Fulfords are Giving Peace Corps a Chance
by Craig Eley
Mark and Katherine Fulford in Swaziland
The process of applying for the Peace Corps is arduous, according to Mark. There are endless forms to complete and health records to submit (the Peace Corps wants to avoid high medical costs for applicants who have potentially serious pre-existing conditions or who may not be up to the rigors of living in primitive conditions). Similar to the college application process, Mark and Katherine each was required to submit an essay and undergo a personal interview. It is estimated that only a third of Peace Corps applicants become PCVs.
The Peace Corps was established in 1961, and in its 52 years of existence has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries. The mission of the Peace Corps is to promote world peace and friendship by helping the people of the served countries to meet their need for trained citizens, by promoting a better understanding of Americans, and by helping to promote a better understanding of other peoples by Americans.
The minimum age for a PCV is 18, and there is no maximum age. However, only 7 percent of PCVs are over the age of 50 (a category which includes the Fulfords). Currently, 62 percent of PCVs are female, with 38 percent being male.
Before leaving Denver, the Fulfords experienced one of the complications of being older PCVs—having to arrange for ongoing maintenance and financial and tax obligations that will continue despite their absence from the United States. This is a task that falls more heavily on established PCVs in contrast to their less-encumbered 20-something compatriots.
Of the 27-month Peace Corps commitment, the first 90 days is spent in training, most of which occurs while in the care of an in-country host family. The sole mission of the Peace Corps in Swaziland (a New Jersey-sized landlocked nation in southern Africa) is AIDS prevention. Between 26 percent and 40 percent of Swazi citizens are HIV positive, and the average life expectancy is 32. There being little perceived need, Mark observed, for a bankruptcy litigator in Swaziland, he has been assigned to "youth development." Katherine is a "community health educator," which requires her, among other duties, to demonstrate condom usage by employing plastic models of human anatomy.
There were 33 PCVs in the Fulfords’ Swaziland training class—all but four in their 20s and all but four female. Due to the age difference (and perhaps some homesickness) some of their co-trainees took to calling the Fulfords "Mom" and "Dad."
Since neither Katherine nor Mark has medical backgrounds, their training included AIDS cause and prevention, as well as teaching techniques. Although English is an official language of Swaziland, most of the people speak siSwati, and the Fulfords were required to become proficient in that language. They were provided by the Peace Corps with online language training before leaving Denver, but once in Swaziland they had two months of language classes, eight hours per day. At their graduation from training at the end of August, they had each scored "low intermediate" on their language tests and were cleared to leave their training village to proceed to their permanent assignments.
(Far Left) Katherine and “Make Olpa,” with her daughter’s 4-year-old son Thabiso and her sister’s 2-year-old son Lethokuhle. Mark poses in front of the door to the Fulfords one room stone floor tin-roof hut. The hut had electricity, but no heat or running water. The group of 33 Peace Corps Volunteers on their first afternoon in Swaziland, and the training facility where they were initially trained.
Katherine is working at a refugee camp, and Mark’s station is at a nearby primary school. He is instructing 11 to 14 year-olds in life skills, which includes making healthy choices in matters of sex. They live in a small hut that has electricity but no running water. They haul their water from a public spigot not far from their home, but must boil and filter it before drinking. Likewise, any fresh vegetables they buy must be soaked in bleach water for at least 15 minutes before consumption. Winter nights (the seasons are reversed from the U.S.) can be cold, and there is no heat in their hut, so they are happy to have the use of some of their Colorado clothes. They have mastered (if not embraced) the Third-World skill of the "bucket bath."
Mark and Katherine also are expected to adapt to cultural differences. For example, women are not to be seen in shorts or pants. Men are not to haul water (a custom Mark frequently violates). PCVs are expected to dress in a manner that evokes respect from the populace, and this means a few steps up from Colorado casual, regardless of the weather or temperature. Driving an automobile is strictly prohibited by the Peace Corps, so on their few days off their transportation options are limited.
In some respects, Mark and Katherine have embarked on a grim mission. Since Swaziland suffers from the world’s highest incidence of HIV infection, they know that some of the people they have met and become friends with will have passed away by the time the Fulfords return home.
What would possess a well-established couple to leave the comfort of Denver to take bucket baths in a country where the language is difficult and where they are supposed to teach subjects they have never taught before? For the Fulfords, there is an element of altruism, a desire to give back. But they also felt that they were at the time in their lives where they could reasonably undertake an adventure, one that would perhaps become less feasible with age. So, they seized the day (or 821 of them) and took the Peace Corps plunge.
At this writing, Katherine and Mark had just taken up residence at their permanent posts. They maintain a blog, which is updated whenever they can get to an internet connection, which documents their impressions and experiences, and includes photographs of the people and landscapes of this little-known African kingdom. The blog can be viewed at sanibonanifromswaziland.blogspot.com. D
Craig Eley is a Denver resident who doesn’t even own a bucket, much less bathe in one. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.