Janesville woman praises Peace Corps experience in Kenya

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, July 30, 2014

JANESVILLE--Crystal Hester didn't tell the Peace Corps about her insect phobia for fear the agency would reject her.

When she was assigned to a rural area of Kenya, she faced poisonous centipedes, flying termites and banana slugs.

But the 27-year-old learned to manage on her own.

Along with resiliency and patience, Crystal learned self-sufficiency during her two-year assignment halfway around the world.

“I was a little sheltered and nave before going to Kenya,” she explained. “While in Kenya, I learned what I am capable of doing.”

Crystal recently returned to Janesville from Wote town in Makueni County, more than two hours southeast of Nairobi. She left before the Peace Corps suspended programs in Kenya last week because of security concerns. Militants have carried out dozens of attacks during the past two years.

“I always felt safe in my town,” Crystal said. “Peace Corps did an excellent job of always knowing what was going on and keeping me in the loop.”

Crystal lived in a small house at a Catholic Monastery, where electricity and water sometimes went off for days.

In the hottest, driest part of the country, her first priority every morning was making sure her Gerry can was filled with water from a well 30 minutes away. Mostly, she walked to the well and paid someone on a motorcycle to take the water to the monastery.

Born and raised in Janesville, Crystal graduated from Craig High School in 2005 and UW-Whitewater in 2010. She worked for Community Action in Beloit when she applied to the Peace Corps.

“I loved my job,” Crystal said. “But I felt like there was something else I wanted to do.”

The approval process took 14 months and included a lengthy medical evaluation, background check and detailed questions about her motives for joining.

She hoped the agency would place her in Africa because she wanted to experience a completely different culture. Her wish came true.

The hardest part of preparing for her assignment was the 10-week intensive language course in Kiswahili.

“I've always been bad in foreign languages,” Crystal said. “They did what it took to get me where I needed to be.”

Crystal's work in Wote focused on teaching life skills and reproductive health to students in grades 6 to 8. Much of her education focused on HIV/AIDS, which has robbed some students of their parents and infected others.

She armed young people with accurate information. She made herself available to those who wanted to talk privately. She did role playing to help girls and boys protect themselves.

In retrospect, Crystal has much praise for her adventure.

“It was one of the most meaningful and incredible experiences of my life,” she said.

Things often did not go her way in Africa. But she adapted. She likes to share the story of her roof to make an important point.

During the first rainy season, she realized her tin roof had a leak. The leak grew to multiple leaks until rain poured through holes into her living room.

“It got so bad I had to get up in the night and empty pails under the leaks every two hours,” Crystal said.

Many months passed before someone fixed her roof.

“I remember being so frustrated,” Crystal said. “But I learned that, just because the floods come, it doesn't mean that you will be washed away.”

The experience made her wiser.

“Today, I don't stress as much anymore when things don't go my way,” Crystal said. “I know that eventually things will work out.”

She misses the Kenyan people, whom she calls warm, welcoming and happy.

“No matter how much they struggle, they will invite you in for tea,” Crystal said. “People called me their daughter, their sister, their friend, even though they did not know me.”

Her Kenyan friends named her “Mwikali,” which means “to stay.”

“They told me that I am loved,” Crystal said. “They said a part of me will always stay in their hearts.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com

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