their two-year hitches are up and they’ve moved on to other places and other adventures.

Last January, we left Giorango in Lesotho, a mountainous country of 2 million people completely surrounded by South Africa. With a degree in early childhood development, she’d been assigned to help bring new teaching techniques and materials to a group of preschools in the district of Leribe. Based in the village of Popopo, she was living in one half of a family’s garage, with electricity but no running water and no refrigeration. The water pump and latrine were outside.

We caught up with Giorango last month at her mom’s home in Oak Park. Good thing, since she left a few days later for a three-month trip to India, Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia) and finally Hawaii, where she’ll meet up with her mom at the end of February.

This trip is “just fun,” says Giorango. “I want to see the world, go everywhere.” With her “settling in” severance pay from the Peace Corps in hand, “This is my opportunity to do it.”

She left Africa about a month earlier than expected, since the school term was over and she’d finished her last job”painting educational materials like the alphabet on classroom walls.

“I was sad; I cried on the plane ride. But I was ready to come home for sure,” she says.

She knows she’ll miss the kids, the culture and the slower lifestyle, not to mention a job where “I didn’t have to answer to anyone and it was all up to me.” But there are plenty of reasons she’s glad to be back.

“It’s nice to have hot water and a toilet, although not having them didn’t bother me when I was there,” she says. And then there’s the home-cooked food, a contrast to the unrefrigerated eggs and cheese she lived on in Lesotho.

“I definitely feel like everything I eat now is the best thing I ever ate,” she says.

Giorango plans to substitute teach when she gets back to Oak Park in March, and then apply for a position as a teaching fellow in New York City or the District of Columbia, where there are programs that will allow her to earn a salary and benefits while taking classes toward a master’s degree in education.

What did she gain from her Peace Corps experience? “It helped me to work with diverse people in situations different from my own, with not a lot of resources,” she says. “My friends say I’m the same, but I’m more confident and I learned a lot, about another culture, the world. And about America. You get a different perspective of America from what people in other places think of us.”

Leaving Mozambique

Although Giorango and Yankow, friends from Oak Park and River Forest High School, joined the Peace Corps together, they just missed crossing paths here. Yankow arrived back home about a week after Giorango left for India.

Yankow was stationed in Mozambique, a Portuguese-speaking country in southeastern Africa, between South Africa and Tanzania and bordering the Indian Ocean (actually the Mozambique Channel). After an aborted stay at a village school in Manicia, where she and her roommate were robbed at gunpoint in their home, Yankow settled into teaching eighth grade biology at a school in a tiny, remote village of thatched-roof huts in Vanduzi. More primitive than Giorango’s living situation, her tiny house had only intermittent electricity, and the nearest local market was two miles down the road.

“I’m ready to do something different but I don’t know what,” confesses Yankow, just a day or so after her return to Oak Park a few weeks ago. With her assignment wrapped up in the middle of November, she’d spent the last month traveling in South Africa, Tanzania and on safari in the Serengeti. But she’s done with wanderlust for a while.

“I don’t think I like traveling for more than a month. I really wanted to get home for Christmas,” she says.

And although she confesses that Peace Corps work can be frustrating, she believes her last two years were “a great growing experience. You can do so many things [in the Peace Corps] you can’t do here. If you want to do something, you do it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you figure it out. You stumble but it doesn’t matter. There’s no fear.”

To illustrate, Yankow points to her final project in Mozambique: She and a few other Peace Corps volunteers, partnered with a local organization, put together a Girls Leadership Conference for 44 young women between the ages of 14 and 22 from all over the country. They managed to get $25,000 in funding and “even though we were way over our heads, it was amazing.”

Based on an essay contest, two girls from a school in each province were chosen to attend the four-day conference, with the aim of “raising their self-confidence, developing their leadership skills, helping them to be strong women, learn how to deal with
HIV/AIDS, and be leaders in their own communities,” Yankow explains.

“I brought one of my favorite students who was so shy at first, but by the end she had all these great ideas and was talking up. It was very gratifying.”

For now, Yankow plans to work for a temp agency and try to figure out what’s next for her. She says she’s not interested in teaching, but would love to learn Spanish, figuring that the fluent Portuguese she picked up will make that reasonably easy. And she plans to enjoy the perks of American life. What’s she enjoying most?

“Couches,” she answers emphatically. “They are wonderful, amazing. There was no where to sit and read a book and be comfortable [in Vanduzi]. That and the food.”

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