Before coming to Namibia as a Peace Corps volunteer Kate Larrivee did not know what to expect from the country that would be her home for the next two years.
The 24-year-old had a dream of one day visiting the African continent, but did not know it would come true in the form of working as a Peace Corps volunteer.
And she did not know Namibia would be the country where she would share her skills.
“Prior to coming I did not have a lot of information, specifically on Namibia. But I had done research mostly on South Africa and when I found out I was being placed here I started doing research on Namibia, so that when I arrived, I would be more aware of the different aspects of the country,” explained Larrivee who came to Namibia in 2016.
Larrivee has a bachelor’s degree in sociology, which she obtained in 2015.
“My focus was primarily on gender,” she says. Her qualification has helped her in putting into practice the classroom experience at a school in Ongha. Here, Larrivee teaches ‘life skills’ to grade 9 to 11 learners.
She also hosts a gardening and another club where she works with pre-teens on preventing unwanted pregnancies, although her primary assignment is at the Ongha Health Centre.
Ongha village, which is in the Ohangwena Region, has a population of 15,074 and 27 percent of this population is HIV positive.
According to the U.S. Embassy’s public affairs officer Eric Atkins, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) activities, which improve services for people living with HIV, including the development of forums such as teen clubs.
“Providing support for teen clubs improves HIV treatment outcomes for teens and helps teens deal with stigma and discrimination,” said Atkins.
He explained that the support is particularly important because teenagers face certain challenges such as negative peer responses and a variety of peer pressures.
“Research shows that a young person who is HIV positive and is immediately linked to treatment has every chance of living a normal and healthy life,” Atkins explained.
Meanwhile, Larrivee said that reading up on Namibia and its dynamics has prepared her for the work she does today. “When I’m in the classroom I don’t give out very general information, I try to specify based on their lives,” adds Larrivee.
To clarify her point, Larrivee explained that understanding where people come from makes it easy to understand their challenges, joys and struggles.
“I wanted the chance to go to another country, to really understand the idea of living in a small community and getting to know a lot of people, learning the language and eating the food,” said Larrivee, who also sees her stay as a journey of self-discovery.
It is here where she learnt to face her fears, find her strengths and address her weaknesses. She says she was not really keen on working at a health facility prior to her arrival and also did not like public speaking.
“And now I’ve had a chance to work at my public speaking skills. So it gave me a chance to really address the things I was uncomfortable with.”
Larrivee, who is affectionately known by her Oshiwambo name ‘Ndeyapo’ here at Ongha, is loved by the community. Not long before our interview, a nurse spoke very kindly of her.
“She speaks Oshiwambo well,” the nurse said, explaining that Larrivee is one of their own. Nonetheless, Larrivee who said she is not very conversant in Oshiwambo, said she loves her name primarily because of its meaning, ‘I have arrived’.
She said her host mother named her Ndeyapo to assure her she was welcome in her family.
Also, in the beginning people struggled to pronounce her name – some would call her Katrina or Katie and some became comfortable calling her Ndeyapo.
“I actually like the name because it makes me feel part of the community.” Larrivee no longer lives with her host family. “But I still go to visit,” Larrivee says, adding that she now lives at the school.
Sharing on the cultural shocks, Larrivee, who is from Massachusetts state, said there weren’t many.
“Maybe it’s because the community I came into does not feel very different from mine. The interactions I have with people can be quite similar, the idea of family being important here is also important in my hometown and the way I grew up is not necessarily different from here.”
Joining Peace Corps
In the U.S. Larrivee had worked under somebody who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua.
“I worked with him for four years and he had enjoyed his time of service. He really appreciated the community he was welcomed into, the work he was able to do and he still has those connections even today,” said Larrivee, sharing that that is where it all began.
The application process felt quite long for an excited Larrivee at the time. “I had applied in July of 2015 and in August I was interviewed and by September I received an invitation to come to Namibia. From there you just go through background checks such as criminal record check, finger printing, medical information.” Her service at Ongha ends in June 2018.
“I had considered extending my stay but at the moment I want to apply for my master’s degree,” she said. The reason is that she wants to empower herself to be better equipped to serve disadvantaged communities.
“I want to go back and study public health with the focus on the community and specifically on youth engagement. There are so many ways to interact with the youth and empower them,” she says with a sense of responsibility.
“If I am to come back I will come back with more information and skills to empower others. That’s the idea. I want to be the best I can be.”
Coming to Ongha is an experience of a lifetime, she relates. “I love the community I’ve come to work in.”
She says the community she lives in is friendly and welcoming. Being in a small community, she can meet and greet the people she knows even beyond her work environment.
“It makes it home because without those things it could be very difficult for me – I have those things so it makes me want to be here.”