From Texas to Zambia: An MSc-GH Grad Joins the Peace Corps

October 19, 2017
Group Photo - Peace Corps Response Volunteers
The group of Peace Corps Response Volunteers with whom I did my training.

By Brittney Wittenbrink, MSc-GH ‘16

Brittney Wittenbrink, a 2016 graduate of our Master of Science in Global Health program, recently began service as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. She’s working as a Maternal Health Implementer for Saving Mothers, Giving Life (SMGL) with the goal of reducing maternal and newborn mortality in Petauke, Zambia. Brittney is keeping a blog—BrittWitt Abroad—to chronicle her experiences, and from time to time, we’ll be featuring posts from her blog. Here’s her first post (from October 1):

If you’re wondering exactly why I decided to pack up my life, leave everything and everyone I know and love behind, and move to Zambia for a year, well, I wish I had a good answer. 

Honestly, I don’t really have a definitive reason and it’s hard for me to put in words exactly why I wanted to come here. I tend to stumble around the question when it’s asked and mumble something uninspiring about “great work experience.” 

In truth, I think it was the accumulation of lots of smaller reasons: I realized the job description perfectly matched the kind of work I want to do, I’ve always been drawn to working in sub-Saharan Africa, I love adventure, I was in a job-hunting rut, I wanted to do something meaningful, I wanted to fulfill my long-held dream of living abroad before I had too many responsibilities, I wanted to challenge myself, etc. 

All of these motives and more drew me to this role, so it’s hard to nail down what exactly pushed me to take the leap and accept the position. It just seemed right for me in an all-encompassing yet indescribable way. My reasons may not fit well in a tidy little elevator pitch, but my decision to come was fueled by passion and determination, and that’s good enough for me.

To be honest, I never saw myself in the Peace Corps. It wasn’t until I decided to check their website on a whim one day, discovered Peace Corps Response, and found a position for a Maternal Health Implementer in Zambia that everything fell into place. It seemed like a perfect fit. 

After a whirlwind of applying, interviewing, receiving an invitation to serve and jumping through all the legal, medical and administrative hoops, I packed up my life in Seattle, drove home to Texas and spent about two weeks getting my fill of Tex-Mex food. Then I was on my way!

First off, getting to Zambia takes a lot of time. I flew from Houston to Atlanta (two hours), Atlanta to Johannesburg (15.5 hours), and Johannesburg to Lusaka (two hours). By the time you factor in layovers, it’s over a full day—and that’s if Lusaka is your destination. The city I currently live in is still a six-hour bus ride away!

I was in Lusaka for two weeks for training at the Peace Corps Office with 17 other Response Volunteers; half are DREAMS volunteers and focus on HIV/AIDS & Reproductive Health and the other half (including me) are Saving Mothers, Giving Life (SMGL) volunteers who focus on Maternal Health. A little over half of our group has served in the Peace Corps before, some in Zambia but most in other countries.

I enjoyed training overall because I got to do it with a great group of people. Our mix of previous volunteers and first-time volunteers, all with interesting experiences and backgrounds, made it a fun group to get to know. Training was controlled chaos that was both informative and overwhelming. 

Learning all the administrative ins and outs of the Peace Corps, jotting down all the ways to avoid dying and taking a crash course in an African language, all in two weeks, was mentally exhausting. We did get to mix it up with field trips to malls, markets and museums, which was always fun, but it was definitely a lot to process.

Chitenges in the Market

Going to the market means finding amazing chitenge (local fabric) stores;
chitenges can be wrapped and worn like a skirt, tailored into skirts or dresses,
or used for decoration around the house.

It was a nice routine to go back to the hotel with everyone each night, get some food (usually from the Indian restaurant) and hang out by the pool (which none of us dared to actually go into). Training in Lusaka also provided a nice introduction to Zambia. Lusaka, the capital and largest city, is lively and chaotic. It’s a great place to adapt to Zambian culture while still having access to many amenities.

We were assigned our sites by a dramatic sticky note reveal one day and I learned I would be going to Petauke (pronounced “pet-ow-okay”). I frantically Googled the city and found a Wikipedia article featuring a picture of a dirt/dust road surrounded by shrubs, and thought I was going to live alone in the desert. 

Luckily, after some more in-depth Googling as well as being put in touch with volunteers familiar with that area, I learned that Petauke is actually a decent-sized city with plenty of shops and markets to get almost anything I needed. 

Although I loved all the social aspects of training, living in a hotel unable to unpack or cook for yourself can get pretty tedious; so by the time our two weeks were over, I was ready to hit the road!

Want to hear more from Brittney? You can follow her blog to receive email notifications whenever she shares a new post.