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Barry Fellowship Alum Spotlight

Bevin Peters, 2007 Barry Fellow

Where did you get your idea for the Barry project? Why did you choose this specific country and project?
When I first started looking into my summer plans during sophomore year, I brainstormed ideas related to my interests, and drew from my former experiences. One idea I kept coming back to was the discrepancies between the roles of men and women in many traditional African communities...this became a overlying theme of what I wanted to explore in my project. I realized that I had many experiences as a women in America that women in many other communities would never have. I wanted to observe the situation of women in East Africa, and set out to challenge stereotypical female roles by encouraging younger women and girls to pursue studies in math, science and engineering, and to consider careers in traditionally male-dominated industries. I also wanted to encourage girls to feel comfortable participating in sports like soccer and running, and living active and healthy lives. I had planned to teach teenage girls in the school where I was, but upon arriving I discovered there was more need for a Kiswahili-speaking volunteer in the younger "Baby class", so I changed my plan and taught there (and absolutely loved it). However I still had a chance to mentor young girls at the school where I was, challenge athletic stereotypes by running every morning and talking to locals about my training, volunteer at a hospital to observe health problems women face (as well as female nurses and doctors) and stay at a training camp for promising female athletes.

While I was in high school, I traveled to Tanzania for about 2.5 weeks with my church youth group. After that experience, I knew I wanted to go back to Sub-Saharan Africa. My project goals would have applied to to many communities throughout the region, and my Kiswahili language interest would have been fulfilled staying in either Kenya or Tanzania. But since I wrote a lengthy research paper on the athletic success of a Kenyan tribe in high school, I chose to base my project out of the Rift Valley Province there, near the area where that tribe is focused. I also decided this choice would give me a chance to see a new side of Sub-Saharan Africa which I had never seen before.

Who did you consult in developing this idea?
I developed most of this project on my own, which basically meant thinking about what I wanted to do and then looking up a large amount of information online, but I had a lot of questions along the way which I got input on from faculty (especially my Kiswahili professor) and some family friends that live in Kenya.

Which Yale resources did you utilize most effectively in developing this proposal?
Looking at what past Barry Fellows did was helpful in the initial planning phase, because it helped me get an idea of the range of experiences they had. Also, talking to people in the OFP office (especially Tim Stumph) was a good way to take care of details like effectively presenting the proposal in a written statement and submitting application materials.

Where and with whom did you live?
I lived in a housing complex in the outskirts of Nakuru, a fairly large city located West of Nairobi in the Rift Valley Province. I lived with a single mother, her 6 year old daughter, two house-workers, and a few other volunteers. It was a lot nicer than I expected, although we still had occasional problems with power outages and water shortages.

Was there a language barrier? Did you experience communication problems? If so, how did you deal with them?
There wasn't a distinct language barrier in Kenya, because English, along with Kiswahili, is a national language. A lot of Kenyans grow up speaking their tribal language at home and pick up Kiswahili in various places, so English will often be their third language. Most well-educated Kenyans speak English well, since schoolchildren begin learning a small amount of English in nursery school. Since I was teaching first year students, very few of them knew any English, and usually spoke poor Kiswahili. But most of the time we found ways to understand what each other was trying to communicate. The biggest problem that I ran into when trying to speak Kiswahili was that a lot of younger people spoke in "Sheng" (a type of Swahili slang), and many others just didn't use proper grammar. There were even a few times that I was laughed at for using proper grammar! It took a lot of effort to communicate properly in Swahili most of the time, so I often had to resort to using English. Although it's always good to keep in mind that bargaining in the native language is usually much more effective if you go to the marketplace!

Were there any health concerns? Did you ever need to see a doctor? If so, how was that experience?
My biggest health concern was that I spent most of my time either in a classroom of 5-year olds or a hospital full of sick people: both hotbeds for bacteria. While I couldn't change the environment at the hospital, I managed to increase the personal hygiene of my students at the school, which was good for me too! One day I came to class dressed in my hospital coat, complete with a cardboard stethoscope. By role-playing as "Daktari Bevin" (Doctor Bevin), I managed to teach my students about germs, the work of doctors, and different sicknesses. While some of the content might have been a little over their heads, they put my advice to practice by blowing their noses into handkerchiefs, not coughing in each others faces, not eating food off the floor, and washing their hands or using the hand sanitizer I brought to class before eating with their hands.

Did you have time for fun? Did you travel outside of your project?
I did find enough time to have fun during my trip. I'd usually work hard through the week, and do some different activities on the weekend. Some weekends I worked at the school or hospital and went on short day trips, but I had the opportunity to travel with other volunteers too. One weekend, I took the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa to visit the beautiful Kenyan coast. Two of my favorite traveling memories though, were from impromptu road trips around the Rift Valley with 3 other volunteers and our new Kenyan friend (who was a great resource for random information on Kenya). We drove across the Equator, through the valleys and hills of the Rift Valley, to the shores of Lake Victoria, and through the green tea fields of Kericho. We also drove through storms, two flat tires, and a flooded road that might has well been a river. Those trips were both exciting adventures, and a great way to see the natural beauty of Kenya on some less-traveled roads. Also, I traveled to the Northern Rift Valley for a few days at the end of my trip, staying at the training camp of the 2007 World Cross-Country Champion, Lornah Kiplagat.

Do you have any favorite memories/anecdotes?
I could fill up pages and pages with great memories of my "Baby Class," although I'd have to say one of my favorites was the day I brought Jello for my students after lunch. I don't know exactly why I decided to bring Jello from home, but I'm glad I did. There was a mess of Jello everywhere that day, but the smiles on their faces were priceless.

How do you plan to build upon this project? Would you go back to the country?
I feel like this trip was only the beginning for my involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa. The effect I had on the community was only temporary, but I think I could still contribute a lot more in the future. I'm still keeping in touch with contacts from the area, and I'm hoping to use my resources here in the United States to support projects back there. For example, I met a social worker who started a women's support group, and she was interested in giving these women means to support themselves by providing microloans or starting a seed bank to help start community gardens. I realized that one of the best ways I might be able to make a lasting impact is to support projects within the existing infrastructure. In particular, I feel as though community health education, job training, and microfinance could all have significant effects in that area. After learning more about day-to-day life in Kenya, and the needs of this particular community, I'm excited to return some day and contribute my skills to the community there once again. I'd also like to return to the school where I was teaching in the next few years so I can see my former students.

What do you know now about the experience that you did not know prior to departure?
I wish I would have known more about my housing situation before I went to Kenya. I was hoping for a more isolated home-stay that would immerse me in the culture, but I actually spent a good deal of my free time with other volunteers living in my house.

Do you have any advice for future Barry fellows?
Be creative and flexible, both while planning your project and executing it. Don't be afraid to try something new, although keep your safety in mind. Make plenty of friends, and do your best to keep in touch with them when you return home. Always remember that, during this trip, you can teach and learn at the same time...realize that it is important to do both. And on a more practical level, bring plenty of hand sanitizer. Even if you don't use it all, there's a really good chance you could find some five-year olds who would be thrilled to use it!