A Lifetime of Service
Mary Ann Camp served as a Peace Corps Volunteer following a decades-long nursing career. The following is an interview of Mary Ann Camp by Amy Marshall Clark of Coverdell World Wise Schools.
- Can you tell us, just in general, what kinds of work did you do as a Peace Corps Volunteer?
- Mary Ann
- Well, my primary project in Lesotho was agriculture, so that just lent to many, many different aspects of being with the youth groups and, of course, AIDS was just really beginning to be a problem in '98. I mean, the problem was there, but we were not addressing it. So, we began to form our first AIDS clubs then, working with the youth group. I was able to work with the women's groups, which was very, very much into agriculture, because with what we were raising in the gardens, we were then able to bring it to the class time and do the cooking of it, which lent also into projects like water saving, and seed saving. And then we branched off a little bit further into sewing, and we were able to get a sewing machine, and so I taught the women how to use a hand-crank sewing machine, and this happened in each country: we had sewing projects going. So it was like a real project with the women, and then in the preschool, which was right across the way from where we were doing all these women's projects. The preschool teacher came, and she said, "Well, don't you think you ought to be doing something with the preschool children?" And so, that just developed into something for the preschool children.
Then men in the village came, and they said, "Well, you're working with the youth, and you're working with the children, and you're working with the wives, but you're not working with us!" So that kind of developed into a project of doing, we did a chicken project for them. So it eventually evolved with the whole, whole village had some project going, you know. It was really very good, because we had, at the end of my stay there, we had what we call an "expo": an exposition kind of like would be a 4-H fair here. And so everybody brought all of the things that they'd been doing, you know, together, and it was televised! And they were just amazed that somebody would come out from the capital city and televise what they'd been doing. So, it was just really a fun time for all of us.
That was in Lesotho. So in Malawi, I was then assigned to health, and my primary project was within a clinic, which was this mission clinic under the Presbyterian Church. That project lent into many other things, because the clinic really needed to be renovated. It's not like what our clinics would here in the States: every building had a different sector to it. I mean, there was a building for pediatrics; there was a building for the men; there was a building for the TB, for maternity, what have you. It's kind of like a little campus. Some of the rooms and the buildings were just deplorable. Some had no beds, even, especially the pediatric ward; that was just a big, empty room with kids laying on urine-stained mats. And it was, it was just, I mean, it didn't take much to see that there was a lot to be done. So, it was a project that I did through the SPA, which is the Small Project Assistance through the Peace Corps. And so we got funding to renovate the entire campus, which meant making quilts. The women were involved making quilts for the beds. First of all, we had to get the beds, there were no beds. So, we went raiding many of the hospitals within the capital area, and Peace Corps helped me a lot by getting those beds out to the site. So it was a very successful program.
It was just such a fun thing because it was the villagers and the clinic staff who got involved. And the women made the curtains for the clinic, for all the rooms, and, you know, the quilts. And the men did the whitewashing; we didn't have paint; we used whitewash. And they didn't have mosquito nets, either. And so that was another project which we started with PSI, Population Services International, to be able to get mosquito nets for all those buildings, over each bed, because malaria is such a problem in Malawi. So then we set up the whole program for the mosquito nets' distribution, so that was another project.
One of the biggest things I think we did was to have the World AIDS Day program, which again involved all the village, and even some of the neighboring villages. And the way we did that was to sell raffle tickets for some of the quilts that the ladies had made, and so this brought in everybody. Then we decided, "Well, we can go a little bit further." So we started selling raffle tickets for maize, and for five pounds of sugar, and, I mean, it just really got out of hand, almost. Lanterns, and you name it. But we had a packed, packed auditorium for that World AIDS Day. And then we had people to come who were guest speakers. We had one of the first people in that area who would actually get up and say, "Yes, I'm HIV-positive." So it was just a good experience for the village. And we had some of Peace Corps staff also to come out and do their part with it, too. So that, to me, was one of the most successful things that we did.
- That's great. Looking back on all of your Peace Corps service so far, is that the accomplishment that you're the most proud of, or is there another one of note?
- Mary Ann
- Well, that comes right up there, but I think one that was probably even more fun was, you know how we do Peace Corps Week? Well, they never knew what Peace Corps Day was, or anything about that. So my women's group, we decided, I would just do Peace Corps Day over there. So they would get a part of what Americans are all about. And so we started this out with invitations. Only the women who belonged and who came regularly to the sewing group or the cooking classes were invited to come. And their dues to come, was they had to dress in red, white, and blue, and so that was their, you know, their entry ticket to get in.
Once we got in, we just did all of these crazy American things, like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, although I didn't have a donkey, I had a Mickey Mouse beach towel. And so it was, you know, Pin the Lollipop on Mickey Mouse's mouth, or whatever it was. But, it was just, it was just fun, because these are things they had never done before. We had Musical Chairs with this tiny little recorder; I mean, we didn't have electricity out there. So I had this tiny little recorder and had a polka tape, and it was just a riot to watch those women. They actually pushed each other off of boxes because they wanted to win the stick of gum. You know? [Laugher] So I would say that that was maybe one of the most fun things. And then our entire menu was all-American. We had hot dogs and hamburgers and Heinz ketchup. Not the tomato sauce that you get there, but real Heinz ketchup.
- That's impressive...
- Mary Ann
- Watermelon, and it was, you know. So it was a day of which they could really see. We sang nursery rhymes, and it was just a fun day.
- I'm going to quote you here for just a second, and then ask you a question. You say, "How many Americans get to really live in another culture for two years or three years? This is a gift, and Peace Corps gives this to us." And I thought about what you said there, and I wanted to know, what is one of the most important things that you learned from the African cultures in which you lived?
- Mary Ann
- I think I could sum it up in one sentence, and that is that we are all one. It doesn't matter the color of your skin, the level of your intellectual ability, your education, your religion, you know, poverty. We are all one, and when we can really learn that from each other, that we're all in this together, and however we can help each other, that's what I learned.
And the relationships that continue, even to this day, from all of those countries. I mean, they're invaluable. You just don't forget those people. I'm in contact with several, you know, families, and the chief of one of the villages, and schoolmasters, and it's just the ongoing-ness of, you know. Knowing that you've been there, and they come home with you.
Mary Ann Camp later wrote to Coverdell World Wise Schools to add this follow-up response:
I had an afterthought about what I felt was my greatest accomplishment, and I think I have to say it was building the preschool in Malawi. I extended a third year to do this project with the help of a SPA grant. When I would walk the dusty road to and from my village transport, I would always pass this dilapidated building sitting on the hillside across from the church. It was an old brick structure, and trees were growing out the roof from years of no one living there. It was the old parsonage to some of the first missionaries who came to Malawi. I would visit the house, stepping over the goat dung, broken bottles, and charcoal from when kids had build fires and realized that it could be renovated into a preschool. After much consultation with the village, chief, parents, and pastor, we decided, with the help of the village, we could do it. We started in January and opened school in June. It turned out to be a huge success and a beautiful school for the village preschoolers. It was my finest accomplishment.