Peace Corps Volunteer: Zimbabwe During Land Reformation

Carley wanted to teach in Africa. The Peace Corps wanted her in Zimbabwe. Mugabe wanted her (and every other white person) out.

Here is a bit of her story.

Zimbabwe is going through a lot these days. What was it like when you were there?


I was there in late 1999 – early 2000. Zimbabwe still had a tourist population and a significant white population at that time. It was just at the beginning of the land reformation when they started kicking the white population out. I was supposed to be there for 2 years. I only ended up being there for a matter of months. They started targeting whites and teachers. They believed teachers were supporting the opposition. The vibe throughout the country felt very unsafe.

Unsafe vibe?

People had guns pulled on them. Friends of mine were clubbed. There was a time where other volunteers and I were on a bus and these drunk men started screaming at us. It was very scary.

What was the Peace Corps response to this violence?

I worked in a village alone. The nearest Peace Corps volunteer was 30 km away. They consolidated all the volunteers in one area. We played cards and volleyball all day. It sounds fun, but after 3 weeks we were all about to kill each other. They gave us a choice of taking an interruption of service to go home and then fly back to Zimbabwe when the elections were over or we could stay. I thought “free trip home” as did most people.

Did any of the Peace Corps volunteers stay during the elections?

95 out of the 102 people went back to the US. Long story short the elections did not make anything better and nobody came back. The Peace Corps kept the program open for political reasons. After the elections, they brought over a new but small Peace Corps group. Their jobs were very different than ours were. No one was allowed in the rural areas. No one was even allowed to go to the rural areas.

Did it get any better for the new Peace Corps group after the elections?

One of the volunteers was a 65 year old woman. She was murdered for her phone. The police found her body under the floor boards of her house. At that point the Peace Corps decided to pull out of Zimbabwe. The economy at that time was much worse than it was when I was there. The exchange rate when I was there was about 1 USD to 38 Zimbabwean Dollars–then inflation went up 100,000%.

How was Zimbabwe different than what you expected?

How I thought it would be difficult is not how it proved to be difficult. I thought it would be hard to live with no electricity, no running water, with the food. I thought I would get very lonely. I had left a long term relationship behind. I went from one day living in a house with my boyfriend and the next day waking up on a mud hut floor with turkeys walking around. It was so surreal. I grew accustomed to taking bucket baths and eating rice and ground up tomatoes. I could not get used to the AIDS situation.

How is the AIDS situation in Zimbabwe?

The official numbers stated that approximately 30% – 38% percent of Zimbabweans had AIDS. But, I heard that it was more like 50%. I went into it very naively thinking that it was an education issue. I thought people do not know how they get AIDS and I could just educate them, but it is so much more than that.

This is a country where you can literally, on any day, get struck by lightning and die going to buy vegetables at the market. They take their lives in their hands everyday. People in Zimbabwe know how they get AIDS. They understand, “If I have sex, I can get AIDS and I can die.” But they also understand, “If I go to the store today, I might get struck by lightning and die.” There is not a fear of mortality here. That is something that we in the western countries can not wrap our heads around.

What is the extent of AIDS/HIV education over there?

One of the classes I taught was HIV / AIDS education. People understand how you get AIDS, but Zimbabwe is a place with no hope.

Zimbabwe is hopeless?

It is close to it. But it brings up a really huge question. What is suffering? It is relative. It depends on your frame of mind. It comes from where you come from and from what you value and what you think is important.

Zimbabwe is a place where there is so little hope, so much sorrow and problems that are so much bigger than I could ever get my head around. My closest friend there had been alive during the war for independence. Her family had to dig a hole in the backyard and bury themselves with garbage to survive.

What then gets the Zimbabwean people through their days?

This is a place where living for the moment matters more than anything else and that in and of itself is an amazing lesson. It was an amazing lesson for me to bring home. When I came home I was in a place psychologically that I don’t know if I will ever return. I laughed so much and I had such a lighthearted way of looking at the world. There is a saying in the Peace Corps that people come back from Latin America political, from Asia spiritual and from Africa laughing. It is so, so true.

Would you recommend the Peace Corps?

I would. You have to be open minded to it. There are a lot of miserable people in the Peace Corps.

You mean the Peace Corps is not a bunch of vegetarian, do-gooders?

There is a misconception that the Peace Corps is a bunch of do-gooder hippie types which some, of course, are. But I would say the majority of them have big issues they are running from, are getting a divorce, don’t have anything else to do or think it would look good on their resume. People are there for all kinds of reasons. There was a woman in my group that was there to live a glamorous life. She spent her weekends meeting sugar daddy’s and then would turnaround and say the most horrible things to people like, “You smell so bad. No wonder your country is in the shitter.”

I think traveler world is the land of broken hearts. So many of the people I have met while traveling had just found out their boyfriends cheated on them or were going through a divorce or some other major life trauma…

I remember people telling me that I was so brave to do this. I did not feel brave. I felt more like, “What is wrong with me that I am doing this?” There are a lot of miserable people that are searching for something in the Peace Corps.

