WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts — Rebecca and Oliver Zornow are Wisconsin natives and former Peace Corps volunteers who spent two years of their lives in Swaziland, Africa. Their time in the Swaziland showed them the realities of foreign aid, how to leave a lasting impact on a developing country and the true meaning of working in the Peace Corps.
The couple graduated together from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Although Rebecca majored in English and Art History, while Oliver specialized in Government and Economics, both shared a passion for aiding those in extreme poverty.
It was their previous development work in Haiti that compelled Rebecca and Oliver to start the application process for the Peace Corps in 2009.
It took eighteen months of forms, medical examinations and interviews before the couple’s Peace Corps destination country was revealed. “We had no idea where we were going in the world,” Rebecca reflects, “It was very exciting getting our packet in the mail.”
Rebecca and Oliver were placed in Swaziland, one of the smallest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Swaziland has been debilitated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and its main development challenges come from weak fiscal management and slow economic growth.
Although the Zornows waited almost two years before being assigned a host country, Peace Corps has since changed the application process to improve efficiency and better suit volunteers. Applicants can now request specific locations that are tailored to their skills and desires, which is expected to drastically cut down application time.
After being accepted as Peace Corps volunteers, Rebecca and Oliver began three months of training in the U.S. and later in Swaziland. Ranging from education on Peace Corps as an organization, to learning how to avoid snakebites, the preparation was extensive.
After training, the couple was integrated into their new home in Africa.
Rebecca and Oliver lived on a homestead in a round concrete hut, traditionally reserved for elders or visitors. Their African community was a three and a half hour walk from the paved road, and 19 kilometers away from any other Peace Corps volunteers.
Integration into African life meant meeting all the villagers, conducting household interviews, shadowing educators and becoming a part of the community. Peace Corps volunteers are very different from other development volunteers in this way.
“A lot of development workers come for a day, a week, a month and then disappear,” says Oliver. “(Villagers) recognizing that you’re there for the long haul is a huge thing. That you are actually going to try and follow through.”
The Zornow couple were assigned in Swaziland as “nonformal education volunteers,” a Peace Corps position that has since been renamed as “youth development volunteers.”
This job entailed training local teachers in a youth hostel, creating programming for the orphaned children and taking on various community projects. Rebecca started a library, while Oliver created a computer lab and taught computer classes. The couple also pioneered an art club, and oversaw a garden for orphaned youth.
Perhaps more impactful than the organized programming was the sharing of cultures that took place during the couple’s two year stay in Swaziland.
“Seeing Oliver doing laundry alongside me shared about American culture, that we were in our marriage as a team.” Occurrences as simple as this accomplished the Peace Corps’ goal of fostering cultural education and goodwill between nations.
Most of the work that Oliver and Rebecca did in Swaziland has lasted till this day. The library is still running, and Oliver trained a local student to continue teaching computer classes in the lab.
However, while some aspects of their work are still visible in the community, neither their art club nor the hostel garden continued after they left.
However, in their eyes, this is not a huge concern, because the Peace Corps’ goal is not to construct roads or do massive projects, but rather to “build people.”
In Rebecca’s eyes, if a specific program started by a Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t continue, “If the people who did that project with you were able to take skills and apply them to other areas, that’s seen as real success.”
This philosophy is equally applicable to the humanitarian aid process. The Zornows saw firsthand the inefficiencies of improper foreign aid. The boxes of useless donations that were sent to Swaziland from Americans frustrated them.
“It is not that people in Swaziland are having the problems they’re having because they don’t have your old shoes or a book about Victorian homes,” says Oliver.
In thinking about donating to philanthropies, Rebecca and Oliver agree that “donating to an organization that puts more power, not just things, in individuals hands,” is the best strategy.
Overall, the Peace Corps experience permanently changed the lives of both Rebecca and Oliver. Now back in Wisconsin, they work for a local nonprofit and continue to share their Peace Corps story with friends and family.
“Swaziland became a second home to us,” Rebecca reflected in a final Peace Corps blog post, “We are proud of the projects we worked on and will always remember the people that welcomed us into their community.”
– Grace Flaherty