After a two-year stint in Malawi, Tucsonan James Shreve is coming home with experiences and perspectives forged from rustic life abroad.
Shreve, who attended Amphitheater High School and Northern Arizona University, will finish his Peace Corps service in the southeastern African nation today and return home.
Living in Malawi since 2012, Shreve worked for the country’s Liwonde National Park to partner with local communities to reduce human and wildlife conflict. He also hosted a radio program, advocating malaria awareness.
We contacted the 26-year-old via email to learn about his experiences in Africa.
Q: What drove your decision to enter the Peace Corps?
A: All of my life, I have I wanted to help people, but in order to know how far I could take this ambition, I had to put myself to the test — two years living in a Malawian village 18 kilometers from electricity, one kilometer from the nearest well, and three kilometers away from the nearest person who speaks fluent English.
Q: What does your work in the Peace Corps entail?
A: After two months of intensive language, culture and technical training, volunteers go to the site and conduct a three-month community assessment. After this, they engage the community in projects ranging from bee-keeping, business trainings and planting indigenous tress to just about anything you can dream up and implement.
Q: What was your biggest success?
A: One was an arts and education program with five primary schools in my area. The penultimate events were two art fairs which brought the schools together to share poems, drawings, songs and act out plays the children had developed. Five groups of four students — about 200 students participated — were chosen by a panel of judges to participate in a weekend retreat inside Liwonde National Park where, despite our best environmental education efforts, teaching the students how to play Capture the Flag was the biggest hit. Due to many factors, none of these children had ever legally entered the park, and apart from this event most likely never will.
Q: How has your experience differed from your expectation?
A: When I joined the Peace Corps, I was intent on being a volunteer who reclines in their hammock six hours a day, turns the pages of countless books, and enjoys a very simple life. ... I quickly realized more was expected of me, and simply lazing the time away would be a grave injustice not only to the American taxpayers, but to the people around Liwonde National Park. I have worked harder in Malawi than I ever have before, though sometimes doing something as simple as printing a document can be delayed by power outages, the lack of toner or a missing USB cable. This means that sometimes I run around at full speed to find very little accomplished at the day’s end.
In the beginning, I thought I could turn things around. I slowly began to realize that the beauty of this experience did not lie in changing the culture of an entire national park, which derives its ethic from Malawi’s underperforming civil service. Having a meaningful impact on a few people is more profound than having very little impact on many.
Q: How have your experiences changed you?
A: The truth is we often do not realize we are in the process of changing. I would say I no longer see the world through the sheltered lens which I was accustomed to looking through. All people have the same basic needs, and how we go about meeting those needs is often dependent on culture. Modes of meeting needs that make sense to a person from one culture can be complete nonsense to a person raised in a different circumstance. However, understanding is never much further away than a genuine attempt to be empathetic. I suppose that, in a roundabout way, is saying I have learned to be infinitely more understanding.
Q: What are you most looking forward to doing when you get back?
A: Other than being my sister’s man of honor — it sounds better than the best maid — in her wedding, I’m looking forward to writing the manuscript for my first book. I’m going to call it “The Mango Savannah,” and it will range from philosophy to exposition to memoir. Hopefully, it will provide a valid insight to life in Malawi, and be a meaningful cross-cultural analysis of the U.S.A. and Malawi. The majority of it I have written by hand via candlelight in my village, and I am excited to put it together as a complete work with the resources available to me back home.
Q: What will you miss most about Malawi?
A: Other than having to ride my bike through herds of elephants on my morning commute, I’m going to miss the sights, sounds and nuances of Malawi to which I have grown so thoroughly accustomed. It will be even more challenging when trying to relate my experiences to others who don’t have a frame of reference for what life is like in Malawi, where chickens stuffed in women’s handbags frequent public transportation and there’s always space for one more in the bed of an antiquated truck.