Leaving my New Home: A Story of the COVID-19 by Emily Wood, Laramie, WY

A little over a year ago I received an email with fantastic news. After a long application and interview process, I read the words “Dear Emily, Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer… This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a High School English Teacher in Mozambique.” I was so excited that I didn’t even try to read the rest of the email at that time. There I was, in my final semester at the University of Wyoming, and I had an adventure to look forward to for the next two years of my life.

I spent the summer spending time with family and friends, enjoying Wyoming’s nature, researching and preparing for the next stage of my life. Although I have previously packed up my life to live in other countries I knew little about, such as Germany for a gap year after high school, or Lithuania and Indonesia to study abroad, this time was completely different and it was hard to know what to expect. At the end of August, I boarded a plane in Laramie, eventually made it to Philadelphia to meet the rest of my cohort of 55, and a couple days later we began our long journey to Mozambique.

A lot happened in the following months, including three months of intensive language classes and training, all while living with Mozambican host families. I learned a lot of things during that time, from the Portuguese language to how to ralar coco and pilar amendoim for Mozambican dishes, and from navigating the local markets to perfecting mango collection methods (either climbing the tree to shake branches, or perfectly aiming unripe mangoes at some ripe ones further up).

At the end of November, we were officially sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers, and at the end of December we split up and each went to our separate sites and villages across the country.

My site had a lot of parallels to living in Wyoming, so I felt right at home and was excited to explore and go hiking. My village was situated on top of a mountain, close to the border of Zimbabwe where you could see the tea fields in every shade of green. There were plants everywhere, making the village and surroundings lush and rich with fresh fruits and vegetables. School didn’t start for a month, so I had time to settle down into my new house and explore my community. Once school started, I had to sit through ridiculously long meetings on the uncomfortable wooden desks, but I also planned and taught my own lessons. It was very difficult adjusting to the education system and teaching rowdy classes of 50-60 students, but I was starting to figure out the ins and outs of it.

On March 16th everything changed. Peace Corps Washington announced that all volunteers were being evacuated due to COVID-19, an unprecedented event in Peace Corps history. With airlines canceling flights, countries closing borders, and the situation rapidly evolving, we had to leave as soon as possible, a complicated undertaking. In the words of one of our staff members, “nobody has tried to evacuate the world before.”

I had about 24 hours to pack up what I could from my home and the life I was building in a place that I was expecting to be for two years rather than three months. I had made things for my house to transform it into a home. I had built close relationships with my neighbors, colleagues, and friends, but I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to many of them. I made friends with some market women, even though I had not yet had the chance to learn their local language, and as a result could only communicate through someone else translating. I could already impress them with some simple greetings and the names of fruits and vegetables, but I wanted to learn more. I keep thinking about how I disappeared without a word, and how I have no way to communicate with them now that I am gone.

I left all of my students, not knowing that Friday was my last day. They were just starting to become comfortable with my teaching and were engaging with my lessons. This was after my learning curve of the teaching system and dealing with students who were indisciplinados. In my 9th grade class, I had just finished teaching a lesson on the future tense, and we listened and danced to Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” I left right after giving out a test to my 8th graders and not having a chance to grade it, after starting English lessons for the community, and after starting a theater club. My school was counting on me being there, and once school starts again I don’t know what they will do about my classes.

I left counterparts and colleagues, projects and competitions that we were preparing for, and the place that I had begun to call home. There were many things I was looking forward to, from more immediate things celebrating Dia das Mulheres Moçambicanas with my colleagues and buying a bike to further explore my area, to working on some photography projects of children with their handmadetoys and market women with their goods. I hadn’t even taken out my camera because I wanted to settle in and become familiar first, so the only pictures I have are the few on my phone.

At the University of Wyoming I wrote my senior honor’s thesis on voluntourism, which is the act of going abroad for a short period of time to work on a project that you may or may not have experience in. It has become more and more popular over the years, but is also widely criticized. The Peace Corps has some similarities to voluntourism programs, but also distinguishes itself by providing longer-term community immersion, and three months of training on top of experiences and skills that volunteers already bring in. The Peace Corps’ mission is:

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

These goals are not to “change the world” or to “save those less fortunate.” Although each individual volunteer has their own personal reasons for serving, we all were committed to our projects and communities.

Leaving earlier than expected,with no chance to wrap up projects or say goodbye makes me feel as if I had participated in more of a voluntourism experience. Some of my projects were not yet sustainable because I had started them a week or two earlier, however, given the situation now, they would have likely stopped anyway. COVID-19 is having its effects in Mozambique, too, though it is hard to tell the true nature of the situation, especially in rural areas with few resources. The country is on lockdown, but many are not able to stay at home because they need to work and get food for themselves and their families.

Returning to the US has been a very difficult transition. The journey home itself was terrifying. Borders all around us were being closed and our flights had been booked and rebooked multiple times. The day before we left Mozambican President Nyusi announced a nation-wide lockdown, closing borders and schools, and stopping and canceling all visa processes beginning three days later. We eventually had a final flight plan, flying into Ethiopia and taking one of the three charter planes back to the US with Peace Corps Volunteers from around Africa.

The morning we left Mozambique I came down with a fever and was scared they wouldn’t let me board the plane.The Peace Corps medical staff came running into the airport last minute as we were in the security line, bringing me some medicine. But the journey wasn’t over yet, because I heard a rumor on that if one person on the plane had a fever when we landed in the US, the whole plane would have to be quarantined for two weeks. Upon arrival in the US, although we filled out forms regarding our health, nobody took them from us, nobody checked our temperatures, and there were no health stops. Finally, after more than three days of travel, I landed in Laramie and went back to my family’s home.

I had been mentally prepared to live in Mozambique for 27 months, planning to utilize that time to further integrate into my community, gain professional experience, and further cement my career plans and goals. I was not prepared to come back home so soon, let alone return to a country that was completely different from the one I left in August. After self-quarantining for two weeks, I’ve just remained at home with my family because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Just like for many people, there are so many unknowns. I’m now considered a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), as if I had finished my entire time. Even though I was in Mozambique for a fraction of the time I expected to be there, I have taken a lot away from the experience. I have lived another lifestyle, have gotten by and been happy with fewer things, and have learned the importance of a strong community, all lessons which will remain with me.

All Peace Corps operations have been suspended, and there is no knowing when they will be back up and running and when countries can start receiving volunteers again. There’s no guarantee that we can return to our original country of service, let alone the same communities we were living in. All of this leaves us volunteers in limbo. It is too late to apply for most graduate programs, and most jobs that are in my field require at least two years of experience, not to mention the economy that we’ve been dropped into. So for now, I’ve just been trying to keep busy with hobbies, learning new things, and searching for grad programs that are still open, and jobs, because that is all I can do at this point. It often feels hopeless and sometimes pointless because I’m not supposed to be here, but things often don’t go according to plan and we have to adapt, as we all are learning right now. I miss my community and my friends, neighbors, landlord,and fellow volunteers, and hope that one day I’ll be able to back, either as a volunteer again or just to visit, and I hope that Peace Corps will soon return to Mozambique. Until then, I just have to make to make the best of the situation