How would you say foreign women are treated in Zimbabwe?

I felt very protected where I lived and taught. There was a crazy man in the village and they would tell me to stay away from him. He started chasing and yelling at me one day. After that the women would not let me go out alone. They would come with me to buy my vegetables. I think any aggression towards me had more to do with being white than it did have to do with me being a woman.

Did you ever have any times where you felt threatened?

I had one scary incident. One of the male teachers asked me to go have a drink with him. He took me to this hotel very close to where we lived. When we got there, he had me follow him up this corridor to a room. Once we were at the door to the room he tried to get me to go in with him. It was so crazy. I was so scared. I felt so manipulated. I went back home and told the women. He got in trouble. He was reported to the head mistress and apologized to me.

How are Zimbabwean women treated in their own culture?

It is hard to know how they are really treated because I was not treated as one of them. It was very secret. I think they are beaten. I remember someone saying to me once, “I hear if a man beats his wife [in the United States] he can go to prison.” They think that is ludicrous.

I had a man in the village come tell me one day that he was getting married. I was excited for him. He then commented that, “It was probably time for him to stop going in the bushes with young girls.”

How young are these girls that he is having sex in the bushes with?

About 7 years old up to teenagers. One of my friends told me that over 90% of the girls there are raped. It is par for the course there.

There are no laws against rape?

No. The kids sleep with the teachers and the teachers by them a soda or candy in exchange.

They don’t think husbands should go to jail for beating their wives?

They don’t think it is wrong. They think it is part of the household. The women are beaten. Men have affairs. They sleep with prostitutes. If men can afford it they have more than one wife. Men and women have separate lifestyles. They do not socialize together at all.

The women wake up at 4 in them morning to take care of the kids and make breakfast. Making breakfast means collecting firewood, building a fire, boiling the water, and making the porridge. It is like a 4 hour ordeal. Doing the laundry is another 4 hour ordeal. They have to collect the water. It is a hard life. It is a very hard life. Especially if you are not a very educated woman.

Do the Zimbabwean women look at it as a hard life?

Yes and no. I think they all strive to get to the place where they could be a teacher. Being a teacher is the top of the top for women there.

Is birth control ever discussed?

In Zimbabwe it was very taboo. They are into dry sex. The women use drying agents to dry themselves out. Here we use lube and there the men prefer it dry. There is some ludicrous tale there that condoms give you AIDS. They don’t want to use them.

Is it the men that don’t want to use condoms?

Men don’t want to use them. Women want to do what the men say.

Is it just a matter of giving the AIDS crisis more money?

I don’t think it is money. It is a culture that needs to change. And how do you change a culture? Especially when the media has all kinds of sex messages. Sex is a pleasure. It is always going to be a pleasure. It really is all there is to do there. There is a myth there that if you have sex with a virgin it will cure you of AIDS. It perpetuates the whole cycle. An AIDS vaccine is the best hope. But, that is so far off and then you need to get a whole continent vaccinated.

I met a guy that had lived in Ethiopia for two years. He told me that he had come to realize that he couldn’t be real friends with the people there because the culture gap is just too big. It sounds as if what you and I think of friendship is different than their perspective on it. He said that every friend he had would eventually come and ask him for money and of course, our version of friendship doesn’t typically involve loans.

That is true. I would think that every person that has had a friend in Africa feels exactly the same way. It sucks. Even when I got home I got letters asking me for money. I didn’t give them money because I really didn’t think they would use it for school as they said they would. And there is no way to send it over there safely. The gap is huge. It is like trying to plant a tree in the wrong climate. There is no way for it to work.

As you say we have to re-define suffering, maybe we have to re-define friendship?

Yes, definitely. We can’t even imagine what they must feel like. Maybe it would be like if you or I knew a friend that had billions of dollars and our house burnt down and we just wanted to have them help us re-build it. It would be nothing to them and life changing to us. I think they think we are those people that have so much money to spare it would not effect us. To them I had so much. Someone told me when I first got there that you look at their one pair of shoes and their two cups and then they look at your suitcase and what is in it — and it is worth more than they will make in their whole lives.

What do you think you took away from that whole experience?

I had huge lessons to learn. There was no way I could get my head around being in the same mental place that they were. The friendships I made were so special to me. There was something genuine there. I was completely alone. I didn’t have any family. I was so far away. So far removed. And then there was a knock on the door and someone gives you a bag of mangoes and it is the best gift you have ever got in your entire life. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about those moment in the ashrams of total elation – I felt like I had those in moments in Zimbabwe. At times I was floating I was so happy. They came from the moments I shared with people that were so pure and so genuine. I can’t liken it to anything else. Maybe it is because everything else was taken out of my life and one by one these acts of generosity came to me. That is what made the difference. Little girls in the village would come over and dance with me — it was such an amazing gift. It was so incredible.

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More about Carley and her experience in Zimbabwe: http://metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=2204

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