Canada with her running club in Kenya wearing shirts donated by Footloose Sports.
Interested in joining the Peace Corps? Talk with longtime Eastern Sierra local Mary Canada, and depending on how old you are, she might just tell you to wait a few years.
Canada returned last fall from a 27-month Peace Corps experience in Kenya and felt that some of the younger, fresh out of college volunteers weren’t able to cope as well with the Peace Corps mission as their older counterparts.
“They didn’t want to socialize with the Kenyans,” Canada said, giving an example of the group’s going away party that did not include any Kenyans. Two of the Peace Corps’ three mission goals revolve around understanding the culture you are thrown into, and helping that culture understand Americans.
Canada became interested in the Peace Corps back in 2007 when she read a New York Times article that said the Peace Corps was looking for older volunteers. Today, at 65, she would definitely recommend the Corps to others, especially those of similar age.
“You get to do something different and learn something new,” Canada explained.
Her interest was piqued at a time in her life when she was restless.
“My kids were grown and I was ready to do something different,” she said.
Canada was stationed in an extremely rural area called Kadzinuni.
“It’s not on any maps,” she said. “It’s a collection of smaller villages.”
While there her general assignment was public health. She taught classes about HIV prevention as well as malaria.
“I had an interpreter when I taught younger grades,” Canada said of the country with 46 different language dialects. She was, however, able to speak to the older classes on her own as she slowly obtained a grasp on Swahili.
Besides teaching at the schools, Canada would also hold impromptu classes at the health clinic right next door to where she lived. Family planning was a big topic.
“There were an average of 6-8 kids in a family,” Canada said.
Even though she was the first white person to live in Kadzinuni, Canada said she never felt nervous or afraid for her safety.
“There are no guns,” she exclaimed.
She did, however, get tired of being stared at sometimes. Small children would often run away from her screaming.
“After about a year, people that I saw on a regular basis got used to me,” she said.
Besides bringing a new skin color to the area, Canada also introduced a bit of the Eastern Sierra active lifestyle.
Part of the Peace Corps assignment is for volunteers to initiate programs that will be ongoing when the volunteer leaves. Besides starting a library (which many Eastern Sierra locals helped get going with donations of books and money), Canada also started a running club.
“I wanted to be able to exercise,” Canada said. Eastern Sierra locals Carrie and Dan Meyers secured donations of shirts and running shoes to help get Canada started.
Even though it was often tough for some of the kids to participate in the club due to school and the need to go home after school to help with household chores, Canada believes it was success.
“When I was leaving, the headmaster at the school told me that the kids in the club were some of the better students,” Canada said.
Now back in her old stomping grounds, Canada feels she is more patient and a better listener then she used to be. The experience has also made her question the superiority of the US, and its consumerism and fast-paced lifestyle.
“Sometimes people are in a rush for the wrong reasons,” she said.
She continues to work with a non-profit called the Kenya Education Fund, which helps Kenyan kids interested in going to high school.
She is working for the Eastern California Museum, and was recently appointed to the Mono County Mental Health Advisory Committee. She’ll even be moving back into her home on Red Fir in the near future.
With things falling right back into place, it’s almost as if she never left!