OSU in the Peace Corps: Coming back changed

Kafer with host sisters

Hannah Kafer poses with her host sisters from Lesotho. Kafer graduated from OSU in 2014 and lived in Lesotho for two years as a member of the Peace Corps.

With its rainy, cold and gray weather, Stillwater couldn’t be much more different from the dry heat Uganda experiences in January.

It is that warm weather on the other side of the world that masters student Brandi Murley often finds herself daydreaming about. Murley, a member of Oklahoma State’s Masters in International Agriculture Program, returned to Stillwater in August after she served in Uganda for three years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps.

“That’s how I first heard about [Peace Corps] was through MIAP,” Murley said. “But also, my own interest in wanting to kind of have a step up in experience when it comes time for me to graduate and apply for jobs.”

After three months acclimating to Ugandan culture and learning to speak Acoli, Murley moved to Kitgum where she worked with Mercy Corps, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting poverty.

Murley’s work focused on helping Ugandan youth ages 15-24. She did jobs ranging from training peer educators to raising money to build a basketball court. One of her biggest jobs was to teach people how to make and market liquid soap in a cost efficient manner.

After two years in Kitgum, Murley moved to Arua and worked for Care International for a year.

Care International’s focus in Arua is on providing protection for women and children fleeing the south Sudanese crisis. Part of Murley’s job was to go into communities and give domestic violence awareness classes as well as help find more secure housing for women than the tent they lived in in the refugee camps.

Murley’s experience living abroad taught her several lessons and changed her view of the world. She said she is more open-minded than when she arrived, and she learned a lot from the Ugandans.

“Be respectful of people’s situations,” Murley said. “If you see someone on the street doing something, know that their situation does not define who they are.”

Murley isn’t the only person who came back a changed person after her time with the Peace Corps.

Hannah Kafer and her husband, Jonathon Suttle, graduated from OSU in 2014, and from September 2017 to November they served with the Peace Corps in Lesotho.

Lesotho is a small country surrounded by South Africa. Kafer and Suttle lived in the semi-urban city of Morija, where they both worked in schools. Kafer taught grades one through seven, and Suttle taught math at the all-girls high school where the couple lived.

Kafer had wanted to join the Peace Corps since high school, and she knew people who had done it. She also studied abroad in France during her undergrad, so she had experience living outside the United States. With that in mind, she thought she was prepared for life in Lesotho, but there were still things she had to adjust to.

“One of my biggest difficulties was dealing with public transport,” Kafer said. “You use a minibus taxi system to get everywhere for the most part, and they don’t have a schedule timing system, so it can get kind of frustrating.”

Public transport was just one of the struggles Kafer and her husband faced. They didn’t have heating or air conditioning, and for the first few months they didn’t have running water, either. They had to learn to cook from scratch and with less ingredients. They had to learn to survive on less.

Although there were difficulties, Suttle said life in Lesotho was enjoyable.

“I liked learning about humanity and seeing nature and wildlife,” Suttle said.

Kafer and Suttle forged relationships with their students and fellow teachers during their two years in Lesotho, and they were able to learn a lot from them. The lessons they learned helped make their time in Africa easier and gave them a different outlook on life.

The relationships volunteers make while abroad is a big part of what makes the Peace Corps work, which is why volunteers are supposed to immerse themselves in their communities. For Murley, the friendships she made will last a lifetime, and she misses them now that she’s gone.

“There are relationships that aren’t, going into it, relationships I expected to get,” Murley said. “Like my friend, Jimmy’s, aunt. She’s like an old grandma that you can go to with any troubles, and she’ll just be like, ‘Here, come into my house.’ Ugandans are very welcoming.”

The volunteers enjoyed their time abroad, but they missed their families and friends while they were gone. Even though they looked forward to coming back to their loved ones, they learned that reverse culture shock is real.

Kafer said she and Suttle got so used to the Lesotho lifestyle that the transition back to life in the States was more difficult than the transition to life over there, which is a sentiment Murley shares.

“Going to grocery stores [was a shock],” Kafer said. “There you don’t really have the options that you have here, so when I went to Walmart during my first few days back, it was so overwhelming.”

Despite the difficulties that came with the Peace Corps, none of the returned volunteers had any regrets about their service. They all feel they have been changed for the better.

“I really learned that people are a lot more similar than they are different,” Suttle said. “Here and in Africa there’s nice people, rude people, sad people, outgoing people. In general, human beings are human beings. It helped me to see the world in a different light.”