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March 10, 2013

Willing to go anywhere: North Vigo, ISU grad joins the Peace Corps

TERRE HAUTE — Most of us wouldn’t pick southwest Africa as a place to spend the next two years as a low-paid volunteer.

But then, Elaina Ateke is not most of us.

Ateke, 27, a 2004 North Vigo graduate, is packing her bags for a 27-month stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia, near the southern tip of Africa.

“I’m trying to fit two years in two bags,” sighed Ateke in a telephone interview with the Tribune-Star Friday. “It’s not easy.”

Ateke, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Indiana State University and a master’s degree from Howard University, will be leaving Terre Haute next week to fly to Namibia, where she is expected to work as an HIV/AIDS educator.

Namibia is one of several African countries that has been devastated by HIV/AIDS. In 2003, between 18 and 25 percent of the country’s population aged 15 to 49 were infected, according to the World Health Organization. That figure has dropped to about 15 percent in recent years thanks to education and medication, according to The Economist, a U.K.-based publication.

But, in truth, Ateke’s actual work in Namibia is still up in the air, she said. A two- to three month training period in Namibia will help the Peace Corps determine where she can best serve the people of the one-time German colony.

While Namibia’s cities are relatively prosperous, the outer areas are extremely poor. About two-in-five Namibians live on less than $1.25 per day and more than half live as subsistence farmers, according to The Economist. The country, with a population of about 2.2 million, is about as large as Texas and Illinois combined.

Ateke may spend much of her time living with a host family in Namibia, which has a hot, dry interior and a damp, sometimes cool coast. The pay she’ll receive is designed to allow her to live at the same level as those in her adopted community, so she will likely not have airfare to fly home for any visits during that time, she said.

And that’s fine with Ateke, who said she is looking forward to visiting South Africa, Botswana and other neighboring African states on her days off. She’s also fine with being “off line” most of the time, away from the Internet or a cell phone, she said. That will be “refreshing,” she said.

Ateke didn’t pick Namibia as her destination when she signed up for the Peace Corps. She told the organization, founded in 1961, that she was willing to go anywhere, she said.

“I really didn’t have a preference,” Ateke said.

Learning a new language and being immersed in a different culture are the aspects of the experience to which Ateke is most looking forward, although she admits to being a “picky eater” who may have to stretch her tolerance for new cuisine a little.

“They want you to become part of the community,” Ateke said of the Peace Corps. “That’s what I’m most looking forward to.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

 

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