Learning Peace: Stories from my Time in Peace Corps Ethiopia
by Krista Jolivette (Ethiopia 2018-20)
$4.99 (Kindle); $9.99 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Ethiopia 1974-76)
What Returned Peace Corps Volunteer has not answered that inevitable question upon their return, “What was it like? It must have been interesting.”? And then waited for the listeners’ eyes to glaze over as the Volunteer describes what may have been the most transformative experience of their lives. Interesting? How do you describe a bond that you have with a country and a people that will likely last a lifetime? How do you describe an experience that will affect your future relationships, job choices, lifestyle, and attitudes and beliefs? How do you say that you are not the person you were before?
Krista Jolivette (Ethiopia 2018-20) provides a glimpse into her life as a Volunteer in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, from invitation through close of service and reentry, in a heartfelt Learning Peace: Stories from my Time in Peace Corps Ethiopia. She chronicles her experience through poetry, lists, vignettes, and stories that reflect her day-to-day activities and the joy that they bring.
Each entry brought back floods of memories from my own Peace Corps experiences decades ago as well as recent travels back to what I will always consider my second home of Ethiopia. Her gifted stories allowed me to see Ethiopia once again with fresh eyes and a sense of wonder. I suspect that Volunteers in other countries would identify likewise.
She opens her musings with “Time” (There is a time for everything under the sun—Ecclesiastes) and reflects on her emerging interpretations of time: slimy, muddy roads; baskets filled with fresh produce; a time for questioning or believing; a time for celebrating or grieving with those who mourn; a time for celebrating this life; and a time for being here, right now. Krista closes with “Unfinished Business,” when she was abruptly evacuated along with thousands of others due to COVID 19. She mourns that she didn’t finish teaching her Grade 10 students or thanking the many people who influenced her life for those 21 months: fellow teachers, students, fellow volunteers, neighbors, shopkeepers, and family.
In between, we see the world through her eyes as she discovers the richness and variety of the food, the communal dining experience, the sensory experience of brewing and experiencing coffee, late-night visits to the outdoor latrine to the chilling cacophony of the whoops of hyenas, the excitement of learning and yet being overwhelmed by the intricacies of a new language.
Peace Corps Volunteers discovered minimalism before it was a fashion trend. Krista speaks about how many days in a row she can wear the same change of clothes or how many days between sponge baths. She prides herself on her ability to stretch a jerry can of water for all essential activities and recyle, reuse, reduce the impact of daily life on the environment.
Through these daily activities and developing relationships with both country and people, she grows as a person, becoming stronger, confident, self-reliant. “Because in the end, the only voice I’ll take with me is my own.”
There is much to unpack in these pages; it is worth reading from start to finish and returning at random to an open page. There are many nuggets of wisdom within to reflect upon and absorb. Those who are contemplating entering a period of service will find an accurate and moving depiction of life in the Peace Corps. Those who have served will look back on their own experiences with fond memories and satisfaction of a time well spent. As Krista reflects,
“When it comes to joining the Peace Corps, the time is always. It’s not ‘Now,’ it’s not ‘then;’ it’s not ‘soon,’ and it’s not ‘later.’ It’s always.”
Janet Lee (Ethiopia 1974-76) served in one of the final groups of PCVs in Ethiopia during the early 70s. After having visited Emdeber for the first time, she was in Addis Ababa the day that HIM Haile Selassie was overthrown and witnessed throngs of young men chanting in the streets. Since 2006 she has returned to Ethiopia six times for a variety of library and literacy projects including six months in Mekelle in 2010 and ten months in Axum in 2017-18 as a Fulbright Scholar. From 2012-17 she was content editor of The Herald: News for those who served with the Peace Corps in Eritrea and Ethiopia. She is Dean Emerita, Regis (Denver) University Library. She has edited several library-related publications and written and presented extensively about libraries and literacy in international settings. She is Past-President, Ethiopia & Eritrea Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association.